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Propriety

Chapter Text

Sophie couldn’t sleep. Again.

It had been this way for several weeks, ever since the whole debacle with the Witch of the Waste and Miss Angorian.

Sophie thought it was silly of Howl to begin their happily ever after by moving the castle back to its initial location in his house in Porthaven and setting Sophie up in her old home in Market Chipping. More than silly since Howl made one of his Castle doors lead to the flower shop, but closed the wall between the shop and market chipping house. Sophie argued that Howl would just have to move the castle back sooner rather than later, for the Market Chipping house was much roomier. But, Howl decided that was the future’s problem and, to Sophie’s dismay insisted on Fanny’s insistence that things remain proper.

“The last thing I need is your family coming round, trying to boss me about in my own home,” Howl told her, ignoring the obvious fact that by acquiescing he was still being bossed by Sophie’s family; not just in his own home but about his own home.

Still, Howl set Sophie up in her new, old home.

Sophie could visit the castle through the flower shop, requiring her to walk past the prying eyes of the customers and gossips in Market Chipping, much to Fanny’s approval. The whole thing was ridiculously absurd and absurdly complicated and Sophie made sure Howl knew it when he took her and Fanny on a tour of the new, old residence. Still, Fanny left, satisfied that her step-daughter’s reputation and virtue would remain intact. She insisted that Sophie not stay in the castle past supper, or else people would start to whisper.

Sophie very nearly reminded Fanny that shenanigans could happen at any time of day and not just after supper, thank you very much, but decided that would cause Fanny to return to her first insistence that Sophie move into the mansion with her and Mr. Smith’s instead. So for once, Sophie kept her mouth shut.

No one bothered to ask Sophie her opinions on propriety or virtue (both of which were rather low) which made her even more cross about the whole situation. Finally free from the witch’s curse and her own personal fears, and Sophie found her life to still be out of her control, this time not ruled by the tenuous forces of destiny but by the restrictions of propriety .

Once Fanny was satisfied and out of their hair, Howl immediately built a secret door between the upstairs of the castle and Sophie’s new, old room.

“It’s the bookcase here,” he said, pressing gently on a dull looking book about deeds and property lines that he thought wouldn’t likely be touched by nosy visitors.

The shelf gave way, pushing in to the upstairs hall of the castle where the empty wall at the end of the hall used to be with Howl’s room to the left and Michael’s room further down.

“You should still make a point to come and go through the shop if you want to keep your family out of your hair, but this way we’re close if you need us. You know, I thought nosiness was a trait that you distinctly perfected, my dear, but it seems to be a genetic condition.”

“Howl, this is all so absurd,” Sophie said, her fingertips pressed to her temples as she peered into the castle from the other side of the bookcase.

“Well, if you’d like to tell Fanny and your sisters that you’ll maintain your residence in the castle then, by all means,” Howl gestured toward the castle meaningfully, looking like the cat that got the cream.

For once in her life, Sophie decided to slither out.

And so, she lived alone in her old room in Market Chipping. She’d never lived alone before, and the quietness of the big, empty house was terrible. Things weren't so bad in the daytime, she worked in the flower shop, studying magic with Howl in between custom. Once they closed for the evening she dined with he and Michael and Calcifer. On nice evenings Howl would take Sophie on an idyllic stroll about town before escorting her home.

But trying to sleep was the worst. Sophie lay awake listening to her own breath, along with every familiar creak and crack of the house. She missed the quiet breathing and warmth of life that came from living with other people.

The tiredness started to affect her. She had difficulty paying attention to Howl’s lessons and often got spells wrong. Instead of turning her daffodils pink they exploded, instead of making the store a bit warmer she started a minor, indoor blizzard. Even doing something simple like conjuring fire nearly set the castle, and Howl ablaze (though Sophie didn’t mind rubbing salve over Howl’s reddened back one bit). By lunch, Sophie was always so bedraggled she’d nap on the couch, only to be awoken by Michael or Calcifer or Howl with some need or want. Help with a spell or courting advice for Michael, new firewood or companionship for Calcifer, and soft kisses or small quarrels for Howl.

Most days Sophie felt dead on her feet but still, she just could not fall asleep in that big, empty house.

She turned to her side and stared at the bookshelf. It felt even worse that Howl never once came to visit her at night. It felt as if he didn’t want to be alone with her. He had no problem waking her up when she was actually comfortably napping on the sofa or in her old bed under the stairs (which he and Michael had not yet bothered to put away. Typical ). But when she lay awake alone and agitated Howl was nowhere to be seen. Leave it to Howl to turn into a gentleman only when it was the most inconvenient.

“Go on house,” Sophie declared, trying a bit of magic. “You’re too quiet to feel lived in, let’s have a bit more noise, shall we?”

Sophie wasn’t sure what she hoped to have happen, which was probably why the spell went a bit wrong. The house obliged her, raising it’s volume quite high. Rather than feeling warm and full like it did when all the Hatters lived there, the old creaks and groans grew louder and louder until they were near deafening. Like angry ghosts clanging about and out for revenge.

“Stop it!” Sophie screamed to the house, covering her ears with her hands. “That is quite enough, I’ll have nothing but quiet from you, house.”

The house went eerily still, which was very nearly worse.

“Bother Fanny and her propriety,” Sophie said to the room, vaguely concerned that she may have picked up her habit of talking to objects again. “I’ve got to get some rest .”

With an indignant fury, she climbed out of bed and threw on her dressing gown. It was still the middle of the night and the moon shone full and bright, illuminating the inside of her little room through the white curtains. Sophie smiled feeling relieved at the thought of having several hours of unperturbed sleep. She might even be able to slip back to her room before the residents of the castle found her.

It took Sophie a minute or so in the dim moonlight to find the special book to push on, as she had rarely found cause to use the secret door, and she had quickly filled the shelves with her own library. Eventually, she found the right spot and the bookcase slowly pushed back with a creak. Once through, she closed the bookcase behind her, revealing another bookcase on the castle side of the wall. Only after the secret doorway shut did Sophie realize she didn’t know how to open it from this side.

Before she could try to figure out the way back, Sophie yawned. The doorway suddenly seemed to be tomorrow’s problem.

Padding down the hallway in bare feet, Sophie stopped in front of Howl’s door, briefly contemplating what he would do if she surprised him. It would be completely unlike her to slither into his room while he slept, which seemed great fun. She smiled, thinking of the stunned expression he would have, hair mussed, stubble growing, bags under his eyes, uneven skin, purely natural Howl. Surprising Howl without his beauty spells seemed almost worth foregoing sleep for. Still, Sophie’s resolve to rest was too strong. She would just have to remember to surprise him another night.

As quietly as possible, Sophie crept down the stairs hoping Calcifer was asleep. If he was awake at all, he left her be as she passed his glowing, blue form smoldering in the fireplace.

Sophie drew back the curtain to her old little room under the staircase, hung her dressing gown on her hook on the wall and tucked herself into her familiar small bed. Listening to Calcifer’s crackling, and Michael’s gentle snoring coming from upstairs, and feeling the warmth and life of their  little home, Sophie drifted off to sleep.

---

Sophie woke to Howl’s voice. She blinked her eyes open, wondering what he was doing in her new, old room. Once her eyes adjusted to the darkness she saw and remembered where she was.

Then she heard Calcifer’s voice, much more clear and distinct now that she was coming out of her drowsiness.

“It’s going to get better,” Calcifer said, unable to hide a slight edge in his voice. “You’ve got to give it time.”

Sophie willed herself to be as quiet as possible, and gently pulled the curtain a few inches aside so she could see what was happening. Howl was slumped in the stool in front of the hearth, his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. Calcifer glowed blue and green, hovering in front of Howl, as close as he dared. Howl’s face and hair illuminated in Calcifer’s blue-green light.

“It’s just so - the nighttime is the worst,” Howl said with a quavering voice.

Sophie thought she saw something glistening drop from his face. A tear?

“You know, as much as I love being woken up for our nightly talks, there’s someone else you could share your feelings with,” Calcifer said, the edge in his voice now turned annoyance.

“Sophie?” Howl said and Sophie almost responded with a gasp, afraid she’d been discovered eavesdropping, until she realized he was talking about her and not to her.

“I can’t go sneaking into her room in the dead of night, unexpected and unannounced like some sort of-”

“Womanizer? Cad? Rake?” Calcifer suggested unhelpfully. “I think she would rather expect that from you. All things considered.”

“Besides, how can I tell her?” Howl continued with a sigh, ignoring Calcifer’s “help.” He lifted his face and Sophie could see the wet streak of tears glistening on his cheeks under Calcifer’s lights. Without his beauty spells he looked just as Sophie had remembered when he came to her rescue at the Witch’s castle, stubble, red-rimmed eyes, and all.

“You know very well that you should be more open with her. Especially if you intend to marry-”

Sophie sat up. Her mouth fell agape and her heart leapt to her throat. She knew Howl wanted a happily ever after with her, but the discussion of marriage hadn't yet come up between them. Or was that what he meant by happily ever after? Was that the closest Howl could come to being pinned down?

“What do you suppose she’ll think if I tell her how desperately alone I feel since she put my heart back?” Howl interrupted.

“For reasons I can’t understand, Sophie loves you, you old fool.” Calcifer said, chidingly. “You can open up to her.”

“Calcifer, she’ll think I don’t love her!” Howl moaned, pressing his head back into his hands.

“Do you really think so little of me not to understand?” Sophie asked with a grave indignance. She folded her arms across her chest.

“Sophie?” Howl startled, sitting bolt upright.

“Finally, I can get some proper rest,” Calcifer said with an exaggerated sigh.

“What are you doing here?” Howl asked, stunned still on his stool.

“I can’t sleep in that lonely, old house,” Sophie said.

“Look, what I said-” Howl started but Sophie cut him off.

“You spent years bound to Calcifer always feeling him with you, even when you were apart from each other. As much of a relief as your separation was, I can imagine it feels like a great loss and quite lonesome. Do you really think I’m such a shrew that I wouldn’t understand that?”

“No, Sophie, no,” Howl rushed to the edge of the bed and took her hand in his. His eyes glistened like emeralds behind his tears.

“But really, woman. Does your long nose know no end?”

“What!?” Sophie’s eyes widened.

“To sneak down here and listen in on my private conversations, I mean honestly, woman. Though I shouldn’t be surprised knowing you as I do.” Howl squeezed Sophie’s hand.  

“Oh, you silly man,” Sophie said softly, deciding Howl needed a win. A smile forming on the corner of her lips.

Realizing she didn’t have a handkerchief on hand, she lifted the edge of her nightgown and dabbed the tears from Howl’s face. She pretended not to notice him noticing her exposed legs and the form of her body under the thin fabric of her nightgown.

“I suppose we’re both having problems adjusting to our new life,” Sophie said, carefully smoothing down Howl’s blond hair.

“You look so tired,” Howl said, finally taking in her weary face.

“You’re just noticing that? Self-absorbed peacock,” Sophie said tenderly.

She slid her hands to either side of Howl’s face, feeling the scratchy tickle of his beard stubble. She leaned forward and touched her lips to Howl’s in a chaste kiss.

“I love you, Mr. peacock.”

“I love you, Mrs. Nose.”

“We should both get some sleep,” Sophie said.

“Can I stay here with you? Just for a little while?” Howl asked.

This gave Sophie pause as she had never seen Howl so… vulnerable. Even the day that Howl had a cold and Sophie saw him cry - this seemed so different. Without pretense or suspicion he was here before her, raw and open.

Lost for words, Sophie nodded and pulled Howl down into the bed with her. He lay next to her with his head nuzzled under her neck and one arm wrapped around her waist. His body weighed comfortably heavy against hers and the warmth of him caused Sophie’s face to flush and her body to tingle.

After a few, quiet moments, Howl’s breathing grew louder, more rapid and uneven while his broad shoulders shook. She felt his warm tears wetten her chest and her nightgown pulled at her waist where Howl grasped the fabric in a white-knuckled fist. As Howl silently cried, Sophie brushed her fingers through his fair hair, humming the saucepan song into the top of his head.

Sophie lost track of time, holding Howl to her chest. But eventually, the two drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Sophie woke up early with the sun, as usual, and found herself more refreshed than she’d been in some time. It was a marvel what a few hours of uninterrupted sleep could do for a person, and she decided she would no longer sleep in her new, old room in Market Chipping. This little bed under the stairs was hers, and here she would remain.

And it seemed she would remain well into the morning, for Sophie found herself pinned under a sleeping wizard.

At some point in the night, Howl’s leg had entwined with hers, and her nightgown rode up above her knees, which caused some unfamiliar feelings to stir inside of her. Her chest still felt wet, which was odd since Howl’s tears should have dried in the night. Very carefully, Sophie touched the spot and realized it was probably drool.

“Lovely,” she said in a sarcastic whisper, wiping her hand on the sheets.

The castle was quiet and still, save for Howl’s heavy breathing.

Sophie looked down at the wizard. He looked innocent in his sleep - almost sweet. Nothing like the vain cad she knew him to be.

It was amazing what keeping ones mouth shut could do to a person, Sophie thought, metaphorically if course, considering the drool.

Feeling a sudden swell of affection in the face of a vulnerable Howl, Sophie couldn’t help herself from running her hand through his silken hair. She slid her fingers down his scalp to the back of his neck where his skin was warm and electric under her touch. She fanned out her fingers like spiders legs and ventured down under the collar of his sleep shirt, brushing the space on his back between his shoulder blades. Inhaling deeply, she took in the sweet, earthy scent that was naturally Howl, without spells and potions and perfumes.

Sophie so enjoyed this quiet moment with her love in her arms, getting to explore the feel and smell of him unperturbed.

“Mm, that feels nice,” Howl mumbled after a time, interrupting Sophie’s bliss. His voice was deep and husky from sleep, and rumbled in Sophie’s chest, awakening something between her thighs.

Sophie startled, not expecting him to wake so easily or early. She pulled her hand away from his back.

“No, don’t stop,” Howl complained, tightening his grip on Sophie’s waist. “That was the nicest way I’ve ever woken up.”

“How are you feeling?” Sophie asked, replacing her hand between Howl’s shoulder blades. She almost didn’t out of spite, but the need to feel the warmth of his skin against hers took over. As did the fluttering of her heart.

“Very well rested, I should say,” Howl said, as if he hadn’t once cried a day in his life. A sly smile spread across his face. “But that's to be expected with such excellent company.”

He stretched forward to give Sophie a long and tender good morning kiss. When it was over, Howl’s lips lingered by Sophie’s, his eyes half closed. The beautiful stillness of the morning, and being in bed with Howl made Sophie feel hot and her heartbeat quicken. Their noses touched before Howl kissed her again, this time slipping his tongue between her already parted lips. As Howl’s tongue slid across Sophie’s, her breath quickened and warmth spread between her legs. The kiss deepened and deepend and Sophie felt the pull on her nightgown as Howl grasped the thin fabric in his hand. Sophie wanted him to rip the thing right off of her.

Sophie tangled her fingers in Howl’s hair with one hand and ventured to slide the other further down his back, as far as she could reach. She’d never had such close contact with a man before; it was exhilarating.

They kissed like that, tangled up in each other, Sophie's hand exploring the vast expanse of Howl's back while Howl's fingers roamed up and down Sophie's side, pulling at her nightgown fabric and grazing the side of her breast. When a small,  grunt-like moan escaped from Sophie Howl drew back, sliding his fingers to rest delicately on her stomach. His cheeks and lips were much redder than before.

“We should stop,” he panted, and hesitantly heaved himself further away from her, until he lay on his back sighing heavily.

Of course he’d try to be a gentleman at the most inopportune time.

Sophie sat up on her elbow, covered Howl's rapidly beating heart with her hand and searched his face for an explanation. He reached up and tucked strands of red gold hair behind Sophie’s ears.

“We should wait until things are proper-” Howl started to say.

“Bother proper,” Sophie accidentally huffed.

Howl’s eyes widened in surprise before he broke out in a hearty laugh.

“Sophie Hatter,” he said, amused, “are you trying to take advantage of me?”

Sophie scrunched her face at him.

“You’re the cad,” she said with little conviction. “If anyone’s taking advantage it’s you.”

Howl languidly took Sophie’s free hand and brought her wrist to his lips.

“I could never outmatch your bossiness. You’re far too headstrong for that, my dear, insatiable girl,” he said, flashing his most seductive grin. Still, his voice quavered as he spoke, making him seem much more nervous than he let on.

“And yet for all my bossiness I can't seem to pin you down to anything,” Sophie chuckled. She absently slid her hand across his chest and fiddled with his shirt buttons.

“Only that I intend to marry you before the month is out.”

Sophie paused, a pearl button pinched between her thumb and forefinger. There was only a week and a half before the end of the month. She flicked her eyes toward Howl, certain he was making fun. But his face was earnestly serious.

“Is that a proposal?” Sophie asked.

“I thought ‘happily ever after’ was quite explicit,” Howl said, and covered Sophie’s hand in his.

“Clearly it wasn’t. I don’t want this out of obligation,” Sophie said, her voice gone flat though her sex still warmed between her thighs.

“My only obligation is to my own heart which truly belongs to you,” he said, squeezing her hand.

“You needn’t be so saccharine,” Sophie said, but smiled despite herself.

“Well anyway, a week and a half isn’t such a long to wait to make love.”

Sophie scoffed.

“You think I don’t know my own business that I can’t decide when I want to make love to the man I love?” She said, annoyed to be bothered yet again by propriety .  

Howl raised his eyebrows and peered out from the curtain that separated the area under the stairs from the rest of the room. When he was certain Calcifer and Michael were nowhere to be seen, he turned back, burying his fingers in her hair.

“Well, we do seem to be alone, my dear. But… you’re really certain?”

Sophie bit her lip and looked away, suddenly feeling a bit silly.

“If you really don’t want to-” she began.

“No! No, no. I do. Very much I do.”

“Why are you acting as if you don't?”

“Sophie, in Ingary- things are so much different here than Wales. If you felt regret over me- I couldn't-” but Howl's words choked off. He turned his head away and Sophie heard him swallow hard

“Howl, how could I ever regret you? I love you wholly and completely.” Sophie stroked Howl's cheek.

Howl closed his eyes and exhaled, leaning into her touch. A small smile curled in the corners of his mouth.

“Thank you, cariad.”

Sophie bent down and touched her lips to his. She resumed fidgeting with the buttons on Howl’s shirt, opening the first two and revealing his defined collarbone and a hint of his smooth chest. As she gazed down at her love, she saw his expression painted with earnesty and eagerness tinged by fear. This was one of Howl’s few moments of honesty, moments he always managed to save just for her.

“Have you ever felt regret?” Sophie asked, trying to take advantage of Howl’s sudden burst of truthfulness, but too abashed to speak frankly.

Howl furrowed his brow, a look of puzzlement flashing across his face before turning to open-eyed realization. And… was that a blush Sophie saw rise to Horrible Howl’s cheeks?

“Ah, well-” Howl cleared his throat. He twirled a lock of her hair around his finger. “I’ve never-er-had cause to.”

Now it was Sophie’s turn for confusion-turned-surprise.

“You mean of all the women you’ve courted across Wales and Ingary? Not once?”

“It’s not that I can’t,” Howl looked away.

“Of course,” Sophie said, suddenly focused in the two extra buttons she’d managed to unfasten. She let her hand slip under the silk shirt fabric, of course it would be silk , and began drawing delicate circles on Howl’s broad chest. His breath hitched in response.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a bit of fun in my day with some of the most beautiful-” but Howl cut off that line of thinking when he saw the angry look Sophie gave him. “-but it felt wrong to take things so far. I wanted to be properly in love.”

“Oh, I see.” Sophie scrunched her oval face in consternation and leaned back, regretfully pulling her hand away from Howl.

“What?”

“You aren’t sure you’re in love with me, then? You want to wait to be certain?”

Howl let out a groan.

“Did I not just declare I intend to marry you as soon as possible? Did I not admit you rule my heart completely? A heart which I worked rather hard at repossessing, I might add.”

Sophie snorted. Typical that Howl would take all the credit for her deeds.

“Hard work indeed!” She said laughingly.

“You make honesty a brutally infuriating task, Sophie Hatter,” he complained with a wry smile.

“Someone has to keep you in line around here,” Sophie grinned.

“You are the only one who could,” Howl said, pulling her down to him for a kiss.

Sophie squeaked as she went down, her mouth crashing into Howl’s, his lips and tongue greeting hers with an awkward fury. She slid her hand across the expanse of Howl's chest, feeling the smooth, toned plane before her as her tongue slid round his. The heat of her sex now throbbed with desire and she pressed her body close against him.

“I do love you, Cariad,” Howl breathed into her mouth with a husky voice. His eyes were closed and his face looked serene. “Completely and truly-”

Sophie cut him off with another deep kiss.

Howl’s hand wandered across Sophie's body, careening up and down her back, inching closer and closer downward with each pass before finally resting on the curve of her bottom. Sophie’s breath hitched when Howl gave her a little squeeze and she let out a small, pleased cry.

Howl grinned into Sophie’s mouth.

“I rather like the sound of that,” he said with a deep chuckle.

“You talk too much,” Sophie gasped in reply.

Howl gave her rear another strong squeeze, which elicited an equally strong squeak from Sophie.

Their lips met again and Howl’s hand rubbed in circles over Sophie’s behind, squeezing at intervals. His other hand slipped from her hair and down to her neck, gingerly fingering the lace-trimmed placket of her nightgown. She ached for him to continue to explore, but he stayed in the safe space between her neck and breast.

Sophie broke from Howl’s mouth and trailed encouraging kisses down his jaw, feeling the tickle of his dark stubble against her sensitive lips, then down to the crook in his neck. This time Howl let out a groan that vibrated in Sophie’s bones.

Howl slid his right hand back up to Sophie’s hair, clutching a fistful of long tangles in a tender pull. She loved the sound of his rapid, unsteady breathing, and slid her hand over Howl's heart again. She smirked proudly into his neck, feeling it pound like a wild drum.

After receiving another firm squeeze on her rear, there felt to be too much fabric between them. Sophie sat up and, with trembling hands fervently fussed with the buttons on her own nightgown. Why were buttons suddenly so damned difficult?

“Sophie,” Howl whispered, covering her hands with his.

He sat up with her and his green eyes were soft and warm and inviting. He pulled both her hands to his chest, delicately guiding her to slide his open, white shirt off of his back. His skin felt as soft as his silk shirt.

Sophie flicked her eyes across Howl’s broad chest and unconsciously licked her lips. It was Howl’s turn to smirk. While Sophie explored the soft expanse of Howl's skin with her fingertips, Howl unfastened the buttons on her nightgown with an agonizing slowness. As if he was savoring every centimeter of her newly exposed skin.

Howl slid his fingers down the trim of her nightgown, grazing her breasts with his knuckles and causing Sophie’s stomach to leap into her chest and her sex to wetten. Her breathing trembled with an anxious desire for him. His lips found hers as he unfastened the final buttons around her navel, and gently traced the curve of her breast with his fingertips, using the slightest pressure. Trails of tickled pleasure lingered across her chest wherever he touched her. Howl caught Sophie's hard nipple between two fingers which sent a sharp tingling shooting through her body like lightning, running up to her ears and convening down at her sex.

“Howl!” Sophie gasped.

He groaned with pleasure, hearing his name in this way.

As if he was unveiling something sacred, Howl carefully slid Sophie’s nightgown off her shoulders and down until her torso was completely nude. He leaned back to admire the nakedness of her chest. Sophie blushed and warmed under Howl's appreciative gaze.

“Stunning,” he whispered, his eyes roving up and down her body.

Suddenly and uncharacteristically, Howl was lost for words.

With a renewed vigor, Howl clasped his hands over Sophie’s plump breasts, massaging them roughly. He greedily buried his face into the crook of her neck and she felt the scrape of teeth as he bit and nipped at her skin. As Howl delicately pinched and twisted her nipples, Sophie's face flushed and the her wet sex throbbed intensely until it was nearly unbearable. Sophie dug her fingers into the muscles of Howl's shoulders and moaned again and again, louder and louder and louder unable to contain herself. She felt like a champagne bottle about to come uncorked.

“Sophie!?” Exclaimed a panicked voice that wasn't Howl.

Sophie snapped her head up just in time to see Michael pull back her privacy curtain. His face transformed from fear to horror when he took in the scene. Then, upon hearing Sophie's surprised gasp and catching sight of her bare shoulders peeking over Howl’s naked torso, he clamped his hands over his eyes. Sophie released her grip on Howl and fruitlessly tried to cover her nakedness with her arms. To the relief of everyone present, Howl had the presence of mind to keep himself firmly between Sophie and Michael, blocking the boy’s view from any parts of Sophie that she'd rather keep unseen. He had a difficult time, however, in containing his laughter when he discovered that Sophie's entire body turned red when she was embarrassed.

“Michael, my boy,” Howl said, turning his head so that Michael saw half of his bedraggled face. He didn’t bother hiding the frustration in his voice. “I dare say you’ve forgotten your manners, coming into a lady's room unannounced and uninvited.”

“I heard Sophie and… I thought she was hurt… I wanted to… Oh! I think I should go,” Michael stammered out

“Capital idea,” Howl grumbled as he pulled Sophie’s nightgown up round her shoulders again and began refastening the buttons and setting her to rights.

Michael backed away blindly and tripped over the stool that sat at the hearth, falling on his rear. His hand fell away from his eyes and he looked about, dazed and trying to get his bearings. He accidentally locked eyes with a terrorized Sophie who, once again, turned a bright crimson and then disappeared against Howl’s chest.

“Right. Well. Bye,” Michael said hastily as he scrambled to his feet and dashed toward the front door.

A thought occurred to Sophie as she heard him turn the colorful knob, and she picked her head up to call out to Michael, “don’t you say a word to Martha!” just before the front door slammed shut.

“Oh, bother,” she cried grimly.

“It’s alright, cariad,” Howl said, kissing Sophie gently on the forehead. “We’ll be married before the month is through.”

Sophie buried her head back into Howl’s chest.

