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a matter of the heart

Chapter Text

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.

-

Sungie ,

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.

Love, Lixie.

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.

-

"You what?!"

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. "

"Still older."

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.

Chapter Text

Finding Howl turns out to be a ridiculously long and arduous process.

Jisung sits in his room all day, wrapped in a thick blanket because while he has always run cold, his 90-year-old self is even worse. He's plotting. 

Yesterday, when he was on his way to visit Felix, he heard some girls on the streets talk about Howl's castle being seen up in the mountains surrounding the town. Since Howl was in town yesterday, he can't have gone far. 

This is what he thinks about as he listens for the six o'clock train, promptly mistiming its arrival because everything takes longer when you're old. Through the cloud of black smoke, he briefly considers that Howl won't help him, and then shoves that thought far away from him. If he starts thinking like that, he will just curl up into a ball and cry, and how is that going to help anyone? Besides, it's his fault that Jisung is like this now.

What if he eats your heart?, a voice that sounds suspiciously like Felix whispers in his head. 

He won't , Jisung thinks stubbornly. He thinks of the boy from yesterday. Howl. He did not look like he regularly ate still-beating hearts, but he also did not look like he could fly and yet he did just that. 

Jisung huffs and tries to will his old legs to walk faster. Howl wouldn't want his heart anyways.

Two hours later, he's rattled all his bones on the back of a hay truck, almost lost a tooth to the bread he packed to eat and acquired a spectacular backache hiking up the side of the valley to the mountains. He can still see his town but there is no sign of Howl or his castle. And now the stick that could have been a potential walking cane turns out to be... a scarecrow? Jisung is so tired.

"Your head is made of a turnip. I hate turnips", he says, mostly out of spite. 

The scarecrow stays stoically still. Jisung stares. The scarecrow's head is indeed made out of a large round turnip, a top hat balanced on top of it. The rest of the scarecrow is made up of a surprisingly well-kept black suit. He wears a lopsided, drawn-on smile. His eyes, Jisung realizes with a small shiver down his spine, are human. 

"Hey," Jisung says over the distant rumble of far-away thunder, "do you know Howl?"

The scarecrow blinks at him and stays silent. His eyes are brown and melancholy. Jisung realizes belatedly that he probably can't speak - his mouth is only drawn on after all.

"Alright," he says, awkwardly tugging on his scarf. "Nevermind. Bye, then."

The scarecrow seems to nod in agreement but doesn't move. The sky behind him is turning the colour of a deep, burnt amber. Jisung eyes the piles of gray clouds behind the mountains and shivers in the suddenly rising breeze. It's cold.

"Fine," he says, already turning around. "Come with, if you want."

At first, he thinks the scarecrow ignored him in favour of staying where he is, as scarecrows tend to do. Jisung bends his knees as the path he's walking on becomes more steep and tries not to wince at the strain on his joints. He didn't see any ears on the scarecrow, drawn-on or not. Maybe he just didn't hear what Jisung said. 

But then, he hairs the faint tick-tick-tick of a wooden stick being knocked repeatedly against the ground, or more fittingly, the sound of a scarecrow walking…

The scarecrow catches up to him in a few moments. It would be embarrassing how few steps Jisung really managed to walk up the mountain, but the wind is blowing into his face and through his body in earnest now, so he can't even berate himself. Old or young, he would have been slow in this weather. The scarecrow stops abruptly in front of him, something dangling from one of his arms. 

"Thank you," Jisung marvels, picking up the cane, "that's perfect."

He regards the scarecrow's face. He's still not sure if he can hear him, but he seems to intuitively know what Jisung needs without him uttering a word. Whoever the soul that lent the scarecrow its spirit, they must have been a considerate person. 

The sky is darkening by the second, while the wind starts howling. Jisung looks up at the scarecrow's rigid turnip face. "Now find me a house to sleep in, will you?"

The scarecrow looks at him expressionlessly before taking off. Jisung listens to the tick-tick-tick of his feet (foot? stick?) until it disappears beneath the sound of the wind. He smiles at his own ridiculous request and hopes that the scarecrow will get to a place safe from the wind so he doesn't fall over again. He's not sure he will be able to find him a second time.

Especially not when he's feeling like this. Engulfed in the bone-crushing fear that he's going to be like this for the rest of his life, Jisung sits down on the floor. Will he live as if he was still eighteen years old, trapped in this body until he really is an old man? Or will he die in a couple of years, having lived barely to his third decade? 

He has to find Howl. He thinks of the boy who held his hand. The earnest look in his eyes when he promised to hold off the blob monsters. How did he become what he is now? Does he really eat hearts?

