“Now don’t get hysterical,” said the King. “He’s still alive.”
“Who’s hysterical?” said Howl, and crushed a vase between his hands.
Every expert in the county assured Howl that Wizard Suliman had indeed been sent to Series B. “To Whales,” they added, soothingly.
There was a catch.
“He’ll miss Christmas this year,” Howl said bleakly. He’d ousted Lettie from her favorite chair in her own kitchen, but nobody was saying anything about it. This spoke more on the gravity of the situation than anything else.
“What’s Christmas?” asked Lettie, doing the washing up while sidestepping a grabby toddler’s hands. The new baby was in Sophie’s arms and looked happy about it. Howl, who was not in Sophie’s arms, wasn't.
“Does Ben not celebrate Christmas here?” said Howl indignantly.
“To be honest, I’d be quite happy to miss it this year,” Sophie said. “It’s nothing but cooking and wracking your brains to think up thoughtful gifts.”
“Don’t listen to her, it’s lovely,” said Howl.
“There’s meant to be twinkling lights and music,” said Sophie doubtfully. “And spiced wine.”
“Oh,” said Lettie, “a fairy tale.”
“I shall not return,” announced Howl, “until I have convinced the King to bring Ben back where he belongs.”
“You can’t go now,” said the King. “Parliament sits next Friday. And the budget meeting is the 14th. I can’t have both royal wizards absent from a budgetary meeting.”
“Your Highness,” said Howl, “this is Ben. You two called Bingo last Tuesday.”
“And the people will be calling for my abdication,” said the King, “if the Minister of Defense votes down this tax proposition. Wait just a few weeks,” he added. “Wizard Suliman is in no real danger. The physician is working up a failsafe plan. Then she and my Guard will fetch him back.”
“Going home for lunch, sir?” asked the tallest member of the King’s Guard.
“Yes,” said Howl, and stepped through the Moving Castle door into Wales, just in time for a noontime squall.
He sealed the door shut behind him, his hair frizzing instantly in the rain. It was only temporary, he soothed himself. And Sophie would understand. He couldn’t have the King’s Guard barging their way in after him.
For one, the adolescent football hooligans down the street would terrorize them. The Minister of Defense might never recover. Second and most importantly, Megan might berate them into ashes. And then what would the state of his adopted homeland be?
“Yes?” Ben cracked the door open. The chain was still latched, and one hand rested on the lintel. It was such a familiar gesture that Howl thought he might cry. “Well?” Ben insisted.
“His memory’s been wiped,” the royal physician had explained to Howl. The pencil in her hand tapped out a steady rhythm on the table, and on Howl’s central nervous system.
“How do you know?” Howl asked.
“Because I wiped it,” she said, “when I sent him back to Series B.”
Howl leaned against the lintel. Casual. Smoldering. “Can I use your telephone? My car’s broken down up the hill.”
Ben’s eyes flicked over. He didn’t budge from the door. “Wait here. I’ll call you a tow.”
Howl’s hand shot out. His fingers were millimeters from being crushed. Ben’s eyes narrowed.
“Too expensive,” Howl managed. “I’m just going to phone my brother-in-law.”
Ben’s eyes narrowed further; nearly cat state. “And you’ll be wanting to come in, I suppose?”
Howl said brightly, “Unless the cord stretches to the door.”
“Why have you a witch physician anyway?” Howl had raged at the King, who was acting as a temporary human shield for the physician. “Magic and medicine shouldn’t mix! It’s rule one of elementary metaphysics!”
“It’s lucky for you that I am,” she snapped, shoving the King aside. He tried to bumble back between them. It didn’t work. “If I hadn’t sent him back and wiped his memory,” she hissed, finger pointed at Howl’s face in a way he didn’t care for at all, “that sorcerer would have used Suliman’s memories to track him right back down again.”
Howl frowned unhappily. He paced the length of the room, fixed his hair, and reapplied lip gloss. It didn’t help. “Surely there was a better way.”