Chapter Text

Sophie was too embarrassed to continue her exploration of Howl. She was late opening the shop anyway. Howl showed Sophie the book on the castle side of the bookcase that would open the secret door to her little room. It was in roughly in the same place that her boring property book sat on her own shelf and this book was equally boring, about sailing knots. As the shelf swung open, Sophie heard knocking coming from the front door down the hall. It was past time to open the flower shop, but she wondered which customer would be so brazen as to come calling. Maybe it was Martha paying a  visit.

Howl quickly kissed Sophie goodbye, and disappeared into the castle, closing the bookshelf behind him.

Sophie sighed, smoothed her hair, and padded down the hall to answer the door, trying her best to appear groggy.

Fanny was on the other side.

“Fanny!” Sophie exclaimed in surprise. “What are you doing in Market Chipping?”

“Sophie!” Fanny cried, ignoring Sophie’s question. “What are you still doing in your nightgown? It’s nearly ten! Are you feeling well?”

Fanny raised a hand to Sophie’s forehead.

“I feel quite perturbed actually,” Sophie grumped.

“Well you look terrible, dear. And you're all flushed and clammy. Lay down,” Fanny commanded, hustling Sophie back down the hall to her bed and closing the door behind her.

Sophie complied, realizing that Fanny thinking she was ill could be a good thing. It might help Sophie slither out of having to answer as to why she was so long answering the door, and why she looked so flush.

There really was a lot to learn from Howl.

“You don’t have a fever,” Fanny said, concernedly. “Is Howl overworking you at that flower shop?”

Sophie nearly snorted at Fanny’s sudden concern for her being overworked.

“No, not at all. Both the boys are a great help. I must be catching something,” Sophie said, trying to make herself sound as pathetic as Howl when he had a cold. “It’s a shame to become sick, really, since we decided to marry before the month was out.”

Sophie hoped that piece of information would lead Fanny toward a different line of questioning. She was tragically right. Fanny’s face went slack with stun before alighting with a frenzied excitement.

“Oh Sophie!” Fanny exclaimed, forgetting herself and imposing a fervent hug upon her step-daughter. “A wedding to the royal wizard! This will be the event of the decade!”

Sophie immediately felt regret as Fanny began making plans out loud - who would attend, inviting the king, the food, the dress, the grandeur. Of course Fanny would have to spend much more time in Market Chipping in order to help make the arrangements.

Howl was right, Sophie thought miserably I don’t think things through.

“Fanny. Fanny dear. I must open the shop!” Sophie was finally able to interrupt.

“Oh you needn’t worry about that,” Fanny said. “Michael’s seeing that it’s well taken care of. He’s the reason I came here, you know? To get to know your sister’s suitor a bit better, but when he said you were still in bed so late in the morning I became concerned for you.”

Sophie exhaled, relieved and guilty by Michael’s discretion.

“Well I’m glad to have him looking after things for me. I really should wash, however. I’m sure I’ll feel much more myself afterward.”

---

The rest of the day passed with a slow agony. When Sophie arrived in the flower shop, neither she nor Michael could look each other in the eye without becoming flustered. After a bit of time he muttered something to her about lunch and working on that spell and he really better be off, to which Sophie nodded and mumbled about him being good and studious and flowers really were her responsibility after all.

Howl arrived shortly after, looking as dazzling as the day she met him with a small basket of food in hand. Sophie thought she'd be embarrassed to see him after their partially naked morning together. Instead she felt a swell of affection rise up in her chest when he came through the back room of the shop.

“Hello cariad,” Howl said, touching the small of Sophie’s back and placing a gentle kiss on her cheek. “I heard you weren’t feeling well this morning, so I brought you lunch.”

The one customer present, an old lady who Sophie saw regularly in the shop, curiously watched the couple’s affections. Did customers always scrutinize Howl and Sophie when they were together?

“My, news travels fast,” Sophie said, suddenly feeling glum.

Now Sophie felt the eyes of the customers boring into her and Howl, as if they knew of her transgressions and were waiting for a single hint of evidence to condemn her.

Bother propriety.

Howl stayed to eat lunch with Sophie, and lingered long past which was another relief to Sophie, seeing as he kept many of the customers away. Normally Sophie found that to be a point of contention, but at the moment she would rather hide from the town. Clearing the shop of busybodies was about the only thing Howl was a help with. Throughout the day he stole kisses and let his hands linger over hers while Sophie worked. It took quite an effort to stay away from Howl while arranging a bouquet of begonias or helping someone pick the best daffodils.

In stretches where the shop was empty Howl tried to teach Sophie magic, scrawling spells and ingredients and special words and symbols on scraps of paper. She found herself very distracted however which led to Howl sulking. When he began his lecture about the dangers of not thinking things through, which he often gave when in a sulking mood, Sophie blurted out what she had told Fanny about the wedding. Howl found it quite amusing, and wasn’t nearly alarmed as Sophie about Fanny’s big plans. But then again, Howl would revel in an opportunity to flaunt himself in front of an admiring crowd, especially a crowd as large as Fanny wanted. And to do so in a very fine suit was probably better than a birthday in Howl’s eyes.

“Well there’s certainly no slithering out of it now,” he laughed.
“You wanted to slither out?” Sophie asked in horror.

“Sophie, no! It was a joke.”

“Well it was a very poor joke.”

And their quarrel lasted until the shop closed. Sophie completely forgot about the prying eyes and curious minds of Market Chipping.

---

Howl and Sophie retreated for supper just as Michael was on his way out the door.

“Seeing Martha, eh?” Howl asked jovially, as if Michael hadn’t seen what he saw this morning.

“Yes, Fanny wants to get to know me better,” Michael said gloomily.

“Well, I’m sure she’ll be too busy talking about our wedding to really give you much scrutiny,” Sophie mumbled.

Michael’s eyes went wide and he suddenly forgot about being too embarrassed to look at Sophie.

“Wedding?” he asked.

“Before the month is through,” Howl said proudly beaming.

“When did this happen?”

“Ah, um,” Sophie stammered.

“Just this morning,” Howl beamed.

Michael balked.

“Yes, well. Congratulations,” Michael said, his face cycling through an array of emotions.

“I haven't had a chance to tell my sisters yet, though I suppose Fanny will  make sure Martha knows,” said Sophie, a bit disappointed.

“There’s always Lettie to tell,” said Howl, sliding his arm around Sophie’s waist.

Sophie stiffened and looked down at her feet.

Michael checked the time with an anxious helplessness.

“Better be off, can’t keep Fanny waiting,” he said hurriedly.

“Yes, of course,” Sophie said.

Michael awkwardly opened the door and took a step out. Before shutting it behind him he looked up the staircase at Howl and Sophie.

“I’ll be home round eleven,” he said to them pointedly.

“Yes, right.” Sophie said awkwardly.

“Eleven,” Michael emphasised.

“Alright, off you go then,” Howl said, cooly gesturing for him to leave.

Michael sighed and closed the door behind him.

Sophie and Howl turned to each other, Howl taking her hands in his.
“Well, Calcifer is nowhere to be seen. Looks like it's just us for Supper. How about I cook for a change?”

Sophie found that quite agreeable.

Howl took the opportunity to let Sophie practice conjuring a fire with magic (while he stood a safe distance away), which she did with some trouble. Conjuring things from nowhere was much different from talking to objects and seemed very complicated. With magic, Howl was a patient tutor, and after very nearly singeing Howl’s precious hair Sophie got the fire going.

Afterwards, Sophie sat in her little chair and watched Howl kneel by the hearth, holding the long-handled pan over the fire. His face and hair were illuminated in warm light which moved and flickered on the strong angles of his face.

“I think dark hair suits you better,” Sophie said, leaning forward on her elbows.

“Yes, but light hair suits my fancy,” Howl grinned.

As much as she tried, Sophie couldn’t find a way to argue with that.

After dinner, Howl took Sophie’s arm, as he did most evenings, and walked Sophie through the flower shop and out for a stroll about Market Chipping. The two were quite a sight - well - Howl was quite a sight, looking regal in his ornate suit and dazzling beauty spells. Although Market Chipping had come to accept H. Jenkins as a permanent fixture, the re-appearance of Sophie Hatter, and the coincidence of her accepting a suitor who owned her family’s former business was quite a subject of gossip for the town. People wondered where she disappeared off to, why she returned so suddenly, what transformed her from a plain, timid girl into a confident beauty. Add to that the wonder of how she and H. Jenkins came to meet. So, as the two strolled through the starlit streets, they turned quite a few heads.

Sophie felt the stares of the curious onlookers tonight more than usual, and walked very deliberately, trying to keep her body far apart from Howl’s, until she decided to slip her hand from his arm all together and put a good foot of distance between them.

“Sophie, what did I do this time?” Howl asked, pressing his palm to the small of her back.

Sophie stiffened under his touch.

“Nothing. It’s not you,” she said, blushing.

“I have a hard time believing that,” Howl said. He tried to draw closer to her but she stepped away from him.

“Howl, people are staring,” Sophie said in a near-whisper, looking about.

“Why wouldn’t they, in the face of such beauty?” Howl said, and Sophie wasn’t sure if he was talking about her or himself.

“It feels like they know,” Sophie hissed.

Howl tilted his head and looked up, trying to puzzle what Sophie meant.

“About us. This morning,” she whispered, now blushing.

Howl stopped walking and took Sophie’s hands in his.

“That’s what this is about?” He asked.

Sophie nodded, biting her lower lip.

Howl was silent for a few, long moments, absentmindedly grazing her knuckles with his thumb.

“How could they know, cariad?” Howl finally said, a sad tinge in his voice.

He pressed his hand to Sophie’s face, stroking her cheek with his thumb. She wanted to lean into his touch but hesitated and then stiffened.

“I don’t know. Maybe Michael…” Sophie said meekly.

“He cares about you too much to make you the subject of tawdry gossip. Besides, after knowing your family I’m convinced that Martha would not tolerate him speaking out of turn about you. You Hatter girls are too strong-minded for that.” Howl smiled at the last bit, feeling prideful about Sophie’s stubborn willpower.

“I suppose you’re right,” Sophie said, unconvinced.

Howl kissed her tenderly on the forehead, to which Sophie closed her eyes and breathed in, feeling quite heavenly under his touch. When they parted, Howl took Sophie by the arm and began to lead her home.

Sophie still felt uneasy.

“I could put an enchantment on the town, if it would make you feel better,” he said after a stretch of silence between them.

“Howl!”

“I mean it. Turn their tongues to worms when they gossip, have their eyes turn to stone if they glance at you with any hint of suspicion, have them believing we’re terrifyingly powerful practitioners of magic. I’ve all sorts of tricks up my marvelous sleeves.”

“You are truly a terror,” Sophie said with humor in her voice.

At Sophie's front door, Howl bowed deeply, and kissed the knuckles of her right hand.

“Until tomorrow, cariad,” he cooed.

Sophie nodded and disappeared into her house.

Chapter Text

Shortly after Howl returned home to the castle and settled in on the sofa with a book, Sophie came in through the secret door with a bundle of sleep clothes in her arms. Howl watched her descend down the stairs and delicately lay her clothes on her little bed.

“Sleeping here again tonight?” he asked with a raised eyebrow, setting his book on a side table.

“I can’t sleep in that lonely old house. It’s so… lifeless. My bed here will do just fine,” Sophie said a bit defensively.

“Well, this is your home as well, you can come and go as you please,” Howl said, moving to his workbench. He licked his thumb and flipping through a book that lay open on the table with some agitation. He turned the pages far too quickly to be reading their contents.

Sophie watched Howl with confusion. His face was screwed up in an odd expression and he muttered something that she couldn’t hear, Slinking to his side, Sophie placed a cautious hand on Howl’s arm and peered over his shoulder.

“What are you looking for?” she asked.

“A spell,” Howl said curtly, pulling his arm away from her.

Sophie frowned. He had been so wonderful on their walk, at dinner, all day really. What changed?

“What kind of spell?”

She hoped to get him talking; a task that was typically quite easy.

“I’ll know it when I see it,” he said, not looking up from the book.

Sophie tried a different tactic.

“You know, your hair looks quite stunning in this light.” She raked her fingers through his hair, but Howl only flinched and stiffened his back in response.

Now Sophie was angry. This man cried in her arms last night and proposed marriage this morning. She wasn’t going to tolerate his tantrums. Not when he proved to be perfectly capable of self-expression.

As Howl lifted his thumb to his tongue again Sophie snatched the cover of the book and slammed it shut, holding her hand firmly over top of it. Finally, Howl looked up at her impatiently.

“I’ll not tolerate your tantrums, Howl Jenkins,” Sophie lectured, putting her free hand on her hip. “Why are you suddenly acting like this?”

“We’ve been too close,” Howl said and took a few steps back from her “We really should keep things proper before the wedding.”

“Where is this coming from?” Baffled, Sophie stared at him. “You know my feelings on that.”

“Sophie, you’re clearly feeling regret from this morning and that's the last thing on Earth that I want.” Howl sounded… sad.

“Howl, no!” Sophie said hastily and a bit too loudly. She lowered her voice and continued. “I only regret that we were interrupted.”

She took a step toward him and he took a step backward in response.

“You say that, but your actions speak differently.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Howl took a deep inhale of breath and looked to the ceiling.

“Sophie, with every touch or kiss you’ve jumped or squirmed away from me like a scared little mouse. You weren't with me on our walk tonight. All your focus was spent on the town gossip. And that's no small feat considering how dazzlingly interesting I am.”

“Howl, you’re not being fair.”

“Fair?” Howl let out a bitter laugh. “How do you think I feel? Spending the day feeling like the woman I love is terrified of me? Of my affection?”

Sophie’s arms slumped to her sides as she felt the now familiar pangs of guilt.

“Howl, since my curse was broken everyone around me has been so concerned with… propriety. Fanny, my sisters, the customers. Even you.” The fight in Sophie left. Her words were small and defeated. “I feel as if I'm under a looking glass. That everything I do is under scrutiny and the whole town knows my business.”

“So let them know!” Howl threw up his arms.

“You don’t understand, Howl! I grew up here. They know me here.” Sophie held out her palms helplessly.

Howl let out an exasperated sigh, and then his whole body softened. He took her outstretched hands in his.

“People are going to talk, Sophie,” he said pleadingly. “Whether we have sex in the middle of Market Square or we never touch each other for the rest of our lives. You can’t stop the gossip.”

“I know that.” Sophie stared down at their hands, the dangling green sleeves of Howl’s suit, his glittering rings.

Howl stepped closer.

“So let them talk,” he said. “You’ll be Sophie Hatter, the good girl turned trollop who ran off with Horrible Howl, eater of hearts.”

Sophie’s laughter surprised her.

“Whether we go to bed together or not, I only want you to be happy,” he said softly.

Howl kissed Sophie’s forehead. His honesty nearly made Sophie angry all over again. Instead she melted under his kiss.

“I do want to go to bed with you,” she said and looked up at him, her face full of yearning.

“Sophie Hatter, you trollop,” Howl teased, his voice low and humming.

Sophie bit her lower lip but couldn't stop her mischievous grin.

Howl slid his hands down to Sophie’s waist and stepped toward her again until their bodies were flush together. Sophie breathed in when she felt his warmth pressed against her and slid her hands up over his shoulders, around his neck. She pulled Howl down for a kiss, perhaps a little too aggressively, for he stumbled forward, pushing her a few steps back against the work table.

Sophie grazed Howl’s bottom lip with her teeth, eliciting a quiet groan from him. Feeling encouraged, she slid her tongue between his lips and felt the now familiar throbbing in her sex when he returned the favor.

Though she was pinned against the table, Howl greedily squeezed his body against hers, slipping his hands around her lower back in a firm hold. Her breath hitched, and then she felt as if she would never breathe again.

Sophie pushed at Howl’s shoulders. He broke the kiss and loosened his grip on her. Stepping back, he searched her face concernedly. Sophie gasped for breath, and held her hand to her heart.

“What's wrong? Are you alright?” Howl asked anxiously, cupping Sophie’s face with one hand.

Sophie nodded.

“I felt… pinned down,” she said lamely, lacking a better phrase.

“Ah, that is one thing I abhor,” Howl said.

In one swift motion he reached down and firmly grasped Sophie by the hips, lifting her off the floor and sat her on top of the workbench. He leaned forward to whisper in Sophie’s ear and she could feel his hot breath on her skin.

“Though I might make an exception for you one day,” he breathed. “Do you wish to continue, Sophie?”

Hearing her beloved whisper her name in her ear sent shivers right down to Sophie's bones.

“Heavens, yes!” She gasped.

Howl smirked and took her earlobe between his teeth.

Sophie heard and felt Howl’s breath amplified, as he nipped and licked her earlobe. Giving a little moan, she grabbed him by the shoulders, digging her fingers into his muscles. Howl made a deep, appreciative rumble, almost like a purr that amplified in Sophie's ear. Inhaling deeply, her senses flooded from the lavender perfumes Howl wore mixed with his natural, sweet, earthy scent.

Giving a tickling pleasure, Howl’s teeth and tongue worked their way down to Sophie's neck. Sophie arched her back to him, but he still seemed too far away. She tried to pull him forward but her damned skirt and petticoat blocked his way.

Howl and Sophie were of the same mind. He slid his hands down to Sophie’s ankles, and delicately gathered the hem of her dress in his palms. Pulling the velvety fabric upward, Howl traced the curve of her legs with his fingers as he went, feeling her thick stockings. Sophie gripped fistfuls of the silk fabric of his suit. Surely she was wrinkling it but Howl didn’t seem to notice or mind.

Instead, Howl focused on Sophie’s exposed drawers, her skirt now bunched around her hips. He smoothed his hands up and down the white, cotton fabric on Sophie’s thighs, the edges of his hips pressed against her knees. Sophie was flushed and felt the throbbing of her sex grow more intense as Howl let one hand stray upward to undo the buttons on the bodice of her dress.

Greedy for more, Sophie slid her hands down across the front of Howl’s torso, taking time to enjoy the smooth topography of his body under the fine silk of his suit, until her fingertips brushed against his hips. Sophie spread her knees apart and pulled at Howl’s belt loops, bringing him close to her until she could feel the bulge in his pants press against her sex, only a few layers of fabric between them. In an involuntary response, Howl trembled and groaned. He leaned forward and kissed Sophie again, deeply.

The muscles in Sophie’s sex pulsated, aching for him to enter her. She pressed herself against Howl, feeling a jolt of pleasure that resonated all the way up to her ears.

Frustrated with the buttons and with an uncharacteristic disregard for fine clothing, Howl ripped open the bodice of Sophie’s dress and did the same with her jump, exposing her bare, freckled chest. He clasped one hand over her breast, alternating between massaging it and pinching her niple. His other hand wrapped around her waist and pulled her further to him. Sophie whimpered, gratified.

As they rocked against each other, the swell of pleasurable sensations made Sophie to feel light headed and she could no longer focus on kissing. Instead she wrapped her arms around Howl and closed her eyes, once again clutching fistfuls of satin suit, her breath rapid and eager. She focused on feeling him, his supple hand against her breast, his strong arm about her waist, his hard arousal pushing at the sensitive nerves of her sex.

Howl moved on from Sophie’s lips, frantically kissing and biting and licking her earlobe again, humming and groaning as he did. Sophie spoke Howl's name over and over. First in whispers, then in moans.

“Sophie,” Howl hummed in her ear, right when she thought she was going to pop. “I want to make love to you.”

“Yes, Howl. Yes,” she gasped, unable to formulate any more words than that.

Howl reached down and fumbled with the buttons on his pants, his hand grazing against her sex sending tingles down to her toes. Impatient, Sophie tried to help Howl free himself from his clothes.

Feeling her hands at his buttons, Howl tried to take care of her drawers. He'd just gotten thumbs under the waistline when-

“Oh come on, now!” Calcifer’s voice complained from the fireplace behind Sophie. “You can’t do that in your own room?”

Sophie flinched and stiffened, this time feeling more annoyed than embarrassed.

“Should I remind you, old friend,” Howl's speech was stilted with frustration, “that every room in this castle is, by rights, my own.”

But Howl's body was already slack with defeat and he busied himself pulling Sophie's jump in place and repairing her torn dress with his magic.

At least I don't have to spend my life doing mending, Sophie thought, a small laugh escaping from her.

“And what's so funny?” Howl asked, his face red and sweaty and twisted up.

Sophie told him her thought. He acted as if he didn't want to laugh but surely couldn't help himself.

“I've been telling you that for months, my dear.” Howl planted a tiny kiss on the tip of Sophie's nose. “It could have saved me several suits and even more headaches if you'd paid me any mind.”

Howl twirled a lock of Sophie's hair between his fingers, wearing a devious grin.

Sophie wrapped her arms around Howl's waist, forgetting about Calcifer’s presence and pulling her love back to her.

“If you hadn't been such a terrible cad I wouldn't have needed to cut your suits!” She teased.

“I'm still here. In the room. Fifteen feet away.” Calcifer said flatly.

“Then go to another room,” Howl said, his voice muffled by the skin on Sophie's neck.

“What a splendid idea. I think I shall Nestle into your wardrobe, Howl. All those fine suits will be a real delicacy,” Calcifer said, the green flames of his hair flickering eagerly.

Sophie erupted in a cackle.

“Don’t even think that way!” Howl warned, snapping his head up from a particularly sensitive spot near Sophie’s clavicle, his eyes full of fire. Then, to Sophie, “and don't you laugh!”

“I'm sure they taste delicious, Calcifer,” Sophie snickered.

There was a knock at the door. Sophie and Howl both startled and looked to each other, then the door.

“Kingsbury,” Calcifer said with a fiery shrug.

Sophie looked back at Howl questioningly, but he also shrugged and shook his head, looking baffled himself. He helped Sophie down from the workbench and motioned for her to stand out of view from the entrance. He stomped down the stairs to the front door, growing rather weary of so many interruptions.

Sophie rushed up the stairs to the second-floor landing. She heard the front door creak open and Howl exclaim “Lettie! What are you doing here?”

Chapter Text

When Sophie heard Howl speak her sister's name she scrambled for the bookshelf. No matter what she thought of propriety, she thought even less of her family meddling further into her and Howl's relationship.

“I was hoping to find Sophie, is she here?” Lettie’s anxious voice drifted up the staircase, punctuated by a sniffle.

“She isn’t,” Howl said as Sophie pushed on the knots book on the shelf. “The weather is dreadful, please come in.”

“No, I think I ought to find Sophie. It's terribly important.”

The Bookshelf opened with a slight creak. Sophie froze.

“Well, I can get you to Market Chipping in an instant,” Howl said.

With all the care she could muster Sophie passed through the doorway to her room and silently slid the bookcase closed. With much less care she rushed to her own bathroom.

Surveying the damage, Sophie used that bad word she learned from Martha. Her hair was mussed while her whole face looked red and flushed and sweaty. Plus she was certain a mark was developing in that one spot on her neck where Howl had spent an awful lot of attention. To bring the look together, Howl had done a rather hasty job magicking her clothes back together. Buttons were out of place and the plackett didn’t quite line up correctly.

While she tried to tame her hair in a hasty braid draped over the mark on her neck, Sophie hazarded a bit of magic on her skin.

“Alright face,” she said to the mirror, “you’ve had your fun but it’s time to lose some of that color. Not too much, I don’t want to look like I’m dead. You too lips, you can’t be all irritated like that in the presence of my family. And I'll not tolerate any welts, you sneaky neck.”

To Sophie’s delight, much of the red vanished from her face, as did the swelling of her lips. Setting her dress right was another matter altogether…

But there came a knocking on the door.

Sophie rushed from the bathroom, searching for her dressing gown when she remembered she’d left it in the castle. She said another unladylike word and decided to just answer the door, hoping Lettie wouldn’t notice her rumpled clothes.

When she opened her front door, Lettie stood there in the clear night of Market Chipping looking completely soaked through. Her eyes were red-rimmed from crying.

“Lettie!” Sophie exclaimed a bit too loudly, trying to sound surprised. “What are you doing here? Why are you all wet?”

“It’s raining in Kingsbury,” Lettie said.

“Kingsbury? You walked all the way to Market Chipping from Kingsbury?”

“No, no,” Lettie said. “I went to the castle hoping to find you, but Howl said you’d gone home already. He let me use the castle to get to Market Chipping.”

“That was very kind of him,” Sophie said softly. “But Lettie, why are you here?”

“Oh it’s awful!” Lettie threw her arms round Sophie’s neck, soaking the front of Sophie’s dress. “My apprenticeship is going terribly.”

“You’d better come inside,” Sophie said seriously, ushering her sister through the doorway. “I’ll get you some fresh clothes and you can tell me about it.”

Sophie gave Lettie a yellow dress to change into and Sophie took the opportunity to change into a blue dress that had its placket set on the right way and all its buttons in the right spaces. When both women were changed and dry, Sophie took Lettie to their old kitchen. She tried to start a fire in the stove the way Howl had shown her. Holding out a hand and focusing on the fireplace, she tried to draw from a source within herself, feeling the magic flow through her and picturing ancient words for fire. It was all very silky and mystical and resulted in a little, wimpy puff of smoke. She tried again, resulting in a few fizzling sparks. Stomping her foot, she gave it a go a third time. Flames shot upward in a column, leaving black singes on the ceiling.

“This is shameful,” Sophie huffed. “Stove, I need you to get a fire going so Lettie and I can have some proper tea. So let’s have it, a modest fire I can cook with.”

With a small woosh the stove illuminated with the glow of a gentle fire, much to Lettie’s amazement.

Sophie boiled water and made a pot of tea and sat with her sister at their old kitchen table. Sophie thought Lettie looked very lovely in yellow, though she always looked lovely no matter what she wore.

“Now Lettie dear,” Sophie said, sipping her tea and feeling much more confident. “Tell me what happened.”

“Oh Sophie, I feel like I can’t do anything right! Things were so easy with Mrs. Fairfax; the spells were all recipes and honey, even Martha could do them unsupervised.”

Sophie raised her eyebrows at the little dig.

“Oh you know what I mean. She’s so young and was untrained and uninterested in magic. But here I’ve been studying for nearly a year now and seem to get everything wrong. I even splattered black muck all over the seating room. And do you know what I was trying to do?”

Sophie shook her head.

“Make the room a bit cooler! I ask for a temperate room and end up with a mess that took all the servants and apprentices a week to clean up.”

“And Suliman wouldn’t use his magic to help,” Sophie said flatly.