Howl certainly doesn't want his heart, Jisung tells himself. Not before and especially not now. Besides, he owes Jisung. Both a way out of the witch's curse and an explanation. He thinks of the blob monsters in the alley and the witch's dark bulky figure hovering in his shop's entryway. How does Howl know the witch? Do all magical beings just know each other?

A snowflake lands on his knee, then another. Wincing at the pain in his back, Jisung gets on his feet. He really needs to get out of this weather, or he won't ever find out whether he'll die of magic-induced old age in the prime of his youth. 

As if on cue, he hears something behind him.

Jisung sighs, turning around to berate the scarecrow for not escaping the weather like he intended him to, and freezes on the spot. 

Howl's moving castle is a heap of metal scraps, screeching and wailing even when staying still. Its walls are black from soot and its windows gray from dust. There is nothing homey about it and nothing elegant either. Jisung recalls the sweep of Howl's colourful embroidered jacket and furrows his brows. This looks nothing like a place where someone like him would live. 

Tick-tick-tick. The scarecrow is jumping up and down impatiently next to him, and Jisung belatedly registers the howling of the storm, extremely close and threatening now. The scarecrow swivels his arms and Jisung's eyes land on a small entryway at the bottom of the castle, a small, warm light glowing above a wooden door. 

"Is that the way in?", Jisung asks the scarecrow, but a screech drowns out his voice. The castle has started moving again. The wind is everywhere now, blocking his ears and tugging at Jisung's scarf, moving to pluck his frail old body from the belly of the castle and hurling him out into the storm. He has to be quick.

"Sorry, Turnip!" Jisung yells over his shoulder and into the void, yanking the door open and throwing himself into the dark inside of Howl's castle.

-

Jisung wakes to the sound of an unfamiliar, bright voice.

"Mr. Jenkins isn't here right now, but I will relay your message!"

Unfurling his aching spine, Jisung sits up and meets the eyes of a dwarf with a long gray beard and mischievous eyes. He's wearing a blue cape that covers the entire expanse of his body and then some, and he's holding a letter with the royal insignia imprinted onto its seal. He looks vaguely intimidating.

"And who are you?"

Jisung blinks and tries to discreetly wipe away the drool at the corners of his mouth. For some reason, he did not expect Howl to have… friends?

"I'm Jisung, I'm here to… help Howl."

The dwarf reaches up and takes off his face. Jisung almost screams. On the other side of the dwarf's face, there is the face of a young boy, younger than Jisung if he would still look like his actual age. The boy's eyes are the same, but now they seem less intimidating and more curious. 

"Help Howl," he repeats, furrowing his brow. "I'm Jeongin, his assistant, so I do most of the helping. What would you do?"

Jisung stares. He did not think that far. "I could clean? It's pretty dusty in here."

It's true, the kitchen of Howl's castle, the fireplace Jisung fell asleep at, the staircase leading up to the second floor - everything is extremely dusty and cluttered with a mess of paper scraps, different kinds of pens, trinkets and candlewax. The problem, however, is that Jisung is not exactly good at cleaning. 

Jeongin eyes him, taking in his knotty, spotted hands and his wrinkly skin. He seems to come to the same conclusion, but before he can say anything, someone knocks at the door.

A round dial above the door divided into parts, each a different colour, whirrs into place, stopping at Red.

"Pendragon!" A voice calls from the other side of the door.

Jeongin sighs and pulls the dwarf's face back on. Jisung shivers. 

"It's creepy, right?"

Jisung almost jumps out of his skin. Now, he's always been a bit of a scaredy cat (Felix would make sure to tease him), but now that he's old he's starting to harbour the very real fear that he might just one day startle so hard that he gives himself a heart attack.

In the fireplace, the fire has taken on the shape of a face, forming two large eyes and a round mouth. A pair of fire hands come up to rest on the big log Jisung vaguely remembers putting there last night after stumbling into the dark entrails of the castle.

Taking in Jisung's expression, the fire seems to grin.

"Are you scared?"

Jisung registers that Jeongin is still talking to whoever is at the door. The kitchen, despite its messy state, glows warm in the light of the fire.

"No," he decides.

The fire looks almost disappointed, as far as Jisung can tell. Looking at it kind of hurts his eyes. 

"That's some spell you're under. Very hard to break."

Jisung's eyes snap back open. "You can see it?"

The fire seems to shrug, as far as fires can shrug. "I see everything. I'm a fire demon!"

"So you're not Howl?"

"Howl!" The fire demon shrieks as if Jisung said something particularly amusing. "No, I am not Howl. I'm Calcifer, the fire demon! You can call me Minho though, I guess."

"Minho," Jisung repeats, dumbfounded. "Why do you have a human name?"

Minho shrugs again. "It was given to me. I'm a fire demon, but I'm bound here by a human heart."

