AN: …And because I realized I'm just not good with men's POV, we switch back to Sophie and the upcoming (insert melodramatic music) Prince's Ball! At least we got a peek into Howl's mind.

Disclaimer: Refer to the first chapter with the Hong Kong Triads bosses and the…such and such.

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Chapter Four

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It had been terribly kind of him.

"Look, look! That must be his castle!"

Sophie looked up from her latest project and watched the blurred sky from her window. She ignored the shouts and screams outside her workroom to the best of her ability, but Martha had the loudest of friends imaginable.

"That's Howl's castle!"

"He must be handsome," one swooned. "I wish he'd take me away."

"Oh please. He only goes after pretty girls."

The girls laughed at the good-natured joke and continued chattering about the castle. Sophie squinted through her open window and observed the blob that was the supposed castle: a tall black tower that sporadically appeared on the hills above Market Chipping, blowing clouds of dirty black smoke from its four tall, thin turrets. What made the castle special was it did not stay in the same place. Sometimes it was a tall dark smudge on the moors to the west, and sometimes the castle rove about the hills, actually moving with smoke pouring out from the turrets in dirty gray gusts. The Mayor, for a while, talked of sending to the King for help, but something changed his mind.

Perhaps he did a favor for the Mayor too…

Sophie held her forehead, feeling her face heat up. Even thinking about last night made her queasy.

Much less a little ashamed.

"Sophie."

She whirled from her stool and turned to the door. To her great shock, and discomfort, Lettie was at the doorway, casually leaning on the frame as if she was a routine visitor. Which she was not. Sophie quickly got up and dusted her apron off, trying to be as polite as possible in front of one of her boss's daughters.

"Please don't get up, Sophie," she said, holding her hand up. "I don't want to pull you from your work."

Sophie obeyed and sat back down on her stool, feeling all the more foolish. It was strange, really. For much of her life she had been ignored and overlooked, and she had gotten used to what she was. Plain. She was, actually, quite fond of being naturally looked over. It was her way of avoiding unnecessary contact, unnecessary confrontation. Sure, she had attracted several unfavorable suitors during her life in the streets, but they were never serious (and she suspected that many of them had been drunk). Sophie was good at avoiding trouble and people altogether. She had been proud of that. But now…

Simply put, everything was out of place. And she had the distinct feeling the Wizard had something to do with this sudden turn of events.

"I heard you've gotten a raise," Lettie began, pulling Sophie out of her stupor. "You must've done a fantastic job. Mother hasn't given anyone a raise in years. Just look at Bessie."

Sophie thought about telling her that Bessie had retired today since her wedding day had been moved up, but decided against it. She was naturally quiet, after all. She wanted to avoid any unnecessary conversation.

"I was thinking," she moved to the stool Sophie had slept on last night and sat down, "that perhaps we should get to know each other more."

Sophie blinked. "Get to…?"

"Know each other," Lettie smiled. "We've known each other for years but we've never actually had a conversation, have we? I must've seemed like such a prick to you."

"No!" She held her hands up, furiously shaking her head. But she couldn't form any coherent words. Or thoughts for that matter. This was so very unfamiliar, so very weird to her.

"Oh don't be so modest. Maybe we can both go look for dresses before the Ball. That would be nice, wouldn't it?" With that question left to hang in the air, Lettie stood up, gave Sophie another sweet smile, and walked out of the workroom.


It was terribly upsetting.

It hadn't been her words. No, her words had been kind and gentle. It had been her attitude. Her whole attitude.

"Maybe we can both go look for dresses before the Ball. That would be nice, wouldn't it?"

Sophie shook her head. Her kindness was unsettling. This new friendship put a whole new pressure on her, as if she had to live up to Lettie's newfound expectations of her. What if Sophie acted or did something unbecoming in front of Lettie? Then Lettie might simply drop her and forget about their friendship. That might've seemed appealing in the past, but now that she knew what it was like to have human contact, (it was horrifying to admit) she was beginning to like the whole idea of having friends…

Which made the pressure so much worse. Now that she knew what if felt like to be with people, she could not revert back to her shy, mouse-like nature… what she valued as independence was crumbling before her face, and she could not stop it. She didn't have the heart to. It was as if she was addicted to the taste of friendship, having just talked to another girl her age.

But what if she did something wrong? Something embarrassing?

Then people would mock her, her friendship would be lost, and she would have to go back toiling in the workroom; which, ironically, would've seemed appealing to her old self. But now… now, the thought of it made her shudder in grief. After talking to Lettie…

After talking to Howl…

Pressure. That's what she felt. Pressure, for now she had someone to depend on, and to be depended upon.

"I'm going out for lunch," Sophie quietly said as she passed Fanny.

"You're spending your new earnings wisely." Fanny smiled and went to the backroom to do more sums.

Sophie exited the shop with mixed emotions. Had that smile been wicked? Sarcastic? Had Fanny meant to be sarcastic or funny?

Pressure.