“No. He thought it would be some kind of lesson,” Lettie said. “I can't fathom what I could possibly learn from making everyone in the house cross with me. He is so cruel about these things.”

“Lettie, is he cruel to you?” Sophie asked dubiously. It didn't seem terribly cruel to have Lettie clean up. Maybe a bit stern but certainly not cruel. She thought maybe Howl ought to apprentice under Suliman for a few weeks if it would teach him cleaning up.

“Not at all, which makes it even worse!” Lettie cried, leaning back in her chair. “He’s so patient with me, helping me try over and over again, and when I make a mess of things I get so frazzled and he just goes silent. Tells me to pack the whole thing up and that I ought to stop for the evening.”

“Lettie, that doesn't seem bad at all,” Sophie said.

“It’s how he says it though! As if I’m his greatest disappointment, just taking up his time and space and resources.”

“He hasn't said all that?" Sophie asked, bristling. "I'll give him a piece of my mind-”

“No, no he hasn't. But he doesn’t have to, I can sense it in his tones and I think maybe he’s right. He gets so cross with me. Just today I was trying an enlarging spell.”

“Oh no.”

“All the right shoes in the house turned wooden. Even the ones being worn.”

A snicker escaped from Sophie.

“It's not funny!” Lettie wailed. “Everyone was so surprised. The apprentice, Jacob, spilled a wind spell all over the foyer as a result. And the cook shattered nearly all the plates and poor Ben-”

Sophie's eyebrow quirked upward.

“-Wizard Suliman,” Lettie corrected herself, “he tripped down the stairs, a right stack of books in hand. Banged his head and knees and everything but he wouldn't even let me help him with his bruises.”

Lettie buried her face in her hands.

It took a good amount of reassurances to calm Lettie down, though she still seemed to be as glum as ever. And Sophie couldn’t fully understand what Lettie was so glum about. Sophie had mucked up countless spells as she learned and she just kept trying again and again, no matter how cross Howl got. That was just part of learning.

Sophie suggested Lettie sleep here tonight, since it was too late to send her walking back through a rainy Kingsbury. Things would probably seem more clear in the morning.

When Lettie had finally calmed they went to Sophie’s room where Sophie dug through her wardrobe for an extra pair of sleeping clothes. Lettie looked about the old room curiously as if she had never seen it before.

“It’s rather silly that Fanny is keeping such a sharp eye on you and Howl,” she said absently, examining the familiar, old furniture. “It seems like you two have gone through an awful lot of trouble to stop living together.”

“Yes, well, you know how Fanny gets,” Sophie said, glad to have at least one clean nightgown for her sister. Sophie would have to wear a used one for the evening. “I’m rather surprised she isn’t more concerned about you living so far away with Wizard Suliman and no nosy sisters to look after you.”

“Well, he has such a big house in Kingsbury, and it’s so full of people,” Lettie said, now looking at Sophie’s collection of books. “Plus, he has that old housekeeper, Mrs. Rogers. My room is just past hers, and she’s a dreadfully light sleeper and renowned busybody. Anyway, Ben isn’t interested in me in that way. What’s this?”

“Hmm?”

“Sophie, when did you become interested in real estate- oh!”

Lettie slid her finger down the spine of the secret book. In response the bookcase creaked open a crack, Sophie whipped her head up, dropping the bundle of clothes to the floor. She dashed over to the shelf but it was too late.

With her mouth open in a giddy shock, Lettie pushed the bookshelf open a bit more, revealing the top hallway of the castle. They both could hear Howl’s muffled speech coming from downstairs, followed by Calcifer, then a cross-sounding Michael.

“Sophie!” Lettie gasped.

Shushing her sister, Sophie pulled the bookcase shut. Her skin spells faded as her anxiety grew and the flush of red embarrassment rose to her face.

“You sly girl!” Lettie said, delighted. “I knew this living arrangement was wrapped up a bit too tidy.”

“Lettie, really!” Sophie folded her arms.

“Of course you were never one to argue with Fanny but I was surprised that Howl went to all that trouble to appease her. He must really love you to put up with all this.”

“Well of course he loves me.” Sophie threw up her arms.

“I’m sorry Sophie, I just find myself surprised by you two. The Howl I know is a hapless, hollow flirt.”

“You don’t know him like I do,” Sophie grumbled.

“And from what I gather from what Ben- Wizard Suliman says, Howl is quite the rake.”

“I don’t put much stock in cheap gossip,” Sophie snapped.

Lettie flinched.

“I’m sorry. That was out of turn. You two have been through a lot together. As long as you’re happy,” Lettie said.

“I am,” Sophie was stern, still very angry with Lettie.

“And I see this sneaky door is working well, considering the welt growing on your neck,” Lettie leaned in closer. “Or should I call it something different?”

Sophie touched the spot on her neck where Howl had focused a delightful amount of attention earlier. The skin felt hot under her fingers. She let out an indecipherable, frustrated cry and plopped down on the bed. Lettie perched next to her, placing her hand over her Sophie’s.

“It’s alright, I won’t tell anyone,” Lettie said. “I think all this propriety stuff is bunk anyway.”

“Thank you,” Sophie said, glumly.

“So,” Lettie said expectantly, drawing out the word.

“What?” Sophie looked up, confused.

“How was it?”

“It…”

“Sophie, don’t play dumb with me now. How was Howl? Well practiced I assume.”

“Lettie!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But as the eldest sister you’re under an obligation to tell me all the tawdry details.”

“Well, there’s not really anything to tell.” Sophie looked down at the beaded green shoes.

Lettie’s face dropped. “It wasn’t good? Did it hurt?”

“No, I mean… we haven’t-”

“You don’t expect me to believe that? All the evidence is here Sophie, I’m not condemning you and I swear my lips are sealed.”

“You don’t understand,” Sophie said. “We tried. Twice. But it hasn't happened; we keep getting interrupted. Walked in on,” Sophie felt guilty mortification all over again.

“You mean people find it appropriate to walk into Howl’s room unannounced? I would have a word or two for them.”

“Er- we haven’t tried it in his room.”

“You mean you’ve got folks coming in and out of your home ? While you’re living here alone?” Lettie looked toward the door, horrified.

“Not exactly.”

The clock on top of Sophie’s dresser ticked away for what felt like eternity.

“Sophie!” Lettie said, aghast realization falling upon her like a thick blanket.

“Oh Lettie!” Sophie buried her face in her hands, mortified.

“Well, you certainly aren’t the timid hat shop girl you used to be,” Lettie laughed. “But I think you two ought to try it behind closed doors the next time.”

“It doesn’t much matter. We’ll be married by the end of the month, I might as well wait for things to be proper .” Sophie spit out the last word.

“Sophie, a wedding? How delightful!”

Lettie and Sophie spent a good deal of time discussing Howl’s proposal and Sophie’s slip up to Fanny which solidified the whole thing and gave her stepmother a reason to stay in Market Chipping. It was nearly midnight when the two finally went off to their separate rooms to sleep.

Chapter Text

Sophie felt much more at ease with Lettie in the house, though she was still restless. Staring at her gauze curtains illuminated blue in the moonlight, she turned Lettie’s problem with Wizard Suliman over and over in her mind. It seemed to Sophie that Lettie wasn't actually worried about her spell mishaps but also wasn't able to admit to herself what really troubled her.

Before Sophie could collect the pieces together, she heard the creaky sliding of her bookshelf. Faint, warm light spilled into the room from the castle and Howl's broad silhouette appeared in the doorway.

“Oh good, you're awake,” Howl said casually. He strode through, closing the shelf behind him.

“Howl? Don’t be so loud, Lettie is in the next room,” Sophie chided, sitting up.

“I'm surprised she hasn't discovered our little secret by now,” Howl whispered as he perched on the edge of the bed.

“Oh. Well. She has,” mumbled Sophie.

“Ah. You Hatters ought to form a busybodies club,” said Howl, pleased with himself.

“What do you need?” Sophie asked, annoyed.

Howl took Sophie's hands in his, grazing his thumbs across her knuckles. He kept his focus down on her delicate hands. His pale hair nearly glistened in the diffused moonlight and his face looked almost ethereal.

Silly beauty spells, Sophie thought.

“I wanted to check in on you,” he said unconvincingly.

“Oh, did you?”

“I know you don't like sleeping in this lonely old house,” Howl told Sophie's hands.

"Lettie’s here, it's not so bad,” said Sophie.

“Right. Well I'll let you sleep then.” Howl sounded wounded. He leaned forward to kiss her forehead and Sophie saw that his eyes glistened. Was he on the verge of crying again?

Sophie swallowed her guilt, realizing too late what Howl was getting at.

“It's cold,” she blurted out accusingly.

Howl cocked his head to the side. Sophie felt foolish since it was still autumn and actually quite comfortable in the house. But she maintained her position.

“This old house. Too big and drafty and I can't stay warm at all. I wish you had at least fixed that before putting me here to live. But you were undoubtedly too busy fussing over all those garish, new suits of yours.”

“I was busy making your bossy family happy. But if you're so determined to blame me for your misery I suppose I could conjure you a fire,” Howl said sounding very put out in spite of his smile.

“And you say I don't think things through,” Sophie grinned. “There's nowhere for a fire in my room. You'll just have to stay a bit and keep me warm. It's the least you could do since you put me in this mess.”

Howl's breathed out his relief.

“Yes, I think I'm quite capable of that,” he admitted, climbing into the bed. Then added, “but this mess is the distinct handiwork of a Hatter. Several Hatters in fact. And I won't have you disparaging my clothes. Though I suppose you'd rather see me attend to the king in rags the way you so cruelly destroy my suits.”

“No husband of mine will go gadding about in a charmed suit. And if you think otherwise then you might as well turn right back round into that castle,” Sophie said warmly, adjusting her blanket to cover the both of them.

“If only I could work a charm on you to be less cruel,” Howl grumbled and wrapped himself round Sophie, laying his head on her breast and a hand on her stomach.

She felt his warmth all over her and her heart flew into her throat. She draped one hand over his and brushed the other through Howl's hair. The evening was still and the streets outside were silent, save for the occasional chirping of a cricket in a hedge.

“Thank you, cariad,” Howl whispered in the quiet of the evening.

Sophie kissed the top of his head.

There were no tears that night.

---

Sophie woke early. The sky outside was tinged dark blue; a precursor to the rising sun. Howl clutched Sophie tightly in his sleep as if she was at risk of floating away. He breathed heavily, on the verge of snoring and looked soft and peaceful. Unexpectedly, Sophie realized that Howl’s hard arousal was pressed against her leg.

Surprised and intrigued, Sophie contemplated what to do with this discovery. She very much wanted to familiarize herself with that part of Howl; thinking about it made her feel her own warm tingles of arousal. On the other hand her sister was just in the room next door, though she knew Lettie was a heavy sleeper with a penchant for dozing late into the morning…

Perhaps it was her own, unsatisfied desire that ruled her judgement, but Sophie decided that in the stillness of the morning and the privacy of her own room, she and Howl ought to let their bodies become better acquainted with each other.

With a devious smirk Sophie whispered to the door of her room, “you stay locked until I unlock you. And you walls don’t let any sound get out until Howl and I are finished here.”

Sophie was rather pleased with herself for thinking that through. But now how to wake a sleeping wizard?

Sophie stroked the morning stubble on Howl's cheek. She rather liked the rough feeling under her fingers, as well as the tickle of it elsewhere on her body. Maybe he would grow a beard for her.

That's quite unlikely, she thought.

Howl stirred under her touch but did not waken.

Sophie sighed a bit exaggerated and dreamily.

Nothing.

She sighed again and tenderly rubbed Howl’s earlobe between her thumb and forefinger, feeling the metal of his earring poke at her skin.

Nothing again.

Sophie tugged on the earring to no avail.

“Damn this man,” she muttered and pinched his earlobe. Hard.

“Ow, why?” Howl complained, groggily waking.

“Oh you’re awake,” Sophie said, feigning innocence.

“In the most cruel manner, though I should expect no less from you,” Howl complained and re-closed his eyes. He nestled his head back into Sophie’s chest.

At least he was up.

Sophie wasn’t sure how to proceed since Howl had typically initiated the physical aspects of their relationship. Sophie continued to play with his earlobe, feeling his arousal stiffen a bit more against her leg. He sighed deeply. She took her other hand and splayed her fingers under Howl’s shirt collar and down his back, which seemed to work the previous morning.

“Sophie dear,” Howl said suspiciously.

“Hmm?”

“If I didn’t know any better I’d suspect you were trying to seduce me.”

“Oh? Do you know better?”

Howl tilted his head up to face her looking quite mischievous, his chin resting on her chest.

“Lucky for you, I am easily seduced,” he said with a sly grin.

“Yes, the proof of that is pressed against my leg,” said Sophie.

“I must have been dreaming of you,” Howl leered.

“Don't try your lines on me, Howl Jenkins. I'm not naïve enough to fall for your shallow flattery.” Sophie grinned and twirled a bit of Howl's hair around her finger.

“I find that to be agonizingly true. I suppose I have no choice but to be direct with you, my dear,” he said, creeping his hand up Sophie’s body and taking his time to feel every inch of her through her nightgown. He lingered over her breasts. “But I'm wounded that you think me shallow.”

“Only your flattery,” Sophie said with uneven breath. Then added, “and your vanity.”

Howl chuckled and fidgeted with the cords that held the neck of her nightgown shut. He covered her neck and shoulder and collarbone in soft kisses, which turned quickly into eager nips and bites while he raked his hot tongue across her skin.

Sophie carefully unbuttoned Howl’s shirt, slipping it off his shoulders and exploring the expanse of his broad back. She dug her fingertips into his tight muscles, then spread them out in small massages, feeling his soft skin slide under her touch.

Finished loosening Sophie’s nightgown, Howl tugged the thin fabric down until her chest was bare. She shivered at the contact of dawn's air on her skin.

“Still cold are we? I must work harder to warm you,” Howl said.

He positioned himself above Sophie, resting his weight on his elbows and sliding one knee between her legs. He trailed his kisses downward, reaching Sophie’s breasts. Sinking his head between her cleavage, Howl groaned and grabbed Sophie’s shoulders tightly. His stubble tickled the sensitive skin of her chest. Howl kissed and licked his way round Sophie’s breast, murmuring things like “supple” and “perfection.”

Sophie gasped when Howl rolled his tongue in a circle round her taut nipple. His mouth was hot and wet and his flicking tongue sent a sharp sensation from Sophie’s peak directly to her sex. With one hand she curled her fingers into his hair and pushed his head closer to her. Howl grunted and, taking her cue, caught her nipple between his teeth, gently pulling and then releasing. Sophie’s breath turned ragged and her sex throbbed, aching for more of Howl.

With excited trepidation, Sophie skirted her hand down Howl’s chest and across his stomach, feeling his muscles flinch under her delicate touch. Sophie trailed two fingers across the waistline of Howl’s silk sleep pants, tickling the skin of his abdomen.

Encouraged, Howl left the peaks of her breasts to kiss Sophie’s lips. It was an urgent kiss tinged with frenzy, and Sophie kissed him back with equal vigor, whirling her tongue round his. Her naked nipples brushed across Howl’s bare chest creating jolts of pleasure that elicited a moan from her.

Screwing up all her courage and driven by desire, Sophie slid her hand down further, feeling Howl’s hard arousal through his satin pants. Howl abruptly broke the kiss and with a gasp and said something in Welsh that Sophie couldn’t understand but truly enjoyed hearing. Biting her lip, Sophie slowly rubbed her hand up and down on Howl’s thick erection, sliding easily across the silk fabric. Howl’s breath caught in his throat and he seemed to hold it for a moment before exhaling quite unsteadily. He pressed his forehead to hers, his pale hair dropping around Sophie’s head like a curtain, and closed his eyes. She breathed in his natural, sweet, earthy scent and felt Howl’s muscles twinge against her body. His breathing was hard and uneven, punctuated by small gasps each time Sophie reached the tip of his arousal. He squeezed her shoulders so tightly she thought they might bruise but Sophie didn’t care. She wanted as much connection with her love as possible.

Seeing and feeling Howl’s ecstasy further stirred Sophie's arousal. She felt wet and hot and throbbing.

“Howl-”

She was going to ask for more of him but Howl caught her words in a furious kiss. As if reading her mind he slid his hand down her body. He brushed across the fabric that covered Sophie’s mound and her whole body quivered at his light touch. Howl pulled away from the kiss to gaze down at Sophie. Though the small muscles around his eyes strained from the pleasure of Sophie’s nimble hand, Howl lovingly studied her face while he bunched the skirt of her nightgown higher and higher, sliding up her calves, above her knees, past her thighs. Sophie continued to stroke Howl with slow, even movement, feeling him swell in her palm. With her free hand she reached up and cupped his stubbly face, running her thumb across his swollen lips. Howl pressed the tiniest of kisses to the pad of her thumb, his deep, green eyes gazing lovingly into hers.

“I love you,” he said, his voice unsteady from the gratification Sophie delivered.

“I love you,” Sophie said, sucking in her breath.

Howl brushed his hand across Sophie’s mound again, this time with no fabric to separate them. Sophie’s muscles flinched at the gentle caress. Slowly and intently, Howl teased her entrance with his finger. Sophie gave a closed-mouth moan and closed her eyes, absorbing the surge of new sensations. Howl slid one finger up and down the folds of her opening, making Sophie wish she could say some things in Welsh. Instead she moaned quiet and whimpering. Her wetness helped Howl glide easily up and down and around her entrance. When he touched her sensitive bud Sophie felt a sudden, deep pleasure that made her whole body twinge.

"Howl!" she cried, a smile involuntarily spread across her face.

Howl grinned and pushed their lips together in an open mouth kiss, swirling his tongue round hers. Then he trailed kisses down her jaw and neck all the way until he found her breast once more. As he sucked and bit at her nipple, Howl swirled his finger in gentle circles around Sophie’s sensitive bud, causing her to feel a new, wonderful, sharp kind of throbbing. He pushed his finger into her bud and gently took her nipple in her teeth in a steady rhythm.

Sophie’s head spun again, feeling as if she might burst at any moment. She slid her hand underneath the waistband of Howl's pants and grasped his full erection causing Howl to groan with delighted surprise. As Sophie moved in rapid strokes up and down his length she desperately grasped a fistful of his hair as if it was the only thing keeping her tethered to this world.

Howl and Sophie breathed rapidly in unison now, Howl grunting at each pull of his hair and stroke across his erection; Sophie whimpering happily while Howl pressed his finger into her bud. Sophie bucked her hips up, pushing her groin harder into Howl's hand, wanting more, more, more.

They both heard the rapid knocking of the front door and froze their frenzied movements. Howl looked up to from Sophie’s breasts questioningly.

“I’m not expecting anyone,” she whispered as if her quietness would make them go away.

“Then there’s no harm in ignoring their call,” said Howl, who returned to placing gentle kisses on Sophie’s nipple. Each kiss resonated down to her sex.

“It might be important,” Sophie breathed but had already resumed her firm movements against Howl’s arousal.

Howl growled in agreement but returned to tickling her sensitive bud faster than before.

But the knocking at the door turned to pounding. Sophie heard Lettie trod past her bedroom and open the front door, greeting the visitor.

“Howl,” Sophie panted as she slid her hand out from his pants, “Howl stop.”

“Botheration,” Howl grumbled but rolled himself off of Sophie and onto his side. Resting his head in his hand, he admired her nakedness for as long as he could.

“Who do you think it is this time?” He asked good humoredly. “My money’s on Fanny.”

“But you have no money to bet,” Sophie said as she pulled her skirts back down over her legs and retiring her nightgown cords. “It’s all spent on those ostentatious suits of yours."

Before Howl could rebut, a small knock sounded against the bedroom door.

“Sophie?” came Lettie’s voice. “Sophie are you awake? There’s company.”

“Just a minute!” Sophie called.

“Sophie? Are you there?” Lettie tried the handle but the door wouldn’t open.

“Oh bother, the spell!” Sophie slapped her palm to her forehead.

Howl raised an eyebrow at her.

“I wondered why you were so brazen with your sister in the next room. You bespelled the walls to be soundproof? And here I thought I learned something very intriguing about your inclinations.”

“You’re horrible,” Sophie said, miserably.

Howl laughed and kissed Sophie on the nose.

“I suppose I should have realized sooner. It’s difficult to notice enchantments when there is such a distractingly marvelous woman at my side.” He played with the cord of her nightgown, now tied in a neat bow.

As good humored as Howl acted, Sophie could see the frustration in his eyes and the tension across his face. She placed a hand to his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“You better answer your sister,” Howl said.

He gave Sophie a parting kiss before disappearing through the bookcase, shirt in hand.

Chapter Text

After taking a moment to collect herself, Sophie answered the door to her room. There was Lettie wearing the borrowed yellow dress. Her dark hair was pinned up and she looked quite fresh, as if she’d been awake for some time.

“Lettie, you’re up!” Sophie said, genuinely surprised to see her sister so put-together so early in the morning.

“What?” Lettie creased her eyebrows.

“You're awake so early,” Sophie said a bit louder.

Lettie frowned and her face changed from confusion to worry.

“Sophie, don't tease me, say something,” she said.

“But I am,” Sophie said.

The worry on Lettie's face changed to panic. She turned to the hall and called out, “Michael! Sophie's under another curse!”

Realization struck, making Sophie sweep her palm to her forehead.

“Walls, you've done your job,” Sophie told the walls, annoyedly. “Unfortunately, Howl and I are quite finished. So you may let the sound out.”

Just as Michael rushed into view all the noise that had built up from the morning came whooshing out of the doorway in a loud, indecipherable burst. Lettie and Michael clamped their hands over their ears until the sound passed and dissipated.

“What was that?” Lettie cried after she was certain it was over.

“Looks like a spell gone wrong,” grumped Michael, glancing at Sophie and then, seeing she wore only her nightgown, quickly looked away.

“Yes, I suppose it was. Now if you please, I’d like to dress and then we can discuss why you're here, Michael,” Sophie said haughtily, closing the door on both of them.

Sophie emerged wearing her favorite, lavender dress and her hair in a loose braid draped over the mark on her neck. She found Lettie and Michael at the kitchen table talking over tea. A cup sat out for Sophie.

“Sophie, how could you?” Lettie asked accusingly.

Sophie looked from Lettie to Michael, in puzzlement. She began to lose track of which things she ought to be accused of and who would do the accusing.

“I’ve a right to a little privacy. I don't see any harm in enchanting my own room in my own home,” Sophie said, pulling at her braid. She sat at the table and tried to look casual while sipping her tea.

“Not that,” Michael flustered. “The enchantment you put upon me! Sophie, take it off.” Michael picked up his cup and put it back down, too agitated to decide whether he wanted to drink or not.

“Enchantment? I would never enchant you, Michael,” Sophie said, shocked at this accusation.

“Hah! ‘Don’t say anything to Martha,’ you told me. Well, Sophie you got your wish!” Michael groaned.

“When did I say such a thing? I would never!” Sophie said, appalled at the accusation.

“You would and you did! Yesterday morning,” Michael said pointedly.

Sophie felt herself turning all shades of red.

“Sophie! How could you?” Lettie gasped.

“That’s not what I meant. I wasn’t trying to make an enchantment.”

“Well that’s certainly what happened. I spent the whole dinner last night completely ignoring Martha, saying everything to Fanny. Even when Martha asked me direct questions I looked her in the eye, then turned away and answered them to Fanny! What a complete boar they both must think I am.” Michael held his head in his hands.

“Oh Michael, I’m so sorry.” Sophie brought her hand to her mouth.

“The worst part was the end of the evening!” Michael moaned, his voice muffled by his palms. “Fanny allowed us a private goodby. And what happened? ‘I love you Michael,’ Martha said to me. And what do you think I did?”

“Oh no,” Sophie said, knowing the answer but not wanting to hear it.

“I stared at her for some time, grinning like a fool while I tried and tried to speak.” Michael picked his head up and stared daggers at Sophie. “When I couldn’t I just nodded, kissed her hand and walked away in abject silence. Oh! The look on poor Martha’s face! What she must think!”

Too overwhelmed to continue, Michael sagged, resting his forehead on the table.

“Poor dear,” Lettie said, putting a hand on Michael’s shoulder and peering at Sophie. “Sophie and I will fix this for you.”

“Yes, please, talk to Martha all you like,” Sophie said, willing it to be true and hoping that was enough. She repeated the words for good measure.

“Did it work?” Lettie asked, scrutinizing Michael.

“I’m not certain,” said Sophie. “Howl hasn't taught me how to spot these things yet.”

“It seems Howl has failed to prevent this calamity every step in the way. If he had only warned me about the very powerful enchantment that was cast upon me.”

“He has been awfully distracted since the king appointed him, even with Wizard Suliman’s return,” Sophie said weakly, feeling queer about defending Howl.

“Yes, Howl has plenty of distractions,” Michael said, lifting his head to glance at Sophie meaningfully before resting it back on the table. “I just hope Martha believes me when I tell her what happened. Oh, she'll never forgive me!”

“Sophie, you need to visit her and sort this out,” Lettie said chidingly, as if she were the eldest sister.

"Well of course I do," Sophie said.

“She’ll be busy with work,” Michael said to the floor and added ruefully. “They've been absolutely bursting with custom since she started working as herself.”

“She won't be too busy for her sisters,” said Lettie.

“Please Michael, put up a sign closing the shop for the morning and I’ll take care of this,” Sophie said.

“Alright,” Michael grumbled.

“I’m overdue to see Martha anyway. I don’t feel right that Fanny told her about the wedding and I haven’t so much as spoken to her yet.”

“Sophie! Why weren't you the one to tell Martha?” Lettie asked, astonished.

“Everything happened so quickly,” Sophie said. “I was barely told myself.”

“That reminds me,” Michael said, digging in his pocket and producing a sealed letter. “This is from Martha. It’s for congratulations.”

Sophie read the letter. Martha was so sorry she couldn’t come see Sophie personally but they were just swamped at Cesaris. She was incredibly happy for Sophie and Howl, however and was already practicing different hairstyles to wear on the big day. Martha’s good nature toward Sophie’s news made her feel even more guilty.

After offering several more reassurances that Martha would forgive him, Sophie herded Michael out of the house. She and Lettie headed out to see Martha.

