Jisung first hears of Howl when he just starts his apprenticeship at the shop.
It's not a real apprenticeship, since there is no master to teach him, but Jisung's mother says that it's better to keep up appearances so people won't talk later. She doesn't specify what she means by that and Jisung, thirteen years old and barely tall enough to reach up to close the windows when the six o' clock train clatters by the house, doesn't question it.
Felix, sunshine spun into his hair and splattered onto his skin, gets an apprenticeship with the pastry chef on the other side of town, because of course he does. Anyone who looks at him knows immediately that he is made to sweeten everyone's life, with cakes and pastries and his smile. Between him and their mother, Jisung just melts back into the shadows.
"It's okay, baby," his mother says, smoothing a cool hand through his shaggy brown hair. "You'll just stay here with me for now."
And so he does. Stays in his father's milliner shop next to the train tracks, slowly but surely growing taller until he can comfortably reach the knob to close the windows when the six o'clock train clatters by.
Before that though, he is thirteen, and small. His fingers are painfully growing calluses as his hands learn to handle a needle, and his mother is still at home. The rumbling of Howl's castle sounds a little bit like the clattering of the train, except this sound is deeper and somehow sad.
"Why did Howl come to this town?" he asks his mother when he catches her staring wistfully at the small moving dot in the distance, up on the hills.
"I don't know," she says, straightening the buttons on her dress. "But I don't think he'll do much good."
Over the years, Jisung's fingers grow nimble and tough, his mother grows more and more restless as the war goes on, and Howl starts eating young girls and boys for dinner.
Or so they say.
How are you? It's been so long since I've heard from you. The war is getting more serious and I'm worried about you all alone in the shop. Everything has been so strange ever since the prince disappeared, don't you think? Mom never tells me anything about you. Please come visit. I would come see you, but I'm busy all day with all the soldiers stationed in town for the parade. I've written the address on the back, in case you forgot.
Jisung traces the curves of Felix' signature with his fingertips. He does miss his brother. It's just that Felix has been gone since they were thirteen and despite mostly regular monthly visits, Jisung's adolescence has always felt rather lonely. Felix' bakery is a place filled with bright light and bright noises, from the chime of the doorbell whenever someone enters to the steady chorus of voices begging for Felix' attention. Jisung loves his brother, he does, but he always feels especially mousy next to him. Especially plain in every way next to his impossible golden hair and skin and personality. He always smells of sugar and Jisung smells of mothballs, and that's just the way things are.
But Felix is also right. The town has been buzzing with the incoming soldiers for the parade, aerokayaks and tourists from the countryside, while the people raid the valley for towering displays of flowers and papermaché. Even Jisung's shop has been getting more traffic, albeit from the women that always frequent it, just that now they have more to gossip about and are in greater need of a convening point. Jisung doesn't mind, but he's wary of the nervous energy strumming through the air everywhere he goes.
So, on the day of the parade, he finds himself locking up the shop shortly after the six o'clock train clatters by as always. He gets on a packed streetcar to cross town to see Felix while the pink and yellow flags of his country fly above his head, everywhere he turns.
Everyone on the streetcar is on their way to the parade, so when they stop at the main station, Jisung turns to follow the throng of people with his eyes. There's a marching band playing somewhere, adding to the deafening cheers of the crowd. Beneath the rhythmic stomping of the soldiers' feet, he thinks he can hear the thrum of tanks encroaching onto the town. Suppressing a shiver, he decides to use the back alleys to get to Felix' bakery. Large crowds have always made him nervous.
The back alleys are suddenly and strangely quiet, the roaring of the crowd nothing but white noise. Instead, the sounds of Jisung's footfalls bounce just a tad too loudly between the surrounding walls of the alley. He takes a deep breath. He's not very familiar with this part of town and he usually walks the streets to visit Felix, but logically he knows that this alley should converge with a larger street soon that will bring him to the plaza where the bakery is located. He just has to keep walking. He does dig Felix' letter out of his pocket though, just to double-check the address. There's really no way he's wrong, and yet-
"Hey there, little one."
