Reverse Psychology

Summary: The first thing he recognizes is her hands. How cruel it is that in order for her to save him, he must save her first. OneShot- Howl, Sophie.

Warning: There were parts in the movie that weren't in the books. Some of them were rather entertaining, which is why I tried to integrate them in this story. (Others were pure nonsense, but I'll let that be.)

Set: Story-unrelated, set both in book- and movie-verse.

Disclaimer: Standards apply.

A/N: Für Alex – wenn du mal wieder vorbeischaust. Ich freue mich schon darauf.


Howl spends a lifetime waiting for Sophie.

It is one of the things one does and immediately afterwards realizes the folly of it. The second he sold his heart – it was out of pity but that didn't make it better or even change the result – he knew he'd made a mistake. Calcifer knew, too, but neither one of them could go back anymore. A fallen star, afraid of dying, and a boy dying of loneliness – what a pair they were. Are. Nothing really has changed. Except the time goes by and people come and leave. Kings are crowned and buried. It would be easier if it wasn't for the constant loneliness, Howl often thinks, but he manages to blend out the thought most of the time. He suddenly has the lifetimes he never imagined he would have, and a power at his command that far exceeds everything he would ever have by himself. In exchange, he has given his heart before he even had experienced losing it. The irony tastes like ashes in his mouth. He throws himself into the wonders of a country in which dreams come true, but he has the feeling his wishes will take a long, long time to be fulfilled.

He knows the second he sees her for the first time.

Strangely, the first things he recognizes are her hands. Small hands, not yet a woman's hands, not a girl's anymore. They are rough and calloused from work, strong and capable. Sophie's hands show the strain of years of sewing fake flowers onto mediocre hats, of bending straw and felt into the proper form, of cleaning and cooking and washing. She clutches the grey shawl for her dear life, as if he was someone to be feared. He is, he has to remind himself, he is the great wizard Howl who eats girl's hearts and collects their souls in his wardrobe. He's been on the run from the Witch of the Waste for so long he almost has forgotten why he runs. He's been playing a part he now knows by heart, knows so well he has become his role. The grey little girl in front of him is not pretty, she's average height and average built and her reddish hair could have brought color to her features had she worn it differently. Her eyes are grey, too, and for a second he wonders why he even spared her a glance. Then he sees her hands and a memory sparks. In a different life, a girl like her had promised salvation.

But she's so shy, so grey and boring. She hides behind a door when he tries to talk to her.

"It's fine, grey little mouse," Howl tells her and laughs because she is so small, and so frightened, and because he is wondering how he could have thought someone, no matter whom, could ever come and save him.

"I just wanted to invite you for a cup of tea. Don't look so scared."

But the girl stutters her apology and shrinks into her shawl even further, her head bowed so he cannot see her eyes underneath her grey hat. She's interesting, he thinks, because she's so different from all the girls he sees on the streets these May Holidays. And a distant, distant recollection whispers to him but Howl pretends not to hear it and the sound fades quickly. He is so used to memories by now. He lets her go her way and follows his own. (Away away away, running from whatever, going wherever, he's a coward but he's so terribly good at being one).

Howl thinks of himself as a ladies man, a sparkling, beautiful, intelligent person. He's a liar, yes, but he is a brilliant and bright one even at that. He believes it and believes it and believes it because everything will come to an end the second he admits to himself that there is something more than everything. There is something else he wishes for. Something so different from what he has that he has buried it, refuses to look at it out of fear that it will remind him of who he is. And, anyway, there is no way back. He hasn't only become his role, he has forgotten himself.

"Sophie, you haven't, by any chance, been meddling with my potions in the bathroom cupboard?"

"I didn't touch anything."

"I certainly do hope so."

Three minutes, and then…

"SOPHIE!"

The Great Wizard Howl does not like people meddling with his affairs.