"In fact," he continues, and Jisung thinks that there might be a devious glint in the demon's fiery eyes, "I am a prisoner. I'm forced to work all day, all night, keeping this castle alive - You don't think you could free me, do you? I'll break your spell for you in return."

Jisung leans forward. "You can do that?"

Minho flickers. "Unchain me and find out."

Jisung narrows his eyes at the fire. He feels impatient, suddenly. Deep down, he'd hoped that the spell he's under would reverse itself after a day, like the witch only did this to him to scare him. But his back is still bent with age, and his voice still sounds thin and raspy in his ears, and he's wasting time talking to shapeshifting dwarfs and fire demons.

"Be quiet or I'll pour water on you."

Minho flares up high before shrinking down to an intimidated flame. "I should have never let you into the castle," he grumbles.

The door slams shut. Jeongin comes back up the stairs, already shedding his dwarf face. Noticing Jisung's inquiring stare, he shrugs. "It's magic."

Jisung looks around. What appeared as an disorganized mess before has taken on a faint shimmer. The air, he realizes, smells of cinnamon and mint, sweet and sharp. 

"Is… everything in here magic?"

He gets up from his chair and limps to the door. The dial has turned to Green. Jisung opens the door to lingering fog and the outlines of the mountains around the castle. The storm from yesterday has passed.

With shaking fingers, he closes the door and pushes the dial to Blue. The door opens again to a peaceful cobbled street, a few children playing games, their voices and laughter floating in and out of Jisung's ears. The sky is blue and speckled with seagulls, and the air smells like salt.

The Red dial reveals the towering buildings of the capital, the gold spires of the King's palace glinting in the distance. Jisung's ears are ringing when he reaches out to open the door when the dial has turned to Black, but Jeongin's voice from behind him holds him back.

"Don't do that."

Jisung turns around. "Where does it lead?"

Jeongin takes his arm and leads him back to the fireplace, away from the door. "Only Hyunjin knows."

Jisung looks around, confused. "Who's Hyunjin?"

The door rattles, then opens to reveal Howl, his blonde hair hanging into his face and the sleeves of his jacket torn. He looks just as striking as Jisung remembers him, with his dangling earrings and tan skin. Closing the door behind him, he turns to Jisung, smiling a lopsided, devastating smile.

"Well, that would be me."

Chapter Text

"I have many names," Howl explains nonchalantly. "Jenkins, Pendragon, Howl - but in here, I'm just Hyunjin."

The dial whirrs back to Blue. Jisung stares.

Hyunjin. It fits him.

"You stayed out a very long time", Minho nasals from behind Jisung, somehow managing to sound like a disappointed spouse. Jeongin fidgets with his magic cloak, but Jisung thinks that the expression on his face looks like he's inclined to agree with the fire demon. Hyunjin ignores both of them, crossing the kitchen in long strides. 

Up close, his eyes are a complicated gray, mixed with green and brown and flickering like there's a candle lit behind them. Jisung's heart is beating painfully in his chest, a pulsing reminder of why he's here.

Hyunjin retreats to give Jisung room to breathe and asks, "and who are you?"

"I'm, uh. I'm Jisung. Grandpa Jisung. I'm here to clean this place."

Those eyes flicker and then give him a quick once-over, an amused smile blooming in the corners of Hyunjin's mouth. Jisung feels hot. Does he recognize him? Does Jisung want him to recognize him?

"I was about to make breakfast," Jeongin says a little bit too loudly, rolling up his cloak and procuring a plate of bacon and a basket of eggs out of nowhere. Hyunjin, pulling his long hair into a ponytail, nods at Minho, who dutifully flares up. Jisung is still staring at the little strands framing Hyunjin's face that he expertly pulled out of his ponytail with his long fingers when the rest of the kitchen starts bustling with a practiced choreography: Jeongin carrying plates and forks to the table and Hyunjin cracking eggs into a pan, the bacon already sizzling. Minho seems to be delightfully popping the egg shells in his flames. Jisung, trying very hard to not feel like a piece of furniture, sits down at the table and accepts his fate.

The food is delicious, because of course it is. Infused with magic maybe. As Jeongin cheerfully slurps his fried eggs from his plate directly into his mouth (both his mother and Felix would be horrified), Hyunjin leans forward to meet Jisung's eyes. 

"You know me as Howl, so you're from the mountains - does your sudden appearance have anything to do with the Witch of the Waste?"

Jisung fumbles with his fork, trying to hide the shaking of his fingers. So, alright, Hyunjin is sharp.

"Yes," he admits. Jeongin stops chewing, while Minho gives a hiss from the fireplace. Jisung shrinks in on himself.

