Title: Friends, Romans, Countrymen part 2a
Author: Hi-mi-tsu
Fandom: Howl's Moving Castle
Pairing: Howl and Sophie
Challenge # 24 - I wanna die, I wanna live you
Length: Not sure yet - not going to have time to finish part 2b tonight, so who knows how long it'll turn out...
Disclaimer: Still not mine. This is going to lead into another appearance by the rugby boys, but I didn't have time to finish that much tonight! Still putting book and movie continuities in the blender together to see what comes out. See the first part for the title to make sense. Chronological index of how they all fit together is linked from my profile.
Rating: PG-13ish


Between the drizzle outside and the grumpiness within, it was shaping up to be a very cranky day all round. Wizards' handwriting, Sophie had decided, left a great deal to be desired. In all areas. The lack of clarity, the slapdash scribbles all over the margins, the assorted rings left behind by cups and beakers of heavens only knew what -- she was beginning to suspect that the greatest hurdle to overcome in being a wizard's apprentice was the hurdle of learning to read any of one's textbooks. She wondered if they did it intentionally. She had little doubt her husband was intentional in his hasty and near-illegible scrawls in margins, because anyone of Howl's level of power needed to make sure that dangerous information didn't fall into the wrong hands -- and also because he was just that careless about everything that had anything to do with the tidiness of anything other than his wardrobe.

But even if her husband was a lost cause from the outset, the original spellbook-writers themselves, Sophie thought, should have given a little more care to actually transmitting the information to eyes other than their own. That was, after all, the purpose of going to the trouble of writing in a book, as opposed to leaving hastily thought-up chalk-scrawls on the table where they were sure to be erased with the next scrubbing.

At least, Sophie had always assumed general legibility was the purpose of writing a book, particularly one this heavy; but the more she squinted at this one, the more she doubted herself.

Sophie's middle was being more distracting than usual, as well. Clearly the general mood was contagious, because there was a great deal of kicking and thumping going on inside, vigorously protesting the book's weight against a stomach that had lately grown round enough to make heavy books in laps awkward. Finally Sophie heaved the book over onto the table in order to rub her misbehaving bulge, hoping to settle her guestroom-boarder into at least a bit of peace and quiet.

"Honestly, you in there," she muttered under her breath, "how is anyone to get anything useful done whilst being kicked in the lungs? I'll have you know that's dreadfully uncomfortable!" She sighed, and stood and stretched, and began pacing about the room, because sometimes the rocking motion lulled the baby into drowsing; out of curiosity, she wandered over to the worktable where Howl was tinkering with some metal bits and some springs and wires and scowling more fiercely than the clouds outside in Market Chipping.

She peered over his shoulder, one hand propped in the hollow of her back for support, and asked, "What are you doing?"

"None of your business, Mrs. Nose," Howl replied crossly, and swept his arm across the table so that the metal pieces scattered to the floor like glittering bits of a broken puzzle. "One of us tainted by this is more than enough."

"Tainted by what?"

"...Tell me, do you have some particular hearing problem that seems to think the phrase 'you shouldn't need to know' only applies to other people?"

"You're in just as foul a mood as the little punter, aren't you," Sophie said, with a glare. "You're training me, so I'm your apprentice, remember? Asking questions is what apprentices do. And if some people would bother writing legibly then maybe I wouldn't have to ask so many questions--"

Howl slouched forward over the table, face buried in his hands. "Then maybe you shouldn't be my apprentice at all."

Sophie stared at him, jaw hanging open, shocked beyond the capacity for speech for a moment.

It didn't last long, though.

"Howell Jenkins, of all the rude, inconsiderate, downright insulting -- what makes you think I have any less right to ask questions than Michael or any other apprentice? Just because you're in a terrible mood is no reason to punish me by threatening my studies--!"

He dug both hands through his hair, with a vast shuddering sigh that somehow left him seeming smaller, huddled against a chill she couldn't see, his eyes far too old and aching for his face.

"I'm sorry," he said, and she was so startled by an apology before they'd even begun to fight properly that she couldn't even take advantage as she ought. "I'm sorry, love. It's not you I'm angry with."

