A/N: I have seen the movie version of Howl, but this one follows the book's storyline more. It's set around chapter 17 (after they move house). Just to be safe: possible spoilers.

Scalloped Sleeves

Sophie catches herself falling into routine all too easily – get up in the morning, ignore Howl, mind Michael, tend to Calcifer, sweep out any dust that has collected overnight, sew up any old clothes she can find in the house, prepare the meals, fall into deep, snoring sleep. It was that way in the hat shop as well, she tells herself ruefully, the same thing day after day until the days collected into weeks and somehow surged into months, and sometimes she believes that she would have turned old and gray anyway, even without the Witch of the Waste casting that spell. The thought makes her sad, and she sighs like the old woman she now is, with too few memories and too much resentment to die peacefully.

"And the way things are now, I will die soon," She mutters quietly, mostly to herself, but once she has said it the thought scares her more than she expects it to.

She never thought about growing old when she was younger – her future stretched to the casual dismissal of, I'm the eldest of three, and she had long since abandoned the hope that Fanny would bless them with another daughter. Martha and Lettie would roll their eyes at her impassiveness, and when they had done telling her she wouldn't be a failure and she did nothing more than nod as if she did not quite believe them, they would tell her to go marry an eldest-of-three-son and see if she couldn't become successful that way. Their futures are much more topics, anyway, Sophie decides. Lettie wants witchcraft and a chance to use her brains, which is in every way equal to her beauty. Martha wants ten children and a life of pastry-making – well, now they have the grandmother they had missed growing up, and Sophie thinks that she wouldn't mind pretending to her nephews and nieces except that she's already cooped up in a castle with cleaning duties, a contract, and cunning, clever Howl to boot.

"He stinks up the place with his perfumes," She complains, fixing a patch onto one of Michael's worn shirts. "And he has no respect for women at all!"

Calcifer bobs his head up from the fireplace to flicker two eyebrows at her in mild surprise.

"Having a rant, Sophie?"

She waves the fire demon off with a withered hand and continues her long list of Howl's faults, only a little less vehemently. "And his hair is never its true color, and his clothes are too fancy to do anyone good. And the way he treats Michael and Calcifer!" And me, she thinks, a little sorely, but she isn't sure what about. Howl isn't cruel, after all, to any of them (village gossip sticks, and sticks hard). He is her employer – or benefactor, whatever it is, because he didn't ever exactly hire her. She ignores the sound of the door opening – Michael back from fetching potions ingredients, dog-man in tow, no doubt – and finishes today's nuisances with, "But the worst has got to be those eyes. Unfeeling, piercing things!" Like marbles, she finds herself adding as usual - and Sophie never played with them much a child – fun and games don't come with being the eldest – but his are real cold, stony, lifeless beads tinted blue. She sometimes wonders how blindingly stupid all those girls could be, to fall for him and not see how insincere his gaze is.

"I think they're the best part, actually, and if you're done verbally describing my face I'd like to have a snack, please," And she nearly leaps out of her chair when Howl sticks those two marbles close to her face all sly and charming and transparent, and suddenly she wants to slap him hard. How funny that would be, spanking him like a mad old granny, naughty boy, naughty boy!, but his hands are bigger than hers and she wouldn't touch his bottom for all the gold in Kingsbury. Fanny laid off the spanking anyway, and Sophie always calmed her sisters before the situation got too bad. She feels acutely ashamed of herself. She hasn't been in a right state lately, and it's centered somewhere in her heart – the scarecrow, she shivers. Stupid old body.

"You can fix your own meals," She grumbles, the wrinkles deepening around her face so that she can actually feel them. "And if you stopped courting all the time you could do a lot more, too, like go to the marketplace instead of sending me and poor Michael there." But she gets up anyway, even if the word exploitation flashes through her mind. She hobbles to the cupboard to fetch out some cheese and bread, and starts making him a sandwich.

"I'm avoiding the Witch and you know that," He laughs. When she doesn't respond, he tries a different tactic. "You don't really think my eyes are ugly, do you, Sophie?" Howl's tone might have been genuine, actually, but she doesn't notice because she's too busy fighting back embarrassment, anxiety, and anger all at once. Silly of her. I'm the eldest of three, she reminds herself, until she realizes that she is slithering out like Howl. Oh, confound it all, that man is rubbing off on me! She dumps the sandwich onto a plate and thrusts it out at him, ignoring the smile and the gratitude that goes with it.

"I don't change my eyes the way I do my hair, you know."

Sophie doesn't want to be unkind. She stops herself saying you should, then, just in time. "Oh, honestly, Howl, I'm just an old woman. What would it matter if I thought your eyes were nice?"