"He gave me this," he says, reaching into this pocket to pull out the piece of parchment he noticed on the floor of his shop after the witch vanished. Hyunjin takes it from him, his brows furrowed. The parchment turns to ash in his fingers.

"Hmm," Hyunjin says after a long silence, his hand hovering over the fine red lines that have just burned themselves into the solid wood of the table. Jisung gulps.

He who catches a falling star, oh heartless man, your heart shall be mine.

Jeongin has gone pale. "Hyunjin, what do we do?"

Hyunjin stands with a flourish of his jacket, his chin raised. "We must be brave," he says, so seriously that even Jisung sits up straighter. He turns to meet each of their eyes, Jeongin, Jisung, even Minho. 

"Don't you worry, I'll protect us."

There's a familiar sincerity in his tone, mirroring his words on the balcony of Felix' bakery. This time, Jisung feels a lot less reassured. 

-

Jisung is sweeping up the ashes from the fireplace when Hyunjin reappears from upstairs, a new jacket thrown over his shoulders and his eyes sharp. 

"Be nice," he says over his shoulder, not quite specific in whether he's aimed that at Jisung or Minho, who is sulking behind a log after Jisung put a bucket of water dangerously close to the hearth to get him to move away from the ashes. 

The dial whirrs to Black. At the door, Hyunjin turns, meeting Jisung's eyes.

"Take care," he says warmly, before grabbing the door knob and hurling himself into the void. Then he's gone, the door snapping shut and the dial showing Blue. 

Jeongin eyes Jisung suspiciously. "Do you two know each other?"

Jisung busies himself with the ashes and pretends his heart is beating at a normal pace. "Nope."

Jeongin huffs, unconvinced. "Are you a witch?"

"No! Oh my god, I'm not a witch. I never asked for this! If it wasn't for Howl-"

Jisung presses his lips together before he can say more. If it wasn't for Hyunjin, then what? He'd be in his shop, sewing flowers on hats. Or rolling up bands to sort them by colour. Maybe the ladies from the neighbourhood would come in and talk about Howl, or the King, or the war. Maybe his mother would drop by. Maybe Felix would write. He would just… live his life.

Ash stinging in his eyes, he realizes that he's not sure he would prefer that to his current predicament.

"I'm gonna go do the upstairs rooms," he tells Jeongin and flees the scene.

Upstairs, he's greeted by a number of closed doors that are crammed too closely together in a narrow hallway. The first one leads to a bathroom that is still filled with steam and Hyunjin's lavender scent. The second one leads to a small room stuffed with cute dolls and colourful drapes. The third one is dark and dusty and empty except for the largest bed Jisung has ever seen. At the end of the hallway, there's a balcony.

It's like the air is punched out of Jisung's lungs. The fog has cleared, and the mountains are crisp against the stark blue of the sky. The grassy slopes below the castle's moving feet are the greenest Jisung has ever seen. In the distance, there's a speck of water glittering in the sun. 

"Minho!" he yells as he hurries down the stairs, chest feeling so full that he could burst. "Minho! Are you moving the castle? You brought us to this place? You're amazing!"

Minho squawks, then flares up, spraying sparks from the fireplace. Jisung is pretty sure he's gloating.

Jeongin looks from Minho to Jisung, his eyes narrowed. "Are you sure you're not a witch?"

Jisung, feeling too giddy to react to his quip, bounces back up the stairs. 

It's as if something shifted in the air. Maybe it's magic, maybe it's something else, but Jisung feels like he can breathe again for the first time in days. Standing on the balcony high up on Howl's moving castle, he forgets he's supposed to be scared of heights. He feels so light he could float, completely without a wizard's hand to hold onto.

"Not to sound like a broken record," Jeongin's voice appears behind him, "but if you're not a witch then what is that? "

Jisung turns around to find the scarecrow from the mountains, effortlessly balancing on a ledge in one of the many random bumps in the metal exterior of the castle. The ends and sleeves of his suit are fluttering in the wind and his mouth is rigid as always, but his eyes are twinkling happily. He seems excited to see Jisung, and Jisung realizes that he's happy to see him, too.

"Turnip!" he calls, waving at the scarecrow. "He's a friend of mine that must have followed me here."

Jeongin stares at him with wide eyes, before breaking into a smile. "I think you might have a different kind of magic. You're a special person, Jisung."

Jisung can feel his entire face go red at once. As if on cue, the castle lurches and comes to a halt at the shore of an impossibly blue lake. The scarecrow hops up and down a few times, tick-tick-ticking as if to say something.

Jisung thinks of the dusty covers in Hyunjin's bedroom. "Let's go do some laundry."