Jisung freezes, eyes travelling up from the letter in his hands to a broad chest in the blue and red uniform of a soldier, to a handsome but mulish face. The soldier's arm is raised, leaning against the wall and decidedly blocking Jisung's way. Jisung has to raise his chin to meet his eyes.
"Lost your way? Cute bow, by the way."
Jisung instinctively touches the front of the scarf wound around his neck, soft fabric so familiar against his throat that he barely notices it anymore. Like always since he was fifteen, the ends of it are knotted into a bow at his collarbones. He suddenly wishes that he had left it at home, even though he has barely gone anywhere without it in three years.
A second soldier joins them, this one with a mustache so large it covers half his mouth. He's just as big as the other one, and he has a rifle slung over his shoulder. Jisung feel's his heart hammer painfully against his chest.
The second soldier bends down to look at his face. Jisung wishes desperately that he weren't roughly the size of a teenage girl and averts his eyes. The first soldier tilts his head. "How old are you? Do you live around here?"
Jisung's tongue feels too large for his mouth. "Just let me go, please."
The first soldier chuckles. "Ah, he's scared." The other one regards him with intrusive curiosity. "He's even cuter when he's mad."
Jisung would like to ask why they aren't at the parade instead of cornering little boys in back alleys. He would also like to grow three inches and punch both of them in the face, but he is frozen to the spot. Until he hears a voice, brighter than those of the two soldiers but with a lazy sort of confidence in it.
"There you are. Sorry, I'm late."
The two soldiers' eyes grow large as a hand lands on Jisung's shoulder. Somewhere from above his head, the voice continues talking. God, he's really getting tired of everyone around him being taller than him.
"I'm with him. Why don't you two take a walk?"
Miraculously, eerily, the soldiers straighten up and clamp their mouths shut before jerkily turning around and marching away in step. Jisung whips around. Next to him stands a boy, taller, but probably not much older than him. He's extremely handsome, with expressive eyes and a straight nose and full lips tilted into a small smile. His hair is falling into his face in long, blonde wisps.
Great, Jisung thinks miserably, he's really hot.
"Where are you going?", the boy asks, as if this is a normal situation to be in. "I'll walk you."
Jisung takes a step back, the boy's hand slipping off his shoulder. He notices that he's wearing some ridiculous getup, an oversized, expensive-looking jacket thrown over his shoulders with his arms free of the sleeves, and a silky white shirt with a few too many buttons opened to be entirely appropriate. Jisung hates that his cheeks go warm at the sight of the other boy's exposed skin.
"No, thank you. I'm really only going to visit my brother."
Completely unfazed, the boy reaches down and grabs Jisung's hand. "Act normal," he says, "I'm being followed."
Jisung only has time to think that this is the strangest way he's ever been propositioned, if that's what's happening here, before he is dragged away. The boy's legs are unfairly long and his stride correspondingly quick, and Jisung is just about to complain when he sees them. Dark as shadows, except they seem to be made of something resembling molasses, and somehow they're wearing straw hats on top of their vaguely humanoid forms. And they're moving. Towards them.
"Sorry I got you involved," the boy says, infuriatingly calm, his grip on Jisung's hand vice-like as he increases his speed.
"What the f-"
One moment they're running away from the weird moving blobs chasing them and the next, they're… flying? Jisung gasps, clutching onto the boy's arm as they stop rising, seemingly treading on an air cushion above the town. Jisung looks at the rooftops of his hometown, the little specks of pink and yellow in the streets, and feels faint.
"Relax," the boy's voice sounds close to his ear. "Drop your feet and just start walking."
This is a dream, Jisung decides as he does as told and they somehow start walking on the air. A really weird, confusing dream because on the one hand there is a pretty boy holding his hand but also they were being chased by blob monsters and now they're fifty feet up in the air and Jisung is not good with heights.
He's about to say as much, but all that comes out is something close to a whimper. The boy shifts so that one of his arms is holding Jisung's waist. It feels reassuring and Jisung sucks in a small breath, daring a look at him.