“What did you intend with that enchantment?” Lettie asked as Sophie locked the door.

“It wasn't an enchantment!” Sophie threw her arms up.

“Well, what did you mean anyway?”

“Something I'd rather not discuss,” Sophie said primly.

“And would it have anything to do with that mysterious privacy spell you put on your room? And that mysterious, secret bookcase leading to your fiancé’s home?” Lettie teased.

Sophie tutted Lettie’s nosiness.

“We should see if Martha can offer a fresh perspective on your problems with Wizard Suliman.” Sophie smirked.

"Oh. We needn't tell her about that," Lettie said.

Sophie could see why Howl was such a slitherer-outer. She was growing quite fond of it herself.

---

Michael was right, Cesari’s was nearly as packed as it had been last Mayday. When the whole curse ordeal was finally over and Fanny discovered Martha and Lettie’s deception they decided to officially tell Mrs. Cesari that Martha would be taking up Lettie’s apprenticeship. Mrs. Cesari marveled at how quickly Martha had learned the trade. Men still crowded the bakery, vying for Martha’s attention which she handled with aplomb, just as she did when she was Lettie. However, when Sophie and Lettie waltzed through the bakery, chatting and laughing, the little bell on the door jangling, they suddenly became the subjects of interest.

“Lettie!” Several men called out, and rushed to greet her. A chorus of voices bombarded her with questions asking where she had been, and why she abandoned them so harshly. A few others made comments on the three beautiful Hatter sisters, and what a shame that none of them even had an opportunity to woo Sophie before she went off and got engaged. And perhaps there was still time yet, though the end of the month was fast approaching.

So Fanny had already spread the news. Sophie felt her anger bubbling in her gut.

“Sophie! Lettie!” Came Martha’s voice from behind the counter, surprised and ecstatic to see her sisters. She waved them forward.

Sophie fought to pull Lettie away from the swarm of admirers while Martha sorted out another apprentice to cover her small break. She led Sophie and Lettie behind a counter and into the same pastry-filled back room where Sophie had first discovered that her sisters had switched places.

Once they were safely tucked away from the chaos, Martha flung her arms round Sophie, her mouth moving as quickly as her mind.

“Sophie you’re getting married! And so soon, I can’t believe it! Have you settled on a date?”

“All I know is before the month is out,” Sophie said.

“But that’s so soon, and there’s so much to do!” Martha said, pulling back from Sophie.

“I just wanted something small and simple,” Sophie said with a shrug. “Family and flowers and a pretty dress.”

Martha flicked her eyes from Sophie to Lettie, looking anxious.

“What?” Sophie asked.

"After hearing Fanny talk about it last night-and that was just about the only discussion that was had-" Martha sounded upset.

Sophie flinched.

"-I think your wedding will be a bit… grander than you'd like. Quite a few deposits have already been made." Now Martha flinched, breaking the bad news.

“I should have suspected,” Sophie sighed. “Maybe Howl can help convince her that we don't need-”

Lettie snorted.

“You’re right,” Sophie said remorsefully. “He’d never pass up a chance to be a spectacle. I think he’d get married all by himself if he was able. Just to have all those eyes looking only at him.”

“Well, I’m happy for you anyway,” Martha said uncertainly.

“As am I,” agreed Lettie.

“Oh Lettie, I haven’t forgotten you,” said Martha and embraced Lettie in a belated greeting.

“But there’s a reason we came,” Sophie said,worried Martha would be called back to work at any moment.

It took all the courage she could muster, but Sophie explained to Martha just why Michael wouldn’t speak to her last night, taking care to leave out the private details of the story as best she could. Martha listened intently, twiddling her thumbs all the while.

“I admit that’s a large relief,” Martha said after hearing the story. “I was worried Fanny had scared Michael off.”

“I don’t think anything could scare him from you,” Sophie said. “Not even the Witch of the Waste. If she were still alive.”

"But he's awfully afraid that he's scared you off now," Lettie added. 

Martha reached into her apron pocket and produced a white, cotton handkerchief. She shook it out, attempting to shake off the lingering flower dust, then kissed its center leaving a pink, lip-shaped stain from her lipstick. She folded the cloth into a small, tight triangle and handed it to Sophie.

“Please give this to Michael for me by way of forgiveness, then,” Martha said.

“Of course.” Sophie took the handkerchief carefully as if it was porcelain and tenderly slid it into her pocket.

“But Sophie,” Martha said, smiling and blushing, “what on earth did you intend with that enchantment?”

“It wasn’t an enchantment!” Sophie said, exasperated.

“Michael caught her being intimate with Howl ,” Lettie whispered the last part gleefully.

“Lettie!” Sophie cried.

“Sophie!” Martha cried.

Lettie laughed heartily.

“After all the work Fanny spent to keep you two separate?” Martha asked, mouth agape.

“Well-” Sophie began.

“Howl built a magic, secret door in her room that leads to the castle,” Lettie interrupted.

“Keep your voice down!” Sophie hissed. “This really is my business, I don’t think we need to-”

“Oh Sophie don’t be so prim,” Martha said. “What was it like?”

“What a question! Honestly, the two of you,” Sophie folded her arms.

“Well, you are the eldest,” Martha shrugged. “You get to experience everything first and it’s your duty to report back.”

“She hasn’t done it yet, they keep getting interrupted,” Lettie helped unhelpfully and then glanced sideways at Sophie and added, “unless you did it this morning?”

Sophie scoffed.

“Don’t pretend that isn’t the reason why you enchanted your room to keep all the sound in. And with me sleeping right next door, the nerve,” said Lettie teasingly.

“Sophie!” Martha exclaimed. “You’ve been so confident since your curse ended but I had no idea you could be so... brazen!”

“Being an old woman changes you,” Sophie said, giving in to her sisters’ inquiry. “And no, we were interrupted by Michael’s visit this morning. Rest assured my virtue is still… mostly in tact. And I find myself quite frustrated about it if you’d really like to know. And unashamed, no matter what propriety dictates.”

Sophie wasn’t certain about the last statement. She didn’t want to feel ashamed but the town gossip and her sisters' intrigue influenced her feelings. As well as Fanny’s overbearing watchfulness.

“Virtue!” Lettie scoffed. “As if an expression of love is somehow immoral .”

“You shouldn’t feel shame!” Martha said, hugging Sophie again. “You love each other.”

“Yes, well, don’t you start getting any ideas. You’re much too young,” Sophie said uncomfortably.

Sophie didn't want to talk about virtue or Howl or propriety any longer for the whole subject made her uneasy, even if her sisters were supportive. She wanted to bring up Lettie’s magical problem as retaliation for Lettie telling Martha all of her business. But just as she was about to one of the bakers called Martha back to work.

After hasty goodbys, Lettie agreed to help Sophie open the flower shop and the two headed back to the castle.

“You know Lettie, I’ve been thinking of your magic problem,” Sophie hazarded when they were safely out of the bakery and around the corner. “It doesn't seem like the issue is with you.”

“What do you mean? I’m the one who keeps mucking up the spells,” Lettie said.

“Surely you’ve noticed there are different kinds of magic?”

“I suppose I haven't given it much thought” Lettie shrugged.

“Mrs. Fairfax likes her recipes and her honey. Howl and Michael use lots of powders and materials and symbols. None of that seems to work out right for me. I simply tell something what I want it to do and poof! It happens,” Sophie said, growing more excited as she pieced together her thought.

“But Sophie everyone knows how talented you are,” Lettie complained. “Even Ben- Wizard Suliman won't stop talking about you.”

Sophie blushed and fidgeted with the buttons on her dress.

“And all I’ve heard from others is how talented you are. These silly wizards have an idea in their heads about how magic should go. Take the stove fire: Howl taught me that fire spell over and over - I nearly burned his back off trying it once - but it never came out right. Not when I do things his way. All I had to do was tell the stove exactly what I wanted and it went on easily. Maybe it's the same with you. You just need Wizard Suliman to help you find your kind of magic.”

Lettie let that thought sit with her as they walked down the cobblestone road of Market Chipping.

“Sophie, I'm glad you were cursed by the witch,” Lettie finally said as they reached the front door of the flower shop.

“I’m not sure what to say to that,” Sophie said, flipping through her ring of keys for the right one.

“That came out wrong. I meant what Martha said. You've become so confident since all that curse business. It's like you're a new person. I'm very happy for you; you deserve a good life.”

All the talk of Sophie's new confidence made her feel uneasy. She felt lighter since the curse was lifted, as if her future was bright and open. But she didn't feel as changed as everyone acted like she was.

“Thank you, Lettie,” Sophie flung her arms around her sister anyway and added, "I hope you find happiness as I have." 

As soon as Sophie's words passed her lips she realized what Lettie was really upset about. But it didn't seem the right time to bring it up; best to let Lettie discover things on her own.

Passing through the shop and into the castle, Sophie and Lettie were greeted by a half-beautiful, fully-annoyed Howl and an incredibly disheveled and utterly panicked Wizard Suliman.

Chapter Text

“Lettie!” Wizard Suliman exclaimed upon seeing the sisters emerge from the entrance stairs. He rushed forward, reaching out to Lettie but caught Sophie's eye and stopped short. Straightening himself, he looked from Sophie to Lettie and nodded. His expression and voice flattened but the tinge of red on his stubble-worn cheeks deepened. “I'm pleased to see you’re well.”

“And… you as well,” Lettie said uncertainly as she took in Wizard Suliman's frazzled appearance.

“Wizard Suliman, how unexpected,” said Sophie trying to sound as if it was, in fact, an unexpected visit.

Sophie tactfully ignored his untucked shirt and tangled, ginger hair and red-rimmed eyes. She gracefully didn’t notice the sweat beading on his forehead or the paleness of his skin. She did, however, allow herself to see Howl's still-wet hair and the bags under his eyes and his red, splotchy skin as he bent to kiss her hand. Suliman had caught Howl in the middle of his beauty ritual, poor dear.

“Please, Ben is fine. We needn't stand on formalities, all things considered,” Wizard Suliman said.

Sophie wasn't sure if all things were considered because she helped piece Ben’s body back together after the witch took him apart or because of her relationship with Howl. Or perhaps he saw her as a contemporary; an equal in magic. Either way she nodded, feeling a tinge of blush on her cheeks.

She seemed to be blushing an awful lot lately.

“Well, thank you Ben. I suppose you came to find Lettie,” Sophie said of her sister who was currently attempting to hide behind her.

“Indeed,” Ben nodded.

“And found her you have,” Howl said. “So sorry your visit couldn't be longer-”

Howl started for the front door but Sophie squeezed his hand tightly and tugged him back to her side.

“I'm so sorry if you were worried. I should have sent you a message,” Sophie said.

“Yes. Lettie, you gave me quite a fright when I realized you’d gone missing. You can imagine my relief when my location spell found you safe with Sophie,” said Ben. Again, he reached toward Lettie as he spoke but hesitated and pulled back.

Sophie noticed the tiny worried wrinkles around Ben's blue eyes and the anxious edge in his voice.

“Safe as houses, well-rested and ready for a lovely walk home through Kingsbury, considering how very busy we all are,” said Howl, seeming more perturbed at being half-presented. He kept raking at his half-wet hair in a put-upon way, spraying droplets of water upon Sophie and Wizard Suliman. Lettie was too far away to be caught in the crossfire.

“I'm sorry, Wizard Suliman,” said Lettie, her eyes focused on her feet.

“Well now that that's settled-” Howl began but Sophie cut him off with a hush and a sharp look.

“But Lettie, why in God's name did you feel the need to sneak out like that? And in the rain, no less; you could have caught your death. I would have sent you here in a carriage if seeing your sister was so urgent,” Ben pleaded.

“And decorum suggests you message ahead,” Howl grumbled.

“Howl, love, you look a fright. Let me fix your hair,” Sophie said through clenched teeth as she attempted to corral Howl into the bathroom.

“As if I would ever entrust you with my hair, meddling woman,” Howl muttered, all the while allowing himself to be corralled.

“That was a flimsy excuse to leave them alone,” Howl said to Sophie once they were secure in the bathroom.

“You weren’t helping matters,” Sophie sharply whispered.

“I’m too terribly busy to help your sister settle her differences with her tutor.” Howl said, rubbing some kind of grey cream under his eyes from the little jar on the shelf that had “EYES” scrawled on the label.

“Yes, you couldn't have made it more clear how unwelcome they are. I have some strong words saved for you about that but for now just shush. I can’t hear them when you talk.”

Sophie let the bathroom door open just a crack so she could peek through.

Howl kept up his muttering. Sophie tried her best to ignore him, able to gather most of Lettie and Ben’s conversation. Lettie was trying to explain her fears of inadequacy to Ben and relay Sophie’s suggestions about finding her own type of magic. But she seemed to be explaining herself to the floor. Ben seemed caring and attentive and looked at Lettie with... longing? Sophie wished her sister would just look up and really see him.

Howl’s arms slithered round Sophie’s waist. Sophie had been so busy spying she didn’t hear him sneak up on her.

“I don’t see what’s so interesting out there, Mrs. Nose, when you’re shut in here with me,” he whispered into her ear.

Howl’s breath was hot against her ear and he pressed his body flush against Sophie’s. She tingled under his touch, but absolutely wasn’t going to give in to him here in this bathroom with guests on the other side of the door.

No matter how much she wanted to.

“You should finish your face while you have the chance, since you're so terribly busy,” Sophie said.

“I’m beginning to suspect you replaced my heart only to have the chance to rip it out again. Repeatedly,” Howl complained, skulking back to the mirror. This time he rubbed a peach colored cream from a jar labeled “FACE” over his cheeks.

Now Ben was talking. Sophie missed a bit of what he had said. From what she could decipher, he agreed with Sophie’s assessment of the situation and felt a bit ashamed as her teacher for not figuring it out for himself.

“Your sister is very astute,” Ben said to Lettie, which caused Sophie to swell a bit.

“Yes, these things come natural to her,” Lettie said sadly.

“Lettie-” Ben looked sad as well.

“This will take twice as long to do now,” Howl frowned, setting to work on his hair which had begun to develop far too many flyaways and was drying in messy waves.

Sophie inhaled sharply and turned to Howl.

“All right hair,” she hissed, ignoring Howl's wide-eyed look of protest and horror. “Howl is too vain for you to act up like this and I can’t hear a thing with all his fussing, so we’ll have no flyaways today. Be shimmery and lovely and fall right into place so that he stops fretting about you. Thank you very much.”

Sophie didn’t take the time to watch Howl’s hair comply marvelously, nor the look of shock and delight that spread across his face upon seeing his reflection in the aftermath of the spell. She was busy watching Ben talk to Lettie. What was he saying? The two had stepped closer together. Was Lettie blushing ? She was definitely smiling.

“Sophie, you mad genius!” Howl exclaimed, wrapping his arms round Sophie again in a hug from behind, gleefully kissing her cheek.

“Shhh!”

Howl tucked stray strands of Sophie's hair behind her ear and kissed her earlobe which very nearly distracted her from spying but she managed to stay on task. She watched as Ben took Lettie’s hand in his and kissed her knuckles, bowing slightly. Their grasp lingered as if neither wanted to let go.

Howl kissed his way across Sophie’s jaw.

Lettie and Ben held hands smiling at each other in roughly the same place Sophie and Howl held hands smiling at each other for the very first time. Sophie felt a sudden surge of affection for her fiancé. Her heartbeat quickening, she covered his hand with hers and leaned into his kisses, which were now trailing down her neck.

“I knew they cared for each other,” Sophie whispered, satisfied to see her sister's smile broaden.

“Of course they do, any fool could see that,” Howl said, disinterestedly, brushing Sophie’s braid back to reveal more skin to kiss. Then, very interestedly he said, “Sophie dear, your neck, is that my handy work?”

“I think we’ve been in here long enough,” she said, pulling away.

“Don’t be shy now,” Howl said, trying to tighten his grip on Sophie’s waist and failing. “I can think of at least ten women offhand who would step over their own parents to receive such a mark from me.”

“Then you ought to marry one of them,” Sophie grumped, draping her hair back over the mark leftover from Howl's love bites.

She swung the bathroom door open much more roughly than she meant to and it banged against the wall, startling Lettie and Ben into releasing each other’s hands. Sophie felt guilty for interrupting the moment but plastered a smile on her face. Howl skulked out behind her.

“Got the hair all fixed!” Sophie announced.

Howl flicked his head to let his hair flourish out and back, looking for proper admiration and falling deeper into his sulk when he didn't receive it.

“Yes but Sophie but I think it’s time we do something new with your hair now. Up and out of the face would suit you,” Howl said with a renewed cheer, pulling at her braid.

Sophie inhaled her anger and pulled away from him. Lettie exhaled a chuckle.

“I think it’s time we head back home,” Lettie said.

“You both won’t stay for lunch? Howl was just saying how he would love to talk about rugby with Ben.” Sophie smirked knowing how perturbed Howl would be if their guests were to impose any longer.

“Indeed,” Howl said, perturbedly.

“No, thank you. I feel we've overstayed our welcome. Plus there’s so much to be done. We’ve already lost a bit of time on that spell the king requested,” said Ben.

“Oh, but Sophie I’m still wearing your dress!” said Lettie.

“It really suits you, yellow isn’t my color anyway,” Sophie said. “You should keep it, I’ll have your other one laundered and sent to you.”

Lettie embraced her sister.

“Please don’t tell Fanny about Ben and I,” she whispered in Sophie’s ear.

“Lettie-” Sophie whispered back.

“You were always a terrible spy.”

“I won’t tell about Ben if you won’t tell about Howl,” Sophie replied.

And the pact was made.

Once the castle cleared out, Howl swept Sophie’s braid behind her shoulder and snaked his arm around her waist, hugging her from behind. With a featherlight touch he caressed the red mark on her neck, sending tingles to Sophie's ears.

“I’m still cross with you,” Sophie said unconvincingly.

“I'd worry for your health if you weren’t,” Howl said.

“Where is everyone?” She asked, closing her eyes and inhaling unevenly, finally relaxing now that she was alone with Howl.

“Calcifer has gone gadding about which I suppose I should accept as the norm,” he sounded displeased. “Michael is in the shop.”

“I told him not to!” Sophie said, stiffening.

"He took one look at Ben and scuttled off to work. I imagine he’s trying to avoid any more run-ins with you Hatters.” Howl rested his chin on Sophie's head and absentmindedly swayed back and forth.

“If that's the case he should think twice about courting Martha,” Sophie said, closing her eyes and allowing herself to sway, enjoying the feel of Howl's hand on her neck, his chin on her head, his body against hers.

“Yes, it seems marrying a Hatter means a lifetime of impositions. You’re lucky I’m so patient and charming. I worry Michael doesn’t have the stamina to handle it all.”

Sophie snorted.

“Speaking of Michael and impositions,” Sophie said suspiciously as she turned to face Howl and wrap her arms around him. “You didn't happen to notice an enchantment placed on Michael, did you?”

“Hmm? What sort of enchantment?” Howl encircled Sophie in his arms and caressed the nape of her neck.

“One that prevented him from speaking to Martha.”

Sophie leaned forward, stretching her head up toward Howl. He leaned in to meet her, touching his nose to hers.

“Who would be so wicked to do that to the poor boy?” Howl said, his voice a low rumble.

“Wicked!” Sophie scoffed, pulling back. “My enchantment was an accident. You're the wicked one who saw it and didn't intervene.”

Howl smiled, his eyes gone soft.

“But you knew I was wicked from the start, my dear. You took every opportunity to remind me.”

Sophie snorted again.

“You’re as wicked as a rainstorm.”

“Beautiful and terrifying?” Howl asked, tilting his head to the side, putting gentle pressure on the back of Sophie's neck with his fingertips, inviting her forward.

“Gloomy and trifling,” Sophie said, acquiescing. She met Howl in a long, soft kiss.

Their lips parted and quickly reunited. Sophie delicately bit Howl’s bottom lip, grazing her teeth across the plush skin. She felt Howl smile against her kiss, the skin around his eyes scrunching with the movement. His tongue glided across Sophie's lips. She tightened her grip around his waist, closed her eyes and tilted her head, languidly greeting his tongue with hers. His kiss tasted sweet and subtle; it was soft and unassuming.

Sophie’s heart swelled and overflowed into a sigh. She rested her head against Howl’s chest, feeling the smooth, cool satin of his jacket against her cheek and his heartbeat pound against her ear. An aroma of spiced flowers flowed into her senses.

“Lilacs,” Sophie said dreamily.

“Hmm?”

“You smell of lilacs.”

“I suppose I do,” Howl said thoughtfully.

He rubbed one hand in warm circles around her middle back and continued stroking the nape of her neck with the other. Howl gingerly kissed Sophie’s forehead before pressing his cheek against it.

Sophie tightened her arms around Howl again, pressing him to her in a tight hug. She felt as if she could stand there, bathed in his warmth for an eternity.

Unfortunately, a knocking at the Kingsbury door ended their blissful moment.

“They’ll go away if we ignore it,” said Howl, caressing Sophie’s cheek.

The knocking came louder.

“It sounds important,” said Sophie.

“If it’s Lettie again I’m sending her away.”

“Howl! You wouldn’t!” Sophie gave him a gentle, playful smack on the shoulder.

“I certainly would, I am quite horrible after all,” Howl said.

“I won’t allow it,” Sophie said.

"Then you ought to reach the door first,” Howl said and rushed for the entrance.

“No you don’t!” Sophie yelped and chased after him, hooking her arm round his waist from behind and holding him back. She spun him round and rushed past.

Howl laughed and rushed to meet her at the top of the entry stairs. He shouldered his way past her.

“Nice try but your old bones are no match for me,” Howl teased over his shoulder as he shuffled down the stairs.

“Old!” Sophie scoffed. She launched herself down the stairs after him and slammed into Howl from behind, bumping him forward just as he opened the door. The two nearly tumbled right into the King’s Royal Messenger.

The King’s Royal Messenger, dressed all in yellow and black and looking like a bumblebee, took a step back and cleared his throat, trying to look impassive.

“Oh, hello!” Howl said laughingly, straightening his posture.

“Welcome,” Sophie said over his shoulder, taking a half-step back and smoothing her braid over the mark on her neck.

The surprised Royal Messenger nodded a greeting before reading his message.

“His Royal Majesty requires the immediate attendance of the Wizard Pendragon on a matter of complete urgency,” the Royal Messenger announced.

“Certainly,” Howl said airly. “I need but time to prepare-”

“Immediately,” the messenger said sternly. “The carriage is waiting.”

Sophie snorted. The last Royal Messenger fell victim to Howl’s stalling tactics and waited nearly two hours before meekly knocking at the door again. By that point Howl had completely forgotten the messenger was out there (or so he claimed). This one came warned and prepared.

Howl gave a very put upon sigh and turned to Sophie, rolling his eyes at the messenger's audacity.

“There is a buzzing calling me away,” he said.

“I should attend to the shop anyway,” Sophie said, stifling a laugh. She gave Howl a look, impressing on him to be nice.

Howl took her hand and bowed deeply, gently kissing her knuckles. The Royal Messenger politely turned away. Howl said one of the only Welsh phrases Sophie had so far learned.

“Rydych chi'n dal fy nghalon.”

You hold my heart.

Sophie smiled. It was poetry in her heart.

Howl clapped a hand over the Royal Messenger’s shoulder and headed out to the carriage, talking of flowers and honey.

Chapter Text

The rest of the morning was a bit queer, if not slow. When Michael received Martha’s handkerchief he hugged Sophie so tightly she lost her breath. He then made a hasty retreat to the castle to work on his spells. But Sophie suspected he would be spending most of his time drafting a letter to Martha.

As was often the case when Sophie worked alone, some of the more bold customers asked prying questions about her and Howl. Today, however, they seemed much more brazen than usual.

“A lover's quarrel?” an older woman asked, causing Sophie to frown.

“I beg your pardon?” she responded.

“I saw you out and about with Mr. Jenkins last night. Neither of you seemed too happy. And after he returns you safely home your sister runs out of here looking so distraught. Now you’re working all alone, poor dear.”

“Did you need assistance with flowers?” Sophie asked, crossing her arms sternly.

“No need to be so serious, love, I was just making small talk.”

“Very small indeed,” Sophie humphed and went back to her work.

“I’m happy to see you and your sister have reconciled,” said a handsome young man later in the day.

“What do you mean?” Sophie asked with a frown.

“I saw you and Lettie strolling to Cesari's looking quite gay. It was a relief considering it seemed that last night Mr. Jenkins had cast you aside in favor of her. The heartless cad,” he said, seeming to hope for truth in his words.

“What an inappropriate thing to say!” Sophie bristled.

“I only meant that-” the man began to stammer when he saw Sophie's angry face and the floral shears clutched in one hand.

“I know exactly what you meant you wicked- opportunist!” Sophie said, chasing after the man. “And I'll have you know that Mr. Jenkins does indeed possess a heart; I put it there myself.”

She ran the man out of the store and wasn't the least bit ashamed of it.

The day passed much like that, and Sophie daydreamed all the while of taking Howl up on his offer to put some kind of terrible enchantment on the town gossips. By lunchtime Sophie decided she’d had just about enough. But before she could lock the door for the day, Fanny erupted into the store, her arms full of boxes of varying shapes, sizes, and colors.

“Oh good! I’ve caught you before you left for lunch,” Fanny panted. “I’ve brought fabric swatches for your dress and cake samples as well as a lovely catalogue of shoes, and a few of your best hats leftover from when we owned the shop.”

“Fanny… what?” Sophie was stunned and unsure of what to make of all this.

“I've done most of the decision making already but you need to have some sort of input; it is your wedding after all! Sunday is only a week away and we haven’t time to waste. Help me with these boxes.”

Sophie dutifully locked the shop door behind Fanny and took half the load from her arms.

“Fanny this is all very kind but I don’t want a grand wedding. Just something simple with family and Michael and Calcifer.”

“Sophie, you’re marrying a royal wizard ,” Fanny said pointedly as they passed through the shop and into the castle. “This will be the event of the year! A grand reception is expected from someone of such a position and the last thing you want to do is insult the king.”

Sophie silently agreed, feeling she had had enough run-ins with the king.