-

Jeongin finds him hours later, at sunset, looking out on the fuzzy horizon on the lake with tears in his eyes. 

"Are you okay?" he asks, sweetly reaching for Jisung's hand.

Jisung swallows. "I've never felt so small," he admits, his voice sounding brittle in his own ears.

"I've never felt so at peace."

-

Two worlds away, Hyunjin dodges a bomb, twisting his body to screech his claws along the side of a warplane. He watches the bomber stumble and lose flight, tumbling down to join the hellfires below. Hyunjin's stomach twists painfully as he watches.

The magic coursing through his veins is powerful, the kind of powerful that is dangerous. The other wizards on the battlefield have nothing on him, in their small, hive-mind forms. Still, he lets himself be chased away.

He's done for today. He'll start again tomorrow, until it's all over. Only then will he be able to stop.

Minho is humming disapprovingly when he drags himself through the door of his castle, feathers burnt and itchy. 

"You reek," he remarks. "Of burnt flesh and metal and -"

Hyunjin plops down on the chair in front of the fireplace. It's always like this. "I know, Minho."

"- and a misplaced hero complex," Minho concludes pointedly. "Be a little selfish, Hyunjin, hmm?"

Hyunjin snorts. "Run me a bath, then."

"No."

They both watch as the feathers retreat back under Hyunjin's skin. Sometimes, he gets this urge - this urge to press his hands on his chest with all his might, looking for a heartbeat that isn't there to remind himself that he's still alive. He wonders if the other wizards on the battlefield remember the feeling of their hearts beating. He feels so, so cold. 

"Do you really think what you're doing will matter in the end?"

The words bury into Hyunjin's chest like little knives, but he's asked himself this many times. Minho can never be as cruel to him as he is to himself. 

He steals a glance at Jisung, who is asleep on a cot a few steps off to the side. His narrow shoulders are drawn even in his sleep and his hands are folded beneath his cheek. His face looks exactly like Hyunjin remembers. Sweet, a little sad. Sincere. He's pretty like this, unaware of himself and his curse, skin smooth and hair dark brown. Hyunjin barely stops himself from touching it.

Jisung is human, he's pretty sure. But something about him feels warm, almost like the touch of magic.

"Why is he here?" Minho asks. Hyunjin tears his eyes away from Jisung's face, suddenly and embarrassingly aware that he's been caught staring. 

"I don't know," he says quietly, curling in on himself. "But I want him to stay."

Chapter Text

Jisung wakes to screaming. 

At first, he thinks he's in his bed at home, being pulled out of sleep by the noises outside. Then he thinks it might have been his own voice screaming, stuck in a nightmare full of bombs and fire and monsters in the air.

Then he realizes it's Hyunjin.

He's out of bed and on his feet before he remembers his new old bones. Grimacing at the sharp pain shooting up his back he looks around, trying to locate Hyunjin. His eyes land on Minho instead, who is sitting behind his usual log in the fireplace, seemingly unperturbed by Hyunjin's wailing. 

"What's wrong with him?" Jisung asks him, feeling helpless. 

Minho flickers green for a second before returning to his usual warm orange. "He gets like this sometimes. It's not pleasant."

There's a thud upstairs, then a crash, like several glass bottles breaking at once. Minho makes a noise that sounds like a sigh. "Oh, here we go."

Jisung watches, incredulous, as Hyunjin comes barreling down the stairs, naked except for a towel wrapped around his waist. His shiny blonde hair is neither of those things now, coarse and messy and bleeding out an entire rainbow onto his skin. It looks like someone dumped a glass of used watercolour water on his head.

"Look at me," Hyunjin moans, leaning precariously over the edge of the stairwell, fingers pulling at the mess on his head, "look at me!"

Jisung does. It feels like he's done nothing but look at Hyunjin since he arrived at the castle. The effect he has on him is the same as every time - his stomach lurches, like he missed a step on a ladder, in time with his heart speeding up as if to present itself as Hyunjin's to take. If he wanted to.

"My spells are all messed up," Hyunjin says, crashing down the rest of the stairs and curling into a ball in front of the fireplace. The colours in his hair are slowly fading away to a bottomless, midnight black. Jisung hates how his face looks all wrong, twisted up in indignation. The air of confident serenity that usually surrounds him is gone. 

The door rattles. Jeongin is standing in the entrance, the dial next to the door turned to Blue, his face ashen. Behind him, the seagulls in the sky above the little port town have been replaced by smoke. Jisung hears sirens and sees the edge of a warship disappear into the clouds.

"It's getting worse," Jeongin says, pulling off his cloak. "Hyunjin, did you see that?"

Hyunjin ignores him. "What's the point of living if you aren't beautiful?"

