"Someone," said Howl with an ominous flourish of sleeves, "and I'm not naming names but it starts with an S—has tipped all my hair spells into the sink."
"Did not." Sophie put a few more stitches into the patchwork quilt she was making. "Besides, the bathroom needed cleaning. It was a disease-ridden hole."
"My bathroom is not disease-ridden," said Howl. "I use the strongest antibacterial and fungicidal spells on it."
"I don't know what those words mean," said Sophie, stitching away placidly, "but I do know that your cosmetic spells wouldn't get accidentally destroyed if you cleaned the bathroom yourself once in a while."
"Aha! So you admit it. I have roots, Sophie! Roots!"
"Mud-colored," Calcifer cackled from deep within the grate. "Ditchwater."
"Shoo, Calcifer," said Sophie. "Go mislead travelers in a marsh or something."
"You're no fun anymore since you got married," Calcifer sputtered, but he flew up the chimney with a grin.
Howl was thrown off his stride for a moment, more by the loss of half his audience than by Calcifer's parting shot. That was surely aimed at Sophie and not him, anyway. "Clean the bathroom, she says! But do I get any help around here? Not that I begrudge Michael his leave of absence under the circumstances, but you'd think I'd get more consideration from my own wife. I've been working myself to the bone the past month; spells for the King, spells for Captain Fuller, spells for Martha . . ."
"I know." Sophie put aside her sewing and looked up at Howl with a softer expression. "And I don't think small Frances Sophie could have lived, if it weren't for the spells you made with Mrs. Fairfax. She was so early, and so small."
"Oh. Well." Howl's face felt hot, and he looked away with a shrug. He knew how to deal with insults from Sophie. Compliments were a more recent development. "You know. Babies." He felt he was losing the thread of his argument. He settled his elbows on the back of Sophie's chair. Her hair smelled wonderful. "I'm not surprised Michael and Martha named the baby after you. But I am surprised they named her after Fanny, the way Martha always goes on about her."
"So." Sophie tilted her head back and gave Howl an upside-down smile. "Do you think anyone would guess we loved each other, the way we go on?"
"Of course," said Howl, coming around to sit on the arm of the chair. He took one of Sophie's hands in both of his and kissed it. "It's obvious."
Sophie sighed contentedly and rubbed her cheek against the back of Howl's hand. He had definitely lost the thread of the argument. More than that, he seemed to have lost the power of speech. Fortunately, so had Sophie. There was nothing said for a few minutes beyond soft incoherent murmurs of lips against skin. Howl found himself sitting on the chair with Sophie in his lap and her hands tangled in his hair.
"I should have left your spells alone," sighed Sophie. "It's your business if you want to be silly and vain, I suppose. Only—"
"Only?" said Howl.
"Only you have been working so hard, this past month. You've forgotten to dye it. It's started to grow out, and I was curious how it would look, natural."
Howl snorted. "Sophie and her curiosity," he said. "Calcifer was right, you know. Ditchwater. As in, dull as."
"It isn’t dull," Sophie said indignantly, twining a lock around her finger. "It's a very rich color, like polished maple. Or, or milk chocolate. It brings out all the warm tones of your skin."
Howl's chin came up suddenly. He smelled magic. "What have you done?"
"Nothing," said Sophie with a guilty start. "I didn't mean to." Howl slithered out from under her and dashed to the bathroom to inspect the damage.
He stared at his reflection in the mirror. His hair was brown all over. But it wasn't the color of mud, or ditchwater—it had the luster of polished maple, and the silky depth of good milk chocolate. It brought out all the warm tones of his skin. "Sophie," he said, "you're a genius."
"Yes, I am," came her complacent voice from the other room.
"I should have had you do me a hair spell ages ago," Howl went on.
"Yes, I told you—what? No!"
"I mean, mine are pretty good—but I've never been able to get this depth of color."
"Of course not! It's natural!"
"Rubbish," said Howl. "Mother Nature has nothing on you, Sophie. Will you do black next? 'Like a still pool on a moonless night . . ." Oh, it doesn’t work when I do it!"
"No, I will not do black," said Sophie. "You're being silly."
Howl sighed tragically. "Then I will stick with brown," he said. "If you'll describe my hair every morning."
"See if I do," Sophie grumbled.
That had not been a no, exactly. Howl felt confident he could bring her around. He gave his reflection one last satisfied grin before heading back to the other room to pick up where he'd left off.