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To Be True

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It was that time of the month once again: the time when Sophie insisted upon cleaning the room that she now shared with Howl.

"Honestly, once a month isn't nearly enough, but-"

"But I adamantly refuse to vacate my own room-- for however long it takes you to clean it-- more often than that," Howl retorted. "As well you know. And no amount of badgering is going to make any difference."

"You could at least make good on your promise to give me some space so I can actually get work done," Sophie grumbled. "Don't you have anything better to do than follow me around, trying to kiss me?"

Howl crossed his arms and leaned against the doorway. "I know you haven't got a romantic bone in your body, but even for you this is a bit much, Sophie. Exiling me from my own home? When I have a cold, no less." He forced out what was evidently meant to be a hacking cough and sniffed loudly.

"You haven't even got a cold. It's all this dust gathering that's making the both of us sneeze," Sophie snapped. "And a little air would do you good. It's not like you, puttering around the house all week."

"I have reason to believe there's a witch after me," Howl said, drawing himself up. "An extremely powerful and dangerous lady, according to Calcifer. Even you wouldn't want me to fall into her hands, would you, Sophie?"

"If she's out for revenge because you jilted her, she's a little late, isn't she?"  

"I haven't jilted anyone since I met you, and it's nearly our first anniversary, so I'm inclined to agree."

"First anniversary?" That was enough to get Sophie to put down her mop and squint suspiciously at Howl. "First anniversary of what, exactly?"

"Of meeting each other," Howl said, evidently wounded. "May Day's next week, Sophie."

"Most people celebrate the anniversary of their getting married," Sophie pointed out. "Which is not something that has yet come to pass."

"I am not most people," Howl asserted. "Most people haven't got to wait until certain things blow over before proposing to certain people who would be wise not to bring it up often enough to ruin the surprise."

Sophie rolled her eyes, but resumed mopping the floor. Let Howl have his spontaneity. It would be something to tell an impatient Fanny, who was still aflutter from Martha's wedding, and eager for Sophie to follow suit.

Even if Fanny didn't approve, exactly, of Howl. Nor, for that matter, did Lettie. Or Martha, really…

"I'm going now," Howl's voice floated from downstairs. She hadn't even realized he'd left the room. "I might return later, when I feel less inclined to die."

Sophie snorted loudly, but did not respond.

***


Six hours later, Sophie was beginning to feel a little worried. "Calcifer, shouldn't Howl be back by now?"

"He didn't say where he was going," crackled Calcifer, "and it's nearly dinnertime, so yes, he should be."

"Is there any place he could have gone that he wouldn't have returned from at this point?"

"If he was visiting family in Wales," Calcifer said thoughtfully, "but it isn't the season. And he left through the Market Chipping door, so that's out. And if he went to see the king, he would have mentioned it."

"Is it true that you thought a powerful witch was searching for Howl?" Sophie asked, mind whirling with mad possibilities.

"Oh, her. She wasn't very powerful, not on Howl's level, anyway. But if she caught him by surprise…" Calcifer's brows crossed. "Then he could be in a great deal of trouble."

"Damn him!" Sophie cried. It was just like Howl to go and get himself kidnapped on cleaning day. He never appreciated the work she put into making the room habitable without removing any of his precious spiders or rearranging any of his baffling books. And it wasn't as if she could ask Michael for help-- he was spending the day with Martha, probably doing whatever it was that married people did.

Which was another sticking point-- she and Howl were practically married, so why did he insist on putting off the actual ceremony? He had made it clear it wasn't something he was disinterested in-- was it just to spite Sophie's family? He and Fanny didn't get along that badly…

"Sophie," Calcifer's crackling voice brought her back to the present. "I need you to concentrate. We may have a terrible problem, and I'm not going to be able to find Howl all by myself."

"Of course," Sophie said, chastened. "But what are we going to do?"

"We could start by retracing his steps," Calcifer suggested. "We know he went out through the Market Chipping door, and then started off up the Folding Valley."

"All right," Sophie said. "That's something. Perhaps Mrs Fairfax saw him."