“Not in that split second,” she replied. “And it’s not like you were there to make the tough choice.”
This was unbearably true.
“Come in, then,” said Ben.
His flat could have been the one they’d rented together ten years ago. Kit bed, hot plate, window cracked open for a modicum of fresh air. Books and papers strewn everywhere. Ben had arrived barely four days ago, and it already looked like he’d checked out half the library.
“Are you a student?” Howl asked, picking his way through the designs. “Teacher?”
Ben shrugged. It seemed even his blank-slate form hated prying. He gestured to the phone on the wall. It had presumably once been white, but was now a worrying orange color.
Now committed to this farce, Howl had no choice but to pick up the receiver. It smelled only slightly worse than it looked. Megan picked up on the first ring.
Howl inhaled deeply. “Is Gareth home?”
“Howell? Is this Howell? Good lord, that’s how you answer a phone? God forbid you show any basic manners, what would dad say. Gareth’s out. Are you in town again, then? Would it kill you to give us a bit of notice —"
Even Ben had stepped back. Howl assumed passersby on the street could hear Megan’s ranting. He held the phone away and covered the receiver with a hand.
“Would you allow me to buy you dinner? As a thank you. The pub up the street looked decent.”
Ben sized him up. “I thought you were waiting for a tow.”
“My brother-in-law might be a while. It’s bloody freezing outside. And I wouldn’t presume to impose on your hospitality any longer.”
“You talk with a silver spoon in your mouth,” Ben blurted, and Howl’s heart jumped.
“There isn’t,” the physician had said, “any way to trigger his memory back. Naturally, that is.”
“He’ll remember me,” Howl insisted.
“He won’t,” said the physician. “The only way to reverse the spell is through countercurse. He'll have to be brought back here first. Then I can perform it.”
“How will we get him to come back here — to another series — to a world he won’t know exists, nor believes in — when his memory is gone?”
The physician didn’t answer. The King coughed, delicately.
The Heart and Hare was all warm fire and creaky wood chairs, but Howl was cold inside. Ben kept a good one foot distance between them at all times. He ordered perfunctorily, and refused a lager.
“Two whiskies,” Howl said. Ben lifted an eyebrow.
“Oh, one’s for you,” said Howl, with his second-most leering smile. The tops of Ben’s ears pinked. Yes.
Howl stretched out the meal as long as he could; Ben ate in stoic silence as Howl chattered. He started to check his watch after an hour, but the rain was still coming down strong. No one in the pub was moving, nor was anyone else coming in. Cars were sparse. The fire was warm and Howl felt content and sleepy.
After a teeth-pulling ten minutes, he lured Ben into a discussion on Tolkien. Ben leaned forward. Yes. His hands gesticulated; his vocabulary stretched. Yes. Come back. His eyes had just started to sparkle, when the pub door blew open.
A herd of teenage boys swaggered in. There was a collective sigh. Eyes followed them to the bar. The tallest of the boys, who was fifteen at best, pitched his voice to gravel and bravely ordered a round.
“ID?” asked the owner.
They made a show of patting their pockets. The youngest boy looked over to the window. His face went slack. Howl dove beneath the table.
“Er,” said Ben.
“Dropped my silly fork!” said Howl, pawing at the ground. He let his hair curtain his face.
“Oi, Neil,” said one of the boys, “isn’t that your uncle?” There was a chorus of fuck, and the herd jostled outside. One hollered back, “Don’t tell his mum!”
Neil came over, face pink. He said sullenly, “All right, Uncle Howell? Didn’t know you were in town.”
He looked older since the last time Howl had visited. Less boy, more adolescent, with the beginnings of a jawline. Howl remembered feeding him bottles when Megan could be persuaded.
Howl dragged him into a hug.
“Ah, get off,” mumbled Neil half-heartedly. “Are you coming round the house, then? Can you give me a lift?”
