Chapter 1: Megan
Megan had never seen her brother so happy. True, he’d not often truly been happy, much as he’d tried to convince her otherwise. But now… now he was with Sophie.
Sophie was really quite pretty. And, to Megan’s relief, she didn’t flatter Howell or feed his ego. Truly, Megan wasn’t sure why someone as seemingly lovely as Sophie would waste her time with a layabout like Howell, but, well, surely Howell could have (and had) done worse.
It didn’t hurt that Sophie seemed quite stern with Howell at times, even in front of Megan and Mari. She didn’t seem to be afraid of Megan, either. Mari loved her, Neil didn’t hate her, and Gareth… well, Gareth hadn’t met her yet. Megan didn’t think it was a stretch to say that Gareth would probably like Sophie more than Howell, but then he liked just about anyone more than Howell.
Megan did have to admit that Sophie dressed much more sensibly than Howell, though she doubted Sophie was a career woman. (Perhaps Megan was wrong in that; it would be like Howell to find some poor girl to support him while he wasted his degree).
Megan didn’t want to admit it, but she was sort of impressed that her brother had not only managed to get such a girl to show interest in him, but to maintain it to the point that he’d introduce them.
Sophie even volunteered to help her with supper. Howell’s pained look was most of the reason why Megan accepted her help. Normally she wouldn’t have, but she told Howell to stay out of trouble and whisked Sophie off to the kitchen.
She handed Sophie some potatoes to peel (figuring it was the hardest task to ruin) and they set to work.
After a few minutes, Sophie said, “You know, Howl is very successful where we live. Many people admire him.”
“So you’ve said,” Megan said, and she had.
“I used to think he was a layabout, too,” Sophie continued. “Worse, even. And he does have a bad habit of slithering out of things.”
Megan raised an eyebrow. “You’ve noticed that, have you?”
“How could I not?” Sophie asked. When Megan didn’t respond, she continued, “But Howl would do anything for the people he loves.”
“Except get a respectable job.”
“He has a perfectly respectable job, even if it’s not what you would have chosen for him. I have two younger sisters. I understand that you only want what’s best for him, but the way you show it makes him uncomfortable.”
“You know he spent thousands of pounds getting an advanced degree, only to write his doctoral thesis on magic and proceed to do whatever he could to avoid getting a proper job. Gareth’s offered I don’t know how many times.”
“But that’s not what he wants,” Sophie said gently.
“What does this respectable job of his entail?” Megan asked. “Every time I ask him, he – how did you put it? – slithers out.”
Sophie blinked, as if she wasn’t quite aware of how to address this question. “He helps people,” she said carefully. “They come to him with problems, and he helps solve them. And he teaches others how to help people, too.”
Aha. There was something. “Is that how he met you?” Megan asked, taking care to keep her tone carefully neutral. “Are you one of his students?” That would be so like Howell to seduce some vulnerable undergraduate student.
Sophie blushed. “I came to him for help. He did his best, and – in the end, he did solve my problem, though it did take some time.”
“Did he take advantage of you?” Megan asked.
Sophie shook her head. “Oh, no! Howl would never do such a thing! He did have a horrid reputation, but that was all a lie. Well, it was mostly a lie,” she amended.
“I’m sorry, I’m just trying to figure out how someone like you ends up with someone like him. No offense, of course, but it seems to me that you can do quite a bit better than my brother.”
“You’re not the first person to tell me that. In fact, I think just about everyone who knows him has told me as much.” She seemed amused by this fact. “He’s got a lot of flaws, but I love him. Even when he spends two hours in the bathroom each morning getting ready.”
“To look like that?” Megan asked, nodding toward the door. Howell had come in in that terrible old rugby jacket again, and worn out jeans and trainers like a teenager and not the twenty-seven-year-old man he was.
“He’s quite vain,” Sophie said.
Was that what vanity was meant to look like? He looked like he belonged in a grotty pub, not… well, anywhere where vain people might be.
