Title: Not Good, Not Nice, Just Right part 1
Fandom: Howl's Moving Castle
Challenge # 4 - the answer to each moment is yes and the question: can you live with that?
Length: 3903 words / 7 pages (I need to learn to write short!)
Disclaimer: So not mine. Based on an odd improvised blending of book continuity and movie continuity, which have so little to do with each other that I'm really just tapdancing like mad trying to come up with something remotely plausible somewhere in the middle... spoilers for the end of both, since this takes place after the end of either. (Title slightly adapted from the Witch's song from Into the Woods. I'm really bad at titles, but this one kind of makes sense if you squint at it sideways.)
The challenge numbers I'm giving at the start of each chapter are based on the challenge numbers at the LiveJournal community lemonaftertaste. Since I want to keep this fic publishable here, I won't be posting all of the chapters here -- for example, part 2 of this one is only available on my LJ. Check my LJ table of contents (linked in my profile) for the listing of all the fic pieces in their chronological order, as opposed to the order they're written in. (Here I have to upload in written-in order, but there I can shuffle around for chronology...)
He always had gotten himself into things before he thought about them, really. He knew it was the only way to keep himself from fleeing in sheer panic: if he stopped to think about it, he might well have packed up the entire castle and left, because promising her a "happily ever after" was fine and good when the sun was shining and the birds were singing and he was giddy with the thought of simply being alive and, for the first time in a long while, having a reasonable chance of staying that way for some time. But when it came right down to it, he had no more idea how to go about creating a happily-ever-after for her than he did of how to be a responsible, mature, settled-down husband. And if he'd thought about it, about the enormity of what he'd just committed himself to, he would have run for his life, and he would have broken her heart in the process. And for once Howl cared more about someone else's heart than his own, which was profoundly ironic considering how very recently he'd gotten his own heart back.
So all he could do was throw himself headlong into rebuilding the castle and festooning it with ribbons and so many flowers that even Calcifer sneezed on the fragrance and redesigning the place every two or three hours to make it a better wedding location and sending out invitations crafted of bits of dandelion down that would drift their way into the guests' hands and then skitter away, and in general keep himself far too busy to blink, let alone think, until the wedding itself was well and thoroughly over with.
He drank more than he ought to have, at the reception, and sang Welsh folksongs quite loudly and quite badly, and Calcifer sang along with him, and Michael rolled his eyes with great frequency and assured Sophie's sister that he would never be as embarrassing as his intoxicated sot of a wizardly mentor when they got married, which Howl was fairly sure was true, and therefore merited some ruthless teasing involving Michael's embarrassing childhood moments in order to regain some semblance of his own dignity. Since he had no dignity left after that much alcohol, Michael was sure to be in for a rough evening of it.
Sophie's stepmother and her other sister were fussing over her, crying their eyes out, one with happiness and the other with sorrow, both of them because she'd gone and married the most notoriously reprehensible wizard in all the lands, and one was certain she would live happily ever after, and the other was certain he would break her heart, and Howl truly didn't know how to live up to the one expectation and couldn't bear the thought of living down to the other, and so he found another bottle of something and opened it and tried to look for a solution in the bottom of the bottle. It wasn't there either. These bottles were obviously defective. Maybe the next one would be better.
When drunk three quarters out of his mind, Howl still had no idea how to turn himself into someone capable of giving a woman like Sophie a happily-ever-after, because no matter how he looked at it, he was still a flighty, vain, arrogant, scatterbrained coward prone to leaving papers and books and anything scattered all over the place, and he was still marrying a smart, practical, organized, down-to-earth woman who put a ridiculous amount of value on things like evicting cobwebs and cleaning dishes and putting things in places other than wherever they happened to fit on a nearby flat surface, organized by some arcane woman's system of tidiness. But when drunk three quarters out of his mind, he couldn't focus quite as well on anything, and so it didn't matter quite as much what he was looking at; so being drunk sounded like quite a reasonable solution for getting through the night, and tomorrow would have to sort itself out on its own, since he wasn't capable of thinking that far just then.
And then Calcifer gave him his wedding present. More specifically, Calcifer gave him Sophie's wedding present.
"I thought you'd end up doing something like this," the little fire demon said, hovering three inches in front of his nose, and the wavering of the fire-halo around him was really unfair to someone that drunk, because it gave him vertigo even when he was sitting almost perfectly still in a corner that was only rocking and swaying a little.
"Huh?" Howl managed, trying to keep focused on the little hovering starspark, in order to imitate a vague semblance of sobriety.
Calcifer heaved a huge sigh. "She doesn't deserve this, you know."
"I know," Howl said feelingly. "Believe me, I know. She certainly doesn't deserve this... nobody deserves being stuck with someone like me. You know that better than anybody... why didn't you warn her? Somebody should have warned her, and I'm far too great a coward. That makes it your fault, doesn't it?"
