Sophie couldn't remember having ever been in love before. She remembered how the boys in the schoolyard usually buzzed over Lettie and Martha and herself, while they sat about during lunch break trying to eat their sandwiches in peace. Sophie actually suspected that it was mostly because of Lettie, whose desk had started overflowing with flowers and chocolates ever since her fifteenth birthday - but she didn't mind particularly, because it seemed a bit of a bother to get so much attention. Martha, however, thought it was quite cruel the way Lettie always ignored the boys.
"Oh, Lettie, couldn't you be kinder to them," Martha sighed. "They adore you so."
"I don't care," her beautiful sister answered resolutely. "I'll know when I like someone. And anyway I'd much rather be successful than married - but I suppose you wouldn't have to worry about that, having your fortune already made -"
"Fortune or not, you're being a beast!"
And suddenly they'd be pulling at each other's hair. Sophie would be glad the boys had gone away to play ball, because neither of her sisters were very attractive when they were arguing like that. She'd pull them apart and tell them that if they got along for the rest of the week she'd sew them new bonnets, and that kept them on their best behaviour. This gave Sophie more time to work on her studies, help around the hat shop, and care for their father when he suddenly fell ill - between those tasks, and the fact that being the eldest of three meant her future was bound to be drab, something silly and frilly like romance hardly mattered.
She got a perfumed envelope in her desk twice or thrice every term, and rather more often right before they had to leave school, but oftentimes she didn't bother to read them, thinking that the senders had probably mistaken her for one or another of her sisters. If any boy approached her directly, nervously hoping for an answer, she would always give him a polite apology, and that would be the end of it.
"What would you want him to be like, Sophie?" Lettie and Martha were getting along that day. They had been discussing what sort of qualities they wanted in their future husbands. Martha said she'd want him to be kind and sweet and dependable, and Lettie said she'd prefer someone clever, powerful, and determined - rather like themselves, Sophie noticed. She had never thought about the matter much. It was her fate to inherit the hat shop either way, and that meant she didn't really need to marry, and there was no one in all of Market Chipping who had caught her eye particularly.
She shrugged. "Good. And interesting, I suppose."
Howl knew he'd done something wrong the minute the contract had been completed. He felt queer and hollow and deeply sad, but he wasn't sure why. It comforted him to see that the falling star was still alive, although it had become rather less pointy and more flame-like. He noted with surprise that it had latched onto a mysterious object in his palm, something that felt rather squashy and tender, and it took him a great effort not jump in surprise when he realized that it was his heart he was holding. He did not think the contract would work like that. The fallen star - now fire demon - looked surprised as well, and still more ill.
"Get me to somewhere safer, please," it hissed in a weak, sputtering voice. "For both our sakes."
Howl held the demon carefully between his palms as he sped out of the marshes. It was a great relief when he finally entered his house, where he cleared out a space in the dead fireplace and gently settled the fire demon in the middle of it. "Do you need anything?" he asked.
"Wood," the demon answered. Howl nodded and fetched some from the stack on the side of the hearth. Then he knelt in front of the fireplace and passed the demon log after log, trying to ignore the way his heart was starting to turn black rather quickly, buried in ashes like that. After a few logs the fire was blazing nice and warm, and he sank into the chair, sighing and feeling very heavy. Or was it that he felt empty? He wasn't really sure. It seemed to be both at the same time.
"I forgot to ask your name," he told the fire demon. "I'm Howell Jenkins. Howl."
"Calcifer," the demon replied. Then, rather as if he didn't want to say it, "Er, thank you."
"It's all right," Howl said, although he wasn't sure if it would be. "I get benefits too." They sat in silence like that for a moment. Then Howl excused himself and went to bed, where he lay staring blankly at the ceiling. He put a hand to his chest and huffed a little. He felt very empty indeed. "It's all right," he repeated to himself, as he rolled over on his back. "I don't think it changes much."
The next day he went courting from dawn til dusk, and decided to do nothing about the cobwebs that had started to appear on the canopy of his bed.