Fanny unceremoniously dumped her boxes right on top of the spell Michael was fiddling with. Michael had just enough time to rescue Martha's handkerchief and the letter he'd been working on from getting squashed. He tucked both away in his breast pocket.

“Michael, dear I’m glad you’re here. Please help me sort out all these boxes,” Fanny said to him, seeming to not be bothered about his odd behavior the night before.

Michael looked like he wanted to protest but touched his breast pocket and resigned himself to helping.

Sophie greeted Calcifer who had returned while she was in the shop. She cautiously placed her set of boxes on the dining table.

“I don’t think Howl wants a big wedding either,” said Sophie, knowing that to be untrue. She opened a box that was full of garish pink swatches of fabric in all different materials. “He really doesn’t like all that attention.”

“Are you kidding?” Calcifer hooted. “As vain as he is, nothing would excite Howl more than having all of Ingary see him looking his finest.”

Sophie scrunched up her face.

“But it would be a royal obligation,” she tried again. “You know how he hates those.”

“The three, new, incredibly expensive suits hanging in his room speak otherwise,” Calcifer said.

“What?” Feeling utterly betrayed Sophie gaped at Calcifer who only shrugged his little fiery shoulders. She turned to Michael accusingly who ducked his head, hiding his smirk.

“So it’s settled,” hummed Fanny.

She set Sophie and Michael to work on tasting cakes and choosing fabrics. Even Calcifer came over, hovering a safe distance above the table to observe the odd, human tradition and share his input about dresses and decorations. Everyone had settled into the task except Sophie who found the fabric too ostentatious and the cakes too rich.

“I really just hoped for a simple, purple dress and a cake made from Cesari’s. Perhaps some of my own, fresh flowers,” complained Sophie when she’d had enough.

“Maybe we should break for tea,” Michael suggested diplomatically, feeling more sympathetic over Sophie’s struggle now that he was involved in it.

“Wonderful idea,” said Fanny, buzzing with excitement over all the planning. “I’ll start a kettle.”

“Not on me you won't,” grumped Calcifer.

“I can make a fire,” said Michael.

Calcifer stayed hovering about the room while Michael knelt at the hearth with a jar of red powder and dutifully set to his task.

As Michael worked the magic and Fanny looked about for the kettle, Sophie tossed the ugliest fabric swatches to Calcifer. It was quite a mean thing to do but made Sophie feel much better about the afternoon.

“Sophie, what is this?” Fanny asked, her voice dark.

Sophie flinched and hid the orange swatches she held behind her back. She turned to see Fanny reaching through her cubby under the stairs. Sophie froze, watching with wide eyes. Fanny’s arms reemerged holding a nightgown and dressing gown. Specifically: Sophie's pink, floral nightgown and gray dressing gown that she had brought over last night. Fanny stared at Sophie, disappointment streaked across her face.

Sophie’s cheeks went cold as she felt the blood drain away. She released the swatches in her hand and they fluttered to the ground.

Michael sucked in a sharp breath. Calcifer retreated underneath the logs in the fireplace.

“How should I know?” Sophie blurted out.

“Don’t you lie to me young lady,” said Fanny. Her tone made Sophie feel like a child again which, in turn, made her anger rise up.

“I’ve never seen those clothes a day in my life,” Sophie said, raising her chin and doubling down on the lie.

“So Howl is entertaining other women in the evening then? Or perhaps you are, Michael?” Fanny asked, sounding dubious.

“What?” Michael panicked, dropping his jar and spilling red powder across the floor.

“Absolutely not!” Sophie folded her arms, offended by the mere suggestion.

“This mystery nightgown didn’t just appear from nowhere. Well, Michael?”

Poor Michael looked about ready to faint.

“No- I don’t- Not at all- It’s not here from me. I only love Martha!” Michael stammered pleadingly. He felt his solid position in the Hatter family slip away yet again.

“If I learn these are Matha’s bedclothes I will fill you with regret, young man,” lectured Fanny.

“Fanny, control yourself!” Sophie exclaimed.

“We only kissed the once, I swear,” Michael cried, looking as if his life was passing before of his eyes.

“Fanny. Martha has never even been here without you or Lettie. Leave poor Michael alone.”

“So Howl is bringing girls here then?” asked Fanny.

“No!” Cried Michael and Sophie in unison.

“Someone is lying to me, and I’m very unhappy about it,” said Fanny, using her most serious voice.

Sophie met Fanny’s stern gaze looking just as serious, although she worried that Michael would crack under the pressure.

“Fanny, you’ve found my gift,” came Howl’s soothing voice from the entrance stairs.

Sophie slowly exhaled her relief, realizing she’d just about exhausted her ability to keep up the lie.

Howl glided through the room, stopping to clasp a hand on Sophie’s shoulder and place a delicate kiss on her forehead.

“Darling,” he greeted her, then turning to the others. “Michael, Fanny, Calcifer. I see you’re all having a lovely party while I've been toiling for the king.”

“Explain yourself,” Fanny demanded.

He gingerly took the clothes from the seething Fanny’s arms.

“It seems I’ve been so busy I can’t keep my head on straight. I’ve even misplaced my favorite earring, similar to this one but much more lovely. A vibrant red that brings out my eyes.” Howl gestured to his ear from which a green jeweled pendant dangled.

“Get on with it,” Fanny said.

“I thought beautiful new bedclothes would make a lovely gift for my lovely new bride,” Howl said looking very innocent and hurt. “What a shame that I spoiled the surprise for you Sophie, dear. And after all the work I spent picking these out. I apologise.”

Howl smiled charmingly at Fanny and then added primly and remorsefully to Sophie, “they were meant for our wedding night, of course. I think you ought to have them now anyway, since you've seen them. I shall have to plan a new gift.”

Howl winked at Sophie when his back was turned to Fanny. Sophie saw a general fogginess surround the clothes and then the pattern and texture of the gown material shifted from pink, cotton flowers to a lovely, silk damask, similar enough to the original to confuse the eye. The dressing gown darkened and found itself suddenly trimmed in glittery silver fabric. Howl handed the bundle to Sophie.

“It’s funny,” said Fanny suspiciously as the clothes were changing. “That looks just like an old nightgown of Sophie’s. One I bought her shortly before that business with the curse.”

“Hmm, does it?” Howl asked disinterestedly as he poked through the box of dress fabrics.

Once the transformation completed, Sophie innocently held the gown up to show Fanny. Fanny's face dropped when she saw the fabric.

“Oh Sophie, Michael, I’m terribly sorry!” Fanny said, the air going out of her. “I suppose all the town gossip has had me a bit on edge.”

“Gossip?” Sophie asked anxiously.

“Are these swatched for the wedding?” Howl asked, thoughtfully slithering out of another conversation about the Market Chipping busybodies. “Sophie I think you’d look quite stunning in this one.”

Howl handed her a beautiful white fabric with clusters of lilacs printed all over it in varying shades of purple.

“Yes, I very much agree,” said Sophie, wondering how she missed that swatch before and thinking Howl must have invented it.

“Where did this one come from?” Fanny asked, “it's so white.”

“Where I come from it's a grand tradition for a bride to wear nothing but white,” Howl said.

He sounded homesick but Sophie thought it was just an act considering he could come and go to Wales as he pleased. And he very rarely pleased.

“What a queer tradition,” said Fanny.

“As are most traditions,” said Howl, looking wounded. “But if you think an Ingary custom would be more suitable-”

“I think it's lovely,” Sophie interrupted and took Howl's hand. “I will be proud to share your tradition, Howl.”

Howl smiled warmly and dared to kiss Sophie on the cheek.

The rest of the afternoon went much more smoothly. The flower shop remained closed while Howl and Fanny excitedly poured over every detail of the wedding with Calcifer watching on curiously. Sophie resigned herself to let it happen and decided to tidy up the castle, interjecting only when their grand ideas became far too grand.

Michael had long since retreated to his room to finish his spell - and letter - in private. He emerged only to retrieve the materials for a sandwich and did not come down for the rest of the evening.

Of course, Fanny imposed herself on Howl and Sophie's supper as well as their evening stroll around town. This time Sophie and Fanny walked arm in arm as women often did, while Howl stayed a few places behind them, his hands clasped regally behind his back. Sophie was miserable about the whole thing. She was subjected to Fanny’s every thought about the wedding and felt as if she were conversing with Mrs. Fairfax with how much Fanny talked! All Sophie wanted was to talk to Howl, feel his touch, kiss his skin…

After the walk, Fanny insisted on taking Sophie home while Howl returned to the castle alone. Fanny let herself inside the house and nosed about under the pretense of cleaning up. It wasn't a weak pretense, for Sophie had been a bit too distracted to pay much mind to her own home. She even forgot to make the bed.

“Sophie, I'm concerned for you dear,” Fanny said as she swept at the singe marks on the kitchen ceiling above the stove.

“It's just a spell gone wrong. Nothing to worry about,” Sophie said, washing the teacups from earlier.

“What? No, dear, not that. It's mostly rumor, I'm sure. You know how Market Chipping is. But the town is very interested in you and Howl.”

Sophie snorted. “Howl is a one-man spectacle.”

Unable to remove the black marks from the ceiling completely, Fanny dusted and swept her way down the hall. Sophie followed, feeling how she supposed Howl and Michael felt when she first descended upon them.

“People seem to believe you two have been awfully close. Stealing kisses in the shop and at your front door when he walks you home. A few old friends have whispered their fears of impropriety to me.”

Sophie huffed and marched past Fanny into her room and made a show of dusting her bookcase, hoping to keep Fanny away from it.

“Howl and I are engaged to be married. The rest is tawdry gossip and I pay no mind to that.” Sophie hoped she sounded convincing. In reality, she very much wanted to know what the town was saying about her.

Fanny sneezed, then pulled back the curtains and opened the windows.

“It’s not just that they see you kiss. Of course I expect you to be close with Howl, I would hope you want to be close with him if you two intend to marry. I just want you to be careful.”

“Fanny-”

“No, please just listen. Just today it seemed the whole town knew your whereabouts. I was bombarded with condolences from your fight with Howl, whatever that was about-”

“I always fight with Howl.” Sophie reddened.

“-and some busybodies spotted Lettie rushing out of the flower shop after hours looking quite distraught and coming to your home. They’ve already made their own conclusions as to what that was about.”

“I've heard their conclusions,” Sophie grumbled. “Lettie came to see me for advice; she was having trouble with an enchantment. Howl was the fastest way to get here from Kingsbury,” Sophie said, carefully avoiding giving away too much information about Lettie’s troubles.

“Yes, well things appear quite different to the outside observer.”

“There’s nothing I can do about people’s assumptions” Sophie said, now feeling quite sure of herself.

“Which is why it's so important to be so careful.”

Looking weary, Fanny slumped down on the edge of the unmade bed. She remarked on Sophie's uncharacteristic untidiness which Sophie pretended not to hear. It was then that Sophie noticed Howl’s missing earring poking out from under her pillow. Her eyes widened behind Fanny’s back as she tried to plan how to retrieve it without Fanny noticing.

“It would have been nice to know Lettie was in town. I would have liked to spend time with all three of you,” said Fanny.

“It all happened so quickly.”

Fanny leaned back, resting her hand just a few inches down from the earring, which went tumbling into her hand when the mattress indented under her weight.

“I miss you three- what’s this?” Fanny said as she felt the dangling red jewel bump against her skin.

Sophie watched in horror as Fanny picked the earring up and peered at it curiously. Then she narrowed her eyes at Sophie.

“This is quite an interesting earring,” Fanny said with a great deal of suspicion. “Similar to the kind Howl wore today. In fact, didn’t he announce he lost one just this morning? A vibrant red.”

No one was going to glide into the room and get Sophie out of this predicament. She had to come up with a lie on her own, and fast.

“Oh, I plum forgot!” Sophie said much too loud, followed by frantic laughter. “I found that on the floor of the shop yesterday and put it in my pocket for safekeeping. It must have rolled out. Howl will be so happy to have his earring back, thank you for finding it, Fanny.”

Fanny didn’t appear at all convinced.

“I have a feeling you aren’t being completely truthful with me Sophie. Come on, out with it.” She sounded as stern as she did when she caught Sophie playing in the mud in her best dress when she was six.

But Sophie was a pupil to the master slitherer-outer. She walked round the bed to sit down next to Fanny. Taking Fanny's hand with both of her own, Sophie was able to discreetly retrieve the earring from and slip it into her pocket.

“Fanny, I understand your concerns but people are going to gossip no matter what. There’s not much we can do about that. And Howl is such a peacock, of course he will be the primary subject of interest.” Sophie tried to sound stern and serious, parroting Howl’s sentiment. “We will be married soon enough and all of this will blow over.”

“I should have insisted you come live with me,” Fanny muttered.

Sophie also chose to ignore that.

Fanny visited so long with Sophie that she ended up staying the night, for it was far too late to walk home alone. Sophie suspected that may have been a ploy to keep an eye on her

Unfortunately, Howl did not come to Sophie that night, though it was probably for the best. Sophie wanted to go to the castle but she was too anxious that Fanny would come to her room and find her gone. How could she explain that?

As Sophie undressed for bed Howl’s earring tumbled from her pocket. Rescuing the earring, she thought about Howl and worried that he would spend the night feeling sad and alone. Sophie felt frustratingly helpless about it. Clutching the earring in her fist, she closed her eyes and tried to send Howl her love through it, like a sort of magical lightning rod. After a few moments she felt rather silly and set the earring on the nightstand. She settled in to sleep.

Chapter Text

The next few days Sophie hardly saw Howl at all, for his time was split between working for the king and planning for the wedding. By Thursday Sophie resigned herself to wait until her wedding night to consummate her relationship. Howl was right: it really wasn't so long to wait. Though she hated feeling as if the silly notion of propriety dictated her life. It was just as well that Howl spent so much time away since Sophie found it very difficult to control herself around him. Having finally reconciled with Michael she wanted to spare any more tension between them which sneaking around with Howl was likely to cause.

She was certain that her desire for Howl was genuine because the first thing Sophie did after Howl first said "I love you" was feed that damned, charmed, gray and scarlet suit to Calcifer.

Calcifer loved it. He claimed the enchantment stitched in was like a delicacy.

Afraid to be discovered in the castle with so many people coming and going Sophie also resigned herself to sleep in her house in Market Chipping. Or try to anyway. During the lonely evenings Sophie still had trouble falling asleep but found she could doze off a little easier if she continued to send Howl her love through his earring. It seemed like a silly thing to do but made her feel much better. She even tied it to a string and wore it round her neck, tucked safely under her clothes. It made her feel like Howl was with her just a little bit.

Michael spent most of his time in the shop with Sophie, deciding that his need to avoid the torrent of planning was stronger than his embarrassment over seeing Howl and Sophie in a compromising position. Sophie felt the same and they had gone back to being comfortable around each other as before.

The flower shop seemed much busier since the wedding invitations were sent out-though most of the customers were more interested in giving Sophie their opinions on food and dresses and floral arrangements than they were on buying flowers. In fact, throughout her workday Sophie found herself surrounded by at least three people bursting with opinions.

Even poor Michael had to field wedding questions, most of which he had no idea as to the answer. This caused him to run to Sophie, interrupting whatever business she was in the middle of; arranging a bouquet, talking the flowers into perking up, matching ribbons to the arrangements. 

It wasn't yet noon when Sophie, exhausted and overwhelmed, had had enough.

“Michael, I think if I leave things will calm down here,” Sophie said during the brief moment she and Michael we're unperturbed by wedding inquiries.

“We could close up you know, until after the wedding. There are only four days left and there's still much to do,” Michael suggested.

“The way Howl has been spending gold on the reception we ought to try to make as much money as we can. I’ll only take a short break and you can leave early today. Would that be alright?”

“Yes, of course,” Michael said resignedly, agreeing with her logic but sounding as if it would certainly not be alright.

“Thank you.” Sophie put her hand on Michael's shoulder appreciatively. She pretended not to notice the few onlookers’ raised eyebrows directed at the friendly gesture.

In the quiet of the the castle Sophie took a few moments to breathe and realized how tense she really felt. Between nosy customers and Fanny's wedding frenzy, adding in the constant interruptions of her private time with Howl, Sophie thought she might burst from frustration. Maybe Michael had been right about closing the shop for the day.

“You look agitated,” Calcifer said from the fireplace.

“These nosy gossips!” Sophie said agitatedly. Calcifer flickered.

“Just close up shop until the wedding,” Calcifer said. “They'll lose interest soon enough.”

“I won't let Howl bankrupt me before I'm even his wife. I just need a few moments of private,” Sophie said, moving for the bathroom.

“Sophie, wait,” Said Calcifer. But Sophie was already through the door.

“Oh!” She cried and clamped her hands over her face.

“Oh!” Said Howl at the same time.

He was relaxing in the bath, as Sophie saw. And she saw all of him. It was a wonderful sight to see but she felt quite embarrassed for seeing it.

“I'm sorry,” she said, her voice muffled in her hands. “I thought you'd gone.”

“I’m taking advantage of a rare, unoccupied morning,” he said casually, as if he wasn't bare before her.

“I apologise,” Sophie said, fumbling for the doorknob behind her, eyes squinted shut behind her hand. “I'll leave you be.”

She heard the gentle splashes of water as Howl shifted positions.

“Sophie dear,” he said good-humoredly, “you needn't run out of here on my account, all things considered.”

“But I've never seen you so…”

“Naked? Well now you have and there's no going back. It was going to happen sooner or later, anyway. It nearly did happen sooner- several times.”

“But Howl-”

“Really darling, there's no use in being shy about your eyes discovering what your hands are already well acquainted with. You're undoubtedly impressed by what you see?”

“Howl! Don't be crass,” Sophie cried annoyedly. She opened her eyes to glare at him and let her hands drop from her face to fold her arms across her chest.

“Me, crass? You're the one barging in on me while I'm naked and vulnerable and unsuspecting.”

Howl, who was now sitting upright and leaning over the edge of the tub waggled his eyebrows at her which elicited laughter from Sophie.

“What did bring you in here if not to gaze upon my stunning physique?” Howl asked.

Sophie told him of the bombardment of questions and busybodies she faced in the shop all morning. As she spoke she perched on the edge of the tub next to Howl, careful not to look too long at Howl’s broad chest, his long legs, his generous endowment. It looked to be much thicker than it had felt in her hand the other day. Somewhere in the back of her mind she wondered how they would possibly fit together.

“And you left poor Michael alone to fend for himself? So cruel,” Howl said, taking Sophie's hand.

“Only for a small break,” said Sophie defensively.

“I sympathize with you my dear, though I admit I enjoy seeing you receiving a taste of your own medicine.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Sophie was incensed.

“Only that I never thought I'd see Mrs. Nose become out-nosed! It's quite fascinating.”

Howl kissed her knuckles. Sophie snatched them away.

“This affects you too, you know,” she humphed.

“But my reputation is already tarnished; I saw to that myself.” Howl retrieved Sophie's hand, dripping water on her skirts.

“The reputation of Horrible Howl, but not of the Wizard Pendragon or H. Jenkins,” Sophie reminded him.

“Yes, some virtuous woman has set out to undo all the hard work I spent blackening my name.”

Sophie snorted.

“Michael was the one who put out so the work to blacken your name. And I'll not have you brandish words like virtue about to me,” she said a bit too defensively.

“What words would suit you then?” Howl asked with a wry smile as he slithered a hand up to Sophie's rear, soaking through her skirt and undergarments. “Brash? Bold? Brazen?”

“Howl…” Sophie complained.

“Perhaps the B doesn't suit you.” Howl's voice was a low rumble, his hand giving a little squeeze. “Maybe S for Sophie. Scrubbing, scolding, scary, seductive, sensual Sophie.”

“Horrible, hauranging, heartless-”

“Not any longer.”

“-helpless, hapless, haphazard Howl.

“Not a compliment in the list,” Howl pouted. “Severe, spiteful Sophie.”

“I suppose handsome could apply,” Sophie said, leaning forward as she spoke, resting a hand on his warm, wet shoulder.

“I would place that at the top of the list.” Howl rubbed circles around her rear and hip.

“Vaguely heroic… under the right circumstances.” With her other hand she brushed Howl’s freshly-shaven cheek with her fingers.

“Saucy,” Howl rumbled.

"Dishonest, unhelpful," Sophie listed in near whispers, touching her nose to his.

“You’ve lost the game,” Howl said.

Sophie didn't care. She tilted her head and met his lips in a tender, lingering kiss. Howl sank his fingers into her mass of hair and bit at her lower lip before slipping his tongue between her lips. Sophie responded, brushing the tip of his tongue with her own.

Warm water dripped from Howl's arm down Sophie's neck and chest, tickling down between her breasts.

Sophie traced Howl's jaw with her fingertips and deepened the kiss, filling his mouth with her tongue and dancing it round his. She felt the now familiar tingling in her sex that desired Howl.

It had been too long since they had an opportunity to exchange more than a peck on the lips. Sophie’s skin felt electric under Howl’s touch as he slid his hand down her neck and squeezed and rubbed her rear with the other. They kissed like that for a long time. Sophie's warm and wettening sex made her want nothing more than to press herself against Howl and feel him completely.

Howl's sliding hand wandered further down to massage her breasts but the layers of clothes tragically muffled the feel of him. Sophie caressed his chest, her fingers sliding up and down and across his slick skin. Howl sighed longingly. He glided his hand up from her bottom and around her waist. With a firm grip he pulled and brought Sophie into his lap with a splash, water spraying about the room.

“Howl!” She cried into his mouth.

“Slipped, did we?” Howl said in between kisses. “You need to be more careful, my love.”

“My dress,” Sophie complained unconvincingly. She rubbed her hand up and down Howl's torso, from his shoulder to his stomach and across his ribs and side.

“It will dry.” Howl nibbled on Sophie's earlobe, sending tingles down her jaw.

“Why do you only care for your own clothes?” Sophie grumbled through panting breath as she slid her skirts up her legs and above her knees.

If Howl had an answer it was lost in the grunt he made when Sophie moved and shifted her position to kneel, straddling over him.

Sophie splayed her hands across his chest, feeling his quickening heartbeat as she kissed and licked his neck and shoulder, tasting the sweet saltines of his skin. She could hold her hands over his heart for eternity, feeling the pounding of his restored life and love for her.

A deep rumble came from Howl’s throat that resonated in Sophie’s breastbone and sent shivers through her body.

The water soaked through her clothes, making the cotton drape heavily and cling to her body. Well-practiced by now, Howl nimbly unfastened her buttons and, with a bit of difficulty pulled the heavy, soping fabric over her head. He tossed the dress in a heap on the bathroom floor.

Sophie blushed again under Howl’s appreciative gaze, his warm, green eyes taking in the curves of her body through her clinging undergarments. Howl traced the roundness of her hips with his fingertips and pressed small kisses to the tops of Sophie's breasts that peeked out from the low neckline of her jump.

Sophie throbbed for Howl and found he felt the same as his arousal hardened and pressed against her through the thin fabric of her drawers. As he nipped at her breasts his hands roved vigorously up and down her body in rough, grabbing movements. Digging her fingers into his shoulders, Sophie rocked against him, his erection sliding against her sex. Howl firmly grasped Sophie's hips with a groan, squeezing pressure into her flesh. He pulled her hips down and forward, then pushed her back and repeated, sliding her groin back and forth over his arousal until Sophie picked up the motion on her own accord. He laid his smooth cheek on her breast, panting hard with each thrust of Sophie's hips.

As Sophie writhed atop Howl she felt his erection rub against her nub and opening sending quick, fleeting sensations through her. She cursed the barrier between them. The feelings were wonderfully pleasing but they weren't enough; she wanted all of Howl. She needed all of Howl.

Sophie slid off of Howl’s lap so she was sitting next to him, splashing water out of the tub with the movement. She stretched her legs sideways across his and kicked off her shoes onto the floor. Howl made a disappointed groan as she did so, trying to keep his mouth on her breasts and his hands on her hips.

But Howl's face brightened when Sophie began to roll down one of her stockings, a coy smirk spread across her full lips.

“Oh,”  he said with revelation, and then a much more devilish "oh yes."

He slid his hands down to her legs to take over, making a point to rake his fingers up and down across the curve of her calves. When her lower legs were bare and goosebumped, Howl bunched her petticoat up around her waist and then slid hands to Sophie's drawers. Playing with the string at her waist that kept her undergarments secure, he looked at her questioningly.

“Yes,” she whispered, her heart pounding wildly from nerves and excitement.

With a bit of difficulty, for they were wet and clinging, Howl untied the string and pulled off Sophie's drawers, tossing them into the growing pile of clothes.

Taking his time to appreciate her wholy, Howl rubbed his hand from Sophie's ankle all the way up her thigh, then round her hip and back down again.

“I continue to find delightful new parts of you to explore,” Howl hummed, touching his nose to hers and swirling his hand around Sophie’s thigh. His other hand slid under her petticoat and found her rear, giving delightful little squeezes and eliciting delightful little noises of pleasure from Sophie.

“I believe your last expedition was left incomplete,” Sophie cooed as she trailed a hand down the muscles of Howl’s slick chest. “Shall we pick up where we left off?”

“I want nothing more-”

His words choked off when Sophie eagerly wrapped her hand round his arousal. Panting now, he clutched her bottom and her thigh tightly, fingers digging into the fat and muscle. Sophie smiled, feeling the muscles throughout Howl’s body flinch and contract against her touch as she slid her hand up and down his length.

Howl desperately covered Sophie’s mouth with his, his tongue circling hers in a wanton frenzy. Sophie wrapped her free arm around Howl’s shoulder to steady herself, feeling she might slip away from him at any moment. She gave soft grunts that muffled in his mouth, her groin burning for him. Howl obligingly slid his hand across her thigh and then down between her legs, tickling her with his gentle touch.

Sophie felt her heartbeat in her ears and opened her legs for him. She stopped kissing Howl to gasp when his fingers found her wet opening, sliding up and down with a tickling pleasure. As he circled her hard nub with one finger Sophie stiffened and tightened her grasp on Howl's erection, stroking up and down with a renewed vigor.

Howl spread his free hand across Sophie’s back and leaned her backward. He licked and sucked at her skin from her neck to the top of her breasts. Though his tongue was hot and wet, he left Sophie feeling pleasant shivers in his wake.