"Then tell me what's wrong."

His shoulders stiffened again, and before he could start on another exasperated mini-tirade, she put her fingertips to his lips and said, "I'm not asking you to tell me how to do whatever it is that has you so upset. I just want to know why you're upset."

He blinked, slowly, and then said, "It's my own fault."

"Oh, I'm sure of that," Sophie replied, with the hand that wasn't bracing her own back working at rubbing his tense shoulders. "Whenever you throw one of these tantrums, it usually is."

"Tantrums?"

"Tantrums," she repeated firmly. "It's clear enough to anyone that you were the youngest child; you throw tantrums with great abandon, and leave those of us who were elder children to pick up the mess."

"I am not throwing a tantrum," he said, far more sulkily than his pride would have let him admit.

"...Of course you're not," Sophie said. And to make her point, she awkwardly knelt on the floor to begin picking up the glittering bits of metal from his dashed experiment. Her middle had grown round enough to make it awkward, but she didn't bother trying to mask the little pants of exertion when a clumsy stretch met with a kick from within, because that was simply helping her prove her side of the discussion.

"Stop that," Howl said, and lifted her into his arms, settling both of them on the bench; then he gathered up the scattered bits with a flick of a fingertip, and they tumbled themselves into a glinting pile. "I said I'm sorry. The least you could do is pretend to be sympathetic, instead of accusing me of tantrums. --Honestly, woman, you've been married to me long enough by now to know that any proper tantrum requires vats of green slime."

"I would have a better idea of how to be sympathetic," she said, "if you'd ever get around to telling me what's wrong."

He sighed again, and she could feel it in him, almost hollowing out his bones with the ache. Most of the time when he was being this overdramatic, there were already great looming shadows and lashes of thunder outside; it almost made her wonder if he was actually serious for once.

"Howl...?"

He buried his face in her hair, and his arms tightened just a bit about her waist, always so achingly careful of his strength when it came to their unborn child. He cupped both hands to her snug round curve, and murmured something gentle in his own language when the baby kicked at his palm; Sophie stilled his hands, and said, "Howl Jenkins, for once will you stop slithering?"

"This is war, cariad," he murmured. "If I had my way, this would never have happened. Magic used for mass murder, the King asking me for tools that will kill, for weapons beyond what the Strangians have any hope of countering -- if I had any talent at slithering left, I'd be long since gone, but there's nowhere left for me to go, not now. Not since he's declared me his Royal Wizard, because now I'm a part of their damnable army, and if I try to leave they'll take it as defection to the other side no matter where I go. And while I could run and hide and skulk in middens until this has all blown past -- I have too many hostages they could use, and they know it. That's the curse of your having found my heart, you see. It has this habit of getting caught in too many painful places. Love does this to people -- love, and fear... and the fact that they know they have me now. Because I fear losing you even more than I fear losing myself."

Her mouth was suddenly bone-dry, and Sophie swallowed hard, then whispered, "You mean it's my fault you're doing this?"

"No, love. Not just you. Not just Megan, even. Michael and your family and even that dratted turnip-headed prince, they've all turned themselves into people I can't abandon, and he knows that too damned well. And so here I sit crafting tools to tear other people's precious people from them, because I'm too frightened to risk my own..."

"That's love, not fear," Sophie said, softly. "If it were only fear, you'd have run already, and damn the consequenses."

"No, it's fear of everything," Howl corrected, gloomily. "I fear the thought of what could happen to you even more than I fear my own danger, and that is saying something. I am a horrible, cowardly, base, and conniving wretch. If I had any courage I would find a way to say no and to save all of you. But the castle's doors have to open somewhere, and I can't take all of you to Wales, and Madame Suliman could follow me if I did -- he's made sure of that; he's quite ruthless behind that smile, really. I found Prince Justin for him, I've made him his seven-league boots and his divining spells, and now he wants enchanted crossbows that shoot a dozen bolts at once and aim themselves, because it would be more efficient than one at a time, and... I could lie to myself before, you see. Boots simply march. Divining spells -- just a glimpse of something. This is blood, cariad, blood and death on my own hands, blood spilled by the magic I had hoped only to wield for joy, and I can't lie and squirm and hide anymore. Not even from myself." He hid his face in her hair again, and murmured feelingly, "I hate unpleasantness!"