“His car’s broken down,” said Ben.
Neil looked over. His face went interested. “Is this — Sullivan?” he asked, in a tone that implied his parents had been throwing around a lot of terms lately: the kind that rhymed with hairy and maggot.
Ben’s face darkened.
Howl scrambled. “This kind gentleman let me use his telephone —"
“Your dad is coming to pick him up,” asked Ben, “isn’t he?"
“Er.” Neil darted a glance over to Howl. “Is he meant to?"
“Running late, I imagine,” said Howl, but Ben was already getting to his feet. “Good old Gareth, feet like molasses —"
“Who, Dad?” said Neil.
Ben shoved a finger at Howl. He was looking at him the way you’d look at a roach in the bathroom. Barely a week ago they’d been snogging in a broom closet just outside the parliamentary chambers. Howl couldn’t breathe.
“I don’t know what you’re playing at, but leave me out of it.”
Ben threw down money on the table and left. His head bent against the rain.
Thirdly: Ben already believed he was a nutter. A gaggle of the King’s finest, outfitted in garb and weapons from a fairy tale, would get Howl sent straight to Bedlam.
Howl and Neil walked back; feet dragging, rain soaked. Megan opened the door already mid-lecture.
“Are you staying for dinner, then?” Gareth asked, when she paused for breath.
“Er,” said Howl miserably, who had assumed he’d be staying the night at Ben’s warm arms — or back in Ingary already.
“Catching the 8:20 back?” asked Megan. “Or did you drive?”
“Er,” said Howl again.
“You again,” said Ben.
Howl propped himself on the doorjamb. He’d slept on the living room rug and his back was giving out. Ben blocked him easily. “Please,” said Howl piteously. “It’s Christmas.”
“I’d just like to borrow your exceptionally scented telephone again. To phone work and tell them I’m stranded.”
Ben crossed his arms. “The landlady’s been telling me about you. So have the neighbors. And the man at the shop. Bit infamous, you are.”
“Mysteriously disappearing and reappearing. A slippery rogue who would flirt with a corpse. Likes a drink. A professor.” He said this last part with more derision than the drunkard part.
“See? Just a tortured academic wanting to give proper notice to the office.” Smile. Eyelashes.
The corner of Ben’s mouth twitched. So maybe he thought Howl was crazy, but possibly not a murderer. “Use your sister’s phone.”
“Theirs is broken.”
“My niece snipped the cord,“ said Howl. “With scissors."
Ben’s fingers tightened on the doorknob.
“Two minutes,” said Howl.
“Hard-hearted, you are,” but Ben was letting him in all the same. Maybe even on a subconscious level he couldn’t deny Howl.
Two minutes became two hours and then dinner was cooked and the washing up done and Howl was sat cross-legged on the floor while Ben sprawled in the flat’s only chair.
“Aren’t you going home?”
“Told you, I'm stranded.”
“Your sister’s house, I meant.”
“That’s not home.”
Ben regarded him steadily.
“Where is home, then?”
“Oh, it’s lovely,” said Howl. “It’s a small house by the sea. In town, we live next door to our sister-in-law.”
“You’re married,” said Ben in surprise.
“Aren’t you?” Howl nodded to Ben’s wedding ring.
Ben closed his fist. “I don’t— So it seems.”
Gently. Careful. “She must be a wonderful woman.”
“My sister-in-law is the brightest mind in the county. But to tell you the truth…” Howl moved forward. He rested his hands on Ben’s knees. “I like her husband better.”
Ben’s gaze dropped.
“Your wife must be very understanding.”
“Oh, she likes him too.” Howl moved upward, slowly, slowly. “We all miss him, in fact. We wish he’d come home.”
Ben’s eyes were jumping everywhere: Howl’s eyes, Howl’s mouth, Howl’s neck. Howl could feel the ghost of Ben’s hand on his hip. Was he actually touching Howl, or was it muscle memory?
