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A Respectable Man

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In the beginning, life with Howl as a young woman wasn't so very different from life with Howl as an old woman. He was still unmanageable and slippery, though his new favorite tactic was to kiss Sophie quite suddenly, usually when she was rightfully scolding him for some mischief or madness. This inevitably had the effect of leaving Sophie blinking slowly, lost for words, while Howl smirked like a cat who'd gotten into the cream and slithered off to do whatever it was that needed doing in Ingary or Wales.

"That man!" Sophie fumed, after he'd done it at a particularly inopportune moment. "If he thinks a little kiss is going to stop his room getting a thorough cleaning--"

"You're not cleaning again, are you?" Michael asked fearfully. Though he and Martha had been recently married (apparently just in the nick of time for propriety's sake, judging by how quickly Sophie's sister had swelled with child afterwards), he still spent most of his work week with Howl and Sophie, learning when Howl had the patience to teach. Sophie listened too, finding excuses to be cooking on Calcifer, dusting the shelves or arranging flowers very slowly and methodically. After all, everyone said she had magical powers, so it seemed fit that she should understand a bit of the theory behind it.

Nevertheless, what Howl taught Michael continued to be unfathomable to her. It was just as well, Sophie supposed, that her spells, if that was indeed what they were, worked on a more practical level than all Howl's dramatic tomfoolery. She could hear Howl now, complaining about Ms Nose asking questions about diagrams and magic mirrors that didn't concern her.

"You're safe," Sophie replied, rather tartly. "It's Howl's room that concerns me."

"She's going to have to look at it now," Calcifer explained, as Michael's ears turned red. "I don't mind, so long as you don't try to take me out of the fireplace again."

Sophie rolled her eyes. "Honestly, between the two of you. There's nothing frightening about a bucket of water and a few rags."

And perhaps she was a little irritated that her baby sister was about to have a baby and she hadn't so much as slept in Howl's bed yet. Sophie had tried to ask Howl where exactly this relationship was going, but that had gone about as well as could be expected. He'd thrown his hands up in the air, ranted about being taken for granted and how she was the only woman for him, yes, he was certain this time, and that should be enough for anybody, before clomping up the stairs and slamming the door behind him.

Sophie had always been taught that men, particularly Wizard Howl, were out to steal a girl's virtue. But perhaps due to years of relative inactivity- having only bothered to get girls to fall in love with him and then proceed to leave them- Howl seemed completely disinterested in pushing things further than a peck on the cheek and the occasional lingering kiss on the mouth.

"What I'm afraid of," Calcifer said, "is water on my logs."

Which got Sophie to thinking about water, or rather, bathwater. Howl spent hours in the bathroom each morning putting himself together. What if he expected her to do the same? He hadn't said anything about it, but it was possible he wouldn't lay a finger on her until she started taking six hour baths with three different kinds of shampoo.

"Hmph!" said Sophie. A quick bath was enough for her, or any respectable person, thank you. (She might have used the shower, but she was never entirely sure that the mold wouldn't return and do something nasty to her feet). If that was the trouble, she'd dye Howl's hair indigo in retaliation.

Well, she was going to clean out Howl's room, in any case.

Taking her feelings out on the threadbare carpet and the dusty four poster bed was spectacular. Sophie banged her mop against one of the posts, and dust came shuddering down in small drifts like falling snow. In between her coughs, she managed, "Go away, dust, and don't let me see you back again!" The blue and silver spangled sheets were in surprisingly good condition, considering they stank, and Sophie dragged them out to be laundered as quickly as possible.

"She's actually doing it!" Michael called to Calcifer, dodging out of the way of the trailing edges of Howl's sheets as Sophie kicked the door open (knob purple down).

Once the carpet had been rolled up, the floor needed a thorough scrubbing. Sophie chased away the bugs that had been living underneath, taking care not to disturb Howl's beloved spiders, much as they revolted her.

"I know she's doing it," Calcifer said darkly, edging out of the way as Sophie scraped the ashes out of the fireplace. "What I don't know is whether it'll be green slime again or mauve this time."

This was a possibility Sophie had not taken into account, but she went ahead with her project anyway, putting new, less-smelly raspberry colored sheets with gold trim on the bed. It wouldn't kill him to sleep in a bed that didn't smell like sixteen cats had had relations in it. And if there was to be slime, they'd both get a good screaming in before, which Sophie for one was itching for.

While the floor was drying and the blue and silver spangled sheets were hanging out to dry, Lettie stopped by for tea. She was practically glowing- taking lessons from Wizard Suliman seemed to be everything she'd ever hoped learning magic could be. She also couldn't stop talking about her teacher, in much the same way as Michael had once been prone to talk about Martha, given a chance.

"-and he's so clever Sophie, you should see what he can do with mirrors-"

Sophie nodded wearily. Lettie seemed to have picked up Mrs Fairfax's habit of talking so you had to find the right place to jump in without interrupting her in mid sentence.

She had invited Lettie to take her mind off Howl, but with Lettie praising the other Royal Wizard Sophie couldn't help but think of him even more. In fact, she was starting to feel a little defensive.

"The door used to go to Porthaven instead of Market Chipping," Sophie said, when Lettie seemed to have finally run dry of things to say about her new apprenticeship. "We moved because he was too much in demand."

