"The condition of perfection is idleness: the aim of perfection is youth." - Oscar Wilde
There are only two things Howl is afraid of. One is a bad hair day. The other is losing his heart.
But he's supposed to be an almighty wizard, so he can't let anybody know that – not Calcifer whining about the lack of eggshells, not Michael working so hard on his spells, and not any girl, especially not any girl. Oh, he'd be in trouble then. Lose his credentials as a wizard, or as a dashing gentleman, for that matter; he'd be exposed as a fraud, and that wouldn't do at all. It's hard enough to act brave when you're shaking inside, but it's worse when they know how your knees are knocking. And as much as he loves to run away, Howl hates losing.
Not that he has the greatest luck with winning. Especially in the romance department – and you'd think, with all the effort he puts in aesthetic magic, that that would be near impossible. But Lady Luck loves to frown upon him, and there seems nothing he can do to appease her. Of course, she teases him from time to time – he really thought he'd struck the jackpot, the first time he met the Witch of the Waste – but she wasn't the Witch of the Waste then, was she? She was gorgeous and sweet and blushing as he offered her dinner, silly eighteen-year-old-Howl with a fast mouth and empty pockets (he conjured the meal from somebody else's table, thank goodness no one suspected). There had been a beautiful allure to her dark eyes – too much allure, in fact, too much enticement.
He found out she was old and bent and blackened inside soon enough, of course, to his infinite mortification (that dinner! and the wine! and the silk rose pin! and oh – the agony – the kiss!); it wouldn't have been half as bad had she not spelled him too, outraged when he turned down their next 'engagement' (he was nineteen-year-old-Howl by then, and a good deal wiser, but still not wise enough). She even used a poem to bewitch him. It would have been cute if it weren't so crafty. At least Calcifer was well-hidden; at least he had a place to stay and old Mrs. Pentstemmon for credentials to jumpstart a few of his secret identities.
He came up with the moving castle, and a dozen other magical shields while he was at it, faster than you could recite the incantation for jet black with blue highlights. Safe for now, he thought. Safe, safe from all the unbidden fears – he was getting better with dyes, and he was never caught without a brush. Howl could be gorgeous forever and ever; perpetual youth was at least one benefit of his mad contract. Yes, he could be handsomer than Narcissus – er, Apollo, himself, and he could have his heart, too. Safe among the cinders and ashes. Michael would keep his secret without trouble, and the average Jane, Janet, and Jeannie were no threat.
Of course, Lady Luck just had to have the last laugh, and here he is again, twenty-seven-year-old-Howl with a girl right in his home, sweeping about (literally! and otherwise!), sticking her nose into his business. Worse, she is not just a girl, but a girl under the guise of an old bag (why is it always that or vice versa? Can't he ever have someone that looks her age?). Not that it really bothers him, because he saw through it right away. He recognizes the Wicked Witch's spells for what they are, already, and if Sophie weren't so bent on casting it on herself he'd have gotten it off by now. She's actually very pretty when she isn't acting thrice her age. He thinks so, at least, but he can't tell her that – she would accuse him of making a jest of her emotions, and with all the rumors he's taken care to spread, he probably can't deny it.
Sophie's different from the usual girl. She doesn't give in easy. In fact, she probably plain doesn't give in. And she's tough as a nut to crack. He just can't understand what she wants – but it's fun trying to decipher, at least. She's got magic of her own and she doesn't know it.
He doesn't need that right now, though. He isn't in control of the situation anymore. She has had him close to hysterics several times (and she actually succeeded once, because ginger hair most definitely equates to bad hair day), but he's mastered the art of sad and noble already, and he can't let his guard down these days. The Witch is on the prowl. He can smell her old-lady perfumes a mile away, all trickery and self-flattery (he's canceled countless dinner dates by now, she shouldn't think herself so special). He hates what that sorceress has done to poor, hapless (hah!) Sophie, of course, but maybe it's just as well that the girl has come in as his cleaning lady. He can keep a close eye on her, and the place smells a lot sweeter. Calcifer complains a good deal less, and Michael seems to appreciate having someone who cares around. (Howl cares, of course he does, deep in his bold and tragic heart, but he hasn't all the time to show it.)
In his secret of secrets, it actually doesn't hurt so bad when he's dumped – provided he leads them up to it, of course (there have been a few instances when it was unplanned, and then he'd really get bogged down, because why would they do it?) Oh, sure, it's a blow to his pride, but hardly ever to his heart. He makes a great show of not eating and sniffling and insomnia, and makes up for the ache by indulging in work (and a few drinks, here and there). But he's actually relieved. He's still got his heart, he's still got all the necessary cards, he can still run away without a care if the Witch tries to pursue him. At least he thinks he does.
At least he hopes he does.
Because one day he wakes up from a fantastic hangover (the Witch is on the prowl, the Witch is catching up, the Witch is hunting him down – but let's just pretend that it's Ms. Angorian being fickle again, because that's more likely) and Sophie's cooking bacon slices over Calcifer, with her face more wrinkly and her nose more hugely unbearable than usual and Michael is tugging at her grandmother dress and asking her to take a look at the spell he's working and suddenly, dear lords, no, he's tired of running. He wants it to stay like this forever. (Except, of course, she'd have to drop the old lady image. It's one thing to see her in the kitchen, another to see her in the be – er, bathroom.)
"Good morning, Sophie, dear," he says. (He imagines saying that for the rest of his life.)
"You're still drunk, aren't you? Eat your breakfast, Howl," she cackles (well, it was worth a try).
Sometimes it's hard, being like this. He never really thought it was, until then – twenty-seven-year-old-Howl, and now, of all times, he wants his heart back – creeping out of his bed at night to watch her sleeping in the space under the stairs. She's snoring like a walrus, but she's got the look of a young girl again. He sees right through her skin (not in that way; at least, not when she can outsnore a mountain giant), past the insecurities and the denial and the latent grumbling and her witchery - and it's all magic underneath.
What did he ever see in the Witch of the Waste? What did he ever see in his reflection?
Here was real beauty.
His hair is flat and full of flyaways, because he has been rolling about in bed (and for once it really is insomnia); and it's black now, not the sunshine blonde that took him months to mix properly. His eyes are cold as marbles, and his heart's still not a proper part of him (safe among the cinders, hidden in the ashes), but he knows it's for real this time. The game is up; his heart is lost. It's in Sophie's hands now.
He imagined it to be like fear, but it's more like elation.
He leans in to give her a kiss. She opens her eyes just in time.
"What in the name of Kingsbury are you doing?!"
Calcifer bursts out laughing when Howl walks down the stairs next morning. There is a bump as big as a chicken egg swelling on his forehead, and he knows it looks a sight, without the demon's unnecessary hooting.
There are only two things Howl is afraid of. One is the Witch, when she finally catches him. The other is Sophie when he tries to say 'I love you'.
A/N: Hope you liked it. ; I apologize for Howl's immense immaturity, although that is how I imagine him to think. Comments would be greatly appreciated.