He lets out a sob. The look on his face cuts into Jisung's heart, the words hitting much, much too close to home. He thinks of Felix's face, and how it's a direct copy from their mother's face. How his eyes and freckles glow with the love and admiration they've received his entire life, while Jisung's plain features faded into the shadows.

Jeongin stumbles forward, taking Hyunjin by the shoulder. "Stop it," he whispers. "You need to stop."

Jisung doesn't quite realize what he means until he notices the light disappearing from the room, fleeing the slimy shadows creeping out of Hyunjin's body. Minho yelps as his fire goes dim in an instant, and suddenly all Jisung feels is rage.

"You're an ungrateful bastard," he yells at Hyunjin, tears springing to his eyes. "I've never been beautiful and I'm still alive, aren't I?"

And what kind of life it's been, he thinks bitterly. A life in the shadows. Unwanted, unseen, but alive. 

Hyunjin doesn't answer. He's slumped over with his eyes closed, consumed in his own misery. The shadows have engulfed him completely.

"Help me get him upstairs," Jeongin says into the deafening silence, tugging at one of Hyunjin's arms. "Please, Jisung?"

Jisung angrily wipes at his eyes. He doesn't want to help, but he needs Hyunjin. He needs Howl, at his full capacity, so he can help him break the curse. 

"Fine," he mumbles, gripping Hyunjin's other arm and dragging him upstairs, carefully not listening to the voice in his head, whispering how he's not sure he even wants to break the curse if it means he has to go back to his old life. 

-

Hyunjin's eyes are closed when Jisung pokes his head into the bathroom. He looks calmer in the water, wet, ink black hair sticking to his skin. Jisung moves closer to check if his fingers are pruny - they're not, of course. 

"Not beautiful," he mutters, sitting down on the cold tiles next to the bathtub. "Who the hell told you that?"

Hyunjin's hand feels limp in his. His fingers are long and bowed elegantly, almost like claws. That's how he'll pluck your heart out of your chest , his brain helpfully provides. I don't care , his heart whispers, beating against his ribs.

Jisung drops Hyunjin's hand and moves away slightly. What is he doing here, exactly? He needs Howl, not Hyunjin. He doesn't care about Hyunjin.

"I'm a coward. That's why you're better than me."

And yet - his voice, barely above a whisper, holds as much power over him as if his fingers had actually reached into his chest to hold him in place. Jisung takes a deep breath, and stays where he is.

"What do you mean?"

Hyunjin opens his eyes, shifting in the tub. A few droplets of water splash onto Jisung. "You're brave," he says.

Jisung scoffs. "I'm really not."

"I keep running away. All this junk - the names, the doors, the colours, it's just to keep me hidden."

"From who? The Witch of the Waste?"

Hyunjin shudders. "Him too, yes."

Jisung thinks of his own encounter with the witch. His rattling voice as he put the curse on him. He feels smaller than he is just recalling the witch's cold, cold stare.

"What does he want from you?"

"My heart."

Jisung startles so violently he shakes the bathtub. Some more of the water goes splashing over the edge. Hyunjin's heart? He feels uncomfortably warm, all of a sudden.

"Uh, are you two - "

"No, not like that," Hyunjin laughs weakly. He seems amused by the thought of the Witch of the Waste wanting his heart like that , but doesn't elaborate on any other ways he could want it. 

"Who else are you hiding from?," he asks when it seems like Hyunjin is not going to explain his relation to the witch any further.

Hyunjin closes his eyes again and sinks a little lower, so most of his chin and mouth are submerged in water, only the curve of his cupid's bow showing. "I've been asked to see the king. He wants me to fight his wars for him."

He sounds bitter, the same kind of bitterness Jisung felt earlier when he thought about his old life. The sour taste of inevitability. Jisung wonders, suddenly, if Hyunjin has any family.

"And what do you want?"

Hyunjin dives into the water completely, his hair closing in on him like a dark cloud. Jisung counts twelve air bubbles rising and bursting at the surface before Hyunjin reappears, hair swept back from his face. He looks sad.

"Everything but that - I just want to be myself."

-

"I can't believe I'm doing this," Jisung says for the third time. 

"I can," Minho snorts from the fireplace. Jisung glares at him from beneath the rim of his hat. Hyunjin spent a dizzying amount of magic on straightening out Jisung's outfit: his pants and jacket are fitted, their fabric smooth and elegant. He even gave the cane the scarecrow gave Jisung a new silver knob.

"Worthy of me," Hyunjin appraises, satisfied, and Jisung feels warm all over.

"Be careful," Jeongin calls from his seat next to Minho, sounding worried. Jisung turns around at the door to give the young boy his most reassuring smile. His attention is ripped away from how small Jeongin looks by Hyunjin taking his hand in his. 

