In Which Howl Meets a Little Gray Mouse

Summary of previous chapter: We watched our characters reenact a hashed out version of the much loved bacon/egg scene from the book/movie. Howl finally got his head out of the drunken clouds and noticed the old woman terrorizing his friends, and was…confused. But he quickly let it slide, resolving to try harder to find his Sophie.

Disclaimer: Nope.

Chapter 14

In Which Howl Ventures Out

"I'm surprised she would leave without telling me, but it is possible she went to visit my sister Martha, who is apprenticed to Mrs. Fairfax, or perhaps she went to visit my mother Fanny."

The man seemed taken aback at that. "You couldn't mean Marella and Frannie, could you?"

Howl's bedroom was a curious place. Perhaps over-cluttered and slightly gaudy, it could not be lumped together with the adjective that so aptly described the rest of the moving castle – messy. No, Howl seemed to take particular care of this room. The walls were draped with colorful scrolls, glittering jewels, and odd trinkets that hinted at another world. One such object was a small, glossy, startlingly lifelike portrait of a little girl laughing heartily, who had very similar eyes to Howl, if not quite so glass-like. A speck of dust could not be found anywhere; even the cobwebs covering the ceiling looked pristine and artful. Rich colored tapestries – depicting magical events of historical significance such as when the great Wizard Norland drove out corrupt warlocks from the Royal City (using a special potion that had taken years to develop, one of the failed attempts having led to one of Howl's favorite hair products) – covered any would-be bare spots of the walls, making it impossible to deduce their original color.

The overall effect was ethereal, yet cozy.

The man sound asleep in the center of the room only added to this effect. His chest rose and fell – slowly, peacefully – with each breath. Blonde hair cascading over his pillow evoked a golden halo framing his face.

Such serenity cannot last forever.

Ten o'clock approaches – a ray of light dances by the window, slowly sauntering forward into the depths of Howl's room. It edges forward to its intended target: the bed. Rays split off from the parent ray, colliding with jeweled walls, showering the room with their blinding brilliance. The relentless sunbeam next greets Howl's delicate eyelids. Said eyelids flutter and shoot open, only to be met with the full force of the golden laserbeam, accented by silver sparkles from the glistening jewels.

"God, why do I do this to myself?" Howl bemoaned, though he knew perfectly well why. Without a proper wake up call, Howl tended to sleep through the entire day. It stretched on for four weeks once, before Calcifer grew so irritable and lonely – this was before Michael came – that he forced Howl to adopt this new system. Howl suspected the fire demon still took glee in the arrangements they had agreed upon. Howl couldn't remember for the life of him why he shook to waking to the feeling of his eyes burning out of their sockets every morning, but then again, a month of sleep did tend to make one rather groggy.

Howl sat up deliberately, determined not to fall back in the sleepy abyss. He shuffled out of bed, and began his usually morning ritual of heading straight to the bathroom, where he would undoubtedly remain for a few hours.

He grinned happily as he did so. Today was an important day.

He had remembered something.

Michael knew he deserved a medal.

Or a plaque detailing: the First and (probably) Last Apprentice to Wizard Pendragon. At the very least: The One who makes sure Howl doesn't waste all The Money. Michael sighed, hard. It seemed to help so he did it again.

Their relationship went through cycles. More often than not, Howl couldn't be bothered to teach him anything. Between traipsing after ladies, pretending to play the guitar, purchasing god knows what with their money, and running away from the same ladies, Howl's schedule was booked. No time for the lowly apprentice.

Michael had ceased to mind.


After all, he could still learn from Calcifer and the plentiful magick tomes that swallowed up the kitchen table. No Howl watching him also meant more sneaking away to Cesari's unnoticed. The only thing Michael truly hated was the necessity of hiding the money. But in a house filled with a fire demon and a vain twenty-something year old who still took baths, someone had to be the adult.

Some days, despite the joys of being left to his own devices, he got fed up. So Michael deliberately shifted the cycle. Howl had signed up to teach him – bother it all – and teach him he would. Michael would force Howl to be the adult, by acting the pestering child himself. The only thing Howl hates more than questions is answering them – as Michael was well aware. Did you remember to buy milk, Howl? What happened to all the silverware, Howl? Cook some food, Howl. How many new suits this week, Howl? Why that horrible guitar, Howl? Shouldn't we charge our clients more, Howl? Howl, Howl, Howl. Before long the finicky wizard would give him a new spell just to shut him up.

