Summary: When Sophie leaves town for a few days, Howl devises a unique way of coping with his loneliness.

Author's Note: This is a bit of odd randomness I wrote in response to a fanfic challenge. The challenge: "Howl" and "Cross-dressing". I hope this will provide a fun read. If nothing else, it's mercifully short.

Legal Stuff: This story is intended to express one fan's genuine appreciation for Howl's Moving Castle and its characters. It is just for fun and not for profit. If you have rights in the anime described here and find the posting of this fanfiction offensive or harmful, please contact me, and I will be happy to remove it.

I Feel Pretty

"I feel pretty. Oh so pretty!"

Howl's voice came from Sophie's room. It rose and fell, following the melody of a tune only he could hear. Echoing off of the hard surfaces in the main room, the words seemed to float from the pans hanging on the wall above the stove, to the hollow of the chimney just above Calcifer's head, and then back again to where they had started, almost like the clear, clean tones of a bell.

Markl and Calcifer stared at the doorway of Sophie's room.

"I'm just saying, it's not … it's not right," Markl said.

He had repeated this statement so many times in the past half hour that he was beginning to sound a bit like a broken record.

When Calcifer didn't reply, Markl glanced toward the fireplace, raising his eyebrows in an expression that indicated he expected a response of some kind -- any kind -- even though he suspected Calcifer didn't have any answers for this situation, either. After a moment or two, Calcifer replied with an odd gesture. Markl could have sworn it was a dismissive shrug, but that wasn't possible. Calcifer didn't have shoulders, after all. Still, the fire demon managed to get his point across, all the same.

"I don't know. His voice isn't that bad," Calcifer replied after another moment or two.

Like Markl, he continued to stare across the room, toward the open door of Sophie's bedroom.

"That's … that's not what I mean," Markl said. He glared at Calcifer. "And you know it."

Calicifer made that odd little almost-shrug gesture again, but didn't reply. How could he? Markl might be heading into his teen years, but he was still young. He wanted to believe things made sense in the world. Calcifer had been around long enough that he knew very few things in this universe made any sense at all. And, this was not one of them. Markl wanted explanations. Calcifer had none. So, remaining silent seemed like the best option. The kid would learn the harsh realities of the world soon enough. Why should Calcifer be the one to burst his bubble?

"But …" Markl muttered, crossing the floor toward Sophie's door.

Just as he began to peer around the doorjamb, Howl burst from Sophie's bedroom. Markl jumped aside, a muttered "eeep!" of surprise escaping his lips. He turned and watched as Howl shuffled across the floor, his black, shoulder-length hair flapping in the breeze created by his hasty passage. Markl only caught a glimpse of the young wizard as Howl passed him, but, even so, he saw the happy grin on Howl's face, as well as the way his eyes seemed to shine with an excited, almost giddy-looking gleam.

"So? What about this one?" Howl asked, stopping before Calcifer's hearth.

He wore one of Sophie's dresses -- one she had gotten on her last shopping trip in Kingsbury. To cross the room, he had held the extra yards of material clenched in his fists, above his knees, so that he wouldn't trip. But, now, he dropped the skirt's hem to the floor, allowing the fabric to billow around him. With a smile, he turned, first left, and then, right, like a young girl preening before a mirror.

Calcifer tilted his flame-shaped head from one side to the other, taking in Howl's appearance with a discerning, critical eye.

Howl tugged the dress's right sleeve lower on his wrist, and twitched the garment's waist into place -- impatient, nervous gestures to pass the time spent waiting for Calcifer's approval.

After what seemed like an eternity, he glared toward the hearth. "Well?" he asked, emphasizing his words with a head shake that declared, in no uncertain terms, Calcifer had better answer … his answer had best be the "right" one … and he had better answer right now.

"I … don't know," Calcifer said.

"What? It makes me look fat? Does it make my butt look too big?" Howl asked, twisting around in an effort to catch a glimpse of his backside.

"No," Calcifer replied. "It's just not … you. What color is that, anyhow? Kumquat? It's all wrong for your skin tone."

"Oh," Howl said, disappointment coloring his words.

He gathered up the dress's skirt once again, and retreated into Sophie's room. It was quiet for a few long moments, and, then, Markl and Calcifer heard the unmistakable sounds of humming as Howl began to move about inside, continuing on with the song he had sung earlier.

"But, what if he goes out in public like that?" Markl asked, moving away from Sophie's doorway and back toward the fireplace. He sat down on the hearth and looked over at Calcifer.

"Oh, he won't. Even he wouldn't do that," Calcifer replied. "The other wizards might make fun of him. It's rough out there, kid. He's just … you know, blowing off some steam. Or something."

"He's wearing Sophie's dresses," Markl replied.

"It's just a phase," Calcifer said.

He and Markl looked over at Sophie's open door. Once again, snippets of song floated out to them.

"I feel pretty and witty and gay!"

Markl looked back at Calcifer, a wide-eyed expression of dismay pasted on his round, almost-cherubic face.

"Did you hear that? He says he's gay!" Markl exclaimed.

"Nah. It's like … being happy," Calcifer said.

"Happy in a dress," Markl muttered.

"It's nothing," Calcifer said. "It's just because Sophie's away for the weekend. He misses her."

Markl's only response was an eyebrow-raised expression of disbelief. He thought Calcifer should do something to keep Howl from running amok like this, and he wanted to be sure the fire demon knew it.

Calcifer made his strange almost-shrug once again. "Look," he said, "Last time Sophie went away for a few days, there was slime. Lots of slime. I don't like slime. It's … well, slimy. And green. This is better."

Markl didn't get a chance to reply. Howl bustled back into the room, this time wearing Sophie's best dress -- a velvet, midnight-blue garment, fitted with a cut-away bosom and what seemed like miles and miles of fine, cream-colored lace. Overall, the effect was rather dazzling. Dazzling enough that Markl and Calcifer, for just a moment, managed to forget Howl was a guy.

"So?" Howl asked, repeating the preening process he had acted out with the previous dress.

"Uh …" Calcifer said, struggling to find just the right words.

He couldn't let Howl know he looked good in the dress. If he did, this little cross-dressing act would repeat itself the next time Sophie wasn't around. He wasn't worried about Howl wearing any of the dresses outside the castle. Even Howl wasn't enough of a peacock to do that. But, at the same time, he knew the young wizard would wear the garment again, if he knew how good it looked on him. Howl was vain enough for that. And, he did look good in the dress -- maybe even better than Sophie. Therein lay the heart of this sticky situation. A vain, occasionally cross-dressing, peacock of a wizard, Calcifer could live with. A woman who realized a man looked better in her dress than she did -- well, that was a different story. But, if he said anything derogatory about Howl's appearance … there would be slime. And, Howl could produce a lot of slime, especially if he felt less than pretty.

Calcifer swallowed, and, trying hard not to think about the fine line he was walking, said, "Uh … no. Not that one. It's too … um … fancy. You know -- for daytime wear. An evening out, maybe."

Howl looked down at the dress, a thoughtful frown on his face. After a couple of seconds, he nodded.

"You're right. Back to the drawing board."

With a little smile, he gathered the dark blue fabric in his hands and returned to Sophie's room.

Markl and Calcifer stared after him.

"He … he really shouldn't look that good in her dress, should he?" Markl asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Listen, kid," Calcifer replied, "Let's just keep that between us. You know … demon to man … or something."

Markl nodded. "Good idea," he replied.