If the rest of it hadn't been so serious, Sophie could have laughed at him; as it was, she turned in his arms a bit awkwardly, and reached up to touch his cheek, and said, "If you can't tell him no, let me tell him no for you. I do have some skill in being disagreeable at kings, you know."

He hugged her a bit tighter, shaking his head wordlessly. "Never mind. It's my stew, I'm not involving you--"

"I'm your wife and your apprentice. I'm already involved."

"You're not going to the king now, and that's final."

"Because I've grown big with child? The fact that I oughtn't be gallivanting about in this state only lends emphasis to how strongly I feel the point must be made!"

"You have the same hearing problem with 'final' that you have with 'don't need to know,' Mrs. Nose--"

"When you make no sense, the best thing to do is to ignore you completely."

Howl made an exasperated sound. "You're not going to see the king now because you're my wife, you're pregnant, and you're my apprentice! All three of those are hooks he can plant in you. He can control me by using you and the baby. He can control you by using me. What would you say when he makes all these terribly sympathetic and understanding sounds about how he appreciates that I'm a spineless coward and that he's placing enough pressure on me to break a person, and that you could spare me the unpleasantness of building crossbows if you use your witchery to charm him up ranks of mud-golems that can fight on their own? No blood in them to spill, no relying on your worthless husband, better all round? Except for the poor men of Strangia who can't begin to fight back against something that can't die..."

Sophie's brow was furrowed. In utter dismay, Howl said, "Don't tell me you're thinking about it!"

"If we can't tell him no, then the best thing to do is to give him a yes that finishes the war as quickly as possible, isn't it?"

"No," Howl breathed, and she could feel him shivering. "Dear God, no. As quickly as possible? I could finish the war this afternoon before tea. I could destroy their entire capitol. Or ours. It wouldn't really matter which. Because neither side would let me live after that."

"Howl--"

"They can't even be allowed to realize that that kind of power exists," he said fiercely. "Because then they'll realize that they don't control it, and they won't allow that to continue. They will have power or they will destroy it to prevent anyone else's having it. And so I run away. I run because there's nothing else to do; because if Calcifer and I ever really stopped and turned around to fight against humans, together, then I don't know what would be left afterwards. I truly don't. So there's nothing I can do but run... and now I've run into a corner."

"Oh..." Sophie hesitated, and then sighed, and put her arms about him gently. "I'm sorry."

"Whatever for? The war is hardly your fault. Not unless your talents in commotion-making have been working a great deal of overtime while I wasn't watching."

"I'm sorry that you're trapped like this," she replied. No one would enjoy a position like that, and Howl responded even more badly than most people to being trapped; after having met Megan, she understood that he came by his slithering instincts naturally, after long practice in self-defense. And Megan was a ray of sparkling sunshine compared to finding himself caught up helping to fight a king's war, giving his wizardry to kill simple nonmagical soldiers who would never know what hit them, despite everything in him that cried out to help ordinary folk like those in Porthaven -- or Wales or Strangia or any of the lands-- survive around the burden of kings and their ambitions.

The baby kicked again, strongly enough to make her catch her breath in discomfort. Howl glanced down in surprise, and then cupped surprisingly warm hands against her ripening abdomen, rubbing a great soft heart-shape over her curve. Whatever little bit of wizardry-infused Welsh lullaby he murmured to the baby seemed to soothe her recently-kicked and aching lungs as well. Smiling, she put a light hand over his, to still his hands at a particularly nice place, while that little extra bit of magic-warmth still lingered.

"It's quite a waste to make you use your magic for unpleasantness," she said, a bit shyly, "when you're so talented at making pleasant things happen."

"Isn't it such a cruel travesty?" he agreed, with an overdramatic attempt at a heart-rending wrist-to-forehead half-collapse back against the wall, which let her know that he was feeling a little better despite himself. He always adored any reminders of her small and grumpy boarding-guest, even when the scamp was making things uncomfortable for her personally.