Sophie saw the fault in having social contacts. You had to actually care what others thought about you. People could claim they didn't care about their reputation, but, in the deep recesses of their mind, they did care. Or had an inkling of curiosity on the topic.

She sighed.

What a bother.

"ARGHHH!"

Sophie looked up, nearly knocked off her feet. She really needed to stop daydreaming at random moments.

"Oh boy," she heard someone say as she rounded a corner. "Oh, this is really bad."

It was a boy, around Martha's age, grumbling something under his breath. He was lying on his back with a large, wooden crate on top of him in a most uncomfortable position. Sophie winced. She saw that the crate was perhaps 5 times her size, and if it was heavy as it was large… But how on earth had it gotten in such a narrow alleyway like this?

"Ow…"

Sophie bit her bottom lip. She could not simply walk away from this. She was cursed with a conscience, after all.

The boy looked up with saucer eyes when he opened his eyes, shock replacing his pain.

"Are you OK?" Sophie bent down and calmly examined the crate. "Are you hurt?"

He was reluctant to answer at first, but when she stood up to perhaps try and push the crate off him he quickly intervened. "No! I, I think one of my ribs is broken."

Sophie's frown deepened. "Then I should go find a soldier, or maybe—"

"No!" he said, his face covered in light sweat. "No… I…" His face contorted in pain, but Sophie had a feeling he was making some kind of an important decision in his head. With a grunt he reopened his eyes. "In my bag there's a piece of parchment. I want you to take it out and read it out loud."

Sophie was hesitant, but did as she was told. She didn't know what it would accomplish, but seeing as he was in so much pain she didn't protest. She picked up the bag from beside the crate and rummaged through its content before taking out a very old parchment. She dropped the bag on the floor and slowly, and loudly, read the words. It was a poem, of sorts, though she did not recognize most of the words.

"Hello?"

Sophie looked around. And her eyes widened in awe.

She was not in the alleyways anymore. In fact, she found herself indoors in a rather bizarre house. She stepped away from the crate and the boy's bag before her eyes landed on the boy, sprawled out on the dusty floor but miraculously out from beneath the crate. He seemed still in pain, though. Sophie moved to him when the same voice spoke up again.

"Hello? Yoo-hoo, I'm talking to you."

Sophie stepped away from the crate, the offending object that blocked her view of the fireplace, and came face-to-face with a fire with two eyes and one black mouth. She stared for a very long time before the boy on the floor moaned, coming out of consciousness.

"Calcifer?" he groaned. "Are you there?"

"Whoa, Markl," said the fire. "What happened to you?"

"I was transporting the…the crate, you know… the shipment? I was doing that…then I… accidentally… knocked it over… and it… Oh."

"Jeez, you better heal yourself before How—wait, who's she?" Calcifer turned to Sophie, completely forgetting about Markl.

Sophie opened her mouth just as the front door opened.

"Calcifer," a voice all too familiar said from behind the crate. "Start the hot bath. We're going to have dinner tonight so you'll also need to start… Calcifer?" The voice, curious as to why he was getting no complaints or any kind of response from the fire, came closer. "What's this crate doing here?" Calcifer and Markl silently watched the scene unfold, unable to help themselves.

Sophie turned from the fire demon just as Howl walked around the large crate, both turning to face the other at the same time.

Calcifer saw Howl blink.

Markl saw Sophie pale.

Then the three males watched Sophie do something unexpected. No, she did not faint.

She jumped away and skittered to the other side of the crate, hiding behind the box as if she was playing hide-and-seek.

"Sophie?" said Howl from behind the crate. "Is that you?"

"You know her?" said the incredulous fire to her left.

"I'm…sorry, Howl," said the boy on the floor. "I was transporting…shipment… then it…fell. She came…helped me… read the spell."

Sophie turned around and leaned back against the crate, trying to stifle her out of control heart. She knew where she was now. This was the wizard's domain. This was Howl's moving castle.

Unwittingly, unconsciously, Sophie closed her mouth and held her breath.

"Sophie."

Look away. Please…leave me alone. Please go away. Disappear… disappear.

"Sophie, it's all right. It's just me."

"Just you?" Calcifer stared. "Just you? Since when have you been another just?"

"Calcifer, that's enough. She's just distressed."

"Again with the just."

"Cal—"

"Howl!"

Howl turned on Markl's call and saw Sophie sway on the spot before collapsing to the floor.

Sophie's world darkened, but before she lost consciousness she saw two concerned, marble-like eyes hovering above her.

Disappear.

"Sophie…"

And then nothing.


AN: And then I leave off on one of the most clichéd cliffhangers in fanfiction—the classic female fainting shtick. Also, since I know I'll be questioned on this, I'll say it here: Markl's birth name is Michael (like in the book), but he goes by Markl (the movie name). We'll find out exactly WHY he goes by Markl in the next chapter. On another note, anyone ever watched Neon Genesis Evangelion? This chapter delved into Sophie's psyche so much even I began feeling heavy while reading the concept of social expectations. Yeeeeeeesh…

Next chapter—Sophie realizes she needs to get back to work. (No, that's not the title.)