If she was going to see Mrs. Fairfax, she would need to be wearing better clothes. As quickly as she could manage, Sophie changed from her cleaning clothes and apron to a smart green skirt and white lace blouse. She put on a straw hat trimmed with a black ribbon and plastic red berries that was left from the days when the flower shop was still a hat shop.  

"Coming, Calcifer?"

The fire demon floated out of the fireplace and hovered near her shoulder. "I don't like this. Are we sure Michael won't decide to come back unexpectedly?"

"If we can't find anything, we may have to get him," Sophie pointed out. Loath as she was to intrude on Martha and Michael's private time, if anything qualified as an emergency, Howl missing was it.

Sophie walked down Main Street, glad that it was almost suppertime and most people were not out to see her accompanied by the fire demon. Of course, Calcifer had gone out in Market Chipping before, but the townsfolk did not seem to have quite adjusted to him being a resident. She nodded at those that were passing, who nodded back before staring nervously at Calcifer.

Calcifer moved ahead of Sophie, sniffing as though he were a dog. "Howl definitely went this way," he called as Sophie made her way through the field where the May Fair would be set up next week. It was at the bridge that Calcifer stopped, abruptly, and Sophie ran to catch up.

"What is it?"

"Traces of his magic get stronger here. There's also someone else's-- so we know he had a fight with another wizard."

"Or witch," Sophie said, kneeling on the ground. There was a small object lying on the bridge, round, red and glittering in the sunlight. Sophie picked it up and it began to vibrate in her hand. "Calcifer!"

"That's Howl's magic," the fire demon said decisively. "See if it opens up."

Warily, Sophie turned the object over in her hand. There was a little catch on the bottom, that caused it to spring open when she touched it. Inside was a compass needle, but without any marks for north or south. Still, the object moved in Sophie's hand until she faced the same direction as the needle. "Do you think this leads to Howl?" Sophie asked, dubiously. "If he was kidnapped he'd hardly have the time..."

"Don't underestimate Howl's forward thinking," Calcifer said dryly. "He probably envisioned a scenario like this when I told him about the witch."

"Compass," Sophie addressed it, "will you show us to Howl?"



***



The way to Howl wasn't very direct. First they went up into the hills, then walked until they reached Kingsbury, then were forced to wind their way through the streets, until finally they reached the Strangian border.

At this point, Sophie was beginning to regret not fishing out the seven league boots. "It's a good thing," she wheezed, "that I'm no longer an old woman."

"And it's a good thing with me around we can both see in the dark," Calcifer added. For indeed, night was falling. There was a soldier guarding the border, which seemed like a paltry defense if Strangia decided to invade, but there he stood, yawning.

"Do you think Howl's really in Strangia?" Sophie said skeptically.

"I can barely smell his magic," Calcifer admitted. "It's possible he's come home now to find us both missing."

Sophie shook her head. "He'd never come home so late without having mentioned something before leaving, no matter how bad a mood he was in. And there's this compass- only Howl could have left it."

"All right, we'll keep going," grumbled Calcifer.

But first there was the soldier to get past. Without any better ideas, Sophie gathered herself, and marched up to the soldier, doing her best to look very important. She was glad she was wearing good clothes now, even if they were a little mussed from a day's walking.

"Excuse me, sir, but my companion and I need to cross into Strangia."

The soldier gave them a sleepy glance. "At this time of day? What sort of business could you have?"

"Royal business, actually," Sophie said, which in a way was true. "We're looking for a Royal Wizard."

"He's in Kingsbury," yawned the soldier. "Unless you mean the other one."

"I do mean the other one," Sophie replied, irritated. "It's very important that we find Wizard Howl at once, and all our magical expertise indicates that he is in Strangia at the moment."

"She's a very powerful witch herself," Calcifer added. "I'd do what she said if I were you. You don't want to know what happened to the last one."

The solider was beginning to look a little bit more awake now, staring at Calcifer. "All-all right, but I'll have to report this-"

"Did you report any witches or wizards passing by earlier?"

"You're the first I've m-met," the soldier admitted.

"I'm sure the king will be pleased to hear the guards here didn't notice a royal kidnapping," Sophie sniffed.

