Title: Happily Ever Afters - Part 4/5?

Summary: It's been four months since Howl got his heart back, and Sophie is more than a little annoyed that the happily ever after that she was promised hasn't exactly occurred yet. As a matter of fact, Howl hasn't said a thing about it ever since. Cleaning, arguments, and misunderstandings ensue, and Sophie hopes there may just be a little romance along the way too.

Pairings: Howl/Sophie, Ben/Lettie, mentions of Michael/Martha

Warnings: Mild explicit content, discussion of sex

Don't hide in the dark
Playing shadow games
Turn out the lights
Time for a change

Echo, Foxes

Light was filtering in through the curtains when Sophie managed to prise her eyes open. It took a moment for her to process where she was - in her bed, one arm draped over Howl's chest, the other hand scrunched in the collar of his shirt, head pillowed on his shoulder. In the night she had at some point rucked up her nightdress above her knees and she could feel the smooth fabric of Howl's trousers against her thigh where it was half-thrown over Howl's own legs. She blinked and met his eyes, crinkled into a smile.

"I was going to get up, but you wouldn't let me." Howl combed one hand through her hair and Sophie realised with a start that his other arm was curled around her waist. "You're a very determined snuggler, did you know that?"

"I've never really had the opportunity to find out." Sophie curled into him, feeling the heat of his body pressed against hers and remembering only after she'd done so that she was only in a nightgown - in other words, no corset - and a certain part of her anatomy was pressed up against Howl in a rather intimate fashion. Since he didn't mention it, Sophie fought down the blush that was threatening to rise to her cheeks and rested her head against Howl's shoulder again.

"We should have done this months ago," Howl murmured into her hair, chin pressed against the top of Sophie's head, and she shifted slightly against him.

"Well, whose fault is it that we didn't?"

"I have absolutely no clue what you're talking about," Howl said, dignified. "I was the perfect gentleman while I was courting you."

Sophie snorted. "You do realise that the whole point of courting is that you let the woman know, don't you?"

Howl laughed, and Sophie bit her lip slightly at the vibrations rumbling through her body where it was pressed against him. "Well, why don't we remedy that now?"

His hand slipped round to cup her chin and raise it to kiss her. Sophie loosened her fist from Howl's shirt, brushing the tips of her fingers across the exposed line of his collarbone and slid her hand round to curl it around the back of his neck and deepen the kiss. She felt his arm tighten around her waist and pull her closer, his fingers digging into the curve of her hip to hold her in place as his other hand traced its way down the line of her spine. Sophie heard herself make a noise maybe halfway between a gasp and a whimper at the sensation, feeling as though his fingers were burning through the thin cloth and into her skin. Howl nipped at the soft skin just below the lobe of her ear and Sophie heard herself gasp again and tilted her head for Howl to trace a line of nips and kisses down the line of her jaw and the smooth curve of her neck.

"Sophie," he murmured against her skin, his voice husky and sending a shiver down her back. "Sophie, cariad..." His teeth grazed the hollow of her throat and Sophie heard herself whimper again and curled her hand against Howl's back and the sharp jut of his shoulder blade, feeling her nails digging into him.

She almost didn't hear a door bang open and a voice call out, "Sorry it's before breakfast, but Martha got an early shift at the last minute, so I thought I'd better oh God no I did not just see that!"

The last part came out as a sort of strangled yell, and Sophie squeaked and burrowed down into the covers, the atmosphere from five seconds earlier now completely gone. Nothing killed the mood, she thought gloomily, as much as a practically-son and future brother-in-law walking in on an otherwise rather pleasant 'courting' session. It suddenly came to her attention that diving beneath the covers had put her in even closer proximity to Howl, and would look even worse to Michael, so she wriggled back up just in time to hear Michael complaining.

"I mean, I'm happy for you and all, but couldn't you at least have the courtesy to do that upstairs, in Howl's room, which, might I remind you, has a door..."

Michael was facing half-away from them, flapping his arms meaningfully in the direction of the stairs, red in the face and eyes tightly shut. Howl pushed back the covers and stood up.

"I'm fully dressed, Michael, for God's sake! We only stopped arguing last night, we didn't take things that far."

"Far enough to possibly scar me for life," Michael grumbled, but turned around and made a face at Howl who was stood, arms folded, in an unfastened undershirt and trousers, his hair tousled.