Ben never let anyone near him. He kept a good foot of distance between commuters. He spoke to all clients from behind a desk. The King even knew to hold out missives with a strong arm.
Howl was close enough to share breath.
Lips a hair’s width from Howl’s: “I never told you my name.”
Howl bolted to his feet. “It’s late. I should be heading out.”
Ben looked taken aback at the shift in mood.
“Walk me home?” said Howl, winding a scarf round his neck — one he’d stolen from Ben years before. Normally Ben would dredge up this grievance with great indignation. Now he eyed it, but didn’t comment.
The walk to Megan’s was quiet. The rain had settled into a steady drizzle.
Howl stopped in front of the garage door. Behind it, only two turns away, lay Ingary.
He asked, “Fancy a cuppa?”
Ben’s eyes followed the movement of Howl’s housekeys.
“I’ve got to be up early in the morning.”
“You could always stay here,” Howl wheedled, frustration bubbling over into carelessness.
He saw Ben’s face shutter, too late, too late. He wanted to tug on Ben’s hand and whine at him until he followed Howl up to bed, to spoon Howl or Sophie or both. Ben couldn’t refuse Howl. Ben could never refuse Howl—
“Mind the ice,” Ben said, and left Howl standing alone in the cold.
He didn’t remember.
Ben, who had jammed the front door with a hammer the night Howl’s dad died, so that Howl wouldn’t go home smashed and broken. Ben, who had held him the night he’d gotten his heart back. “It’s too much,” Howl had sobbed into Ben’s chest, as Ben wound fingers through his hair.
Ben had always been there for him; but Howl apparently wasn’t capable of returning the favor — even when Ben needed it most.
Or maybe he needed Ben more than Ben needed him.
Howl unsealed the door. He stepped through to Ingary.
Only Calcifer was awake. Sophie’s small lamp still burned through the keyhole of the upstairs room. Howl couldn’t face her with his failure.
“Make yourself toast,” Calcifer suggested.
Howl threw himself into the armchair. “He didn’t remember me.”
“He didn’t remember you last time either.”
“Yes, he did,” said Howl. “He followed my castle hopping on a scarecrow pole.”
“Maybe this time he’s playing hard to get,” Calcifer said. Howl roared and threw water at him. “Joking! I’m joking.”
As if self-denying Ben would ever play games. As if Ben would allow himself happiness without first seeing to the needs of others. As if Ben would ever, god forbid, express a single feeling or ask for a scrap of help —
Howl sat up.
The King dropped a stack of parchment. “Wizard Pendragon!”
“Did you find Wizard Suliman?” the physician cried, craning to look behind him.
“Naturally,” said Howl.
The King and the physician scrambled after him. Howl swept through the palace hallways.
“Did you bring him back?”
“Has his memory returned?”
“No.” Howl came to a stop in front of the library archives.
“No?” said the King and the physician.
“No,” said the large ginger man in Howell’s way.
Howell shrugged and side-stepped. He wasn’t in any hurry to return to Megan’s anyhow.
“Wait,” said the large ginger man. “That’s it?”
Interesting, thought Howell, but didn’t turn around. It was much too early in a game like this, even if the large ginger man did have beautiful hazel eyes behind those glasses.
“It doesn’t have to be,” Howell threw over his shoulder. He minced down the High Street.
The large ginger man followed.
“It’s only,” he said, tucking hands into his jacket pockets, “you took me by surprise. Normally you’d have assaulted me already.”
Howell looked over, startled. “Sorry?”
“With either your words or your hands,” said the large ginger man. It sounded like he was joking, but Howell couldn’t tell.
“Sorry,” Howell said again, meaning it this time. “I think you’ve confused me for someone else,” and he ducked into Morrison’s. Pity.
This continued for two more days. Howell would be going about his business — walking down the High Street, ducking into the corner shop, wistfully staring at the library closed for refurbishment — and the large ginger man would cross his path. He must live nearby. Howell couldn’t even take his secret shortcut through the alley behind the tea shop without a visit from this spectre.