Sophie's first impression of Howl was that he was charming, vain, and full of himself, and as the days wore on she saw that she had been right. She thought Michael was a sweet boy, and Calcifer was good to her, despite being a demon. It puzzled her the way they both seemed to like Howl very much, never mind the fact that he was exploiting them, enjoying himself while they did all his magic for him. Then again, perhaps it was a good thing he wasn't home too often; it meant that he didn't notice Sophie much, making it easier for her to settle in more permanently. She'd be staying until her bargain with Calcifer was completed, after all.
It rather surprised her, then, when Howl stopped going out and decided to stay home for most of the day, doing fascinating wizardly things. He taught Michael and sorted out difficult spells, or made mysterious things out in the yard and up in his room. Sophie found that she got in his way rather often, but she decided that he deserved it, as punishment for his wickedness and vanity. Using his spells and his slippery tongue to catch girls and steal their hearts! Even if it wasn't literally, it was still very evil.
She didn't realize quite how indignant she was about this until she learned that Howl was actually courting Lettie. Clever, powerful, and determined, she thought worriedly to herself. She doubted that Howl was all those things, but he certainly could act like them, and Lettie had wanted to learn magic. Oh dear, she thought. I had better warn her. She didn't want to be seen in this state, but if it would to keep Lettie away from Howl's clutches, then she would do it. "He thinks love is a game," she babbled to nothing as she sewed buttons onto one of Michael's shirts. "He thinks it's all fun. Well, I'll make sure Lettie teaches him that he isn't playing by the rules. I'll tell her everything, and the game will be over."
"Sophie's your sister?" He tried not to sound too interested, but Lettie already looked as if she regretted saying so. She brought a hand up to her mouth and gave a nervous giggle. Howl saw her eyebrows knit with worry.
"Well, yes, but, er, I haven't seen her in quite a while. A long while. Oh, I do miss her, Sophie dear." She gave another nervous laugh. "How do you know her?"
Howl decided that telling her Sophie was old and working as his cleaning lady would only make him even less likable. Instead, he flashed a winning smile, and not-answered in his smoothest voice, "Beauty must run in your family, hmm?"
Lettie looked rather taken aback. She hesitated for a moment, then her manner changed abruptly. She turned up one shoulder so that her dark curls fell over it in a very attractive manner. "You know, you're really very good with that tongue of yours. I've never known such flattery." And her lips curved up sweetly, so sweetly that Howl was almost distracted from his thoughts about Sophie, and how everything made much more sense now that he knew what sort of spell was on her. He even rather suspected that Lettie was acting, although he gave her the benefit of the doubt, and kissed her hand as he departed.
Sophie could see that she had been too late saving Lettie, and while she was upset with herself for not being quick enough, she was also upset with her sister for giving in too easily. Whenever she remembered that scene in the apple orchard she felt terribly uncomfortable. "It's all over now," she mumbled sadly to herself, ignoring the bangs and booms erupting from Michael's workbench. "Howl will drop her almost right away. He said so himself, that it'll probably be all over soon." She remembered Lettie's face, radiant under the apple blossoms, and Howl on bended knee beside her, hideously handsome. She stabbed herself in the finger with a needle and yelped. "Why aren't there any thimbles here?" She grumbled.
She realized then that Calcifer was looking at her wonderingly, as if he were trying to figure something out.
"What is it?" She asked. Under her breath, she added, "Have you worked out a bit of my spell?"
"A bit of it," Calcifer answered. It did not seem to be the entire truth, but she was too distracted by the image of Howl and Lettie in the apple orchard to press him further. She sucked on her finger for a bit, then returned to her sewing.
"I don't blame her, really. He must have used that smile on her." She scrunched up her face at the memory of it from the previous night, sweeter than the cream on his fork, almost too dazzling to be believed. The way his eyes shone. And how gentle his mouth seemed, bent in that shape! She shuddered. "If I think he's attractive as an old woman, I can only imagine how he would seem to Lettie, who's only ever met unrefined boys. Firing it away like that! The nerve of him!" She gnashed her teeth and stabbed herself on the finger yet again. "Confound that Howl! This is all his fault. I shall never forgive him!"