The man waved a hand flippantly. "It's nothing you and Martha haven't done, unless those red marks on your neck last week were from some sort of rampant octopus?"

Michael went even redder and opened his mouth to make a retort, but Sophie firmly diffused the situation by sitting up and glaring at them both. "It was freezing last night, Calcifer wasn't here, one thing led to another and nothing went quite that far. Now, if we've all quite finished, I'd like to get dressed." She looked meaningfully at the stairs and both traipsed up without another word, although Howl did cast her several backwards glances on the way - some of them wistful and some of them... well, not. Sophie narrowed her eyes at his retreating back as it vanished up the stairs and glanced down to realise that her nightgown was on the verge of slipping off her shoulder. She glared at the door to the stairs, willing it to get all the way to Howl. When had he got chance to undo the lacing on the back without her noticing? Oh, right... Sophie bit her lip slightly at the memory. She'd probably been otherwise engaged at that point.

By the time Michael had composed himself and come back downstairs, Sophie was dressed and grilling bread over a fire - not Calcifer. The fire demon had apparently taken Howl's instructions to heart and had still not returned.

"You might want to do your hair in a mirror," Michael commented as he took the toast, still not quite meeting her eyes.

Sophie snorted. "I would, but the only mirror of a decent size is in the bathroom and Howl will be at least another hour in there."

In fact, it was only half an hour until Howl descended, wearing a fantastical suit of purple and gold, his freshly tinted hair shining magnificently. "Sophie, /cariad/!" Sophie tried - and failed- not to blush at the memory of when he had last said those words. And how he had said them. And what he had been doing when he had said them. If Howl noticed the look on her face, he didn't say anything. "You made toast?" he asked, slipping an arm around her waist from behind and planting a kiss at the corner of her mouth.

Michael made a face, but Sophie ignored him and instead slapped Howl's hand away. "I made toast for myself, and for Michael because he actually made it downstairs at a decent hour." She smiled sweetly up at him. "You can make your own, dear, because I need to go upstairs for a moment."

In the bathroom, Sophie hummed to herself as she brushed her hair out and began to braid it back in her usual style. Just before tying the ribbon in, though, something caught her eye. A tiny red mark, slightly raised and a little painful to touch, just where... Oh. Sophie tilted her chin, holding her hair back with one hand and following the line of marks down to where they disappeared below the neckline of her dress. Well, that was a little awkward. Sophie pulled the front sections of her hair back off her face and tied them back with the ribbon before carefully arranging the rest of her hair so it would cover her neck. So that's what Michael meant when he advised her to look in a mirror.

From downstairs, she heard Howl yell, "Sophie? I'm going out to Suliman's."

"Wait for me," Sophie called back, double-checking her hair before turning and running down the stairs. "I want to go and see Lettie," she added.

Howl gave her a knowing glance then nodded. "Lead the way, Michael." As they left the house, he added quietly. "I like your hair like that. Very relaxed." He flipped one of her curls and Sophie batted his hand away. "Any particular reason for the change, though?"

Wordlessly, Sophie brushed it back to show Howl the side of her neck, and gave him a sideways look. "Don't say a word," she warned him. "Just make them less visible next time."

"There's going to a next time? I look forward to it." Howl arched a single elegant eyebrow at her. "And believe me, cariad, there are many, many places where such marks are less visible."

To hide her embarrassment, Sophie asked, "What does that even mean? Cariad?"

"It's got a few meanings." Howl's arm encircled her waist, tugging her closer as they walked. "Dear, love, sweetheart..." His lips just brushed her ear as he murmured, "Lover..."

"Not in public," Sophie muttered back, acutely aware of people's glances.

"Does that mean I'm allowed to do it in private?" Howl asked cheerfully, but before Sophie could reply he added, "And look! Here we are."

"I hate you sometimes," she told him as the door swung open.

A boy a bit younger than Michael - probably an apprentice - was stood there. "Yes?" he said, sounding a little bored.

Michael, who had been the one to knock, frowned at him. "Wizard Howl, Michael Fisher and Sophie Hatter to see Wizard Suliman."

The boy just had time to look startled at the mention of Howl's name before Sophie heard Lettie's voice from behind him. "Alright, Jack, I'll take it from here. Don't think you can get away with skipping lessons by answering the door." As the boy slouched away, muttering dire threats under his breath, Lettie ushered them all in. "Wizard Suliman's through in his workroom - I suppose you know where it is?"