Howl tentatively teased the folds of Sophie’s opening. He pressed his face to her heaving chest and raked his tongue across the soft skin, his wet hair tickling her. Moving further still, Howl took the strings of Sophie's jump in his teeth and pulled them loose, wearing a rakish smile all the while. As soon as her chest was exposed Howl covered her pink nipple with his mouth, rolling his tongue in slow circles and gently sucking it, sending sharp pleasure through Sophie.

“Howl," Sophie gasped, closing her eyes and listening to Howl’s labored breathing as she pulled her hand up and down his arousal. "I want more of you." Her body twitched with every flick of Howl’s finger against her nub.

Howl growled in agreement.

Very slowly, Howl slid two fingers into Sophie’s slick opening. Feeling him begin to fill her and pushing against her walls sent a jolt of shock through her.

“Howl!” she cried out, too stunned to move.

Howl froze and whipped his head up, looking quite concerned.

“Are you alright, cariad?” He murmured uncertainly. “Is this alright?”

Sophie cupped his face with both hands and pressed her forehead to his.

“Yes, my love. Yes,” she exhaled.

“Are you certain?”

Sophie nodded, feeling out of breath.

“It's a new sensation,” she explained, unable to properly describe the shock of the pleasure masked by slight pain.

“I'll let you get accustomed,” Howl said tenderly, letting his fingers rest inside of her.

Howl placed gentle kisses on Sophie's cheeks and nose and lips. She relaxed a bit from his kisses and grew used to the strange sensation of his fingers filling her. When the pain and discomfort were nearly disappeared, Sophie looked intently into Howl’s deep, green eyes and nodded, ready to go on.

Howl continued to gently push his fingers into Sophie. He slid them in as far into her as he could and found the tender place inside of her. Howl massaged the sensitive spot, rubbing up and down and in small little circles. Sophie gasped again and moaned, feeling him deep inside of her. Howl pulled his fingers out slightly and delicately pushed them back into place again and again, in and out, in and out, in a slow and steady rhythm. He slipped his other hand back down to her rear, gently squeezing with each push of his fingers.

Too paralyzed by her own arousal to be able to help with Howl’s any longer, Sophie slid her arm back around his shoulder, holding on for her life and tangled the other in his hair. She kept her forehead against his and drank in his green eyes and angular nose and plush lips. The muscles of her sex tightened around his fingers and she felt there was no more room for him inside of her, but he found the space. With a moan, Sophie closed her eyes, pressed her feet against the side of the tub and writhed against Howl’s hand, feeling the odd sensation of her inner walls compressing tighter and tighter around him. She felt his knuckles graze back and forth against her opening as he massaged her sensitive spot harder and faster. Sophie held her breath, her walls contracting more and more as she swelled nearer to a climax.

Breathing became difficult, and it seemed all Sophie could do was inhale. She fisted Howl’s hair in one hand, pulling hard as he quickened the rhythm of his fingers inside of her, pushing harder and harder against her sensitive interior. He slipped his thumb against her nub, pushing with the same rhythm and intensity. Sophie sucked in a gasp and cried out in breathless whimpering moans.

“Howl!” she cried and opened her eyes wide with the sensation, but her vision was blurred and blackened.

"Sophie," Howl sighed his response and met her lips in a frenzied kiss.

With one final, hard push of Howl’s fingers Sophie’s entire body stiffened. She held her breath feeling as if waves crashed through her body emanating from her sex. Her head swam, addled by her breathlessness and only able to focus on the sharp peak of sensation that Howl sent through her, her interior muscles clamping his fingers in place, her heart throbbing in her ears, the sharp tingles running through her body until the pleasure became so intense it nearly turned back into pain.

Her body shook and trembled and then, as quickly as it came it left. All the tension and feeling and breath washed out of Sophie, leaving her lightheaded and sleepy.

She let her body slump, clutching herself to Howl and burying her face into the crook of his neck. Panting, she tried to catch her breath and let her mind return to her. Howl, his own breathing labored, gently slid his fingers out of Sophie. He cradled her in his arms and leaned back to a recline, bringing her with him.

They sat in the warmth of the bath, listening to each other’s heavy breathing and the gentle lapping of water against the tub. Sophie kept her head buried in Howl's neck, feeling her breath bounce against his skin and back at her lips and nose, smelling the gardenias of the bath and the earthiness of Howl, feeling his wet hair tickle against her cheek. Howl tenderly rubbed one hand up and down Sophie's back, his other arm locked gallantly round her. He held her tight, whispering his love into her hair.

“How do you feel?” Howl finally asked when Sophie’s breathing steadied.

Sophie noticed the anxiety in his question, but still took stock of her feelings, wanting to answer honestly.

“I… don’t feel much different. I feel like myself,” she finally hummed, nestling her head down further against his neck and shoulder.

“I had so little effect on you?” Howl asked in his wounded way.

“Howl no,” Sophie said. “The way people have fussed over virtue, I don’t know. I thought I would be changed after…”

“I suppose a few might argue you still have some virtue left,” Howl said.

“Not for long, I hope,” Sophie said thoughtfully. “I find myself happy but wanting.”

“Wanting!” Howl exclaimed laughingly and brushed her hair back. “What more do I have to give?”

Sophie picked her head up, glancing down to Howl’s groin before smirking up at him.

“I knew you’d be the death of me, Sophie Hatter. I didn’t know overexertion would be your method of choice.”

“Of all the ways one could die, it ought to rank high on the list,” Sophie said, her hand meandering down Howl’s torso. “Besides, as you say, I still have some virtue left to spend. As do you if I'm not mistaken.”

“But first,” Howl said, catching her hand with his and pulling it up to his heart which beat wildly in his chest, contradicting his cool demeanor. “There's a question I've been holding on to.”

“Yes?”

“My earring,” he nodded to the pendant dangling between her breasts.

“Oh,” Sophie blushed with realization. “I found it in my bed. Well, Fanny found it.”

“That can't have been pleasant.”

“I managed to slither out,” Sophie said, ignoring Howl’s smug look. “But I missed you and thought of you alone at night and… I tried to send you my love through the earring.”

Howl's eyes went wide.

“It’s silly-”

“No! Not at all. I suspected you’d been trying to enchant me. I hoped it was meant with good intentions,” He said, more to himself than to her.

Sophie reddened and looked away. “I kept thinking of your tears and- Have I mucked things up?”

“Actually, I've felt quite warm and happy each evening. I can see your love swirling inside of the jewel there.” Howl peered at her suspiciously. “Your spells seem to be spot on when they concern me which is more than a small favor.”

Sophie touched the string on her neck. “I should have given it back when I found it.”

“No, keep it for now,” Howl said, reaching up to stroke her cheek. “I'd much rather wait until Sunday. That would be an incredible gift. Wearing your love while we wed.”

Howl's eyes glistened and his face flushed as if he were overcome with feeling. Sophie smiled warmly at Howl with a swelling in her heart. For good or bad he put his emotions on display, bare before the world; Sophie realized that was one of the things she loved about him. Even if it meant she had to clean up gobs of green slime once in a while.

She cupped Howl’s cheek and kissed him, hoping her kiss would express what her words couldn’t.

It seemed to, because Howl pulled Sophie so close against him she felt they were at risk of fusing together. Tangled together in a deep kiss, Sophie heard the creak and thump of the bathroom door flinging open and hitting the doorstop. She startled and whipped her head round to see a very stunned Fanny with Sophie's lilac print dress bundled in her arms.

“Sophie Hatter!” Fanny wailed, letting the dress fall to the ground.

Chapter Text

Several different expressions passed across Fanny’s face ranging from confusion to fear to fury to pain. Gardenia-scented steam whirled round her and wooshed out of the open door, bringing a cold draft into the once warm bathroom. Her face, finally settling into an angry grimace, turned a ghostly white, then a vibrant crimson, followed by an odd blue-green when Calcifer came floating nearby.

Sophie clasped her hand over her jump, holding it closed. She shrunk against Howl under Fanny’s stern gaze and shivered when the fresh, cold air made contact with her wet skin.

The moment felt like eternity: Sophie and Fanny both staring at each other in horror.

“I tried to stop her from coming in,” said Calcifer to Sophie and Howl. “She’s just as much of a bully as Sophie.”

“You- you lied to me,” Fanny stammered.

“You can’t just burst into people’s bathrooms,” Sophie exclaimed, letting her anger take over as it often did when she found herself caught with feelings she'd rather not have.

“You lied to me!” Fanny repeated, dredging up her own fury. “I come here to steam your wedding dress - the dress I went to so much trouble to have made and paid extra for the rush - and I find you like this? After all I've done for you!”

Sophie didn't see the connection from one subject to another.

“Ladies, perhaps this is a conversation better had in a different location,” Howl said, sounding all too calm. “And with a bit more clothing.”

Calcifer snickered.

“And you!” Fanny turned her sights to Howl. “Corrupting my sensible Sophie right under my nose, you terrible man! But I should have known with your reputation. Were you even intending to appear at the wedding? Or did you hope to jilt Sophie once you had your fun? Leave her out on the street alone and used up.” Spit flew from Fanny’s mouth along with her ire.

Howl flinched and tightened his grip on Sophie. Sophie noticed the goosebumps that spread across his skin.

“Used up?” Sophie exclaimed. “As if I'm nothing more than a household object?”

“That’s how people like him think!” Sputtered Fanny.

“Howl, I thought we were through dealing with your sweethearts’ angry relatives,” Calcifer complained.

“Not helping, old friend,” said Howl bitterly.

“Fine, fine,” Calcifer said, retreating back to his fireplace in the main room, his voice drifting through the doorway. “But I don't see what the fuss is about, I'm always naked.”

“Fanny, I can see you're upset and saying things you don't mean,” Howl said cooly, hopelessly stuck between the tub and Sophie. “Perhaps you should calm down in the other room while-”

“Don't you tell me what I do and don't mean you... heartless wizard,” Fanny lectured.

“Heartless?” Howl was indignant.

“Sophie put his heart back, remember? You were there,” Calcifer called from the main room.

“Consorting with demons and courting all over Ingary. Vain and selfish. How could I ever expect you to respect my poor Sophie-” Fanny was on a roll now.

“Fanny, control yourself!” Sophie admonished.

Fanny narrowed her eyes at Sophie.

“Control myself?  You’re the one who-” Fanny gasped and lifted her hand to her mouth. Tears welled in her eyes. “Does he have you under an enchantment? He must!”

“Fanny, no!” Sophie cried.

“As if I would ever need to,” Howl humphed.

“You aren't helping,” Sophie hissed.

Sophie stood up to meet Fanny at eye level, keeping one hand on her jump. The tub water splashed against her calves and her petticoat stuck in bunches about her thighs. Howl pulled his knees to his chest attempting to cover his nudity.

“Fanny, you can’t blame Howl. I wanted this-”

Fanny closed her eyes and held up her hand for Sophie to stop.

“I cant listen to another word,” she said, her voice low. “Your father would be so ashamed.”

Sophie heard Howl suck in air just before her fury overtook her senses.

“You leave father out of this!” she scolded.

“Your father was a respectable man. To find his daughter in this… state! I- I can’t look at you any longer,” Fanny said. “You can have your wedding without me. If this… corrupter will even attend now that he’s had his way with you.”

“You think my only value is what’s between my legs?” Sophie exploded, shocked.

“That’s most certainly how this vile wizard sees things,” Fanny said darkly. “At least Lettie had the sense to turn him away. I thought you were better than this.”

“Now Fanny-” Howl started to say.

But Fanny turned away.

“I'll not listen to another word,” she cried and rushed out of the doorway.

“Oh no you don’t,” Sophie raged. She climbed out of the bathtub spilling water all over the floor.

“Sophie, wait. Howl climbed out after her, nearly slipping on the wet tile.

But Sophie was out of the bathroom and ignoring his pleas. Howl grabbed a towel to wrap round himself and followed behind.

“Don’t you run away from me, not after you said those horrible things about Howl. And those things about my father,” Sophie hollered after Fanny, who disappeared into the shop, slamming the door behind her.

“Sophie, stop,” Howl said, a bit louder.

“Watch it,” Calcifer cried, shying away from the water dripping from Howl and Sophie. He retreated halfway up the chimney to safety.

Sophie grunted and complained, fumbling with the door, turning the knob, starting to open it.

“SOPHIE HATTER,” Howl’s voice boomed louder and more serious than she’d ever heard of him. The door slammed shut and latched itself locked.

Sophie pushed and pulled and wiggled the knob but it wouldn't budge. Magic.

Sophie whipped around to face Howl.

“What is it?” she yelled full of spitfire and fury. “What is so important to you that you're stopping me right now, you selfish-”

“Sophie you can’t run out there like this,” Howl pleaded.

“So some gossips see me angry. Howl, I don't care!”

“Sophie, look at yourself,"  Howl begged, gesturing toward her.

Sophie looked down and realized the state she was in. Bare legs and feet, standing in her undergarments that were soaked through and slightly see-through, her jump loose and open.

Sophie let out a frustrated growl.

“Go on! Be dry! And be proper clothes,” she told her underwear. “Come on now, I haven’t time to dawdle around.”

Sophie’s spell worked a bit too literally. Her clothes fogged and shifted and suddenly she was dressed in the height of proper fashion. She looked like a queen, really, all gold and lace and embroidered trim, her multiple skirts forming a complicated bustle. But as long as she was decent, that was enough for Sophie. She unlatched and flung open the shop door with surprising ease. Marching through it she stunned an all ready startled Michael and the few patrons who were in the shop.

“Sophie what on earth are you wearing?” Michael asked.

“Where did she go?” Sophie ordered.

“Out the door and left,” responded Michael hastily.

Sophie marched outside and turned left. She ran a few stifled, fruitless blocks before losing her breath. The ridiculous dress was heavy and warm and she was slow moving in it. She wanted to keep going but Fanny could be anywhere by now.

Well, if that’s how she wants to be about it, let her,  Sophie thought.

Sophie marched back into the shop. All eyes were on her.

“We’re closed now,” she announced, panting and red-faced.

No one moved.

“Go on!” Sophie hollered, waving her arms. “No more flowers until Monday.”

And so she ran the customers out of the store while Michael watched on, afraid to move lest he found himself the new target of her scorn.

After locking the front door, Sophie marched back into the castle, seething. Howl had dried himself and donned his green and white suit - Sophie’s favorite.

“Well, that was quite a scene,” he said.

Sophie glowered at him, ready for another fight. But as she looked at Howl the weight of her argument with Fanny settled on her. Sophie felt as if her knees would give out from under her. She crumpled onto her little chair by the fireplace, her face buried in her hands. Howl rushed to kneel at her side, wrapping his arms about her. Slipping her arms round his neck Sophie pressed her face to his shoulder. For the first time since her father passed she cried tears of sadness.

---

Whatever pressing business Howl may have had that afternoon, he cancelled. Howl helped her out of the proper clothes and back into her familiar ones, dried with his drying power powder.

Once Sophie had calmed down Howl made cold beef sandwiches for everyone, giving Calcifer the bits of fat cut off the meat. Michael ate solemnly at his workbench while he studied the new spell Howl had given him. Sophie, seated on the bench at the kitchen table next to Howl, nibbled at her sandwich but didn’t have much of an appetite.

“After all the trouble I go through, you can’t appreciate my hard work,” Howl complained after he’d finished eating.

“Sorry,” Sophie mumbled, the fight in her gone.

Howl looked past Sophie to Michael with a helpless look. Michael only shrugged and shook his head.

Howl wrapped his arm round Sophie’s shoulders and pulled her to him.

“That spell you put on my hair the other day,” he said happily. “Quite a brilliant thing. Perhaps you could try it again, since again I find myself a tangled mess.”

“I’m not really in the mood, Howl.”

“Don’t be like that, not while I’m in need!”

“Fine. Hair, be lovely,” Sophie said with a half-hearted sigh.

Howl rushed to the bathroom to see the results. He was silent in there for a long while.

“Sophie,” he said accusingly, finally emerging from the bathroom.

Michael gasped.

Calcifer couldn't (or wouldn't) stifle his laughter.

Sophie looked up and saw that Howl's hair had coiled itself into tight, golden ringlets. If it had been any other day she would have joined in the laughter. But as things were she could only stare at Howl in surprise.

“This isn't funny,” Howl said, pointing to his hair.

“However, it is lovely,” Calcifer said through laughter.

Michael rested his head on his arm on the table, his shoulders heaving with silent laughter.

Howl turned red and swiveled round. Marching back into the bathroom and closing the door behind him. He stayed in there for hours, seeming to completely forget that he was supposed to cheer Sophie up.

It was just as well. She much preferred her sulk at the moment.

Sophie folded her arms and slouched on the bench. She stared across the table, straight into the fireplace which caused Calcifer to stir and fidget. Flickering erratically he finally buried himself under the logs.

But Sophie didn't really see Calcifer. She was lost in thought, turning over and over in her head what Fanny said about her father being ashamed of her. Sophie began to feel that perhaps he would be.

Shortly before supper a knocking came at the front door of the flower shop. At first they thought it was just a street noise outside it came so faint through the door between the flower shop and castle. But when the knocking persisted they realized someone was trying to reach them.

“Undoubtedly some busybody trying to glean more fuel for their gossip,” said Howl, now at the workbench working on a spell to tame his hair. “They’ll go away soon.”

But they didn’t go away. Sophie was too busy sulking to care and Howl was busy ignoring her sulk. After nearly five minutes Michael couldn’t bear the knocking anymore and went to answer the door.

“Don’t let them trick you into selling flowers!” Howl called out as Michael passed through the doorway.

They heard the brief mumbling of a conversation.

“Howl,” Michael said, popping his head back through the door. “A message for you.”

“Take the message then,” said Howl.

Michael shook his head. “I tried. It’s to go to your hands only.”

Howl huffed and lugged himself into the shop, grumbling about nuisances and raking at his hair. He had a curt conversation with the messenger before slamming the door shut and reappearing into the castle, taking long, slow steps as he read a letter now in his possession.

“Well?” Sophie asked after Howl slipped the letter into the breast pocket of his jacket.

“Oh, something from the king, it’s no bother,” Howl said.

“Why is a king’s messenger calling on you in Market Chipping?” asked Calcifer.

“He's rounding up all the fire demons in Ingary for indentured servitude,” Howl snipped.

“No need to threaten me,” Grumbled Calcifer. “If you’re going to lie at least make it believable. You’re better than that.”  

“Howl, who was it from, really?” asked Sophie.

“Sometimes I think you only want to marry me so you can stick your long nose further into my business,” said Howl.

“You think yourself much too interesting,” said Sophie. “But I'm not in the mood for this game. Who was it?”

“Very well. It was a receipt for something I ordered for the wedding.” Howl held his hand over the place on his chest where the letter sat.

Sophie paused.

“And what did you order for the wedding that you needed this urgent receipt for?”

“I was going to keep it a surprise, like a sort of gift.”

“Howl.”

“Fine!” Howl threw his arms up and paced about the little room. “I was going to have thirty doves released after our vows. But now the surprise is ruined and I’m out my deposit. Well done, Sophie.”

Michael suddenly needed some materials from the yard.

Sophie closed her eyes and put her fingers to her temples.

“And why did you think that would be an acceptable surprise?”

“To see your face when you marvel at the beauty of it!”

“I imagine my face would look similar to how it looks right now,” she said, scowling at him with all the ferocity she could muster.

Calcifer snickered, fizzing and popping as he did.

“Fine,” Howl flung himself onto the bed in the cubby under the stairs. “I’ll cancel the doves if they're so offensive to you.”

“What’s offensive to me,” Sophie said, regaining some of her fight, “is that you think I would be taken in by ostentatious displays. It is offensive to me that you would spend all of our gold on something so… pointless! It is especially offensive to me that you’ve planned this whole wedding as if it were your wedding and not our wedding.”

“What about your dress!” Howl protested.

If Sophie hadn’t been so angry she might have heard the smile in Howl’s voice as he lay in her bed under the stairs. She might even have noticed him staring up at the ceiling and looking quite smug about pulling her out of her funk. But she was too busy railing at his faults to pay him that much mind.

My dress ,” Sophie continued, “was nothing but a tactic to help you slither out of another lie.”

“A lie you invented, Sophie dear. And it was a thoughtful tactic. But perhaps you'd rather the dress meet the same fate as my gray and scarlet suit.”

“I wouldn’t mind that,” said Calcifer. He made a little crackle and a motion that seemed as if he were licking his lips… if he had lips to lick or a tongue to lick them.

“No!” Sophie cried. “I love my dress! That’s not the point,” she was up and pacing now.

“Then what is?” Howl asked, folding his arms behind his head.

“It’s that… you are vain and selfish."

“Badges I wear proudly. And yet you still fell in love with me.”

“It’s a wonder,” Sophie humphed, crossing her arms and plopping back into her chair.

With a grand swinging motion Howl sat up, his face painted with a serious expression.

“Sophie dear, you aren’t really mad about the doves,” he said.

Sophie snorted.

Howl stood up and went to Sophie, stroking a strand of hair behind her ear before taking both of her hands. He pulled her to her feet.

“You know, I’m very adept at avoiding families, there’s a lot I could teach you.” He took her chin between his forefinger and thumb. His fingers were like silk against her skin.

“Howl-”

“There are hundreds of worlds out there. Let’s take our pick.” Howl stroked Sophie’s jaw with his thumb.

“It would never work,” Sophie said. “Lettie would have Ben track us down.”

“I’d like to see him try. That old fool couldn’t even find the rest of his body when it was right under his nose,” Howl hummed.

“Such a heartless thing to say about someone who would soon become your brother-in-law,” Sophie cooed.

“Already planning poor Lettie's future, are we? Bossy woman.”

“I have a sense about these things,” Sophie said, sliding her hand up Howl's back.

“As you did about me?”

“I had a sense you were trouble."

“I hope I’ve lived up to my reputation.”

Howl leaned in and brushed his lips against Sophie's. Her lips parted, accepting his kiss.

Sophie found herself in better spirits after fighting with Howl and kissing to make up. She even had an appetite for supper. Still, it had been a tiring day and she felt she needed time to collect her thoughts alone. It was just as well since Howl kept remarking on all he had left to do now that he'd lost half a day’s time.

After supper Howl took Sophie and her wedding dress home. Although she insisted on spending her evening alone she was disappointed to cut the evening short. But she needed time to think. She wanted to bring her beautiful dress home with her anyway, to make sure it was safe and well tended to. 

Sophie unlocked her front door and Howl followed dutifully behind, her dress draped regally across both his arms. Sophie had wanted to go through the bookshelf to keep the dress safe but Howl insisted on maintaining the facade of propriety and going through the front door.

Just as Sophie crossed through the threshold of her house she saw Martha and Fanny sitting at the table in the kitchen drinking tea. A third cup was set out waiting for her.

Chapter Text

“Who let you in here?” Sophie demanded, feeling her face flush with anger.

“Howl sent a key,” said Martha.

Sophie spun round to face Howl who was busy hanging her dress in the hall.

“The doves were a lie,” Sophie said flatly, feeling angry and relieved all at once.

“Not completely. I received my receipt for that upon payment. The message today," Howl patted the spot on his chest where the letter still hid, "was from your sister. I am sorry I had to lie to you about it; she felt the only way to get you and Fanny talking again was through trickery."

“I don't appreciate being lied to,” said Sophie.

Fanny snorted.

“Which is why I promise only to lie to you when it's absolutely necessary,” said Howl. And then, seeing the fury on Sophie's face, he hastily added “I'd love to stay for the row you're about to start with me but you really ought to settle your family business.”

Howl reached for Sophie's hand but she snatched it away with a scowl. He held his arms out pleadingly.

“You and Fanny have a lot to discuss,” Martha called from the kitchen, sounding impatient.

“And why, exactly are you here, Martha?” Asked Sophie, turning toward her sister.

Howl used Sophie’s distraction as an opportunity to slither out the front door.

“I have no room for Fanny in the Cesari's dorm,” Martha said, lifting her chin. “Since I don't fancy sleeping on the floor tonight it's in my own best interest to see this issue between you sorted out.”

“My youngest sister wants to sort me out!” Sophie folded her arms, forgetting all about Howl and his silly doves.

“Yes, I am the youngest.” Martha sat back, twiddling her thumbs. “And you’re the eldest of three who, in spite of your best efforts, succeeded in finding your fortune. Do you honestly believe I can’t sort out your problems simply because of my age?”

Sophie pressed her lips into a tight line.

“I thought so.” Martha smiled and gestured to the empty chair. “Now have a seat.

Without anything left to rebut, Sophie stomped over to the chair and flopped into it feeling as dramatic as Howl. She briefly wished she could conjure gobs of green slime and very nearly tried. But knowing her luck she would be the one to have to clean it all up and that didn't seem worth the tantrum.

“Good,” said Martha, taking a sip of her tea and turning to Fanny. “Mother, if your accounts of this morning are accurate I think you said some things in haste. Some things you ought to apologise for.”

“As I’ve  said before, I’m your mother young lady,” Fanny said, straightening and taking a sip of her tea. “It’s not your place to tell me what to do.”

“You’re my mother, but you’re also a stepmother who has been anything but wicked,” said Martha. “You gave Sophie and Lettie the same love and affection afforded to me. I won’t see that love forgotten over a man.”

“Over lies and deception.” Fanny slammed her cup down a bit too hard, sloshing tea in a puddle across the table.

Martha dashed to her feet reaching for a towel.

“I only lied because you were so… overbearing,"  said Sophie, smacking her hand on the table.

“What I saw this morning proved I had good reason to be!” Fanny laid both her palms flat on the table as if she was bracing herself against her fury.

Martha wiped up the spilt tea, trying to avoid being caught in the heat of the argument.

“Howl loves me. And I him.” Sophie felt her heartbeat quicken.

“Love! That’s no reason to filt off into his bed! Or bath as is the case.”

Martha dropped the towel which landed with a plop on the table.

“Sophie, you were in the bath with Howl? Mother, you didn’t say that!” She  sounded more intrigued than shocked. A blush rose to her cheeks.

Sophie looked back and forth between Fanny and Martha. Their expressions made her feel ganged up on.

“So what if I was? How I spend time with my fiancé is my own business.”