"For you," he says, slipping a ring adorned with a dark red gemstone onto his right index finger. Jisung allows himself one thought of how ugly his wrinkled hands look next to Hyunjin's elegant ones, and another one of how nice Hyunjin smells, now that all the sad, dark slime has washed off. 

"This will keep you safe," Hyunjin explains. "And I'll also follow you in disguise, so don't worry, okay?"

It's not the king who I'm worried about , Jisung thinks but does not say, and then he's out on the cobbled street of the capital.

-

Jisung is not sure how he's envisioned another encounter with the Witch of the Waste to go, but it certainly wasn't this. 

Staring at the twin puddles of black goo the witch's servants have dissolved into, he takes a cautious step back. The witch, sitting in his now useless palanquin, is seething. 

"This damn witch," he mutters, gritting his teeth. "She's never had any respect!"

Jisung tries to breathe normally, subtly taking another step back. The witch's eyes are sharp and green like shards of broken bottle glass, and having their gaze directed at him seems like something he should avoid. The last time those eyes had met his, he'd been cursed.

"I guess both of us are going to have to climb these stairs," the witch concludes, stepping out of the palanquin. He's intimidatingly tall, black-clad form taking up more room and air than a normal person.

The stairs in question - they're endless. If Jisung squints, he can see two guards flanking the entrance to the castle at the end of it, but just looking up there makes him feel dizzy. The individual stairs look high enough that his old knees hurt from just looking at them. Almost unknowingly, Jisung takes another step back.

And nearly knocks himself out stumbling over an obstacle. Has that dog been there the entire time? Jisung looks down at it questioningly. The dog, a small, stocky thing with shaggy white and brown fur, looks back. 

Jisung crouches down. "Hyunjin?"

The dog just stares at him. Jisung looks over the shoulder and sees that the witch has started climbing the stairs, huffing with every step, and makes a split-second decision. 

"Where do you get all that energy from?," the witch wheezes as Jisung passes him, arms circled firmly around the dog as he stomps his feet on every step. It's heavier than it looks, and Jisung saves his breath instead of giving an answer. I'm eighteen years old, of course I have energy , he thinks and hopes that the witch can somehow hear his thoughts. He should know that, since he's the one who turned Jisung into an old man. 

He makes it up two thirds of the stairs before he has to take a break. His lungs feel like he's sat in the six o'clock train's coal smoke for an hour and the dog seems to weigh a million pounds. 

Don't look down , the dog seems to say. Jisung swallows and very carefully does not look down. He can see the entrance to the castle more clearly now, lined with soldiers in blue and red. He doesn't look back (he can't) but he can hear the witch's laboured breathing, dark presence creeping closer. 

"Next time follow me disguised as a bird," Jisung tells the dog who might be Hyunjin, just in case, and starts his way up the rest of the stairs. 

The reception hall could have fit Jisung's entire house and hat shop, and Howl's castle next to it. The ceilings are so high he feels dizzy again looking up, so he quickly focuses back on the soft tap-tap-tap of the dog's paws hitting the gold floor.

The witch is still breathing hard. It's strange - he looks a lot smaller now, and the outlines of his person are weirdly smudged. It gives Jisung a queasy feeling in his stomach, so he turns away when they both reach a smaller section at the end of the hall, where the witch sinks down onto the single chair deposited in the middle of the room. 

His eyes land on a narrow gold door. The dog is standing in front of it, wagging its tail, looking very much like he wants Jisung to go over there and open the door. 

"Hyunjin," Jisung tries, as quietly as he can. "Come back."

The dog doesn't budge. Jisung steals a glance at the witch, who is now slumped over in his chair. The air around him seems to be vibrating, anticipating something… something big. Something unsettling.

Jisung gulps. "Okay, time to go," he whisper-shouts at the dog and yanks the door open.

-

"Oh, my," the woman in the wheelchair says. "Who do we have here?"

She's dressed in dark red robes, holding a long wooden staff in her right hand. There's a blanket spread across her lap like she gets cold easily, but the glint in her eyes betrays the fragile look.

A shiver runs down Jisung's back. Five seconds ago, he wanted to get as far away as possible from the Witch of the Waste and the strange humming in the air, but now he feels the urge to turn on his heel and go right back. 

"Hello," he manages, stepping closer. "My name is Jisung. Hyu- Howl sends me."

The woman regards him with a distant sort of curiosity. "And why would he send you, when the king has asked for him ?"

Jisung tries to force down the pained blush spreading across his face. This is a good question, one he would like the answer to as well. He asks instead, "who are you?"

The woman smiles. "I'm Suleiman. I'm the creator of all that you see -" Jisung follows her sweeping gesture around the room, from the jungle of plants to the greenhouse glass ceiling, "- and the owner of this one."