Calcifer rolled his eyes and huffed a little, shedding sparkles of irritation. "You know how stubborn she gets when her mind's made up."
Upon further reflection, Howl was increasingly pleased with the thought that he could pawn responsibility off on someone else. "That's it exactly! You should have stopped her for her own good. I'm going to have to reprimand you for allowing someone like Sophie to have to suffer through life married to a reprehensible coward. She's too good for that, and you owe her as much as I do, so you certainly should have stopped her before she could go through with it! So it's not my fault..."
"In case you hadn't noticed, you idiot, she loves you madly."
"I know," Howl sighed, utterly despondent. "I love her so much I'm terrified beyond the capacity for even semirational escape plans. You definitely should have stopped her. I'm useless. You know that. It's your fault. All your fault. --Calcifer, what am I going to do?"
"You," the fire demon said gruffly, "are going to learn how to be happy whether you like it or not, you twit. Truly happy. Not just flitting from flower to flower running like a mad mayfly from the thought of touching anyone who might want to touch you back. That's your 'punishment' for letting Sophie go through with marrying you, and I intend to make sure your punishment sticks."
"Why am I the one getting punished?" Howl complained, with a theatrical gesture to the heavens. "We decided this is all your fault!"
"Oh, you're not the only one getting punished," Calcifer muttered.
"I know! Poor Sophie... she doesn't deserve this... married to a fool of a coward who drinks himself insensible through sheer terror at not knowing how to give her the happily ever after he went and promised because he's such a damned liar..." Howl blinked back tears, and wondered how his wife would react to having to shovel a puddle of green slime into their wedding bed. Likely not well. "Why did you let her do this?"
"Will you just shut up and open your mouth?" Calcifer said.
"...Isn't that a bit of a technical impossibility? I mean, I--"
Unfortunately, the syllable left his mouth open long enough for Calcifer to take matters into his own hands.
The fire demon dove down his throat.
Howl gasped, shuddering with the searing, scalding pain of it; he coughed and wheezed and tried to drag air back into his fire-scorched lungs, and then put a hand over his mouth and pushed Calcifer back out of his body through the front of his chest, ending up with a glowing flame cradled in his palms again. He'd half expected to see the demon glowing with his heart's blood once more, but oddly enough, Calcifer seemed to be almost green. And wobbling. Visibly.
...And Howl himself was, he realized a few moments too late, perfectly sober.
"What did you do?" he asked, a little hoarse from the lingering scorch-ache in his throat, but far less slurred than two minutes ago.
He'd never seen Calcifer hiccup before, and had to hastily dodge a burst of fire that left char marks on the wall just above his head.
"Calcifer? What did you do?"
"Took your drunk-ness 'stead of your heart," the fire demon managed, heaving himself out of Howl's hands into the air, and wobbling his way back toward the fireplace. "Think I wanna sit down. --Except I don't have legs. --Jenkins you bastard, why don't I have legs? I want to sit down. No, I want to lie down... that looks comfy..."
Howl hastily scooped Calcifer out of the air before the fire demon could bumble into the silk-draped reception table and set the decorations on fire. He carried the unevenly green-flaring little ember back to the hearth and settled him carefully into a pile of logs, then sat beside him, exasperated.
"Don't feel so good," Calcifer managed, huddled into the logs. "Why do you do this to yourself on purpose?"
"Because I'm an idiot, of course," Howl said wearily. "Calcifer, are you going to be all right...?"
"Go away," Calcifer said, still green. "I hurt all over. Go learn how to be happy. Go ask Sophie. She's smarter than you are. She'll help you figure it out."
"...Calcifer, I'm terrified."
"I know," the demon grumbled. "Go fake it. You're good at faking it, remember? Just act like you know what you're doing, and listen to what she says when she scolds you into not acting anymore. --Now go 'way. My head hurts. Why have I got a head to hurt when I haven't got legs to sit with? 'S not fair..."
"I'm sorry," Howl murmured, letting his fingertips trail lightly through the green-tinged flames in a rueful pat of apology.
"Good," Calcifer grunted. "You'd better be sorry. You're going to pamper me for at least a month. Lots of dry hickory. Some nice old Rhondda Trehafod coal too. And see if you can find any Cefn Coed while you're at it. --Go talk to your wife."
As he threaded his way through the room toward the white radiance of Sophie in her wedding dress and the flower-bright cluster of women around her, Howl thought ruefully, I wonder if Calcifer learned cruelty from me or whether I learned it from him. Of course I'm good at faking it -- from my beauty to my magic, faking everything is what I do best; but he didn't have to say it that bluntly... he could at least have called it a talent for improvisation or something.