“It’s disgraceful behavior for an unmarried girl!” Fanny cried, nearly yelling. “The state I found you in today- it was- shameful!"

There was that word again. It raised Sophie’s hackles and conjured a new wave of fury. Indulging in her anger, she picked up her teacup and hurled it across the room.

She wasn’t aiming for anyone, not like when she threw that weedkiller at Howl for making her love him. Still, Fanny and Martha both ducked out of the way. The cup crashed on the ground, splattering tea and porcelain all across the floor.

“Sophie!” Martha cried.

"Control yourself!" Hollered Fanny.

Sophie stood, pushing her chair back a bit too hard and sending it skittering backward until it tipped over and fell with a crack.

“I’ll not be reprimanded in my own home!” Sophie spat. “You two can see yourselves out.”

She hefted her skirts and started to march toward the stairs but Martha dashed in front of Sophie to intercept.

“Get out of my way,” Sophie ordered.

“No.” Martha grabbed her by the shoulders to hold her in place. “We’re sorting this out tonight. I have to wake up before the sun tomorrow to get the morning bread started. If you have any love for me you’ll settle down and try to resolve this quickly.”

Sophie huffed out of her nose.

“Good,” said Martha, recognizing her sister’s defeat. She turned to Fanny. “You as well, mother. You aren’t blameless.”

Once everyone was seated and sorted, pointedly ignoring the mess Sophie made with the teacup, Martha continued.

“Sophie, it was wrong for you to lie to mother,” Martha said, twiddling her thumbs again.

Sophie pursed her lips.

“But mother,” Martha continued, “You’ve injected yourself so forcefully into Sophie’s life, can’t you understand why she did?”

“I’m her stepmother. I raised her- all three of you. What happens to you is my business,” Fanny said defensively.

“You didn’t care what she did when she was locked away in that hat shop,” Martha said.

Fanny flinched.

Even Sophie stirred in her chair. How bold her sister could be!

“It was only when she became someone of note that you began to worry,” Martha continued. “And after you married Mr. Smith, with all his money.”

Fanny inhaled, puffing out her chest ready for the defense, but sagged before her words escaped. With elbows on the table she rested her cheeks in her hands.

“I truly was worried for you,” Fanny said to the table. “It’s been difficult enough getting people to believe Howl doesn't really eat hearts and that he’s reformed his rakish ways. Your reputation is tied to his now and I can’t stand to see the black marks against you in people’s eyes.”

Sophie uncrossed her arms and folded her hands in her lap. She studied her step-mother’s worried face and realized that Fanny was trying to take care of her. As misguided as she may have been, she was doing the best she could.

“Fanny,” Sophie said, softly. “My reputation - well, what does it really matter?”

“Howl is working for the king now. You’ve got to be respectable-”

Sophie and Martha both erupted with laughter.

“The day Howl starts being respectable is the day I take up living in squalor,” laughed Sophie.

“And I'll allow Lettie to order me about,” added Martha.

“If the king only wanted respectable people in his employ he should have kept Ben as his sole Wizard,” Sophie added. “Now that Howl’s been recruited against his will he certainly won’t shape up now. As for me, well, people never noticed me before. Why should I bother about what they think now?”

Sophie surprised herself with her words. She realized she finally believed what she said.

Fanny sighed.

“I suppose you shouldn’t, if it truly doesn’t bother you. I just don't understand what you see in someone so....” she twirled her hand in a circle searching for the right word.

Of course several words describing Howl came to mind, very few that were flattering. But Sophie brushed them aside; listing his faults really was besides the point.

“Neither do I,” Sophie said, reaching to cover Fanny's hand in hers. “But I love him dearly anyway. I'm sorry I lied to you, Fanny.”

Fanny set her cup down and smiled at Sophie, patting her hand in return.

“I'm sorry as well, I never should have said what I did about your father. That was unthinkable.”

Sophie pulled back. Now it was her turn to stare at the table. She fixated on the wavy, dark lines in the grain of the wood, the scuffs and scratches from years of use, the ring marks of countless drinks set carelessly down.

“No. I've done a lot of thinking and you were right. Father would be ashamed of me.”

Sophie felt the rush of heat on her face. She watched her silent tears fall and splat against the table.

“Sophie, no-” said Martha.

“It's alright,” Sophie said, cutting off her sister. She looked up to Fanny and Martha, smiling in spite of herself. “There's nothing I can do about that. I've made my choices.”

Martha rushed to Sophie, nearly knocking over her own chair and flung her arms round Sophie's neck.

“Sophie, I was wrong,” said Fanny. “I had no right-”

“You needn't try to make me feel better, neither of you,” Sophie said as she patted Martha's arm in a comforting way. “I know I don't always think things through. I have to accept the consequences of-”

“Your father and I didn't wait,” Fanny blurted out and then lifted her hand to her mouth, shocked from her own admission.

Martha immediately shot upright. Sophie stiffened. Both stared at Fanny, bewildered. When it became clear her daughters wouldn't speak without further explanation Fanny continued, staring into her cup of tea, turning bright crimson.

“I… gave my virtue to your father before we were wed. Before we were properly courting, actually. If you believe he would hold scorn for you, Sophie, then he should have held it for me as well.”

“Mother! How could you say that to Sophie then?” Martha exclaimed.

“I was afraid and shocked. I suppose I wanted to make Sophie feel as bad as I felt. It was petty, really. I truly am sorry. I only want the best for you three.” Fanny fidgeted with her skirts. She looked as if she were bracing herself for the worst.

But all Sophie could do was laugh.

“What a pair of trollops we are!” Sophie wiped the tears from her eyes.

Fanny blinked at Sophie, stunned for several seconds. Then her red painted lips turned upwards into a smile. She found herself laughing along with Sophie. After which there was much hugging and laughter between the three.

“I wish Lettie was here with us,” said Fanny when the hugging subsided. “I miss seeing you girls all together.”

“Oh! I can’t wait to tell her about you and father!” Martha exclaimed.

“Young lady, my business is my own to tell,” lectured Fanny.

While the two bickered Sophie cleaned up her teacup from earlier, her heart feeling much lighter. Martha soon returned Sophie’s extra house key and took her leave for it was already dark and she needed to be off to bed.

“And I’m glad to see the little mark Howl left is clearing up,” whispered Martha after hugging Sophie goodby.

“We needn’t discuss that,” Sophie grumbled.

Finally alone and taking advantage of their proximity to each other, Fanny troubled Sophie with many of the last-minute wedding details that she hadn’t had a chance to plan with Howl. Sophie found just about every option presented to be disagreeable but had long since accepted that this wedding was out of her own hands. Instead of fighting with Fanny further she dutifully discussed table coverings and decorations and musical compositions. She would not, however, speak of the doves.

After the planning was as exhausted as Fanny and Sophie and after Sophie helped Fanny settle into one of the spare rooms, she retired to her own. Part of her hoped to find Howl there waiting for her, but her bed was tragically empty. Still, Sophie slept a bit better that evening.

---

Sophie had a few hours of puttering about the house the next morning before Fanny woke. After Fanny freshened herself, the two exchanged more heartfelt hugs and apologies and reassurances. Eventually, Fanny saw herself home, wanting to check in with Mr. Smith and tidy up a few last minute wedding details. She left Sophie with a list of tasks and insisted she make Howl help her, since he was so invested in the planning (financially and emotionally). Sophie glanced at the list and read the first item:

 

  • Retrieve doves from Mr. Thomas

 

Upon Fanny’s exit from the house Sophie immediately crumpled the list and tossed it in the stove to burn.

With the whole day to herself Sophie wasn’t quite sure how to occupy her time. She thought of reopening the shop but decided against it. There hadn’t really been much quiet since she was first cursed by the witch and she hadn't had much rest since her father passed. A private day off would be nice.

And Howl would just have to earn back the gold he squandered all on his own.

Sophie spent the rest of the morning trying to read, but her mind kept wandering, thinking of Fanny and her father and wondering what other secrets were kept from her. All the while she felt glad that she had resolved the issues between her and Fanny - even if Martha had to bully them into it.

Since reading was a fruitless effort, Sophie found herself eating a cold lunch alone in her little kitchen unsure of what to do next. She hated that lazy, listless feeling; it made her heart race and her chest tighten with anxiety. So Sophie did the only thing she could think to do when she found herself without a use: she cleaned.

It took the whole afternoon to remove the soot from the kitchen ceiling, clear the dust off the ledges and shelves and furniture, and finish all of her laundry. By the end of it she felt much better but her stomach grumbled yet. Not wanting to ruin a good day’s cleaning, Sophie decided to have supper at the castle. Perhaps Howl would be there to offer makeup kisses. Or at the very least she could spend time with Michael or Calcifer.

She arrived in the castle through the bookcase and found it sadly vacant. Listening to her own footsteps and hearing her own breathing in the small space made Sophie feel queer and fidgety.

After telling the fireplace to start a fire Sophie cooked herself sausages and onions for supper, making a bit extra in case anyone returned. As she ate alone at the large, wooden dining table she looked round, feeling swallowed up by the small, empty room. The place was beginning to look shabby again and she realized it hadn’t been properly cleaned in weeks. Now that Sophie was no longer the cleaning lady she refused to do Howl and Michael’s work for them. But this would be her home in just a few days time. If she didn’t want to live in squalor she better get to work. At least that’s what she told herself to justify her cleaning.

With a merciless vigor, Sophie cleaned the castle as she did when she first arrived. Though this time she minded to clear the ash from the fireplace before doing the floors. And she left poor Michael’s room alone. He'd been through enough.

Howl’s room was another matter.

He wasn’t here to defend it and Sophie had wanted to tackle the dust and filth and grime since she first laid eyes on it. Besides, it would soon be her room as well. Although Howl believed he had a right to live in filth if he wanted to, Sophie also believed she had just as much right to live in a clean room. And she absolutely was not aiming to find all the receipts for all of Howl’s wedding “surprises.” Not at all. But if she happened upon them while cleaning well… that wouldn’t really be her fault, would it?

Bucket and mop in hand, Sophie took a deep breath to ste ady her resolve and trudged up the stairs. She paused at the door to Howl’s room - thier room, bracing herself for the job that lay ahead.

She had quite a shock when she opened the door: the room was spotless. Howl’s quilt had been laundered, his dresser shone and on top of it stood a terrarium that housed some of his beloved spiders. There were new shelves affixed on the wall for some of Howl’s books and trinkets - all of which were free of dust. The two, full-length mirrors (and the small wall mirror) were wiped so clean that Sophie thought she might fall through them if she wasn’t careful. The trunk at the foot of his bed - their bed had a knitted blue blanket draped over it. Fearing the blanket was hiding something unseemly, Sophie lifted the edges to peek under; all she found was leather that shone from polish and brass hinges free of rust. Of course the trunk was closed with a padlock so she couldn’t see what horrors were inside. That would have to be a surprise for later.

Sophie almost felt wronged over how clean the room was. She imagined Howl goading her into an argument about his - their filthy room only to present her with a smug expression and this pristine space.

Now feeling indignant that Howl would trick her like that, Sophie nearly messed the room up again so that she could look at him with a smug expression. The only thing that stopped her was hanging on the wall next to the bed: a dazzling purple and white suit with trailing sleeves and scalloped edges. Sophie thought it really did match her dress and it would look just lovely on Howl, especially with his hair as light as it was and his eyes as green as they were.  

Her anger now forgotten, Sophie poked around a bit longer, convincing herself that she wasn’t snooping and vaguely wondering if it was considered snooping once you were married. After all, weren’t you supposed to share everything with your spouse? And since she would become his spouse in just two days she certainly had a right to inspect her new room.

Howl’s little desk was clear save his odd pen that he didn’t need to dip in ink and a few sheets of blank paper. Unfortunately, just like the trunk, the drawers were locked so she couldn't see inside of them. Sophie suspected his receipts were hidden here. Afraid to try her magic on the desk and muck something up in the beautiful room, she moved on with her exploration.

Howl’s jewelry was put away in a tidy jewelry box and his closet was half-empty. She fingered his three new suits hanging in the closet, all silk of orange and crimson and yellow. Looking at the hangers in the empty half. She realized he’d cleaned out the other side for her.

Out of room to explore, Sophie went to the bed; something she’d always been curious about, and sat on its edge warily. It was so large and comfortable and inviting that Sophie couldn’t help but lay down, just to see how cozy her future nights would be. Besides, she’d spent all day cleaning and, even though she was young now she still felt weary from the effort. She sank into the mattress, her head gently cushioned by a firm pillow that smelled of Howl. Feeling snug and dreamy, Sophie pulled the patchwork quilt over her, just to see how warm it was.

I'll just wait here a bit for Howl, she thought.

Before she knew it she drifted off to sleep.

---

Sophie woke with a heavy arm draped round her waist. A warm, familiar body that she recognized as Howl lay pressed across her back, pointy knees nestled in the bend of hers. He had slithered under the covers in her sleep to snuggle up with her. The room was still and dark, only illuminated by the moonlight from Wales shining through the window

“Howl? What time is it? Sophie mumbled.

“Much too late. And imagine my delighted surprise to find the most beautiful woman in all of Ingary in my bed.” Howl’s voice slurred as he spoke. He placed a wet sloppy kiss on her temple.

“Howl!” Sophie complained, wiping saliva from her face. That coupled with smell of alcohol on Howl’s breath did quick work in wakening Sophie.

“You came here to snoop on me? I’m not surprised,” Howl said, pressing wet kisses behind Sophie’s ear.

“I came to clean; I’ll not live in squalor,” she said, pulling away from him.

Howl made a complaining groan and clumsily reached for Sophie’s waist, trying to bring her back to him.

“You can see it’s quite spotless. That’s two gifts you’ve spoiled, but you can make it up to me,” he said, attempting to sound seductive and running his hand up Sophie’s side.

“You’re drunk,” Sophie said flatly. She swatted his hand away.

“Had a boys of a bit night out in Wales. One last night of freedom before I become pinned down for good,” he said gleeful.

Sophie sat up and turned to Howl. He rolled on his back to look up at her. The fact that he was shirtless did little to prevent her anger.

“Freedom? That's incredibly insulting.”

“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a Welsh tradition,” Howl grinned though he had some difficulty pronouncing "tradition." He reached up and pushed his hand into Sophie’s hair. “Welsh. English. American. All over really.”

Sophie removed Howl's hand, dropping it ungracefully on top of his chest. He groaned.

“What a convenient position to take,” she said, ignoring his protest. “If I don't like something you do I still must accept it simply because it's Welsh? Are vanity and reckless spending also Welsh traditions?”

“It really is tradition! And it’s not as if I had a stripper! You’ll be proud to hear I was firm against that, no matter how much Piers pressed for one.”

Howl looked quite pleased with his babbling.

“Stripper? I don’t even want to know what that is!” Sophie exclaimed.

“Sophie. Sophie, Sophie, Sophie.” Howl sat up and took Sophie’s hands in his which were overwarm from the alcohol. “I would never dare look at another naked woman for as long as I live. I promise. Not even in magazines. Not even in films.”

Sophie tilted her head and smiled at him, cupping his stubbly cheek with one hand. Howl closed his eyes and leaned into her touch a bit too heavily, for Sophie now supported most of the weight of Howl’s head.

“Howl,” she said warmly.

“Yes, cariad?” Howl breathed, his voice full of love and hope.

“You’re speaking nonsense. Go to sleep, you drunk fool.”

“But you'll stay here with me?” Howl clumsily grabbed for her waist again.

“Howl I'm still in my clothes.”

“So take them off,” he said with a giggle, rubbing his hand across her stomach.

Sophie glared daggers at him.

“Sure, you can see me in my all together but I only get little glimpses of you. It's not fair.” Howl lied back again and folded his arms like a petulant child.

“Life isn't fair, dear.”

“Fine. If I make you a nightgown will you stay?” He sounded so pouty that Sophie wanted to laugh.

“It's rather late, Howl.”

“All the more reason to stay. Please don't leave me here drunk and alone. I can’t bear the sobbing that will ensue.”

Sophie couldn't tell if Howl was being sincere about the crying but it was late after all and she was already so warm and comfortable.

“Alright, fine.”

With a little swirl of Howl's fingers Sophie's dress became a soft, sky blue nightgown with white dots and soft lace trim. She was quite fond of it; Howl really did have a knack for clothes. It's a wonder he ever went shopping at all.

“Goodnight,” Sophie said and laid back down.

Howl slid his arm round her again. The man was relentless.

“I don't want to be intimate with you. Not while you're drunk,” Sophie said.

“I just want to hold my wife," Howl sighed, gently kissing the back of her neck.

“I'm not your wife yet.”

“By the law, no. But what is the law to me? You've been my wife in my heart since you first stormed in here victimizing us all.”

“I was old then.”

“I told you, I knew you weren't.”

“And you exploited me as a cleaning lady.”

“I spent every waking moment trying to stop your cleaning, you terror.”

“You were in love with Lettie when we first met.”

“I've never loved any woman but you. Not really, anyway.”

“Ha! Never been in love? The way you carried on, bringing that silly guitar everywhere? Then menacing Porthaven, spilling green slime all about, nearly killing Calcifer and yourself in the process over a little rejection-”

“Sophie.”

“Yes?”

“Go to sleep.”

A grin spread on Sophie’s face. She covered Howl's hand with hers and snuggled closer against him, content.

Chapter Text

Sophie awoke to the aroma of tea and toast and honey. She found Howl sitting in bed next to her with a tray of breakfast in his lapp looking very unpresentable: shirtless, stubble thick on his cheek, his skin uneven, and red-rimmed eyes. But he had managed to get his hair free from the ringlets Sophie inflicted on him yesterday.

“You made breakfast? What time is it?” She asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“Mid-morning. You slept so long I thought I ought to eat yours before it gets cold,” Howl said, taking a bite from a fresh piece of toast.

“No!” Sophie sat up and snatched the toast from his hand and took a satisfied bite. It was spread with apricot jam and honey; delicious.

“Yesterday was so tiring, I feel I could sleep for a week,” she said after a thought.

“And miss our wedding? You’d break my heart,” Howl said.

“Nothing would hurt but your ego.”

“You think I'm throwing this wedding just to please myself?” Howl held his hand to his chest in shock.

“Howl.” Sophie lifted her eyebrows. “Doves? Honestly?”

“You should finish your breakfast.” Howl folded his arms in a sulk and grumbled to himself, “after all the work I've done to make tomorrow special.”

Sophie snorted and continued eating. Even though she was surely getting crumbs in the fresh sheets, Sophie had never had breakfast in bed and decided to enjoy it. The mess could wait.

“I'm surprised you woke up early and cooked. I thought you’d be asleep all morning considering how drunk you were last night,” Sophie said, sipping her tea.

“I killed a witch and a fire demon with the hangover of my life. I can handle toast.”

“Did you use magic for this?” Sophie asked, suddenly eyeing the food suspiciously.

“And not a thank you yet! After I go to all this trouble. With a hangover, no less.”

“I’ll not feel sorry for you about getting drunk.”

“My wife has a heart of stone,” Howl grumbled.

Being called his wife briefly softened Sophie and she placed a little kiss on his cheek. Though she still wouldn’t feel sorry for him.

When she finished eating Howl set the tray on the bedside table and pulled Sophie to him, seeming to forget his sulk. Nestling her head against his chest Sophie closed her eyes and felt his warm skin against her cheek. His earthy scent mingled with the aroma of their tea from breakfast and the smoke from the fire he'd cooked on. Sophie sighed deeply, inhaling him.

“I take it your conversation with Fanny went well?” Howl said, his voice soft and deep. He tenderly brushed his hand through Sophie's hair.

“Surprisingly, yes.” Sophie slid her hand up Howl’s torso, enjoying the feel of his smooth skin. “I think we both understand each other a bit better.”

“Mm, good. And are you still cross with me for lying?”

“Yes. And for last night as well.”

“What did I do last night?”

“Your last hurrah” Sophie grumped.

“It's just an expression,” Howl pinched the bridge of his nose.

“It's a rather poor one.”

“I didn't invent it, Sophie.”

“It sounds as if you think being married is some sort of trap. It's incredibly insulting. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, knowing you as I do.”

Sophie’s argument didn’t have the same vigor as usual. Being curled up with Howl in his - their room, feeling all her senses enveloped by him had an intoxicating effect.

“And just what is that supposed to mean, oh cruel mistress?” Howl asked, his voice a low rumble, nearly a whisper.

“You're a slitherer-outer. Of course you would look at marriage as a trap.”

Howl slipped his hand from Sophie’s hair, stroking her cheek with the back of his knuckles, and lifted her chin so she looked him in the eyes.

“Do you honestly believe I feel that way?” Howl asked, moving his face closer to hers.

His direct question took Sophie aback. This wasn’t part of the game.

“No,” she said finally.

“Good.”

Howl only needed to inch forward to kiss Sophie and brushing his tongue against her lips which she parted for him. With his arm firm around her and his warm hand sliding down her neck and his tongue dancing round hers she felt as if it were their first kiss all over again. There was a fluttering in her stomach and her heart beat in her throat.

“Where is everyone?” Sophie asked when they pulled apart. Her eyelids were low and her hand rubbed lazy circles over Howl’s chest.

“Not likely to bother us, if that’s what you’re getting at,” hummed Howl.

“We’ve both been wrong about that before.”

Howl chuckled and kissed Sophie’s forehead, then drew her head back to his chest stroking her cheek with his fingertips. Sophie entwined her leg with Howl's and scooched closer to him.

“I insisted Calcifer spend the day in Porthaven seeing their autumn festival. It didn’t take much convincing. And Michael is running some fool’s errand for the king which will take him well past supper to complete.”

“You can’t just send Michael to do your work!”

“If he wants to make it as a proper wizard I ought to! He can’t be my apprentice forever, especially if he plans on marrying your sister and having all ten of those children she wants. It will be good for the lad to put in time with the king.”

“You’re just trying to slither out of work,” said Sophie, nuzzling against Howl’s skin. It was more of a statement than an admonishment.

“My slithering out can be altruistic, you know.” Howl grazed his fingertips down Sophie’s cheek and back onto her neck, resting on her clavicle, his hand pressed over her heart. “And opportunistic.”

“People might come calling,” Sophie said, her breath hitching when Howl slid one hand across her thigh, leaving it to rest on her hip. She couldn’t help but place small kisses on his chest.

“But how could we hear them knocking down there when we’re closed in all the way up here? Especially since I've had to enchant these walls to muffle all sound. That Michael is such a heavy snorer; I feel sorry for your sister.” His other hand glided down Sophie's front, between her breasts, pausing at the enchanted earring then meandering across her stomach and down to the other side of her hips.

“She'll have to learn to manage his snoring on her own. If someone comes knocking at my door in Market Chipping and I’m not there to answer. What shall I say about that?” Sophie trailed her tongue across Howl’s shoulder and chest, kissing him at intervals and tasting the sweet saltines of his skin.

“You’ll just have to tell them the truth,” Howl sighed, bunching up the skirt of her nightgown, bringing the hem higher and higher up her legs.

“Which is?” Sophie nipped at his skin, feeling his chest rise and his breath hitch.

“Horrible Howl was eating your heart.”

Sophie tilted her head up to meet his lips again. Their kiss was long and slow and passionate. Howl pulled her nightgown up her body, raking his fingers across her thighs and bottom and sides and breasts as he did so. The sensation of his touch lingered over Sophie’s body in electric tingles.

They broke apart so Howl could pull the nightgown over Sophie’s head. She leaned forward for more of him but he placed his hands on her shoulders to stop her.

“What's wrong?” Sophie asked eagerly.

“Absolutely nothing,” Howl hummed. “I just want to savor this sight.”

Sophie looked up at Howl, watching his eyes rove across her body. She was completely naked now, save the necklace that dangled between her breasts. His pale hair fell forward, framing his angular face as he studied her. The morning Welsh sun coming in through the window made him look bright and warm and soft. His broad chest rose and fell quickly from his own arousal and she could see his adams apple bounce up and down in his throat as he swallowed.

Under Howl’s focused gaze Sophie suddenly felt very conscious of herself and fidgeted with the blanket. Howl took her hands to steady her. When did the air of the room become so cold? She shivered, feeling her nipples harden which made Howl swallow hard enough for Sophie to hear.

“Well, I'm not a bloody portrait,” Sophie finally said impatiently.

Howl looked up to her face, surprised. He laughed, brushing her hair behind her ear.

“I suppose you aren't, though I would love to have one made of you,” he said, leaning in to kiss her, holding her chin in his hand. “Just like this.”

“Absolutely out of the question,” Sophie breathed, failing to sound stern.

“Perhaps a photograph then.” Howl punctuated his words with kisses to Sophie’s neck, his fingertips fanning out into her long tresses.

“I don’t know what that is. But the answer is most likely no,” Sophie made quiet grunts between her words.

Howl kissed her lips, sliding his tongue into her mouth.

Under his kiss and his touch Sophie felt much warmer and much less self-conscious. She kissed him back, reaching up and smoothing her hand across his back, feeling the muscles tense from the contact.

Howl wrapped an arm round Sophie in a tight embrace, pressing his lips to her shoulder and delivering a dozen tiny kisses to her freckles. It felt warm from the inside out: her chest pressed to his, his breath against her skin, his love enveloping her. Resting her cheek against Howl’s hair, Sophie closed her eyes and inhaled him. She felt a different kind of magic touching at the edges of her senses.

"Fy nghariad," Howl murmured into her skin as he rubbed one hand up and down her bare back. It was one of the other few Welsh phrases Sophie had learned.

My love.

Sophie stroked the nape of Howl’s neck with one hand and ran the other up and down his back. Howl looked up to her, his eyelids half closed and kissed her softly and tenderly, tracing the curves of her all the while. His fingertips roving up and down her body, uninterrupted by clothing caused Sophie’s sex to throb and warm and wetten. Her breath hitched when he reached up and cupped her breast with one hand. With the other he delicately guided her to lay down on her back.

Howl moved away from Sophie’s lips, kissing across her cheek, down her jaw and to her neck. He slid his hand up her side, tickling as he went, and rested on the faint mark on her neck from the other day.

“It’s nearly gone,” he said, swirling his finger round her skin with a featherlight touch.

“Hmm?”

“My little love bite. I shall have to give you another.”