She points to something next to Jisung's feet and he looks down, sputtering as the dog huffs and calmly walks over to Suleiman's side. She sinks her long fingers into its fur and smiles. 

"Surprised?"

Jisung is pretty sure his eyes are going to bulge out of his head. Under Suleiman's hands, the dog contorts and expands, until he's transformed into a young boy around Jeongin's age. His hair is cut in a straight line across his forehead and he's wearing a schoolboy's uniform. 

"Seungmin," Suleiman calls gently, patting the boy on the head, "be a dear and bring in the witch."

The boy , no, Seungmin, nods and walks off. He shoots a quick glance at Jisung as he passes him, but it's too fast for Jisung to react. Jisung feels distantly betrayed, for having carried the dog all the way up the stairs. 

"So Howl won't be joining us then?"

Jisung forces himself to look into Suleiman's eyes. He's not that great at lying, but he practiced this with Hyunjin before leaving, with Minho's occasional snarky comment in the background. "No. He's not in town right now, and he won't be for a while."

He clears his throat, careful to keep eye contact. "He won't be joining the king's army."

Suleiman regards him steadily. "I see. It's a shame, he was my best apprentice before he left. He could have been a great heir to my position, to help make this kingdom even greater."

Jisung shifts uncomfortably in his chair. Suleiman keeps going, pinning Jisung down with her stare. "But then he made a pact with a demon and abandoned me. Now he uses his magic for selfish reasons instead of the greater good. And he's out of control. He's dangerous, too powerful for someone with no heart."

Jisung hears the door open behind him, but he doesn't dare to look. He hears footsteps approaching. "If he keeps going," Suleiman says, "he'll end up like the Witch of the Waste."

The footsteps stop. Jisung turns and sees Seungmin and a servant, carrying someone around Jisung's height. The person's hair is the same ashen colour as his face.

"Do you recognize him?"

Jisung furrows his brows, then jumps to his feet. The Witch of the Waste is nothing but a shadow of his former self. His clothes hang loose on his now much smaller frame, and the cold light in his green eyes looks splintered and unfocused. He looks nothing like the witch who put the curse on him. Jisung turns to Suleiman with a lump in his throat.

"What did you do to him?"

Suleiman tilts her head. "Don't you see? I've stripped him of his powers. His demon devoured him whole a long time ago, first his heart and then his soul. Really, I've done him a service - now he's free."

Jisung's heart is beating painfully in his chest as he gets to his feet and raises his chin. "I understand now why Howl didn't want to come here. Why would he give up everything he has to work for you?"

He thinks about Hyunjin's sad eyes when he said that he just wants to be himself. About how Jeongin clings to him, and how his castle is open and warm and full of hidden surprises. About how his fingers felt between his, old and young, and how his words made him feel safe during their first encounter.

"You call him heartless, but he's not. He cares about others and about being happy. Why would you want to take that away from him? And he won't turn into an evil monster. Yes, he can be selfish, but he's also strong. He's not like you, or the Witch of the Waste, he's good !"

He's breathing heavily by the time he's finished. His cheeks are hot and his heart is pulsing in waves, out for everyone to see.

"You may be right," Suleiman says after a pause. "Howl is not heartless. He doesn't have a heart of his own, but he has yours."

It feels like a slap in the face. "What?"

"You love him," she says matter-of-factly. "You love Howl."

The no, I don't is on the tip of Jisung's tongue. It grows in his mouth, until it's too big to spit out, and transforms into I can't love him. My heart is mine, I've worked so hard to keep it. He says neither.

Something tugs at his sleeve. He looks down and sees the Witch of the Waste, or what's left of him, grasping blindly at nothing. "Howl?," he asks, sounding frazzled. "Where is he?"

"Not here," Jisung manages. 

Suleiman laughs drily. "I wouldn't be so sure about that."

The servant who came in with Seungmin earlier takes a step forward and bows. "Ever so perceptive, madam."

"I saw right through you the second you stepped in."

Hyunjin takes off his hat, black locks falling down to his shoulders. Jisung catches a gold-green glimpse of his earrings and feels the tiniest bit reassured through the haze of shock and embarrassment. Did he hear everything Suleiman said about Jisung and his heart? Does he agree? 

"I have no wish to fight," Hyunjin says diplomatically, looping an arm around Jisung's shoulders. "You know my answer. We'll be leaving then."

Suleiman sighs as if she's bored, looking at Hyunjin like he should really know better. "I won't let you."

Her staff knocks on the ground, one, two, three times. Hyunjin's grip on Jisung's shoulder goes painfully tight, and then everything is swallowed by darkness.