"I'm sorry for all this," the boy sighs. The wind up here has swept back his blonde hair and Jisung can see little gold earrings with green stones in the form of teardrops dangling from his earlobes. He looks so pretty, it's ridiculous.
When the boy drops him off at the balcony of the house Felix' bakery fills the ground floor of, he is surprised. For a second, he almost forgot that they were literally walking on air. That he was supposed to be scared.
The boy grabs both of Jisung's hands to get him to look at him, his eyes large and sincere. "Stay safe. I'll hold them off."
Somehow, Jisung believes him.
Surrounded by sacks of flour and packs of granulated sugar, the bustle of the kitchen in the background of his mind, the ground under Jisung's feet slowly starts to feel real again. Felix, dressed in his store outfit and hair carefully styled to accentuate the angles of his face, is perched on a wooden box next to him, staring at him like he's lost his mind.
Jisung's eyes sweep around the bakery's storage room Felix dragged him to after the manager found Jisung on the balkony, staring into the empty space where that boy had existed mere minutes ago. Maybe he has lost his mind.
"Howl. I think I met him."
Felix just stares at him. Jisung, feeling embarrassed but inexplicably determined, tries to explain further. "He could fly. Felix, I could fly. That's how we escaped the blob monsters..."
Felix looks genuinely concerned. "Jisung..."
He sighs. "I know. I must look crazy."
Felix shakes his head. "No. You look starstruck."
Jisung feels his face go red. He wants to protest, but really, Felix is probably right.
"Be careful. You know, he eats hearts."
Jisung rolls his eyes. "You don't know that. Besides, why would he go for me? I heard he likes beauties."
Felix' eyes go large and sad, like they always do when Jisung points out the obvious. He's made peace with it, mostly, but Felix still gets that look whenever he says stuff like this, so he tries not to. He suddenly feels very tired.
At the door, Felix grabs his sleeve. "Sungie, are you sure you want to go back to the shop?"
He swallows down something ugly rising up in his chest. "Someone has to do it", he says as flippantly as he can manage. "Besides, I'm the older one."
Felix is unimpressed. "You're a day older than me. "
His brother does not rise to the bait. "Just look out for yourself, Sungie."
Jisung nods and turns before he has to admit that he's not sure he knows how to do that.
Hyunjin is stuck.
It's really nothing new, it's happened before and it will happen again. In the syrupy expanse of time, five seconds are something that will pass. He's stuck now, but he will not be stuck in a moment, and that's all he has to think about when he feels like the concept of time is lost on him altogether and an eternity might as well be the rest of his life.
Okay, maybe ten seconds.
Hyunjin grits his teeth to force himself to stay still while his molecules rearrange themselves at lightning speed. His feathers feel like little pinpricks on his skin when they grow, but when they retract, it feels more like his skin is turned inside out and slapped back onto his flesh. It always takes him a couple of hours to feel at home in his human form again, and he tries very hard to ignore how it takes just a little longer every time.
When someone asks why he does what he does, Hyunjin doesn't have an answer. He knows he hates the war, the bombs, the fires, the endless, endless destruction. Normal people are too fragile, but he has the strength to do his part to keep the war from spreading everywhere. But sometimes he wonders, is it worth it? Is it worth it?
And then he tells himself that it doesn't really matter. A fire demon holds his heart in his hands, while an empty hole sits in his chest where his heart should be. Hyunjin is just lucky the demon is mostly nice about it.
Jisung knows, even before he manages to drag himself to the mirror in the hallway, what has happened. His hands have doubled in size, his fingers now thick and wiry and stiff with age. The skin of his face feels paper thin under his touch. His back seems to be permanently bent, no matter how hard he tries to straighten up. The old man in the mirror raises up his right arm the same time as Jisung, touching the limp strands of gray hair on his head.
He can still hear the witch's deep, raspy voice booming in his ears.
Send my greetings to Howl!
In the middle of his father's hat shop, Jisung sinks to his knees and cries.