Howl found himself wondering about how Sophie looked more and more often. She amazed him rather, the way she never seemed to run out of energy, and how she got along so well with Michael and Calcifer, who had grown immune her whirlwind ways. She had invaded his home quite efficiently, and the whole place felt very strongly of her, with the grand exception of his room,.
He wondered if she looked anything like Lettie, although he couldn't imagine her silvery hair having been dark curls. Sophie's face seemed to be softer, too, rather like that pretty girl from May Day, although that might have been because of her age. He got more and more curious, and made several more attempts to remove the spell when she wasn't minding him. It was quite difficult to do so without any incantations or magical motions. One time she caught him in the middle of waving his arms over her back, and he had to stop whispering the spell abruptly, so that his arms and mouth were both flapping open. He knew he looked ridiculous. She burst out laughing.
"If you're trying to spell me away, Howl, it isn't going to work," she cackled. Then, snortingly, she added, "Or perhaps you were trying to give me a hug?"
"Nonsense," Howl replied, trying to avoid embarrassment. "I was spelling the air around us. It's stuffy in here."
Sophie snorted again, but returned to her cleaning. Howl let out a sigh. It was a very strong spell indeed.
"Sophie's really not an old woman," Michael told him in a rush one day. It was morning, and they were working on a spell together. Sophie was still snoring in her cubby. Michael sounded guilty and apologetic, as if he didn't really want to tell Howl. "I know her sister," he blushed as he said this. Aha, Howl thought. "Le - she told me the other day, and I don't think she wanted me to tell you, but I knew I couldn't do anything at my level about it. I mean, Sophie doesn't seem miserable, but she's only supposed to be eighteen or so, and it must be awful getting her life sucked away like that." He pounded the ingredients unhappily, and when Howl didn't say anything, he added, "Can't you do something about it?"
"I'll try," Howl answered, forgetting to act surprised. He was preoccupied with the idea of Sophie being eighteen. Michael looked comforted, however, so Howl risked asking, as casually as possible, "What does her sister look like?"
"She's the most beautiful girl in the world," Michael answered passionately, then he realized what he was saying and blushed again. A bit more sensibly, though no less adoringly, he added, "She's fair and slender with gray eyes, and - and she's much too young for you, Howl," he finished nervously. Howl laughed and assured Michael that he wasn't interested in that lady friend.
Sophie woke up then, greeting them good morning. She stood over Calcifer and sizzled bacon in a pan, and Howl tried imagining her as fair and slender, but it was difficult when all he could see of her were wrinkles and bony limbs. He flung another spell at her. It bounced right off as she turned and started carrying breakfast to the table. He noticed the stains and frays on her plain gray dress, and realized that she had been wearing the same old thing for quite a while.
I'll buy a nice dress for her, he thought. Then he stopped, wondering why he was being so kind. I feel sorry for her, he reasoned out, crunching some bacon and eggs. And she does tidy up a lot around here, without pay. Also, she has to wear something nice to meet the King with. He watched as Michael chatted with Sophie happily about how their spell was going. She must have felt his eyes on her, because she turned her face towards him inquiringly.
"What?" He asked, as if she had been accusing him of something. Sophie opened her mouth to reply, but Calcifer started whining about leftovers, and she turned to the fire demon instead. Howl shovelled more bacon into his mouth hurriedly, feeling the empty space in his heart and repeating to himself, it's nothing. Which was true. After all, there was nothing inside him to make it anything else.
It annoyed Sophie greatly when Howl was nice. She could never tell if he was being genuine or if he was only doing it to get something he wanted. She was grateful to him for whatever he had done to stop her heart jumping, and despite Michael's disapproval, she could see he was a big help to the folk at Porthaven. But even if he could be childish and mopey, he was never really nasty.