Sophie does not care. She's an old hag, curious to death, her long nose always poking around his things, his life. She's loud, and she gets angry as fast as he does. She has a temper – he would never have thought from their first encounter, when everything she seemed to want was to shrink into the pavement and vanish. Now she meddles with his affairs worse than Megan, she tries to order him around, she cleans his house and does his laundry and rearranges his carefully stored potions and powders. Life never was boring before but Howl finds it has taken on an entirely different quality now. Coming home is as entertaining as watching one of those old soap opera on TV. What has she done today? She bewitched his best suit. She tried to go catch a falling star. She bred a mandrake – for Pete's sake – she sweet-talked the King, even if the results were far from what Howl wanted but not as different as he had feared. She'd made the Witch of the Waste laugh, she'd been allowed in with Mrs. Pentstemmon, she'd found the King's enchanted brother and the missing Wizard Suliman. God, the woman never ceases to amaze him. It is like she found her temper the day she lost her youth. And though Howl does not think of her as a woman at first – annoying old hag might be the expression he used most often for her those days – he can't help but think her temper matches his pretty well. If she just wouldn't think herself unpretty, she'd get rid of her idiotic disguise very quick. She is so terribly traditional, so bent to accept what others define as fate. Fate, Howl has learned, is not a path to follow but rather a river to seek. And every river leads to the ocean but the roads are different. Eldest of Three, he thinks, and for the first time in his life curses the country of Ingari in which ducks can fly and blind can see. There's so much that is possible here and still happiness is a breath away and a whole eternity. She's beautiful, her hair silver and full, and her face is calm when she sleeps. He watches her from behind the curtain of her alcove underneath the stairs and slips away before she notices him watching. The next morning she is an old woman again and if it weren't for the sheen of magic that dances around her he wouldn't have believed he'd seen the girl behind the face of the old woman. She's about as stubborn as he is, and he won't take the one step towards her to bridge the distance that still separates them. It is not something Howl does.

"I don't think we will have a happily ever after," he tells Calcifer. The fire demon shakes his flaming head vehemently and the red and blue flames dance.

"Have you forgotten where we live?"

Howl the Great Wizard would never fall in love with an old woman. He does not look behind the veil, does not see with his heart. The prettier the girl, the higher the price for gaining her heart. The more she refuses, the higher the stakes. When did it become this headstrong girl in her grey dresses, her eyes full of determination and fire? She's never been the one to talk back, he figured when he met her first. Now, it seems, the only thing she ever does is talk back to him. Annoy him. Amaze him. Baffle him. It is unfair, he thinks, almost cruel. In order for Sophie to save him, he must save her first, but the magic of the Witch of the Waste is strong. And it is not as much her magic as Sophie's own, this unique thing like nothing he never saw before. He realizes quickly she always looks the way she feels, that she herself makes herself unable to change. Perhaps if she saw herself as beautiful, she would be so – she definitely has the power. But in her stubborn refusal to see herself she remains an old woman, haggard and bent. And the day comes on which he runs after her without having taken his time to prepare, when he chases after her without a thought of how he looks and what she thinks. For the first time, she sees him unkempt and without his usual make-up, and he sees her for whom she is.

"How do you feel, love?"

"Why, Howl?"

"You look beautiful."

And she is. Incredibly, amazingly beautiful. She's so pretty he cannot take his eyes of her. Her fire shines brightly. And really, not much changes except for her appearance: she orders him around and annoys him and makes him glow with fury. She talks back, her temper flaring as high as his own, and they fight until sparks of every color fly from the chimney of the castle. It's not that he wants to fight. It is the way he is, he cannot change back so quickly. Years of acting have engraved a character into him he cannot get rid of so easily. It scares him, the way she left behind her old self so fast, but then she never really changed. Her appearance did, nothing else. And he has it down to a science, his act, it is what he is. Sophie strips him of the other Howl, slowly and carefully and sometimes painfully, too. She sees the man he is, underneath all his layers of avoidance and cowardice and arrogance, the same way he saw the girl she was underneath the mask of the old lady, and for that alone he loves her and for everything she is.

"It isn't the question who saved whom, don't you think? It's better to say we saved each other."

Off goes another layer.

Howl feels like an onion. It is painful, so very painful, and yet the pain isn't the same one he felt all those years ago. In a strange way, it is a good pain. He was alone once, a lonely, scared boy who offered kindness to a fallen star. He was a brilliant student in a world that did not understand his power, and then he was a brilliant student in a world that was not his own but offered more than he ever could have imagined. He was a brilliant mage who enraged someone he should not have, and then he became a man on the run. A coward, a fugitive, he became sloppy and arrogant. It was his easiest role by far, the one he grew most comfortable with. The harder it is to part with it now. On the other hand, thinking of it, underneath his act he isn't a good man, either. He has a warped sense of humor and an even worse sense of duty. He does not treat girls the way they deserve, he only plays and runs and runs and plays. It's not a bad life but it is not the one he wished for, a long time ago. A time so long ago he has already forgotten it. Sophie can recall those sentiments, the sense of loyalty, of duty fulfilled. Of helping because of helping, and of loving because of loving. When he looks at her it feels so simple, so easy.

"Sophie-"

"Howl?"

"I love you, you know that, right?"

"I do."

"Do you love me?"

"I suppose I do, despite your foolish tendencies."

She smiles at him and another twisted part of his heart shifts into the right position.