Howl looks injured and valiant all at once, a little more quickly than the usual mock indignity he flashes, so that it might be true, but she knows that he could wear all the world's emotions on his face and still not mean any of them. He asks Calcifer for hot water before turning to Sophie and saying, with a voice that is unnaturally full of remorse, lacking its usual wheedle, "I can't help my eyes being what they are."

Of course he can't, just like everything else – his smooth, honey-sweet voice and noble nose and tactfully well-combed hair, and that ridiculous suit with ridged sleeves. She replies with a nasty grump, but his lingering sigh stabs her with a bit of guilt. Botheration. She would never apologize to that pretty face no matter what sort of sorry spell he'd cast. Howl disappears into the bathroom and she feels a little ill, so she makes herself a sandwich as well and chews it thoughtfully. She remembers the speculations that she and her sisters had exchanged, around the time the castle first showed up.

"I bet he eats them. I bet he devours all the sweetness and spits out the bitter parts, like seeds – you know, everyone's a little bitter somewhere inside."

Martha was a little less creative. "Suppose he just piles them up somewhere in a heap? Or he just likes collecting them. Puts them in jars and counts them."

"Heartless Howl." They giggled, although Sophie felt that she ought to steer the conversation towards something more pleasant (and less interesting, undoubtedly). "But if he is heartless like they all say, maybe he's just trying to find something to fill his own hollow space?" She surprised herself with that sentiment, and even her sisters exchanged queer glances. "Of course, he shouldn't take another's just to please himself."

"That's right," they chorused, relieved that they didn't need to pity him. Wicked wizards didn't deserve so much. Of course, it was stupid that no one had noticed the fact that no girls were taken, in fact – not the neighbor's daughter or anyone from their schools, and none of the Hatter girls, although Lettie was prettier than anyone in Market Chipping. They had chalked it up to Howl not being the sort of villain that went for the prettiest (now that Sophie had met him, the opposite was true). Maybe it didn't matter to him whose heart he ate out.

"And it doesn't, does it?" Sophie says aloud, forgetting herself yet again. Memory dulls when you're old, she consoles herself. If only feelings could dull just as much. But Sophie never was one to swoon and sob like a schoolgirl, and she won't start now – certainly not over someone as immature and selfish as Howl. Not a chance! But she starts to shake a little. She sits in front of the fire once more, Michael's shirt on her lap again although she isn't inspired enough to mend it at all. She looks at Calcifer for a moment, blue flames flickering gently over the logs. She never would have seen half the things she is seeing now if she hadn't started to live inside the Castle – something she had never considered doing until she did do it. Sophie has a feeling that her actions move much faster than her thoughts. Oh well.

"Calcifer, can a demon fall in love?"

A silly question, but one that has been bothering her for a while. She wants to swallow it as soon as she says it, of course – mouth running away with her again, faster than her old body can stump along. The fire demon would get ideas, if only to push her to break the contract more, although knowing him he might just use it to tease her. Old women aren't teased, but she might be the grand exception, eighteen inside. She decides to start working again, to appear unconcerned. Unfortunately, Calcifer, unlike the wizard he works for, tends to answer questions.

His mean little eyes peep up from over the logs that he is burning lazily.

"There is some truth to the claim that Howl eats hearts, you know," He drawls nastily.

Sophie stabs her finger with a clumsy needle and she looks up and glares at Calcifer so hard that he it nearly freezes him over, saved only by the fact that he's made of fire. "That's not what I meant, you cruel thing," But the worry dissipates and is replaced by full-blown panic. It's the charmed suit, she tells herself. Or something else. What a nasty, nasty magic trick – making her level-headedness vanish and replacing it with that sickly amorous feeling, conjuring her heart out of her body like that and tucking it into a magical sleeve. And he doesn't notice! Howl works the nastiest black magic in the world, she snarls to herself.

I don't want him to notice.

She sighs and puts away the shirt and thinks that soon she'll try to escape again, or better yet, stop feeling this way – then everyone can have their happiness while she has her own mediocre ending – with some resentment, perhaps, but with enough resignation; maybe even Howl will finally find a woman true and fair, if he can learn to love at all. (He can't. Or she doesn't want him to?) She might as well talk herself out of this fixation the way she seems to talk everything else into life – yattering like the skull on his desk. But she's too tired to try much right now. Michael comes back with a love letter in hand, Howl billows out of the shower in a cloud of citrus blossoms.

And Sophie falls back into routine.

After all, she would prefer to die by heart attack than heart ache any day.

A/N: Written for my friend Werlish. She prodded me about it, so I finally put to use an idea I've had for almost a year. Thanks!

I hope you liked it. As usual, any and all comments will be greatly appreciated. :D