"You don't say," Sophie replied, drily, because she just couldn't help herself; wry exasperation had become her knee-jerk reaction to excessive doses of melodrama, nearly an allergy by now, and constant exposure to Howl's histrionics had begun setting off her melodrama-allergies quite frequently.

"The world is too harsh and unrefined for one of my sensitivity to endure," he announced with a languishing sigh. "I suppose I shall have to go and faint elegantly at people, and see if the King feels any sort of remorse. --Though I expect he is just as hard-headed about fainting as you are about tantrums. Hmm." He sat up abruptly and rubbed his chin, lost in calculation that really did nothing for his attempts at limpid-flower-ness. "I know! You've got a perfectly good excuse to be fainting, and I'm sure you'd get a great deal more sympathy than I would, the people in Kingsbury are jaded that way--"

"I thought you said I wasn't to go see the King," Sophie protested. "Let alone faint in his lap!"

"Of course not! Not the King, he's got a heart of stone under that politely-smiling noblesse, aside from when it comes to his family. He's got to, to still have the throne under his rump when he sits down in a place like this, with Madame Suliman watching! No, no, just wander about the town looking fragile and delicate and wispy; and keep touching your middle, and look pained, and faint every so often when people are watching--"

Sophie snorted her opinion of that. "Fragile? Delicate? Wispy? --Me?"

Howl tipped his head to one side and then the other, assessing the situation, like the birds he spent so much time among; and then finally he gave a vast sigh and admitted, "Not a chance, is there. It would be like putting a doily on a plowhorse."

"I could do without that particular comparison, but otherwise yes," Sophie said, half-lidded.

"I wonder what it says about the pair of us that I have far more talent in the delicate-and-wispy field than you do, even with the baby to give you advantages..."

"Why are you so surprised? You've always been good at having hysterics, haven't you?"

"Ouch!" Howl clapped a hand to his heart, chuckling. "Shot true enough, cariad, but oh, how it stings--"

"Hmph."

She'd been about to take the conversation further, only Calcifer called from the hearth, "Kingsbury door!" just as someone began rapping at it with something metallic, something other than knuckles, which said likely a cane's head or some official staff, which said likely a royal messenger. Sophie traded a silent look with Howl, and then she heaved a sigh and got herself up from his lap and headed grimly for the door.

"Tell them I fainted or something!" Howl whispered, and promptly flopped over to play dead. Except that he kept trying for a more graceful tumble of his hair with little furtive head-twitches, and kept shifting to get the most dramatic possible effect from the 'unconscious' loll of one pale long-fingered hand.

...Fat lot of help he was, really. It was a miracle he'd ever gotten anything done without her around.

The king's messenger blanched a little when Sophie opened the door, because over the months, most of them had gotten to know Sophie. They rarely got more than two sentences into their flowery intended-to-be-hour-long speeches before she cut them off at the knees, conversationally speaking, whilst tapping a walking-stick in her hands that let them know that she was more than willing to physically have a go at their knees if they didn't take the 'polite' conversational hint. But this one gathered up his nerve, and tried anyway.

He'd barely gotten through an abbreviated, relatively fast-forward attempt at Sophie's new title as the Royal Wizard's wife when Sophie's patience ran out. "Go away," she said.

The messenger blinked. "Madame-- begging your pardon most humbly, of course--"

"Time is valuable," she said. "Stop wasting both of ours and go away."

"But I haven't even told you what his most excellent and revered--"

"You have five seconds."

The messenger was brighter than some of his comrades. He didn't doubt that she meant it, and took a deep breath to chatter as quickly as he possibly could. "His-Royal-Majesty-has-sent-this-unworthy-servant-to-inquire-as-to-the-esteemed-Royal-Wizard's-progress-in-the-vital-matter-which-they-had-discussed--"

"Time's up," Sophie said. "The King's checking up on his newfangled crossbow things, is he?"

Helplessly, the messenger nodded.

"The King can go march his troops around for a while," Sophie replied. "They've survived without the things this long, they'll make do for a while longer, I expect. And they have all those boots Howl gave them, so they can do quite a lot of marching."

