Sophie had had it up to here, and she said as much angrily to Calcifer, who was smoking lazily in the fireplace. "I mean, we're supposed to be getting married in a week, and where is he? Off with some hot little thing, milking his last few days of freedom for all they're worth, isn't he," she fumed, not really expecting Calcifer to answer. After all, he couldn't exactly pick sides between them. In a pinch, she expected Calcifer would take her side, but then again, he and Howl were old friends.
She let out a disgusted sigh, throwing cushions about irritably. "Does he think I'll just take it sitting down, his philandering?"
"Do you really know that's what he's doing right now," Calcifer asked in a sleepy voice. "I mean, knowing him he could just as easily being getting you wound up just to surprise you with flowers and chocolate. Why let him win by jumping to conclusions."
Sophie considered this, then a mischievous look crossed her face. "You're right. And I've got just the solution." She jumped into action and Calcifer looked on nervously.
"Maybe I shouldn't have said anything," he said timidly after a moment. He wasn't ordinarily a timid fire-demon, but Sophie could be surprisingly intimidating. "Come on, is this really necessary," he complained loudly when he started to guess what Sophie was up to.
"Yes, completely," she said with a grimace at Calcifer. "Now stop complaining, or I'll come up with something even more maniacal." Calcifer quickly silenced the complaints that were on the verge of spilling out of his fiery tongue and instead watched with a silent sense of foreboding.
Howl entered the house, whistling, and warmed his hands over the fireplace. "Hey, Calcifer, where's Sophie," he asked cheerfully.
"Don't ask me. In fact, I hope neither one of you ever talks to me about the other ever, ever again," Calcifer replied viciously.
"Well that's rather unlike you," Howl said with a frown. "Did you get wet wood again today?"
"No, I did not!" And with that Calcifer closed his eyes and pretended he was asleep.
Howl shrugged his shoulders and climbed the stairs in search of Sophie. "Soph," he called out as he reached the top, knocking first on her door, and then on his. "Sophie?" When there was no answer, he went back to her door and gently pushed it open, peering inside at the simply decorated room and neatly made bed. "Sophie," he said softly. He pushed the door the rest of the way open and stepped inside.
There was no sign of Sophie in the room, but a note lay on the small wooden desk near the door. "Gone out, will be back later. Sophie H."
Howl was a little stung by the impersonal note, and by the fact that Sophie wasn't there waiting for him when he got back. She was always here waiting for him when he returned. He sulked back down the stairs and whirled on Calcifer, who was actually asleep now.
"Where did she go?"
"Hmm...huh?" Calcifer mumbled sleepily.
If Calcifer hadn't been a fire demon, Howl would have taken him by the shoulders and shook him angrily. As it was, Howl simply shouted, "Where has Sophie gone off to?"
"Seriously, you two need to get a grip. I am not here to babysit either one of you, so why you would fuss at me about where the other might have gone or might be doing is a silly, futile waste of time." Calcifer settled into his logs, doing his best to ignore Howl's angry huffing and puffing. After a moment, Howl left the house again, either to go find Sophie or to go forget her. Calcifer didn't really care which, as long as he didn't have to get drawn into any more of their little lover's squabbles.
Howl flew above the streets, still sulking, keeping an eye out for the plain, simple dress and plain, simple hat that Sophie often preferred to wear. It wasn't that he thought she shouldn't be allowed to go out when she wished—now that the war was over, it was safe for her to go out again—but he'd been to such lengths to procure a surprise for her, and she wasn't even home when he got back. True, she probably thought he'd been out with a girl again, but couldn't she show a little faith in her fiance? He growled at the low-lying clouds, blocking his view, and swooped a little lower to inspect the streets.
Ah! Was that her, going into the shop there. Was she with someone? It looked like... but no, surely not. Was she with Justin? After all, he had proposed to her too. Howl felt something in his chest, something that swelled and pinched, making him nearly gasp out loud. Having a heart could be an awful nuisance sometimes.
Howl landed softly in an alley just beside the store—carefully choosing a spot with no nearby windows—and walked casually out of the alley to the front of the store, gazing through the window with his typical bored, bad-boy expression. No need to look like he was desperately searching for his fiancee.
Aha! There they were, in the confectionery aisle. Why would girl be looking at expensive chocolates, the food of romance, with a man not her fiance? Howl scowled through the window, then saw his reflection on the glass and resumed his sexy, bad-boy look. Two could play at her game.
Sophie had seen him there all along, it was part of her plan, though she wasn't going to let him know that. Of course, she'd chosen such a public street to go for her walk with Prince Justin precisely because it would be easy to find her; how stupid did Howl think women were anyway? As if she couldn't be at least as sneaky as he was.
Sophie noted with amusement the way Howl darted into the shop behind a couple large women with equally large baskets. She tried not to snicker when he followed them along the aisles, hiding behind displays of seasonal jams and jellies. She made sure he was looking when she laughed and laid her head on Justin's shoulder. That'll teach you, Howl; this street runs two ways, mister.
Justin was completely oblivious to what was really going on, only aware of shopping with Sophie for some last minute surprise for Howl. The sweetly innocent young man was, of course, perfect for Sophie's plan, which is why she picked him. And when Sophie asked him to walk her back to the house, please, of course he acquiesced, as any gentleman would. And when Sophie asked him to amuse her on the way back, he told her every joke and funny story he could think of; he didn't think twice about the way she threw her head back coquettishly to laugh, or the way she grabbed his arm playfully. And when she invited him in for a cup of tea to thank him for his help, he immediately said yes; what young prince wouldn't agree to be entertained by such a lovely young lady? It would be rude, really.