In fact, he was in a very good mood those days. She suspected it was because of the lovely Miss Angorian, and felt her annoyance bubble up worse. Lettie's heart was going to broken, and his important work for the King left unfinished, all because he was smitten by that schoolteacher. Sophie hoped she would give him a hard time. It would be nice to see Howl's heart broken for once, seeing how he never carefully handled others'.
It was a wonder how the common cold could be worse than a well-cast hex. Howl's head was throbbing and his nose ran without stopping, and he lay in bed feeling very much defeated. He hated having to go to Wales everyday, but the Witch was most likely to approach from there, so he persevered, despite the wetness and Megan's abuse.
It didn't help that Sophie seemed bent on either ignoring or insulting him those days. He didn't think he had done anything really offensive, but she acted like a nasty grump to him anyway. Why should it matter? He looked up at the spiders spinning webs above his bed and asked it aloud. "Why does it matter? I can't love anyone properly, anyway. The contract makes sure of that." This thought made him feel sicker than ever, and he moaned and moaned, until Sophie went up to ask him what the matter was.
"Where's Michael?" He asked, in his weariest voice. He did not feel like facing her hard attitude at the moment. Sophie was wearing her usual scowl, but it softened rather, when she saw the state he was in.
"He's out walking the dog," she answered. "Good lord, you look a sight. Hold on a moment." She disappeared, and he was about to start moaning again when she re-entered, bringing tea and a nice plate of cookies. She put the tray on his dusty coverlet. "Is there anything else I can get for you? Or don't you have a spell for this, that Michael can whip up?"
"There is no cure for a cold," he sniffed nobly, and was sorely tempted to add, "The real pain is elsewhere, anyway." But he couldn't tell her that. He was suddenly worried that she wouldn't even care.
She patted his arm a bit awkwardly, and said, "I'll make chicken soup later, that might help." As if he were a grandson sick with measles. He coughed feebly and bit into a cookie tenderly.
"It would also help if you stay for a bit," he said dolefully. "It's so lonely up here."
To his surprise, she nodded her head, and settled herself in the dusty armchair in front of the window. "All right," she said sternly. "You rest now." He felt strangely comforted, and, as if she had spelled him somehow, he found himself drifting off almost immediately.
Sophie watched the ball of fire rise up in the distance with her heart in her throat. The bang that reached them, what seemed like ages after, shook her so badly her teeth rattled. A hand shot out of the horse beside her and grabbed at her fingers. She held onto Michael, glad that someone was there to share in her shock - and worry, she realized. It didn't help that everyone around her seemed to be muttering how both witch and wizard were probably done for. It had certainly been a fierce battle. Even the dog-man seemed convinced that Howl had met a terrible demise at the Witch's hands. She hoped, faintly, that he had at least taken the Witch with him.
When the cat spoke to them in Howl's voice she felt tears stinging at her eyes, but she was wearing the cloak then, and her red beard was probably too distracting for anyone to notice. She felt like kicking herself for being so relieved, but she couldn't help it. She blinked the tears away quickly, and resisted the urge to - embrace? - no, to beat Howl over the head for being so reckless and worrying them all so much, the damn fool. She contented herself by downing her own little glassful of brandy, when no one was looking.
The day after they moved house, Howl stood by the fireplace and made a great display of thinking very hard. Calcifer flickered at him lazily. "If you want to ask something, just ask," the demon said.
Howl made a face at him. Then, before he could slither out of it, he asked in a very sideways manner, "Calcifer, is there any chance that Sophie loves me?"
Calcifer was silent for a moment. Then he laughed and laughed, as if the answer was not only obvious but hilarious, and he hooted and snorted in his fiery way, while Howl stood resolutely and tried not to feel a fool. When the fire demon managed to control himself again, his mean face had a pointy grin on it. "You could ask her yourself, but I wouldn't risk it, if I were you," he answered, which did not really help at all. "Besides, Howl, our spells don't seem to be working on her."