However, for a comfortable two weeks or so Howl and Michael had been operating in the third stage of the cycle. Overly enthusiastic, Howl had taken to assigning Michael ten new spells to master a day. Though Michael enjoyed the extra attention and lessons, Howl was a hard wizard to keep up with. Everything came absurdly easy to him, and his slapdash method of crafting spells was frankly alarming. (Howl was constantly reminding Michael not to copy him in this regard, and Michael didn't dare, but it still made him feel a bit slow.) Still, Howl was a thorough teacher when he wanted to be.

Today, Michael was particularly swamped. He was behind in his spells, several of which he had doubts were possible (Howl did that sometimes, but insisted he be creative and invent a suitable substitute), and the castle door had been pounding non-stop. Most of his morning had been spent fumbling around the castle's main room, hastily making spells for customers, dodging a certain batty cleaning lady, and ignoring Calcifer's smirks.

Howl, of course, had yet to come down. Michael tried to quell his annoyance at his teacher-castle-mate-sometimes-friend, but he felt uneasy. He could feel the cycle moving along.

It never stayed in one place for long.

"What do you say to raising the stakes?" crackled Calcifer.

Michael, currently juggling three spell orders and rushing to fill two others, all the while dodging Sophie's aggressive mop, could only manage a quirk of the eyebrow, both annoyed and curious, in response.

Sophie, not quite understanding what was transpiring, cackled anyway. Though hesitant to admit it, she was enjoying herself in this sorry excuse for a castle. The bursts of cleaning were giving her energy. She liked poking her nose about in search of secrets. Made bold in her old age, Sophie no longer gave a bother to what anyone thought of her. Embarrassment had fled with the realization that if anyone questioned her, she could just claim wisdom beyond their years. Being old wasn't so bad.

The bell rang and Michael hastened to open the door – Porthaven, blue knob – maddeningly delaying a proper response to Calcifer's curious comment. Sophie huffed and vigorously doused her mop with sudsy water. A house full of riddles, Sophie mused, with no one who bothered to tell her anything.

Michael was busying himself with matching the proper order with the proper customer and collecting payment. Shutting the door while muttering to himself (snippets from "not enough – the fool – poor business sense" were all Sophie caught), he then shuffled over to the dirty kettle – Howl would never dare snooping here – and plopped the money inside.

He then became aware of the two pairs of eyes studying him, waiting.

"What?" Michael demanded, defensive. "You know how he is with money."

"Such a fuss," Sophie voiced, surveying the floor for spots missed.

"Howl is an idiot," Calcifer stated, "let's move on. Stakes, Michael?"

Michael sat down at the desk, shuffling scrolls, thinking. Moments later he spun around on his stool and faced Calcifer seriously.

"A week's cover to Cesari's."

A beat. "No moving more than 5 leagues, for the same time."

Completely enthralled, albeit confused, Sophie halted the cleaning charade. Rather, she stood in the center of the chamber, mop useless in her limp hands, head swiveling between the two, taking in their hard expressions.

On cue, the two halted their staring match and voiced aloud: "deal." They couldn't shake on it, for obvious reasons, but Sophie thought it all looked very convincing.

Before Sophie could school her expression into something less snooping and more cleaning-lady, Howl was bounding down the staircase. An unstoppable force of bright silks, crisp suits, and hyacinth fumes, he dashed into the chamber with little regard for its current occupants. Pausing only to pick up his gilded guitar and to grace Sophie and her mop with a withering glare, he was out of the castle before anyone could ask where he was going.

Not that he would have answered.

The slamming of the door – pink blob, Kingsbury – had Calcifer cackling and spitting flames intermittently. Michael, in turn, groaned and slammed his forehead to the desk.

Sophie had had enough.

"If it's not too much of a bother, can either of you please explain to me what's going on?"

"Week's worth of vacation!" Calcifer cheered, sparks flying in celebration.

"I don't know why I agreed to that," Michael moaned, "Howl is never going to let the castle stay in one region for so long, especially with the Witch getting closer."

"Your problem, not mine."

"Yes, yes," Sophie huffed, "that's all well and good, but what was the actual bet? Something to do with Howl?" Sophie trailed off thinking how the matter seemed to be settled by Howl's frantic exit.

