Lukewarm water slid, slowly, above her silently shaking arms. The sharp tang of disgust Sophie had somehow managed to feel when she first walked into the room, first seen the splatters of what looked like paint and turned out to be much worse, had long faded away. By the time she had finished wiping herself down with the thankfully provided washcloth, she was almost glad of the room's disorderly chaos. The pinkish tint her blood left would have been much more disorienting if the washcloth, once dunked in the tub, hadn't quickly turned blue, or purple, or green or yellow or orange or anything except for-

red.

The ragged, bitten ends of her nails gleamed, dirt free, against the soft, reflected light of the tub. Sophie's shoulders had long stopped shaking, her hands held as steady as usual, which, as they were usually spent working day in and day out in the hat shop, weren't as steady as most, but still much improved from only an hour past. She wasn't sure if it was some spell or just some leftover potion dried in the soap or the crust of color in the tub, but the worst of her scratches had already scabbed over, while the least had already started to fade. Her head was still dull, fogged over with steam and exhaustion, but she could almost pretend that was as it should be. After a long day spent toiling in the shop, she had often enough taken a hot bath in an attempt to loosen up her sore muscles.

If it wasn't for the deadened, pervasive ache that rolled through the still tensed muscles of her shoulders and her back; if it wasn't for the faint, but persistent, empty feeling of weariness that stained, the abused hinge of her jaw like a particularly nasty bruise; if it wasn't for the weak, yet unshakable suspicion that her arms, her legs, her fingers and toes, and her stomach and throat, her every little limb and every little muscle were all just one, just one little push, one little shove, one little piece of straw away from crashing down, down, down and leaving her drowning in a watery pool of blood and hate and fear, she could almost call herself okay.

A drop of water fell from her damp hair, leaving a cold trail of goose bumps down her arm. Another ran down her forehead, sloping away from the curve of her brow and down across her eyelashes. Sophie blinked it away.

Snippets of a much more lighter life managed to sneak their way through the shut door. "Markl!" An outraged squawk interrupted the seeming stillness of the bathroom; a series of crashings and bangings then further belied her fantasy of solitude. While she sunk into herself in cooled water, a little world of its own went about its daily business right outside her breached sanctuary. A brave wicked wizard and what had seemed to be a shivering wreck of a little apprentice argued with camaraderie in their insults and-

plop.

Another drop of water fell, as helpless as any forsaken castaway, to the color splattered grout boardering a rather plain tile; prismatic ripples shimmered as each ricocheted off the other, creating a cascading symphony of blood, sweat, and tears; soft fibers shivered as almost steady hands raised the plush towel from its imprisoning hook.

Sophie stood up and stepped out.

There was such a thing as too much of a good thing. Sophie, with her work ethic, had never had a problem believing that much. Whether it concerned sweets, or vacations, or even nice, luxurious baths, she had never had a problem being the mature one, even when she had still technically been a child. She wondered if it was because she was the eldest daughter, if a childhood of fixing lunches and bandaging scrapes and doing other little girls' hair had rendered her incapable of taking the time off to be a layabout, to sit and sulk and feel perfectly content wasting her time on useless things like herself.

There were always things to be done, whether that meant staying late to finish that last brim or waking early to get a head start on spring cleaning. There were always visits to be made, not for social pleasures - or, at least, not only for - but out of simple necessity. Lettie had always needed an eye kept on her, and even with a hat shop to run, Sophie was forever trying to find the extra half hour needed to slip away to her and dissuade her of whatever latest fanciful notion she'd picked up. At least Martha, for all her baby fat and missing teeth, seemed to have a more level head on her shoulders.

Sophie stared blankly at the mirror in front of her. Dull brown hair, apathetic brown eyes, a pair of hard set lips…

With a rustling thump!, the towel was thrown to the floor. Sophie gave her naked reflection one last searching look before she turned and picked up the set of clothes her unlikely savior had left for her.

Sophie had never been good at wasting time when there was work to be done. No excuses were to be allowed. Even if life had seen to throw at her one of the most appealing ones yet, Sophie was in no way willing to use it. She was a Hatter, after all. She'd do her things her own way, and let not a thing anyone might say bother her. She was already far too used to being called mad to let it start to get to her now.

With that last thought in her mind and that one last tremble in her hand, Sophie reached out past her fears and through her worries-

and opened the door.

A pair of sullen eyes set above feverish cheeks stared the nonplussed Sophie down. "I need to use the bathroom." The little boy told her, his voice tinged with the sort of self-pitying arrogance that even the most inconsequential of illnesses lends to young children. Sophie was so surprised at the sudden appearance of his serious, determined little face that she almost forgot to be afraid.

"Al-" Without waiting for her to finish her statement, the boy staggered past her in a surge of shivering coughs and retches. "-right then." Sophie looked at the still heaving boy before she glanced down the narrow hallway. She never would have guessed heartless Howl would have a kid, of all things. "Hey," she said once he'd stopped puking and instead sat there in front of the toilet, a shivering little wreck of a boy. She was still a little hard pressed to care about anything at all at that moment, but the kid was a pitiful enough of a distraction to tug upon her instincts as an older sister. "Where's your mom?" Sophie asked, willing enough to go fetch help if she didn't show up soon. Doing anything, even if anything was babysitting a possibly contagious kid, was better than thinking anything, as long as anything led to-

"Don't have one." The boy hiccuped as he dragged one shaking hand across his mouth. While Sophie, her mind still shrouded by the last remnants of that dull fog known as shock, tried to process his statement, he reached blindly for the rim of the toilet as he hunched over and gagged once more.

"And your dad?" Sophie asked, meaning Howl. Heartless as he was, he'd let a worthless girl like her stay. He wouldn't go out and leave his sick kid behind. "Is he home?"

"Don't ha-" the boy's words were cut off as he began dry heaving once more. "n-no." Even though his squashed little face was the picture of misery, his tone turned friendlier as he looked over at her probably worried expression. "Don't worry though," he said, and Sophie found herself almost wanting to smile at his attempt to cheer her up. "Master Howl went out to get medicine."

Medicine was all well and good, Sophie knew, but she could also tell from just one look at the kid that what he needed wasn't some pills in a bottle but a nice warm bed with a bucket close at hand. "Is anyone else home?" she asked.

His stomach apparently settling, the boy shook his head as he eased himself back to lean against the wall. "Nope," he said, apparently content to rest against the wall. Suddenly, as if the thought that she was a possibly no good but definitely strange stranger had just entered his head, he narrowed his bleary eyes at her. "Who're you?"

Determinedly holding back her flinch when he glared up at her - he couldn't have been older than ten or eleven, he was practically Martha's age, had she really sunk so low as to be afraid of little twerps who were still losing their baby teeth? - Sophie knelt down, dragged the shivering urchin into her arms, and stumbled to her feet. "I," she said as the boy blearily pointed down the hall towards what she hoped was his room, "am your new cleaning lady."

Sophie's lips twisted into a mockery of a smile that the kid, brown eyes shut tight against her shoulder, couldn't see. "But you can call me Auntie Sophie."