Howell waited politely for the large ginger man to pass by. He did not. He just looked at Howell, expectantly.
Howell gave him a discreet once-over — he didn’t look the type, but Howell had been wrong before — and then brushed past when roundly rebuffed. He went into M&S. They were out of milk, and Megan would blame him for it.
The large ginger man was waiting for him outside: agitated now.
“Is this a game?”
“Not anymore,” Howell said. He had a headache. He was late. He felt like he was forgetting something. It was Christmas holidays — surely he wasn’t due back at the university until January. Were lecturers meant to return earlier this year? That did seem like something he’d forget.
“Well, it’s confusing,” said the large ginger man. “You’ve trained me to expect you at my door every six hours. And then you disappeared for a whole day. I was worried.”
How nice, to have someone worry about you. Even if they were crazy.
“Look,” said Howell, “ta and all that, but I’m afraid I haven’t any time or energy for nutcases. Even extremely attractive ones.”
The large ginger man dragged him into an alley. He shoved Howell up against a wall.
“What are you playing at?”
Howell said, around the hammering of his heart, “Nothing at all, my good sir.”
“It’s Ben, or have you forgotten that too?”
“Have it your way, Ben.”
Howell dropped his bag of groceries on the ground. There were only two ways that this scenario could play out, and he wasn’t going to leave the outcome up to chance.
Ben was so large that he bracketed out the rest of the world. Howell pulled him closer. Ben’s mouth was warm and Howell’s hand already knew where to go. It rested on the back of Ben’s neck; Howell stroked a thumb behind his ear. Ben shuddered.
He broke off and planted a hand in the center of Howell’s chest.
“Who are you?”
Dazedly, he said, ”Howell Aneurin Jenkins,” but Ben shook his head, so he added, “PhD.”
“That’s not it. What’s the rest?”
“Oh— you there!”
A policeman turned the corner. He stopped in front of them, nightstick already out. “What seems to be the trouble, gents?” His eyes dropped to Howell’s hands, which were still clutching Ben’s jacket. His face changed.
“No trouble.” Ben stepped back. “A misunderstanding.”
“Yes, apologies for casting aspersions.” Howell grabbed Ben’s hand and shook it forcefully. “You are surely of sound mind, my good man, and I was horrendously mistaken.”
Ben’s eyes narrowed.
“Here now,” said the policeman, “no funny business.”
Ben followed Howell home. Though not followed so much as walked directly beside with a ferocious frown.
Howell paused on the stoop. Even the most insane of stalkers didn’t deserve interaction with Megan.
He offered a polite way out: “Fancy a cuppa?”
Ben flushed. His gaze dropped to Howell’s mouth. Really, there was no telling with this man.
Howell barely fit through Megan’s dark narrow hallway. Ben absolutely didn’t, and kept his head ducked.
A clomping of a hundred elephants came from above. Neil vaulted off the bottom stair and into the kitchen, where Howell was putting away groceries.
“Oh! Hullo, Sullivan.”
Howell whirled around, milk carton in hand. “You know him?”
“Ha ha,” said Neil. To Ben he said: “Thanks for, you know, not turning me in to my mum or nothing. I’d be a dead man walking.”
“Certainly,” said Ben. He looked at Howell; Howell was looking back. “Tell me, lad, does your uncle live here?”
“Only on university break,” Neil said, disconcerted at the amount of looking going on in this kitchen. He inched toward the garden. “Or after a breakup. Which is it this time, Uncle Howell?”
“Uncertain,” said Howell, and threw up in the sink.
“Easy now.” Ben’s hand was warm between Howell’s shoulder blades. “Better out than in.”
“It’s this headache—” Howell wiped his mouth and tried to explain. “I’ve had it since yesterday. I think— I think I may have done something foolish.”
“Well, that’s for certain.”