Lettie laughed. "I'm very sorry, Sophie. I wasn't disparaging the talents of your beau. Though I must admit I don't understand the two of you at all."

"There needs to be someone sensible around here," was Sophie's instinctive response, but it wasn't precisely true. It wasn't sensible at all to love him, and yet the more she had thought about it since that wild day, the more she realized she was absolutely mad about him, tantrums, melodrama, irresponsibility and all.

"She brings out Howl's better parts," remarked Calcifer.

"And I suppose he was heartless when I knew him," Lettie said thoughtfully. "Oh, well. As long as he makes you happy, dear, and isn't exploiting you."

At that, Sophie nearly burst into tears. "I wish he'd at least try," she cried out, frustrated.

Lettie's lovely face was a mixture of confusion and horror. "What?"

"Have you seen Martha?" Sophie demanded.

"Of course, but-"

"Well, I'm in no danger of the same!"

"Oh, Sophie," Lettie said feelingly. She squeezed Sophie's hand, and looked as if she was about to say something quite personal. "It's- it's really not all that much to write home about-"

"Not you too!" Sophie cried, outraged. This was a new misfortune to befall the eldest.

"I'm not pregnant," Lettie said quickly. "And it's just been the once, after I created a potion to cure his hangover."

"I don't need to hear about it," Sophie moaned, burying her face in her hands.

"It's not your fault, Sophie," Lettie said firmly. "Whatever it is, it's on his end. Any man would be a fool not to want you."

This didn't make Sophie feel much better, but all the same it was good to see Lettie again, and to know that her happily ever after was working out so splendidly. They hugged several times before Lettie went out to visit Martha, and Sophie went back to glaring at the spiderweb on Howl's window to Wales.

By the time Howl returned, the room was, if not quite glistening, considerably livable-looking, with all debris banished, save for the bits and bobs that were so unidentifiable Sophie assumed they must be wizardly, and left on the side-table. The one area she had (mostly) left alone were the books, since she had no idea how to alphabetize the ones written in languages she didn't read, and suspected he had a cataloguing system beyond explanation anyway.

Sophie had made eggs over easy with crisped bacon on the side, and Michael ate his serving in silence, waiting for the storm to break.

Howl glanced at Sophie. "What's gotten into him?"

"He's expecting you to be upset that I cleaned your room," Sophie replied, not missing a beat. "And changed your sheets, while I was at it."

"Why, Sophie, you shouldn't have," Howl said dryly. "Here I was saving that as a present for your birthday."

"Not the dirty sheets, I hope," Sophie sniffed.

"No, I think you'd look rather fetching on clean ones."

And before Sophie and her burning face could find a response to that little comment, upstairs he went, presumably to dirty up his room again.

"He wants to be followed," Calcifer observed. "He's left the door open."

Michael looked horrified. "Not while I'm in the house you're not!"

A slow smile spread over Sophie's face. "Michael, I think Martha wanted you home around this time, didn't she?"

Michael fled, and Calcifer crackled with mirth as Sophie ascended the steps.

Howl was admiring his own reflection when Sophie came in. She was unable to hold back a loud snort of derision.

"I suppose for you, this is what passes for making an effort," Howl said dryly, gesturing to their surroundings.

It dawned on Sophie that he had been waiting for her to make some kind of grand gesture. "I suppose for you this is a romantic overture?"

Howl choked. "Hardly. But I've already given you more flowers than you deserve, and I doubt a whirlwind tour of scenic Ingary would impress you."

This was true enough, but before Sophie could point out that a girl likes to be asked, all the same, Howl said, "You left the spiders."

"I assumed you still wanted them."

The kiss was different from the others- soft and lingering. And somehow, rather than muddying Sophie's thoughts the way Howl's kisses usually did, it clarified them.

"You coward, you've been trying to be respectable the whole time!" Sophie cried out.

"I don't see what's so cowardly about that," Howl retorted. "The way you're always going on I thought you'd slap me if I so much as put a finger out of place."

At that, Sophie squared her jaw and pinned him firmly against the door. "Howl Jenkins, you promised me a happily ever after, and I am holding you to that."

"You know I prefer Pendragon," Howl grumbled, but he didn't squirm.

This time it was Sophie who kissed him, though it was Howl whose hands began to go on an exploratory adventure to regions unknown.

When they broke apart, breathless, Howl waggled his eyebrows.

"Oh, be quiet," Sophie muttered, without malice.

Instead, he leaned in and purred, "You're going to have to clean the sheets again."

"Howl!" Sophie shook her head in disgust. "Just get on the bed and stop talking."

"Yes, Mistress," he replied mockingly, throwing himself on the bed and dramatically clapping his hands over his mouth.

Sophie resisted the urge to rub her temples. She had forgotten to factor in that getting something he wanted made Howl even more ridiculous than usual.

Still, she was quick to climb on top of him, and yank his hands out of the way. Howl struggled, but only, as it happened, because he wanted to be on top. A minor battle ensued, with the two of them rolling about the bed, resorting to all manner of trickery (such as the removal of certain items of clothing, and sly caresses) before Sophie sat up, straddling Howl, and said, wearily, "Well, all right then."

After that, Sophie found Howl was very interested in her virtue indeed.