“But he’s done so much to help people, too. I don’t think he tells you about that. He seems quite ashamed of it, really. Howl helped me when no one else would, and Michael, too. Michael didn’t have any family, or anyone, and Howl took him in and taught him how to help people like he did.”
“Is Michael that boy who he brings round sometimes? Quite tall?”
“Yes, that’s him!” Sophie said. “He’d tell you what Howl’s done for him himself, if he were here. I was as surprised as you are when he first told me. Howl doesn’t like people to know how kind he really is.”
“I see,” Megan said.
“And he did save you from that woman.”
Megan shuddered at the memory. She hadn’t been able to do anything – what would she have done if Howell hadn’t shown up? The thought sometimes kept her up at night.
“It’s only that it seems to me you’re a bit too hard on him,” Sophie said. “He’s done so much, and he doesn’t like people drawing attention to it – even me or Michael – but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s done it.”
Megan tried to think of how best to get her point across. Sophie was obviously in love with Howell, though Megan was relieved to see that she saw through all of his acts. And she’d said she had younger siblings, too. If there was anyone who’d believe her, it would probably be Sophie.
“I love him,” Megan said. “Of course I do. He’s my brother. But he keeps – he flies in and out as often as he’d like – or as infrequently as he’d like, too. Half the time, he stops by just to get drunk with his old mates at the pub, and the other half, he’s come to spoil my children with gifts they really don’t need. He never telephones. I get no notice. He comes and goes whenever it’s convenient for him, and when I want him to come – I’ve got no way to reach him.”
“I’m sure Howl and I could work out a way for you to reach each other when he’s not here,” Sophie said.
“He leaves all of his things here – can’t be bothered to bring them home! What am I meant to do? And on top of that, every time I suggest he get a normal job, a respectable job, he acts as if the very idea insults his integrity. As if his current line of work isn’t why that woman came and – I still don’t know what she did, or why we couldn’t stop it.”
Sophie put a hand on Megan’s shoulder, like she was the older one. She was barely older than Neil (and that was another thing! How old was she?), and she was comforting Megan?
“Nothing either of us do will make him quit his job,” Sophie said. “But I can try to talk to him about visiting more regularly, and about trying to reach him when he’s not here. Sometimes he gets distracted, but I know he loves all of you very much.”
Howell managed not to burn down the house (or worse) while Megan and Sophie cooked supper, but that didn’t stop Megan from giving him a stern look as he helped Mari set the table.
She knew if Gareth were there, it would have been a completely different atmosphere. She was secretly grateful Howell’s urgent need to introduce his family to Sophie had overlapped with Gareth’s business trip to London. (She wouldn’t have put it past Howell to somehow have planned it that way).
Howell pulled Sophie’s seat out for her, and sat next to her, which was, Megan had to admit, rather sweet.
Midway through supper, he cleared his throat. “Erm, you might be wondering why it was so urgent that you all meet Sophie.”
“Oh no,” Megan said. She wasn’t pregnant, was she? She shot Howell a look that she hoped conveyed as much.
“Not that,” Howell said, “Honestly, Megan, what do you take me for? No. Sophie and I are getting married.”
“Married,” Megan repeated.
“Yes,” Howell said. “Married.”
“How long have you even known this girl?” Megan asked in Welsh, because she had a feeling Sophie couldn’t understand it. The confused look on the girl’s face told her she was right. (She couldn’t even speak Welsh!)
“Well over a year,” Howell said.
“And how old is she?”
“Nineteen!” Megan said. “She’s nineteen and you’re marrying her?”
“I don’t see the problem with that,” Howell said coolly. “You were nineteen when you married Gareth.”
Oh, he would shove that in her face.
“Anyway, we’re being terribly rude,” Howell said in English. “We’ve discussed it, and we’d like to have a small ceremony here in Wales. Sophie doesn’t have a very big family.”