But it was a party like any other, and even if Howell Jenkins had originally been a bookish and somewhat shy young man more given to flights of fancy than to interactions with the real world, the great Wizard Pendragon was known to be quite a dashing socialite. If there were women to be charmed, he'd breeze his way through it, and delay thinking of any consequenses as long as possible.
By the time the revelry had died down and they'd shooed the last of the guests into the hastily-grown guest wing, Sophie looked as drained as Howl felt; but he was being the confident and charming Wizard Pendragon for the evening, and so he gave her a glittering smile and swept her off her feet and swung her around, planting a kiss on her forehead and carrying her toward the stairs.
The shine of joy in her eyes, the way she looked up at him with only a little uncertainty and a great deal of the newly, fragilely grown faith that had given her the confidence to trust him with her heart, to trust a clumsy coward like him not to hurt her with his foolishness -- it was all completely and totally unfair. He almost wished he was still drunk, so that he wouldn't have had to notice all the confidence she had in his nearly nonexistent ability to know what to do to make her happy for the rest of her life.
It took him far longer than it should have to unfasten the row of pearl buttons at the back of her wedding dress, because his hands were shaking so badly. "Fidgety little things," he said with a laugh, glad that she couldn't see his clumsiness directly; she nodded a little, and he could see her blush even at the nape of her neck. The romantic thing to do was to kiss her there, of course, and so he did, and she made a delightful little giggle at the tickle.
It was a sure thing that his heart had been returned to him, Howl thought moodily, because the dratted thing was breaking itself already. Why on earth would she trust him like this...? A notoriously unreliable, vain, cowardly skirt-chaser whose greatest talent was in lying through his teeth until he could almost but not quite believe himself...
That was the last of the dratted buttons, and she was clinging to the front of her dress and looking at the floor and blushing like mad, and Howl's mind was a roaring white blank, because he had to come up with something to do next, something to please her, and nothing was suggesting itself even to the dashing Wizard Pendragon, who had never actually come into any danger of succeeding in the pursuit of a woman.
There was one soft stray little curl that had escaped the pins and flowers in her hair and slipped loose to brush against the pale curve of her throat, and Howl scraped together the courage to reach one damnably shaking hand up to touch it, then to touch her.
Only then, with his hand upon her bare shoulder, did he realize that she was trembling even more desperately than he was.
She turned to face him, with all the courage she'd held in abundance, all the courage he'd never had, and she looked up at him and her voice only broke a little when she said, "You'll have to forgive me, at least I hope you'll forgive me, but I really have no idea what I'm supposed to do in order to make you live happily ever after. I hope you don't mind too much. But I'm a quick learner and I work hard, so if you'll just tell me what it is I'm supposed to do to make you happy, I'll give it my best. --I'll try not to mind the spiders, if I can. And I'll write down where your fidgety little marks are when I'm cleaning. And... um... what else would make you happy...?"
The next thing he knew, he'd caught her up in his arms and had his face buried in the flowers in his hair, and he was laughing fit to knock them both over, hoping vainly that it didn't sound too hysterical.
"Eeep?" she squeaked, a little breathless; he suspected he was squeezing the breath out of her, and tried to loosen his hold a little.
Howl sat on the edge of the bed before his knees could give out on him, and she landed in his lap with a frothing swirl of petticoats, and he clung to her and only belatedly realized that he was speaking in a torrent of Welsh when she put a fingertip to his lips with an uncertain little smile.
"What are you talking about now?"
"You've married yourself an outright fool, cariad, but I love you beyond all reason, and you're being a little backwards. You don't need to ask what would make me happy; I'm a silly shallow vain coward and you make me far happier than I have any right to be, just as you are. And all else I could possibly want is my section of the bathroom cabinet left in peace, because you really don't want to know what an accident with lavender hair dye does to my complexion; it's terrible. Horrifying. Anyway. I'm the one who needs the answer to that question. What am I supposed to do? What do you want me to pretend I know how to be next? Because I've gone and promised you a happily ever after and I've no idea how to go about getting one for you and I'm terrified I'm going to disappoint you horribly--"
Sophie put her fingers to his lips again, her brow creased with bewilderment. "You're the one who has it backwards," she said. "I'm your wife. It's my duty to please you, not the other way around."
"Who on earth told you that?" Howl demanded, incredulous.
She flinched a little from the pitch of his voice, and said, "I wouldn't mind at all if you wanted to of course, but you don't have to feel obliged, Mrs. Fairfax told me it's never a good idea to make your husband feel obliged to make you happy so..."
"Mrs. Fairfax is an antiquated old biddy if she told you that," Howl said, still astounded.