"It doesn't matter what she looks like," Howl said, exasperated, and then he paused, too shocked at what he had just said. Calcifer seemed surprised too, and shifted uncomfortably in the grate.
After a moment, the fire demon shrank down into the softly beating lump of Howl's heart, and half-whispered, "It wouldn't be fair to Sophie if you didn't love her back."
"I know that," Howl answered, angry and sad and suddenly very frustrated. "I know." He felt more hollow then ever, and he thought about Sophie and the thick spell on her, and the Witch descending on them from everywhere, and he knew it was impossible.
He loves her, Sophie thought to herself, feeling just a small pang in her chest as she set out for the Waste. If I can't do anything else right, I can at least try to save the one he loves. And she felt rather like crying, but she was tired of being made a fool of, tired of his charming laugh and his pitying eyes, tired of everything. Once she had rescued Miss Angorian she would hobble away somewhere where none of them could bother her or ever be bothered by her again, most especially Howl.
"The Witch says she's caught Miss Angorian and is in the Waste and I'm really sorry Howl but the scarecrow got away -" Michael was babbling, and Howl didn't really have time for this, but he swept his eyes over the room just in case, hoping there were no further disasters.
Someone was missing.
There was a very loud silence as everyone stared at each other and glanced about ominously. Howl felt everything inside him freeze, then turn flaming, and he imagined her stumping along the Waste with her cane, sweating in the heat, and the Witch catching her and pulling her apart, the way she'd done to Suliman and Justin. In an instant he was out the door and running with quickest speed spell he knew, praying that he'd make it in time, ignoring the way the screaming wind tore at his clothes and whipped his hair and stung his eyes, and how the poem was coming true, because none of it mattered if Sophie was in danger.
After a hearty dinner of pies and cakes from Cesari's, Sophie's family said their goodbyes. There was quite a lot of hugging all around, while Howl dodged Suliman and Justin's invitations to meet with King and receive his reward. Then Michael excitedly volunteered to walk Martha home, and Calcifer announced that he would wander about, since it had stopped raining. Which left Howl and Sophie quite alone.
This was perfect, since all Howl wanted to do at the moment was stay next to Sophie and hold her hand forever, drink in her lovely face and perhaps propose to her - but he wanted that to be grand, so he decided to save it for another time. They had finished tidying up, so Howl suggested they take a walk outside. He offered his arm, and she took it, graciously, as the castle door swung open onto Market Chipping. There was a gentle chill in the air, and the moon made the cobblestones shine.
"I suppose this makes things different," Sophie said thoughtfully, after they had walked for some time.
"Yes," Howl said seriously. "Now you won't be able to bully me as much anymore."
"As if I ever did!" She slapped a hand at him teasingly, and he ducked to avoid it, but forgot to watch his step and tripped over the curb. Sophie tried to haul him up by tugging at one of his sleeves, but the material was too heavy, and she got dragged down herself, falling over him so that her forehead banged neatly against his jaw. They both hissed in pain for a moment. Sophie was about to open her mouth and call him a clumsy fool, and he was going to exclaim that she had forgotten to think yet again - but they found themselves laughing instead, laughing until their eyes were teary with it. It was a long moment before they finally got untangled, and managed to stand upright.
"I never got to thank you for saving me." Howl grinned sidelong at Sophie, as he picked up her hand and placed it over his heart. It thumped reassuringly beneath her fingers.
"You saved me first," she answered quickly, trying not to blush. "And it was for Calcifer, too."
"I always sort of knew we'd save each other," Howl concluded with a smile. Then he leaned in and kissed her.
Her lips were warm and soft and still tasted faintly of cake, and he half-expected her to hit him for it, or at least struggle to break away - but she didn't. He realized with great surprise that she was actually kissing him back. She did look very much embarrassed when they finally pulled away; but she was smiling, and she was beautiful. He found it was not all hard for him to say "I love you."
Sophie's hand was in his, and his heart was in place. Howl felt wonderfully, marvellously whole.