“That’s right,” Sophie said. “We’d only invite my stepmother, my two sisters, and their intendeds.”
Howell said, “And all of you, of course.”
“I can’t believe you’re marrying a girl we barely know.”
“You married a man I barely knew,” Howell said. “I don’t see how this is any different. If I’d had my way, we’d have gotten married last week, but Sophie insisted on telling you first.”
Sophie seemed quite focused on her meal. Megan couldn’t blame her. Howell was incorrigible.
“Can I be in the wedding?” Mari asked.
“Of course you can, cariad,” Howell said, as if Megan had already agreed to participate in this.
“You’ve already booked the hall, haven’t you?” Megan asked.
“And you think you don’t know me at all,” Howell said.
“I know you too well,” Megan said. “That’s the problem.”
Chapter 2: Michael
Michael knew his own wedding was a few years off. Martha wasn’t done her apprenticeship quite yet, and neither was he. But even so, he had some ideas.
He didn’t have a family (the closest thing he had was Howl and Calcifer), much less a large one, so he didn’t think a large wedding would be in the cards. Martha’s family would all be invited, of course, which he supposed now included Howl. It would be small, and Martha would look as radiant as she always did, and Michael would find her a perfect spell for the day.
He was working on a spell when Howl came out of the bathroom.
Michael had once asked him why he insisted on going through all that every morning now that he had Sophie, to which Howl had replied that he didn’t mind if Sophie – and only Sophie – saw him in his natural state. And then he’d gone on a long, dramatic tirade about how ugly he was without all the products that Michael was sorry he’d ever asked. (Which had probably been Howl’s intention).
“Careful with that spell,” Howl said.
“Where are you going?” Michael asked.
Howl heaved a dramatic sigh. “I have a meeting with the King. The woes of being the Royal Wizard.”
Sophie must have still been asleep, or perhaps she was already in the shop. Michael had woken a bit late that morning, but he knew there was no way Sophie would let these dramatics carry on if she were there to see them.
“I shouldn’t be long,” Howl said. “Sophie is in the flower shop if you need her.”
That explained it. “All right.”
“And no sneaking off to visit Martha until you’ve finished that spell.”
Howl was one to talk about sneaking off. “I won’t.”
“There’s a good lad. If I’m gone too long, come up with an excuse and rescue me.”
“It’s your own fault you’re the Royal Wizard,” Calcifer said from the hearth.
Howl said something very rude indeed and left in a huff.
“And now you’re going to visit Martha, aren’t you?” Calcifer asked.
“No,” Michael said. Howl would skin him alive if he didn’t finish the spell just so he could go off and talk to Martha. Or worse: he’d let Sophie do it for him.
He was nearly finished the spell when Howl came back in a huff. “Michael, never become the Royal Wizard.”
“I wasn’t planning on it,” Michael said. He wanted a simple life. He’d work as a wizard from home, with Martha and their ten children there. He’d had enough adventures, though he was certain he’d have more before his apprenticeship was over.
Howl threw himself in the chair dramatically. “Has the King no respect for others’ plans?”
“Shall I go fetch Sophie?” Michael asked. “I can watch the shop for her.”
“Oh, Sophie!” Howl said, which wasn’t technically a “no”, so Michael set his work aside and went to fetch Sophie. The shop was busy as it normally was, and Sophie was right in the middle of it. Her red gold hair was piled atop her head as she sold an old woman a bouquet of poesies.
“Sophie, Howl’s just come back, and I think he wants to see you.”
Sophie turned to him. “I hope you’re not trying to slither out of your work, Michael Fisher.”
“I’m not,” Michael said. “Though it is quite impossible to work at the moment with him carrying on as he is.”
Sophie sighed. Her sigh wasn’t dramatic, like Howl’s; her sigh was exasperated. “Oh, all right. But do let me know if you need me.”
“I will,” Michael promised.