Megan’s voice on her kindest day was a whip. Today it was a volley of broken glass.
There was a row that followed wherein it was suggested, as a primary hypothesis, that Howell was a layabout good-for-nothing drunk who wasted his brains and education while, as a follow-up, the rest of his family slaved away as honest decent workers under the cloud of his reputation.
“Enough now,” said Ben. He steered Howell to the garden. “He’s not drunk, he’s ill.”
“A likely story,” called Megan.
Her voice caught behind the closed door. Ben pushed Howell to his knees. Howell sat on the damp grass. Above him, Ben lit a cigarette.
“Couldn’t spare one?”
“You’re ill,” said Ben. He glanced back at the house, then at Howell, face a question.
“Yes,” said Howell, “she is always like that. But she has a point. I am flighty and impulsive. Were I the marrying kind, I’d probably abandon my wife and children.” His head throbbed. He felt compelled to defend himself, “Though surely not without good reason?”
“Surely not,” said Ben gently.
The sky was a flat heavy grey. Howell’s hands were cold in the wet dirt.
Ben pulled him to his feet. He didn’t look so tall this time. And his hazel eyes weren’t thin with dislike. “Let’s go.”
“Anywhere. Town. Take a walk, get some fresh air.”
“We’re in fresh air,” Howell pointed out, but he found himself saying, “Fancy a drive?”
Ben shrugged. “Go on then.”
He lit another cigarette as Howell led him to the garage door.
“No smoking inside my car,” said Howell, turning the key.
“I’ll open a window.”
“That won’t —”
Instead of an old Renault in a dusty garage, there was a cheerful fire in a whitewashed room. The sea sparkled through a window.
Wind pulled the door shut behind them, like magic. Out of a plush armchair, a man in resplendent clothing bolted to his feet. A woman sprang off the sofa. They appeared to have been asleep.
“Er,” said Howell, “terribly sorry —”
“Wizard Pendragon!” cried the man. Good lord, was he wearing a crown?
Ben took a step back to the door. “You’ve brought back Wizard Suliman!” cried the woman, and that was that. Howell fled hot on Ben’s heels.
The door dropped them out onto a cobbled street. They raced through the winding roads. With each turn came a reinforced sinking feeling that this was most definitely not Cardiff.
Out into a town square crowded with weekend shoppers. Howell collided with a stately woman. He turned, frazzled, to apologize. Her face changed from annoyance to concern.
She was definitely addressing Howell.
“Are you all right? I just saw Sophie a moment ago. She went that way. Oh, Wizard Suliman — good lord, are you two ill?”
Ben had grabbed his arm. So did the woman whose sitting room they’d burst into. The resplendent man was behind them, bent double, winded.
There was a jolt, then a flash. Howl stumbled, and Ben, Ben, caught him with steady hands.
The royal physician looked on triumphantly.
“You — you goddamned fool,” said Ben. "What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t,” said Howl.
A range of the physician’s staff materialized. Proking and prodding at the both of them, and clucking about “breach of protocol” or “meddling with highly volatile magic.”
Howl smoothed the worry lines off Ben’s face.
“Stop that,” said an assistant, slapping away Howl’s hand. “I’m already going to be filling out paperwork past dinner as it is.”
“And you with a wife and child at home,” raged Ben.
“I had to bring you back to yours.”
“Good job doing so without your memory, you bloody idiot!”
The physician froze. “Is that what you did in the archives? Recreated the spell put on Wizard Suliman?”
To hide his embarrassment, Howl said haughtily, “I should’ve thought that was obvious.”
“But,” said the physician, “you turned the door properly.”
Howell glanced over, feeling shy.
Ben looked back. His face was half covered with a hand, as if just realizing the magnitude of the situation they’d dodged.
“You could’ve opened that door to anywhere,” said Ben wonderingly. But instead, navigating blind, you brought us home.
“Happy Christmas,” said Howl.
“That’s my scarf,” said Ben.