Howl could hardly stand it when she invited Prince Justin into their home, his home. He fumed outside the door for a moment, then stormed into the house, expecting to see them sitting guiltily together in the living room. They weren't there.
That's when he heard the noise from upstairs. A thumping noise. And again. And again. He wasn't sure if he was going to explode or melt into the floor. Howl rushed up the stairs noiselessly, and stood outside the door. There it was again, and then Sophie giggling. No one makes Sophie giggle but me, Howl thought angrily, then threw open the door.
Sophie and Justin were bent on either end of a large trunk, apparently trying to move it. Her end was dragging on the floor, apparently causing the thumping noise. Justin set his end down and strode over to stretch out his hand in greeting to Howl, who could do nothing but stand there staring at Sophie and the triumphant glint in her eye. A moment later he came to his senses and returned Justin's handshake, his eyes still glued to Sophie.
"Well, if Howl's back now, I guess I'll go," Justin said cheerfully. "Nice seeing you two!" He trotted off down the stairs, and Howl and Sophie stood there staring at each other, neither one saying anything. Howl began spluttering first, but it took a while for anything coherent to come out of his mouth. All she could gather was his accusatory tone, so finally she took him by the arm and sat him on her bed, shutting the door quietly. She sat down beside him and waited for him to find his words.
"What," he finally managed to get out, "what is going on?"
"Well, isn't that obvious," Sophie said coyly. Howl made a growling kind of noise in his throat and Sophie smiled innocently up at him. "What does that mean?"
Howl threw his head back onto Sophie's pillow, looking up at the ceiling, trying to sort out what his heart was feeling. It was so difficult to get used to having one again; the confused clusters of emotions, anger with jealousy and hurt and something deep and tender and passionate all at once. How did people live their day to day lives without experiencing spontaneous combustion on a regular basis?
Sophie laid back next to him, staring up at the wooden slats on the ceiling, counting them in her mind to keep from getting angry at him again. How could he be so blind, so oblivious to the obvious. She sighed, then rolled onto her side to look at him. "You don't get it?"
"Get what," he replied stiffly, barely even moving his lips to speak.
"That I don't want you to do this to me any more than you appreciated it. It's the same thing, you know; the way you flirt with waitresses and seamstresses and every other female between the age of sixteen and forty." She reached a hand up to stroke his hair. "It's not like there's really anything between Justin and me. I just wanted you to get it. To get what it feels like, since now you have a heart again." She reached down to touch his chest, gently. He grabbed her hand and held it tightly; a little too tightly, Sophie thought, as she winced and eased her hand out of his grasp. "Howl?" She touched his cheek and was surprised when her hand came away damp.
"I just hate that I don't get it, okay? I wish I did get it, I really do, but you didn't need to...I mean...you can just tell me, can't you?" He looked at her pleadingly.
Her first impulse was to laugh, but she looked back at him somberly and said, "But how can you be sympathetic to my pain if you've never felt any?" He looked away from her, and she added quickly, "Alright, you try not to do it again, and so will I, okay?" He nodded, and Sophie curled up next to him on the bed, gently rubbing the spot on his chest where his new heart rested, wishing she could ease the difficulty of this transition for him.
"So," Sophie said a few minutes later, a seductive tone creeping into her voice, "did you want to see the surprise I got for you?" She got up off the bed and walked over to the package wrapped in thin paper than was lying on her desk. Howl sat up in interest, suddenly remembering the surprise he'd gotten for Sophie that was still hiding in the folds of his cloak.
She walked back over to the bed and set the small package down in front of him. It wasn't like it was going to be that much of a surprise, since he had, in fact, been watching them the whole time. But still, it was his favorite kind of chocolate. But he really surprised her when he pulled out the small box. "What's that," she asked curiously.
"It's for you," Howl said in a voice that was somewhere between gruff and shy. Damn these hearts could be pesky and annoying. Howl was used to being in control of every situation, and now suddenly it was like his heart just dictated things at whim. Howl smiled at Sophie, ignoring this inner conflict, and said, "I thought that if we were going to live happily ever after together, and get married, you might like to have something to show to your mother and sisters at least."
Sophie gasped, and felt a twinge of guilt. Here she'd been punishing Howl on the day he'd gone out to get her an engagement ring. She sat down on the bed next to him and opened the small box, revealing a small but beautiful ring. "Try it on," Howl urged.
Sophie placed it on her finger, unable to keep from beaming. "Oh, Howl," she breathed, "it's beautiful. Thank you. Thank you so much!" She gave him a huge tackle hug, pushing backwards onto the bed. "What do you think," she said, waving her hand at him, "does it look good on me?"
Howl got a roguish look on his face. "Yeah it does. Especially all on its own."
Sophie blushed, then looked him dead in the eye. "Is that a challenge," she whispered, a finger tracing patterns on his chest.
"Absolutely," he whispered back. "Especially if you're willing to take it."
"Don't you mean take it off?" Sophie giggled then stood up, carefully sliding her dress off.
"Mmm hmm," Howl said appreciatively. "Oh yeah, I'm willing to take it off and take it."
Downstairs Calcifer muttered to himself, as he settled his coals into a couple of fresh logs, "It would be much easier to take naps in the afternoon without you people thumping furniture all day long."