"No more questions!" Calcifer retreated under his logs, his eyes peeping out from under them. "I'm on vacation."

Sophie turned to Michael, old eyes beseeching. A bet on Howl, that ridiculous man? She longed to know the punch-line.

"Well," Michael began, looking very much like a boy preparing to be told off. "You've heard the stories, surely. Howl broke a heart a few weeks back – this is a pretty long stretch for him, but I thought he would last a few more days before searching again. Calcifer didn't."

Sophie wondered vaguely if she looked the same as she felt – surely it was obvious she'd just absorbed a blow to her gut – but Michael wasn't paying attention.

"Wait a minute," he muttered, thinking fast. "Calcifer!"

"Hmm?" flames poked out from beneath the log.

"You knew it would be today! He was in the bath for 3 hours?"

"Finally got there, eh?" Calcifer inched out about the logs. "Not cheating, mind you. I make all the hot water, might as well use it to my advantage."

This time, Sophie groaned along with Michael.

"What's wrong with you?" Calcifer wondered.

Sophie kicked her bucket of water over in response.

This cleaning business might be more trouble than it was worth.

To say Howl was nervous about leaving his friends in the throes of Sophie – ahem, old Sophie – would be an understatement. He was restless, he was jittery. Golden hair stood on edge.

Hang Michael and Calcifer, they could fend for themselves, what would become of his poor spiders?

The path to his final destination was straightforward. Or it should have been, had he not been deterred in the Royal City. By some odd coincidence (though there were no coincidences where magic was involved, Howl reminded himself darkly), upon exiting the moving castle he had collided with another of the King's infernal messengers. Or what had appeared to be a messenger. Turns out he was, in fact, an escort, sent to personally drag him to the King's doorstep.

Howl had fidgeted as his escort drove the opulent automobile to the Royal Palace. Several emotions had fought for dominance, none fairing all too well: annoyance, coupled with a dash of confusion, sprinkled with resignation.

Annoyance at himself – the Kingsbury door had been a mistake. Obviously. He hadn't had the patience to be delayed, yet had gone to the place he would surely be recognized. Careless. (Howl had no problem being recognized for the looker he was, but when people knew he was a wizard, there was undoubtedly work to be done.)

Confusion – he hadn't wanted to see the King – or maybe he had? Subconsciously he may have meant to return the Royal Summons. Howl knew very well the only way he could convince himself to do something boring, tedious, dangerous, or some mutant of the three, was to lie to himself that he wasn't doing anything of the sort. His mind has mastered this lying business frightfully well.

Finally: resignation. The sooner this finished, the sooner he could set off again. Get on with it, he thought furiously.

A mere hour later (a record for the Royal Palace, and an indicator of the urgency of the matter related), Howl was marching towards the city limits. Once there, he could zip off to that bee woman's house (he was assured the bees would take a liking to him this time). A wizard was just as good as a pair of seven league boots, better even, when the wizard in question was Howl.

He had stepped forward – zip! zip! – blurring through the countryside with ferocious wind at his back. His right hand had clamped shut, crunching the envelope within which bore the Royal Seal. This business with the King troubled him more than he cared to admit to himself. Strange as it was, both duties – to the King's missing brother and Chief Wizard, and to the missing Sophie – led him to the same doorstep. And where magic reigned, there were no coincidences.

Here the unease had taken hold, chasing lucid thought from his mind, save the worry for his spider friends. Howl now found himself meandering on a stoop, grasping for resolve like straws.

Steeling himself, he knocked on the worn door in front of him.

Feet on stairs, rustles inside, the chinking of metal locks.

The door sprang open, and was replaced by a pretty young face. Howl shivered, she even looked like her.

The girl hollered over her shoulder, "Mrs. Fairfax! You have company!"

Howl stepped into the threshold – guitar and all – forcing the girl back. "You must be the charming Martha." He graced her hand with his soft lips. "But it is your company alone that I seek." A winning smile.

The charming Lettie, as it was, easily managed a pitying smile, in turn.

A/N: Hello to all and happy summer! Old readers, glad you've stuck with me ^^ New readers, welcome aboard. Now I don't want to make any promises on updates (we've been down that murky path before), but I will note that I am actually home for the entirety of the summer, so…I think you can make a deduction.

Point out any grammatical/spelling errors I missed, and I'll fix them.

It's good to be back!

If convenient, please review. If inconvenient, review anyway.