Sophie went back into the castle, leaving Michael to the shop. It was relentlessly busy, which left him little time to think. It was actually a relief. He didn’t have to deal with Howl’s dramatics, and sometimes walking away and focusing on something else helped him figure out a spell.
Sophie never came back, so Michael closed the shop on his own and went back to the castle. Sophie was sat in the chair, reading a book, while Howl, apparently calmed down from his earlier episode, was cooking supper.
“Howl, darling, what’s a plane?”
“What sort of plane?” Howl asked.
“It says here they couldn’t land there in a plane with wheels.”
That seemed to tip Howl off. “Oh, an aeroplane! It’s a sort of flying, horseless carriage that can fit a hundred people and cover the distance a ship can in a fraction of the time.”
“Oh,” Sophie said.
“What are you reading with an aeroplane in it?” Howl asked.
“I found it in a box in your room,” Sophie said.
Howl turned his head. “Why were you snooping in my room?”
“We are engaged.”
“We’re engaged,” Howl said. “We’re not married. And you, Mrs. Nose, don’t need to go through things that you ought not be going through. That book’s from Wales.”
Michael, sensing an argument and not wanting to be caught in the middle, said, “I’ve closed the shop, and now I’m off to see Martha! I’ll be back!” and quite sensibly left the castle.
Martha laughed when he told her about Howl and Sophie.
“They really are two of a kind, aren’t they?”
“Howl used to mostly ignore me and leave me alone,” Michael complained. “Now I get caught up in all of his dramatics, because Sophie gets cross if I don’t tell her.”
“Don’t take it personally,” Martha said. “I’ve known Sophie my whole life. She can be quite stubborn.”
“So is Howl. Sometimes, I think they show affection by arguing.”
“They may well do,” Martha said. She clasped Michael’s hand in her own. She was done work for the day, so Michael didn’t have to worry about the two of them being interrupted (though he’d never do anything untoward, of course).
“He’s happier now they’ve got together. They both are. I know it. But sometimes when they argue, it’s as if I’m walking in on a private scene I’ve no right to witness.”
Martha hummed. “Have you told them it makes you uncomfortable? I’m not sure about Howl, but Sophie would be willing to take it to a private room.”
Michael didn’t want to think about them taking things to a private room. No. That felt even more inappropriate. “I’m not sure that would be the best solution. Leaving, myself, seems to work.”
“They’ll be married soon,” Martha said.
“And I’ll still be Howl’s apprentice,” Michael said. He liked Howl – more than most people he knew (Sophie was the exception, and Calcifer didn’t qualify as a “person”) – and he valued being Howl’s apprentice. It wasn’t just because Howl had been the only person to help him when he’d had nowhere else to go, though that was certainly part of it. It was because he knew, despite his many flaws, that Howl was mostly a good person.
But surely it wasn’t too much to ask for Howl and Sophie to realise he was in the room sometimes.
“And then you’ll be a wizard in your own right, and we’ll get married and live in a house with ten children.”
Michael couldn’t help but smile. “That we will.”
“Look on the bright side: at least they’ve realised they’re in love, now. And they’re going to get married and live happily ever after. They already bicker like an old married couple, so that’s something they haven’t got to practise.”
By the time Michael got home, Howl was helping Sophie with a spell. Calcifer gave him a withering look.
“It’s raining. Some of us can’t go out in the rain.”
“Oh, behave, Calcifer,” Sophie said.
“He could have carried you in a lantern if you’d asked,” Howl said.
“No, I couldn’t have. I was visiting Martha.”
“Is your spell done?” Howl asked. Next to him, Sophie gave him a look that clearly read don’t you dare try to slither out of this.
“I’m finishing it now,” Michael said.
Perhaps it was because Sophie was the oldest, but sometimes Michael found it difficult to believe that she was really so close in age to him. She had bossing him around down to an art form. But he did have to hand it to her; she was the only one who could handle Howl.