If Sophie had thought things through she would have realized she didn’t want to wear a welt on her wedding day. But lying there, naked in his bed, feeling skin against her body and her breast fill his hand and his soft lips and hot tongue tickling her nerves, she only thought about what she wanted right now. And what she wanted right now was all Howl would give.

So without a thought to her appearance on her wedding day, Sophie made a high-pitched grunt agreeing with Howl.

Howl licked and sucked at bit at Sophie’s neck delivering quick jolts of painful pleasure. As he did so Sophie raked her hands up and down Howl’s back, whimpering with each nip of his teeth or pinch of her nipple. After one particular bite in one particularly sensitive spot, Sophie gripped his shoulders tight, digging her fingers into his muscles, her body stiffening and arching against him with the painful delight.

A rumble came from Howl’s throat and he slid his tongue down her neck to her breast, sliding his hand across her stomach and to her hip as he did so. Sophie moaned when he took her nipple in his mouth and arched her back further to him, wrapping her arms round his head and pulling him close. Howl seized Sophie’s hip, squeezing tightly. He readjusted himself, sliding one knee between her legs. Sophie spread her legs for him and touched one hand to his hip. With a gentle pressure she invited him to her. He accepted her invitation, moving his other leg and whole body completely in between her legs and over top of her. He leaned forward, making Sophie gasp when she felt the bulge in his trousers pressing against her wet, throbbing opening.

Howl reached up and met Sophie’s lips again in a kiss so ravenous she thought he really might eat her heart.  

Moaning with each push of Howl’s stifled arousal against her sex, Sophie slipped her hands down Howl’s torso until she found his trousers. She had just started unfastening the first button when he held her hand to stop her.

“Not quite yet,” Howl whispered with uneven breath.

Sophie made a little whining groan in protest but it quickly turned to a groan of pleasure as Howl was quick at work, kissing his way down her jaw and neck and breasts, his fair hair teasing her skin as he went. His stubble tickled at her stomach, making her muscles flinch involuntarily. Finally, he made his way down between her legs, placing long, wet kisses all over the inside of her thighs. He hooked his arms round her legs and ran his hands up and down her sides.

“Howl?” Sophie asked, panting.

“I want to taste my wife,” Howl murmured into Sophie’s thigh, just before giving it a long, slow lick.

“Still eating hearts?” Sophie could barely speak from her excitement.

“Only yours, cariad,” said Howl. “If you'll allow me.”

Sophie placed a hand over Howl’s and nodded.

With just a brief hesitation, Howl touched his tongue to the folds of Sophie’s sex, sighing hot breath across her skin. His tongue was wet and warm and soft and made her cry out with pleasure and surprise. That encouraged Howl who slipped further into her folds and licked upward across her sex, touching her nerves in a way she never could have conceived of. When he reached the top of her opening he grazed his tongue over Sophie’s sensitive bud which sent hard shivers through her body.

“Howl!” She moaned, grasping his arms tightly.

Howl grunted happily and continued to lick Sophie’s sex in long, flat strokes, flicking the tip of his tongue against her bud at the end of each pass. He grabbed her thighs and held tighter and tighter, each flick of his tongue bringing Sophie to convulsion.

Howl’s licks grew quicker and he soon paid all his focus on Sophie’s bud, alternating between the quick flicking and slowly pressing the flat of his tongue against it. Sophie felt his chin rub against the lips of her opening, the stubble tickling at her folds while Howl drank of her. He reached up to massage her breast and she reached down to grab fistfuls of his hair. His licks sent strong jolts through her body, each more intense than the last. With each moan she made Howl groaned in response, licking and sucking at her bud with more and more enthusiasm. She curled her legs round his head, resting her feet on his back and bucking her hips against his mouth. Sophie’s whole body tensed and she felt herself nearing a climax.

But Howl stopped just then, causing a frustrated tension to run through her. She conveyed her feelings with a grunt.

“I don’t want you to finish without me this time,” Howl said with a gentle laugh and kissed his way back up her body. He spent a little extra time at her nipple, which made Sophie melt under him. He moved on back to her neck and ear and cheek and finally her lips.

While Sophie tasted herself on Howl’s tongue, Howl guided her hands down to his trousers. Trembling from nerves and excitement, Sophie unfastened the buttons with an excruciating deliberateness. While she did so, Howl hooked one arm under hers, resting on his elbow and grasping her shoulder. With the other, he massaged her breast, pinching at her nipples. Sophie delicately pulled his trousers down past his hips until his erection was free. She took it in her hand and stroked it up and down. Howl closed his eyes and twisted up his face, groaning from the pleasure she delivered.

Sophie was ready. She guided Howl’s arousal to press against her entrance. He broke their kiss to cup her cheek with one hand and look into her eyes. He felt clammy and over hot from the exertion but his face was alert and eager.

The muscles of her sex contracted when she felt him at her entrance. Sophie yearned for him.

“Are you ready?” Howl asked, his voice uneven. Sophie saw the same excitement and anxiety in his deep, green eyes that she felt.

“Yes, cariad,” Sophie said, brushing her hand through Howl’s hair.

Very slowly, Howl slid his erection inside of her, closing his eyes as he went and making a closed-mouth moan.

Sophie gasped. She felt Howl push through her, sliding easily into her wet sex, spreading her walls as he went deeper. It felt different from his fingers. It was simultaneously hard but soft and touched more of her nerves, creating an overwhelming cluster of sensations that she couldn't completely sort out. It also hurt. Not as badly as she'd been led to believe it would, she could feel pleasure underneath the pain, but still…

“I need a moment,” she breathed.

“Of course,” Howl rasped and began to pull out but Sophie touched a hand to his hip to stop him.

“Please stay,” she said. “I just need a moment.”

While Sophie adjusted to the feel of Howl's thick erection filling her, she rubbed her hand up and down his side, focusing on how smooth his skin was and how nice he smelled and trying not to grimace.

“Cariad,” Howl breathed, stroking her cheek his whole body tense from restraint.

Howl let his hand wander down, caressing the skin on Sophie's neck, across her clavicle, down to her breasts. When he grazed her nipple she moaned and the muscles of her sex contracted around him. Howl groaned and cupped her breast, gently massaging. He leaned forward to trail small kisses from Sophie's lips to her ear, panting all the while. Sophie closed her eyes and felt her nerves relax as Howl’s tongue found her earlobe. Her muscles contracted again. Howl pinched her nipple between two fingers. The small pain she felt was no longer insurmountable, overtaken by love and lust and desire.

“I'm ready,” Sophie whispered.

Howl kissed Sophie and looked into her eyes, slowly pushing his length all the way into her, hitting the deep nerves inside of her. He pulled back out a little bit and pushed back in, sliding in and out of her.

Sophie closed her eyes to focus on Howl's movement and the sensation he delivered. Soon she was able to rock her hips to meet him with each slow thrust, deepening their contact. With every push Howl touched nerves Sophie never knew she had. Each thrust resonated throughout her body, tingling in her jaw and ears and curling her toes. She felt light-headed from her gasping breath and the flood of sensation.

They moved in rhythm with each other. Howl languidly massaged her breast as he thrust in and out of her. Sophie reached her head up to kiss and lick Howl's shoulder and chest and neck, tasting the saltiness of his sweat and skin

Encouraged by Sophie’s moans and agreements, Howl picked up speed and dipped his head down to smash his lips against Sophie's. He pushed his tongue into her mouth, swirling it around hers hungrily. Sophie moaned and lifted a leg, hooking it around Howl's waist. He pushed harder into her, grasping both shoulders now and pulling at them with each hard thrust.

Sophie whimpered Howl’s name but whatever else she meant to say turned into indecipherable moans of pleasure as she bucked her hips against his, her walls contracting around his erection with each thrust.

Howl gazed into Sophie’s eyes, his face strained from the exertion and sensation. He said a lot of things in Welsh. Sophie gazed back into those deep, green eyes. She focused on his loving expression, the feeling of the man she loved inside of her and sound of the poetry of his native tongue.

She felt herself swelling close to a finish and squinted her eyes closed. Howl leaned forward so his chest weighed against her breasts and his cheek pressed to hers. Sophie leaned her face against Howl’s, gasping and panting with each thrust. She felt the electricity of their connection as every nerve in her body had awakened.

With one final, deep push, Sophie felt her head swim and her body convulse. She dug her fingernails into Howl’s shoulders but she was too delirious to worry if she would leave any marks. Besides, her iron tight grip only made Howl moan with pleasure. The walls of her sex tightened around Howl’s erection, holding him in place inside of her, though she still felt him try to push further and further. He gasped and groaned in her ear and she felt the muscles in his body tense and quiver over her.

And like a crashing wave, Sophie fell over the edge of her climax, feeling the burst and tremors followed by the warm, sleepiness she had experienced in the bath. Howl needed a few more thrusts before his face twisted up and his body shook with his own climax. When he was spent he slid his arousal out of Sophie and let his body slump on top of hers. His face rested in the crook of her neck and his heavy breathing blew strong and warm against her skin.

Arms and legs still wrapped around Howl, they lay tangled together, catching their breath.

After a moment of calm Howl rolled off of Sophie and onto his back. With a deep sigh he pulled Sophie to him so they were pressed together, skin to skin. She slipped her arm round his waist and rested her head against his chest where she could hear his heartbeat and felt its mild thump-thump, thump-thump against her cheek. Kissing her hair, Howl languidly rubbed his hand up and down Sophie’s arm. He whispered to her in Welsh which, though Sophie didn't understand the words, made her own heart go thump-thump a little harder.

In the still sleepiness and the afterglow of their lovemaking, Sophie thought of Howl’s thoughtfulness and tenderness and kindness toward her. How delicately he took care of her making sure she was happy and comfortable throughout their intimacy.

“Howl,” she said, interrupting the quiet.

“Yes?” He whispered.

“How… how do you feel?” She asked, trying to return his kindness, even if it came out a bit awkward.

“Hmm,” Howl hugged Sophie tighter and shifted a bit. “Hungry.”

“Howl!” Sophie said in the way she had perfected, using his name as a complaint.

“You asked the question!” Howl said, laughingly.

“That's not what I meant,” Sophie sat up to look at him, her face pleading rather than stern.

“And sleepy,” he added.

She spread her hand over his heart. “How do you feel?”

Howl reached up to twirl a lock of red gold hair round his finger.

“I feel like kissing my lover,” he said leeringly.

Sophie furrowed her brow and frowned.

“Why are you slithering out?”

“Sophie, I’m not!” Howl laughed in a way that didn’t quite convince her of his truthfulness. “I’m telling you exactly how I feel.”

“You’re avoiding telling me something. Omission is a form of lying, you know and I won’t stand for that-”

“Sophie, Sophie.” Howl pulled at his earring that Sophie wore round her neck and twiddled the pendant between his fingers. “Alright. I didn’t want to trouble you, not after the bliss of making love to you.”

“But,” Sophie said, growing impatient.

“I feel incredibly happy, over the moon. But,” Howl sighed and looked away, dropping the earring. “There’s something nagging at my gut. An emptiness…”

He trailed off, staring at something across the room. Sophie couldn’t read his expression. Guilt? Worry? Sadness?

“Over me?” Sophie asked with some hesitation.

“No,” Howl said quickly, turning back to her. “Not at all. Never.”

“From- from your severed connection with Calcifer?” Sophie guessed.

Howl flinched, then closed his eyes and nodded.

Sophie couldn’t help but laugh, but bit her lip when Howl grimaced at her in return.

“Howl, my love,” she cupped his cheek with her hand. “It’s okay.”

Howl relaxed and opened his eyes, looking up at Sophie.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Sorry? Why?” She asked.

“I can’t imagine it feels nice, hearing about the empty place in my heart right after we made love.

“Your pain doesn’t simply go away because we share intimacy,” Sophie stroked his cheek with her thumb. “I want to share the burden with you.”

Howl closed his eyes again and breathed in deeply.

“I didn’t want to upset you,” Howl said, his voice small and quiet.

“I’m upset when you lie or slither out of something important or spend all our money on your vanity. I’ll never be upset over your feelings.”

“Thank you,” Howl said. His eyes looked a bit brighter as he smiled at Sophie.

“Come here,” Sophie said as she lay back.

She pulled Howl close to her. He wrapped himself round her and rested his head on her chest just as he had that night under the stairs. Sophie rubbed his back and stroked his hair as she held him close to her. Instead of tears Howl made contented sighs in the arms of his love.

Chapter Text

Sophie was out of sorts about spending the night in the market chipping house. She wanted to cap off the beautiful, intimate day she had with Howl by sleeping in his arms in their bed in their room in their castle. And possibly make love properly for a third time (she blushed thinking about their busy day off exploration). But Howl insisted she go, quoting another trifling Welsh tradition about not seeing the bride before the wedding.

“You would never even meet the bride with a tradition like that!” Sophie complained, standing in the bookcase doorway. “Unless it's all arranged marriages over there. Is that the real reason you ran away?”

Howl looked up at the ceiling and sighed deeply.

“Sophie, cariad, please do this one thing for me.”

“Don't you cariad me, Howl Jenkins. I'm not some moony eyed girl taken in by a dramatic pose and a handsome smile. I know the real you - temper tantrums and all - and you can't flatter me into getting your way.”

“But I cleaned my room…” Howl raked his hand through his hair helplessly.

"Our room," Sophie corrected haughtily, and then added “I'll not reward you for something you should have done years ago.”

“Sophie,” Howl took her chin in his hand, his voice soft and warm.

As much as she wanted to resist, Sophie wanted his intimacy even more. She melted under his touch.

“Howl,” she said, her eyes softening from their fury.

“If you stay with me tonight I won’t want to control myself,” Howl hummed.

“I won’t want you to,” Sophie leaned forward, nearly touching his lips with hers.

“But tomorrow is a big day and I must have my beauty rest if I'm to stand before all of Ingary.”

Sophie snapped out of her lovestruck trance and smacked Howl’s hand away from her face.

“Fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “You can stand up there all alone then.”

“You don’t mean that,” Howl said, laughing and pleading all at once.

But Sophie was already closing the bookshelf between them.

“Sophie wait,” Howl said, reaching his hand through the narrowing gap in the wall.

Sophie stopped and relaxed slightly. She hoped he’d changed his mind and wanted her to stay.

“You’ll send me your love tonight?” Howl asked, his eyes begging.

Sophie’s eyes opened round as saucers. She slammed the bookcase shut with a frustrated grunt, narrowly missing Howl’s hand.

“The nerve of that man!” she said to her room.

Sophie realized that perhaps this wasn’t the best way to treat her fiancé on the eve of their wedding. Nor was it the best way to treat him on the same day they shared such intimacy for the first time. But he was Howl and Howl could be so… infuriating. Besides, he’d already seen her at her worst and still fell in love with her. She threw caustic weed killer right at his head and he still offered her a happily ever after - willingly chose to be pinned down. Why should she now sit back and accept his frivolity with a smile? Just because of a wedding? Just because he had been inside of her?

Sophie gripped and paced about, taking much of the evening to calm down. But of course she still worried about Howl's loneliness and sorrow. And so she clutched Howl’s earring in her hand and sent her love to him with all the earnestness she could spare.

Settling into her bed, Sophie couldn’t sort out the swell of emotions stirring round inside her. Yes, she was angry at Howl for leaving her alone but also felt so much love and affection for him. She felt another sort of warmth over the intimacy they shared. She was hopeful for the future and excited and nervous for the wedding. All that and Sophie hadn’t even begun to untangle her feelings about the discussion she had with Fanny yesterday. It was all too much and she just wanted to be held. But she suspected that if she wandered into the castle Howl would send her right back round and she was, frankly becoming too tired for another fight. Besides, her family would arrive early to help her preen and prepare. She really ought to be here when they arrive.

So Sophie settled into a restless sleep alone. It was a night full of tossing and turning.

She wondered if this was how every bride felt on the eve of her wedding.

---

Lettie pinched Sophie’s nose shut, snapping her out of a dreamless doze.

“Ow! Lettie!” Sophie cried, swatting at her sister’s hand. “I thought you’d be done with that since we’ve grown.”

“Sophie, I will always do my best to torment you, no matter how old we are or how far away you live from me.”

“How did you get in here, anyway?” Sophie asked, sitting up and rubbing her nose.

“Howl let me in through the bookcase,” Lettie said.

“He shouldn’t have,” Sophie grumped.

“Why? Your secret’s out Sophie, there’s no need to hide anymore.” Lettie sat down on the edge of the bed. She was already dressed in her wedding finery; a lovely green gown and silver jewels. Her dark, curly hair was pinned up in an intricate style.

Sophie wondered when her sisters had become such early risers and she had become such a late sleeper.

“Fanny still doesn't know about the bookcase," Sophie complained. "And it’s not nice to have people appear in your room without warning."

Lettie sighed and handed Sophie a mug of tea from the bedside table. Sophie hadn’t even noticed it in her grogginess and accepted the drink graciously.

A knocking came at the front door.

“That would be Martha and Fanny!” Lettie hummed and rushed out of the room and down the stairs.

Sophie sighed into her drink.

Sitting in her bed with her tea listening to Lettie and Fanny and Martha’s excitement downstairs was the last moment of peace Sophie had. And the moment was quite short. Very soon Sophie was out of bed and in a little chair across the room being accosted with hairbrushes and makeup and other implements of grooming torture.

“This is all very unnecessary,” Sophie said, attempting to dodge some pinkish lipstick. “I look how I look, why should I change that for one silly day?”

“Oh Sophie.” Martha rolled her eyes.

Fanny continued her gentle humming, ignoring Sophie’s protests.

“I see Howl’s been up to some mischief again,” Lettie said, touching a tender spot on Sophie’s neck. “But I suppose you won’t mind if all of Ingary sees. I’m sure the king will understand.”

Sophie covered the spot on her neck with her hand and felt her entire body turn hot with flush. This sent Martha into a laughing fit. Fanny kept on humming.

“Fine,” Sophie said, finally crossing her arms. She added, “I’m sorry, Fanny.”

“I’m only hearing what I want to hear today and ignoring the rest. Think of it as a wedding gift,” Fanny said merrily.

Lettie smirked and continued her assault on Sophie’s skin.

Once the hair and makeup was complete the three women examined their work. Sophie fidgeted with her nightgown under their scrutiny. When Fanny decided she was satisfied she sent Lettie and Martha downstairs to fetch the dress.

Once they were alone Fanny sat on the edge of the bed facing Sophie.

"Traditionally, this would be an appropriate time for me to share my wisdom with you as a married woman," Fanny said. "Living together, intimacy, compromise. But what is there for me to say that you haven’t already experienced?”

Sophie thought Fanny seemed a bit sad. Regardless, she kept up her happy demeanor.

“But I won’t have you suffer through a lecture where you feel you must feign ignorance for my benefit," Fanny continued. "Not as I had to do on my wedding day with my mother. Especially not since you’re already so much more worldly than I was. So all I’ll say is I love you and if ever you need advice perhaps you could turn to your old stepmother.”

“Oh Fanny!” Sophie jumped up and embraced her.

“You’ll squash your hair!” Fanny cried, pushing Sophie back after a brief hug.

Lettie and Martha soon appeared with the dress and Sophie was accosted all over again - this time with constricting undergarments. After Sophie was properly pinched and pulled and tucked and stuffed into her dress she was allowed to examine the results. She was of the same opinion as her family that she did look rather agreeable. The dress fit her in a flattering way, the makeup that Lettie and Martha chose highlighted her favorite features like her blue-green eyes and round cheeks, and hid the perpetual red undertones of her skin. They didn’t try to make her look too glamorous like Howl would surely be; she simply looked like herself brought to the forefront.

“It’s lovely,” Sophie said, admiring the pinned up hairstyle with curls cascading down her shoulder, expertly draped over the makeup-covered mark on her neck.

“Yes, well. The carriage is waiting in Kingsbury, we haven’t time to dwaddle,” Fanny said, wiping at her eye.

“Let’s take the bookcase,” said Martha. “Sophie, which book is it?”

“Bookcase?” Fanny asked curiously.

“Oh no, don't,” Sophie said, forgetting her makeup and holding a hand to her face.

But Lettie had already strode over and pushed the correct book. The shelf creaked and swung into the castle.

“Amazing!” Martha exclaimed.

“Oh no!” Sophie cried again. Her last secret was no longer secret.

Fanny peered through the entryway then closed her eyes and inhaled through her nose.

“I’m only hearing what I want to hear today, and seeing what I want to see,” she said. “What a lovely, brand new passageway. Very brilliant that Howl made it just for this morning. Alright, off you go.”

She motioned for Sophie to pass through.

Deciding to take Fanny’s gift for what it was, Sophie complied and headed into the castle with Lettie, Martha and Fanny trailing behind. After all, she’d soon be married and this would all be a bump in the past.

When she turned the corner to the staircase Sophie stopped in her tracks. Howl stood at the bottom of the stair, leaning against the wall in a careful pose that made him seem casually charming. He wore his beautiful wedding suit which truly did suit him as much as Sophie supposed it would. He had been hard at work with his beauty spells; his skin was smooth and his eyes shone and his fair hair, half pulled back in a ponytail, looked like silk. He was ethereally beautiful.

“Your tradition,” Sophie scolded from the top of the staircase, folding her arms.

“Is to not see the bride before the wedding,” Howl said, extending his hand toward her.

Sophie raised her eyebrows and gestured about, exasperated as she started down the stairs.

“Are we in Kingsbury? Is this the grand hall? Is the king here? You put up all that fuss over tradition just to- OH!”

When she reached the bottom of the stairs she saw.

Strings dotted with little lights drooped from the ceiling. Sophie had no idea how the lights worked but assumed it was some kind of magic. White and purple satin streamers criss-crossed along the rafters and draped down the walls. Lit candles and an assortment of white and purple flower arrangements were displayed across the room and the floor was covered in white rose petals.

Michael and Ben were there wearing very smart looking suits, though neither was as ostentatious as Howl. Calcifer glowed a deep shade of blue and crackled happily from his spot in the fireplace. Even Megan and her family were there dressed up in their odd sort of Welsh clothes; Gareth looking about suspiciously, Neil putting an awful lot of effort into seeming bored, and Mari fidgeting with her finery. Megan held a small rectangular box with a glass circle sticking out of it up to her face. Sophie thought it was a gift at first but realized it was some sort of magical… thing. Meghan pushed at the top of the box and it made a click-whirrr sound followed by a bright flash of light that made Sophie have to blink several times to regain her sight. She wondered what the point of such a box was. Howl didn’t seem perturbed by it so Sophie decided it would be best not to make a fuss at her new sister-in-law. Not yet anyway.

“I was so worried you'd spoil another surprise by sneaking down here early. Do you like it?” Howl asked, taking Sophie’s hand.

“What is this?”

“It’s your wedding,” Martha butted in, handing Sophie a bouquet of lilacs.

“It was mostly our idea,” added Lettie.

“And mostly my labor,” Howl said, not to be outdone.

Michael made a very put-upon sigh.

Calcifer crackled in a way that suggested he was clearing his throat.

“And Michael and Calcifer helped,” Howl mumbled.

“All your planning - the doves, the hall, the king. It was a trick?” Sophie asked suspiciously.

“Oh no, that will still be happening,” Howl said, pulling Sophie to the middle of the room with him.

“I don’t understand,” Sophie was too stunned to collect her thoughts. She absently followed where Howl led her, marvelling at the beautiful room.

“I realized I don’t want to live the rest of my life hearing you complain that I didn’t give you the wedding you wanted, so-”

“Don’t you cheek me. Not today of all days!” Sophie interrupted.

"So I decided you deserved the wedding you want. But I also deserved the wedding I want, don’t I?” Howl took Sophie’s other hand in his. “So why can’t we have both?”

“It- it’s… unusual,” Sophie stammered.

“I don’t think a single thing about our lives has been usual. Why should we start now, cariad?”

Sophie looked up into Howl’s earnest face smiling down at her. They were standing roughly in the same place they first held hands smiling at each other. She realized she hadn’t an argument about the subject and let her mouth spread into a smile as well.

“My gift!” Sophie said, noticing Howl's empty earlobe. It was tinged red and purple from Sophie's own love bites and she wondered if he left it that way on purpose or not.

Sophie pulled at the string on her neck, removing the earring from it. Howl bent down to allow her to put it in place. Both smiled and gently laughed all the while.

“Quite an impressive bit of magic,” she heard Ben whisper to Michael.

“Well?” Sophie asked when Howl straightened.

Howl put one hand over his heart. “I’m overwhelmed. It's perfect.”

Sophie covered his hand with hers. Hearing the click-whirr of Megan's box she straightened and felt herself furiously blushing.

Howl laughed and took her chin in his hand.

“Sophie, cariad. You're allowed to afford me some affection in front of family at our own wedding.”

“Yes, well. Don't get carried away,” Sophie mumbled.

Howl smiled his soft warm smile. A smile without posing or pretense that he saved only for Sophie. He leaned forward and gave her the gentlest of kisses.

Click-whirr *flash*

And so, as Sophie and Howl held hands smiling at each other Ben delivered a queer speech that he and Howl both claimed to be Welsh tradition.

“I've had to endure that one already,” Sophie said at the bit about sickness and health.

“We’ve already tested that one extensively,” Howl said at the bit about for better or worse.

Sophie snorted quite emphatically at the bit about taking each other for richer or poorer then added, “the spendthrift you are, it will be poorer I suspect.”

Gareth attempted to mind Mari’s fidgeting and Neil tried hard to look impassive. Megan alternated between making fawning noises at the couple and making that click-whirrr *flash* with her little box.

Lettie and Fanny, holding each other’s hands dabbed at the tears in their eyes. Martha leaned into Michael, letting her own tears flow openly. Michael wrapped a comforting arm round her, making content little sighs.

And Calcifer flickered and crackled from the fireplace without much comment. He was much too curious about watching his first human wedding ceremony, and cared for Sophie too much to interrupt. It would be much more fun to make mischief during the ceremony in Kingsbury anyway.

Soon enough there would be pomp and grandeur and the king’s speech and receiving lines and toasts and dancing and all types of other formalities.

But for now, with just their family watching on in the place they came together, the place they fell in love, the place they saved each other’s lives in more ways than one, Sophie and Howl held hands smiling at each other as they each said “I do.”