On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming…
Snow drifted down outside the caste windows peacefully on Christmas Day. The fire was crackling and warm, and the main room was very bright and cheerful. Howl had charmed various candles to glow different colors, and they lent the place a festive air. Sophie was curled up in the armchair in front of the fire, half asleep. Christmas at Fanny's had been pleasant, but somewhat exhausting. The sheer number of people had been overwhelming and she had lost track of the names and faces of all the guests. But the morning had been pleasant, spent only with immediate family members, and she had appreciated the time spent with Martha, Fanny, Michael, and Howl. It was not until well into the afternoon that she and Howl decided to leave, and that mostly due to how loud the party had become.
Sitting up with a yawn, she fingered the package Fanny had slipped into her hand when she and Howl left the house to go back to the castle. There had still been many people all talking at the top of their voices, and Fanny had not had a chance to say a lengthy good-bye. But she had given Sophie a wink as she had given her the package. Now was probably as good a time as any to see what was in it. She carefully slid her fingers under the bright gold paper and set it aside before opening the small wooden box. She recognized the name it bore on the top- it was the name of a toy shop in Market Chipping whose slogan was: "Enchantment Without the Magic." Sophie had a feeling Fanny would have found it amusing, but she found herself confused when she saw what was in the box: a group of beautifully-made wooden band players, complete with drums and miniature uniforms. There was one small note in the box that read simply: For next year in Fanny's handwriting. For a moment she was silent; then she remembered the wink and the smile and how Fanny had looked like she wanted to talk more, and all the pieces fell into the place. It seemed she could never keep secrets from Fanny.
She smiled all the more and Calcifer stirred lazily among the logs. "What's gotten you so happy?"
"It's Christmas. Even former stars must know that's a happy time of year."
"Not really, but I'll take your word for that. What I don't take is the implication that Christmas is the reason you're grinning the way you are."
Sophie laughed and did not answer. The fire demon's flames shot up a little higher. "So there is something else you're happy about? And you're not going to tell me?"
"You'll find out."
Calcifer seemed about to comment when Howl came in with two mugs of hot chocolate. He stared at the wrapping paper and package on Sophie's lap. "Is that what Fanny gave you when we left?" he asked confusedly. "Did she give you the wrong present? I know we left early, and she looked a bit rushed."
Sophie hastily shoved the note under the wrapping paper and saw Howl give her a strange look. She smiled and took the mug quickly. "Fanny told me they were for next year."
"Why would we need them next year? Are they a decoration?"
"No, I don't think so. I think we probably will need them next year, actually."
Howl stared blankly at her. "Why?"
She laughed. "You may want to sit down."
"I'm not sure you'll be able to stand after hearing this."
"Are you insinuating that I can't hear something about a box of toys without collapsing?"
"Well… yes, I'm almost certain of that."
Howl looked offended. "Really, Sophie. If I'm willing to chase after you into a fairy kingdom, then surely I can hear this."
"I'm not so sure."
"Just for that, I'll stay standing!" Howl threw back his head heroically. "Nothing you can say relating to a box of toys will make me show weakness."
Sophie giggled. "I'll give you one last chance to sit down, Howl."
He remained standing by the chair, and Sophie had the nigh-uncontrollable urge to laugh. It took her a great deal of effort to keep a straight face. She took a deep breath, surprised at just how overwhelmed by she suddenly felt. "Well, all right then. Stand if you please. In a way that's probably best- this chair's the only place to sit in the room, and it wouldn't look good if your pregnant wife had to give her chair to you."
There was a dead silence followed by the shattering sound of Howl's mug hitting the floor. Sophie laughed and then groaned. "Howl!"
He took notice of the drink that was now pooling around his feet. "You're- we're- this is actually going to happen? The baby, I mean?"
"Yes, Howl, I think it is." Sophie grinned and took a sip of the hot chocolate. "I think it is," she added more softly. "And I have to admit- I'm a little nervous about it. The baby, I mean."
He was quiet for several seconds before absently waving a hand to gather up the shards of mug. Sophie took another swallow of the hot chocolate as though it was some kind of elixir of life and looked up to see that Howl had perched himself on the arm of the chair. "It'll be fine," he said firmly, and then as though he'd broken a rule in sounding too sure of himself, he immediately adopted a vague air. "I wouldn't be nervous. You were able to take down a witch, save a fire demon, a prince, and two wizards-"
"Yes, but I had some help with that!" Sophie exclaimed agitatedly before he could go on. She put a hand to her head. "Sorry. It's just that I'm excited about this- and also really terrified."
Howl shrugged. "Well maybe that's why Fanny gave you this. To remind you that this time next year, there'll be something else at Christmas to make you smile." He took Sophie's free hand in his and gave one of his smiles that was all the more charming because it was genuine. "And I have to admit that I'll enjoy having a child to help take some of the supervision off my back. If it's a boy, you'll have to make sure he doesn't turn out anything like me."
Sophie laughed shakily. "That might be too hard even for me."
"You've successfully bullied a fire demon," Calcifer remarked innocently from the fire place. "I'm sure you can find a way to keep your child from turning out like Howl."
"Are you implying that turning out like me is a bad thing?" Howl said with a hurt air.
Sophie snorted. "You said it first! And anyway, one of you is bad enough."
She got up, still holding Howl's hand and they moved away from the fire as the light outside dimmed. As soon as they entered the passage, Howl lazily raised a hand and a shimmer flickered above their heads to rest and solidify above their bedroom door. Sophie glanced up at it just in time to see that it was mistletoe before Howl kissed her warmly. When he drew back, she saw that he was smiling. "Merry Christmas, Sophie."
"Merry Christmas, Howl."
Yes, that ending contained more cheese than your average Welsh Rabbit (the dish). And no, I do not care in the slightest.
Thanks so much to everyone who's read and reviewed this fic! It means quite a lot to see how many people read the story, and I hope that you all enjoyed it! And to the person for whom I wrote this- I am really sorry it took me so long. Hopefully it was worth the massive delay!