Howl nodded. "Yes, of course. Sophie's here to see you though. Come along, Michael - only a few more days of this project."

"Don't tell me to come along like a dog!" Michael said indignantly, but followed Howl anyway.

Lettie shot a questioning glance across at Sophie, who replied with a small secretive smile. Lettie grinned. "We can talk in my room. Come on." Sophie followed her up stairs and along corridors until they reached a cozy, good-sized room at the top of a flight of stairs.

"You look well," Sophie commented as she sat on the bed. "Black suits you, I think."

"We're studying necromancy at the moment," Lettie said, making a face. "Horrible stuff, and we have to wear the full black robes even though we don't do any practicals at the moment. But you're distracting me, Sophie! What happened after I left?"

Sophie quickly explained right up until when Howl finally kissed her, and Lettie burst out laughing. "Oh, you two are just- I don't even know. You have to be the biggest pair of idiots this side of Montalbino! Are you honestly telling me that you thought he didn't love you, and he thought you didn't love him-?"

"So we've just been moping around arguing with each other for the last few months for nothing," Sophie agreed. She quickly summarised the rest of the evening in as much detail as she thought Lettie needed to know. "So, we kissed, Calcifer interrupted twice, we went to bed - separate beds, Lettie, there's no need to look at me like that! - and, well, with Calcifer gone it was absolutely freezing. Howl came downstairs partway through the night, realised how cold I was, and got into bed to warm me up." She frowned at her sister. "Lettie, stop grinning like that! Honestly, nothing happened except going to sleep. And kissing in the morning, but then that was interrupted by Michael coming in - he'd spent the night at Martha's - and then we came here. That's all, so you needn't look at me like that."

Lettie pressed her fingers to her mouth, stifling a laugh. "I suppose these are only early days. But do you mean to say that Howl's trying to be a gentleman about this whole thing?"

"I suppose he must," Sophie said thoughtfully. "It makes sense, I suppose. This must be one of the first relationships that he's taken past the point of 'she loves me, now I'll leave'."

"Well, when you put it like that..." Lettie's eyes suddenly widened and she gasped. "Sophie! Do you think he's... Well, do you think he's never slept with anyone?"

Sophie shifted slightly, feeling highly uncomfortable with where this conversation was heading. "I don't think... It's Howl, Lettie, honestly! Do you really think-"

"What I think," Lettie said slowly. "Is that Howl doesn't strike me as the sort of person to just sleep with any old girl - he has far too high an opinion of himself for that. And it's like you said, Sophie. Whenever a girl falls in love with him - until you got him his heart back, at least - he leaves her. What if he really hasn't?"

"Lettie, I really don't think this is any of our business. If Howl wants to tell me, he can, but I'm certainly not going to ask!"

Lettie pressed her older sister's hand. "Of course not! I wasn't expecting you to, I was just speculating. That's allowed, isn't it?"

"Speaking of speculating," Sophie jumped in, relieved to be changing the topic. "I've been wondering how well, you and Wizard Suliman started courting. It's not exactly something that comes up in everyday conversation, is it?"

Lettie leant back on her bed, folding her hands behind her head and smiling slightly. "Funny you should mention that, it's really rather amusing..."

The two girls spent the rest of the day sharing stories, mainly of what their respective wizards got up to and what they said behind each other's backs. It had been dark for a couple of hours when there was a knock on Lettie's door and a young apprentice poked his head in.

"Lettie? Wizard Howl said to tell you that he's going now."

Lettie stood up and passed Sophie her shawl. "Thank you. I'll come and see you off, Sophie."

Downstairs, Howl and Suliman were waiting, both looking rather tired. "Where's Michael?" Sophie asked, a little surprised.

"Sent him home about middle of the afternoon," Howl said, rubbing a hand across his face. "He was falling asleep on his feet - not used to big workings like this."

"So are both of you, by the looks of it," Lettie said in a slightly scolding tone. "For God's sake, Ben, you look like you're about to collapse! Come and sit down before you faint." She wrapped a tender arm around his and waved Howl and Sophie off before presumably leading Suliman off somewhere to sit down.

Howl watched them go with a slightly quizzical look. "Am I missing something here?" he asked.

"Probably," Sophie said, not really caring if Howl knew about Lettie and Suliman. "Now stay awake on the walk home, would you? I don't know the way, and I'm certainly not carrying you."