"But everyone knows that," Sophie said stubbornly, her eyes lowered. "Until you get to be an old lady and don't have to worry about being respectable anymore, a woman's task in life is to find a man to marry and to make him happy and give him children..." Her voice quivered a little. "And... and it's my duty to... please you in... other ways, except I don't know what it involves really, just that if I don't please you then you'll go find another woman who can, because that's what men do, particularly if they're good-looking, and I really wouldn't like that-- I mean-- I want to be the one whom you smile at, I want to be the one you want to love, and so if you'd please just tell me what to do already..."
Not for the first time, he cursed Ingary and its backwardness, and its traditions that had convinced a shining, brave, fierce soul like Sophie that she was worth nothing more than becoming a meek and faded spinster making hats for other women who could be successful and happy because they weren't born eldest of three in a poor family or some such nonsense. --And when the be-all and end-all of 'successful' for a young woman was defined as landing a suitable man and dedicating your life to mindlessly slaving for him, Howl suddenly wasn't so surprised that she'd clung so fiercely to the freedom given by the 'curse' of her age.
"Then I want you to be an old lady!" he said, vexed. "I want you to be the bright and ferocious and opinionated Sophie I fell in love with. And respectable can go hang itself. I've done perfectly well without being respectable a single day of my life, and I have no intention of starting now! And I certainly don't want you to feel obliged either! Of all the ridiculous notions-- I didn't marry a 'proper' Ingary girl; I married you, you silly goose, with all your tempers and all your cleaning and that wild magic absolutely pouring out of you when you don't choke yourself off with ought-tos and should-haves and propriety and such--"
And then, listening to himself, he realized that Calcifer had been right all along, and that he really had been a fool this evening, trying to drink himself silly because he couldn't think of a way to abruptly remake himself into what he ought to have been. He was still a cad, a coward, and as unreliable as a mayfly, and it was the unmitigated truth that she deserved better -- and yet Sophie, gallant fool that she was, had gone and married him, despite his cowardice and his vanity and the dreadful mess he made of the bathroom sink and all of it.
Clinging to her tightly, his face half buried in the blossoms in her hair, he said, "We're both fools, aren't we."
"What?" she managed, understandably confused by the leap in conversation.
"Don't change a thing," he said. "I wouldn't know what to do with you if you didn't terrorize the spiders and scold me when I'm being incorrigible and bully Calcifer into doing the cooking whether he likes it or not. Don't worry about being a respectable housewife. Just be Sophie. Promise me that, cariad."
"I... um... oh." Sophie looked up at him with that terrifyingly fragile, trusting joy shining in her eyes again, and she stroked her fingers through his hair, and said, "I promise. Your turn, now: promise me you're never going to try to turn respectable on me, because then I would have to wonder who'd taken you away and left a doppleganger in your place, and I wouldn't know what to do if you weren't being so mischievous I have to grumble at you several times a day!"
"Oh, I can certainly promise not to be respectable," Howl said, rueful. "You're certain this isn't some sort of trick question, though? It almost sounds too easy."
"The truth is I like you better mischievous," Sophie said. "But I certainly am not about to admit that to anybody else! So this will be our secret, all right? Promise me you'll always be my whimsical, magical, frivolous rascal, because I need help learning how to be carefree. And I'll be your opinionated, outspoken, and spider-terrorozingly organized -- what am I? A witch in training, I suppose... in any case, you need the help with organization just like I need the help with frivolity, really."
"That," Howl said, rueful, "is heaven's own truth, cariad. You have a deal."
"Good," she said briskly. "Now will you please tell me what I'm to do here tonight? Because Mrs. Fairfax makes it sound like a terrible painful traumatic ordeal to be endured through obligation, and I suddenly find myself a bit less willing to take her advice at face value. And I would imagine that someone with your reputation must have acquired quite a bit more experience than I have, since I have no experience to speak of, and I haven't even read any particularly educational books on the topic; so any advice you might have on the topic of intimate marital relations would be much appreciated."
The wizard Pendragon was far too dashing to gawk, but Howl Jenkins found himself standing there with his jaw hanging open at her distinctively Sophie-brand combination of ruthless efficiency and startling innocence.
"Er," he managed, quite intelligently given the circumstances.
"Well?" she asked, head held high despite the suspicious blush in her cheeks.
"I love you," Howl said fervently, which had very little to do with the topic at hand but was resoundingly true nevertheless. He scrambled for something more apropos to say, and finally managed, "I think perhaps rather than listening to Mrs. Fairfax, we should listen to each other instead, and, er, make it up as we go along?"
Sophie considered for a moment, then nodded and slipped her dress to the floor. "Well, come here then," she said, her chin still just a little too high to be comfortable for her.
But that put her at precisely the right angle to be kissed soundly; and Howl Jenkins never was one to let fortuitous circumstances slip by unexploited.