"Madame -- I must stress that this is a matter of critical importance to our nation's security and prosperity--"

Somehow, Sophie kept herself from snorting. "They all say that," she replied. "Come back later. Your Royal Wizard is currently resolving a crisis. He'll get back to the King when the crisis is over." She was rather proud of her attempt at diplomatic phrasing.

"Madame, what crisis could be of more importance than our nation's--"

I'd say a crisis of conscience from a man thought not to possess a conscience would be close enough. "Are you telling me you want me to violate wartime security by passing information to someone whom the King clearly considers not authorized to know about it?"

From the hearth, Calcifer hastily muffled a cackle in a rustling of logs and a burst of sparks; Sophie wondered if Howl was twitching behind her, but she couldn't afford to look while she had the upper hand with one of these vexingly clingy and tenacious official creatures.

"That -- that wasn't what I meant, Madame--"

"Good, then. Go away."

"But--"

"Go away or the next wartime crisis you face is whether or not the 'heroically fallen in the line of duty' clause covers injuries received during a sound thumping from a vexed witch!"

"I'd go if I were you," Calcifer called helpfully. "Ladies in her condition -- quite temperamental--" And then he burst into crackling snickers again.

Pale as a sheet, the messenger bobbled an erratic little bow and stepped back just before Sophie slammed the door.

"Drat," she said. "I'd been aiming to bloody that overaristocratic nose of his, sticking it out like that into other people's business..."

By this point Howl was doubled up on the bench, shaking with barely-stifled hilarity.

"How... how on earth... anyone ever called it a delicate condition...! --clearly... never... never met you...!"

He gave up and dissolved into sheer mischievous glee, gasping with laughter and thumping one hand helplessly against the bench.

"Thanks ever so much for the support," Sophie said, her face burning, and she turned toward the stairs to get away from both of her laughing idiots.

"Easy, there," Howl said, still laughing; he reached out to catch her about the waist as she brushed past, which Sophie thought was rather unsporting of him since it had lately become a sizable target to aim for. "I'm not mocking you, cariad; I'm marveling yet again at how much I adore you!"

She would have struggled, except that his hands had found that place in her back that ached, and he had snuggled his cheek against her heart and was looking up at her with unfairly wistful eyes, and he said, "Don't be angry? You are the most brilliant, remarkable, amazing woman I've ever met, and I'm still startled by my luck in convincing you that I was worth marrying. Particularly since you did know what you were getting yourself in for. --Still astounds me, that bit. If it would make you feel better, I'd be happy to remind you why you married me, if I'd ever understood it in the first place that is; but as it is I shall need a few hints..."

Her face was still burning, but for an entirely different reason this time; both hands to her cheeks, Sophie said, "I'll let you know as soon as I figure it out myself, you slithering charmer."

"Well, then, shall we start by testing whether you married me for the way I kiss you...?"

"That... that sounds as though it has potential, yes..."

Calcifer had a little too much relief-at-reprieve in his voice when he mentioned brightly, "Kingsbury door again!"

"...Oh, bother!" Sophie stalked down the steps, swung the door open, and said to the very astonished messenger who hadn't even had time to knock, "GO AWAY, WE'RE NOT IN!" before slamming the door in his face again and turning the knob to black-down for Wales.

A bit boggled, Howl said, "Sophie...?"

"Well, come on, then," she said, chin high. "Change clothes and whatnot. It's bad form to lie to the King's messengers, you know, so we'd better not be in by the time he summons up the gumption to try knocking again!"

Laughing, Howl stood and stretched and shifted his black and scarlet suit into the rugby jacket. Sophie's high-waisted, spring-green empire gown was something they'd settled upon as convenient for both worlds, because the waistline was just beneath her bust and therefore the rounding in front didn't need to be corseted in uncomfortably; but a quick brush of Howl's hand down her back had her dress's hemline raising a couple of feet to bare her knees.

She would have protested his inexplicable overfondness for baring her legs to all the world if she wasn't vastly more interested in getting them away from anywhere the Kingsbury door could be knocked upon and they could hear it; so she seized her husband by the elbow and all but dragged him off into Trehaven's morning.