The solider nearly dropped his pen. "The k-king?"

"Oh, never mind about him, Sophie," Calcifer said. "He was probably asleep when Howl went by."

The soldier opened his mouth to make what was probably an indignant retort, but closed it as Calcifer floated closer to him. "Yes, there's magic on him. He was put to sleep, probably by our kidnapper."

"Hmph," said Sophie, still unimpressed. She walked by the soldier, into Strangia. "The compass is moving again. I hope we're getting closer."

"We have to be," Calcifer said. "Even on a broomstick, this would be a long journey."

***



Once they were in Strangia, it wasn't long before they didn't need the compass any longer.

"There!" said Calcifer.

There were lights shining from a small house that looked as if it had sprouted there unceremoniously. The surroundings were rocky and harsh, but the house was a cozy cottage with little flower boxes and a rosy pink door.

Sophie found it revolting.

Still, she thought it only polite to knock before attempting entry.

"Who is it?" a lilting voice called.

"Sophie," said Sophie, not knowing what else to say. "From Ingary."

"I'd better wait outside," Calcifer said, floating over to a pile of rocks behind which he concealed himself.

"From Ingary?" The door opened, revealing a lovely older woman with fair hair kept back in a loose bun, wearing an apron over a deep burgundy dress. She was clearly on the older side, but aging well. Could this possibly be Howl's kidnapper?

"Do you know my Madeline?" the woman asked, ushering Sophie in. "She is always making friends, though usually they don't have your magical aptitude."

"Yes," Sophie lied. "I told Madeline I was going to Strangia, and she suggested that I stay with you."

"How like her!" the woman cried. "Always thoughtful, my niece Madeline. Although I must say, it is very brave of you to travel to Strangia in these days. There's been such horrible rumors of war. That's why I moved closer to the border- I'm afraid if there's a battle, most of it will take place on Strangian soil. So in a few months I may move into Ingary. Perhaps I'll even stay with Madeline and my sister. I haven't lived with my sister in years- it should be so nice. Pity it took such dire circumstances to bring me back-- family is everything, you know."

"I quite agree," Sophie managed to get in, before the woman was off again.

"Madeline has been saying to me for years, Aunt Sylvia, why don't you live in Ingary with us, it would be so much fun! And I've always said that I've been perfectly comfortable in Strangia for years, and I like the royalty a bit better- Princess Beatrice has such a commanding presence. But when it comes down to it, most of my reasons for staying out of Ingary are gone, and dear Madeline needs all the support she can get, don't you think, Sophie dear?"

Sophie nodded mutely, wondering what on earth she was doing here with the Strangian equivalent of Mrs Fairfax.

"It was just so dreadful when, well, you know. That horrid Wizard Howl!"

"Breaking her heart?" Sophie asked, slightly startled. She had been beginning to think they had the wrong house after all.

"Poor, dear, Madeline," Sylvia shook her head. "It wasn't as if she wasn't warned. When he started to pay calls on her, my sister wrote me about how she'd always told Madeline to stay away from wizards. And a wizard so infamous as Howl! Not that I'm blaming her, of course."

"Not at all," Sophie said quickly. "Men like that are terrible. Preying on innocent women, and making promises they can't keep." A bit of real bitterness crept into her voice. Did Howl really intend on settling down? Or had he been busy breaking this Madeline's heart while she was busy keeping house for him?

"I'm so glad you agree," cried Sylvia. "Men like that ought to be strung up!"

"Men like that ought to suffer," Sophie agreed, thinking of Lettie.

"Actually, I've done something rather naughty," Aunt Sylvia said, covering her mouth. "I heard how sad Madeline's been, and so I thought to get her a present, even if it is a rather unconventional one."

Something about the strangeness of Aunt Sylvia and the cottage clicked into place. Sophie said, carefully, "Won't you let me see? I promise I won't ruin the surprise."

"Well," Sylvia hesitated. "It isn't a very pleasant sight. And I don't want you to get the wrong idea…"

"I understand," Sophie said soothingly. "But you know, if it is such an unpleasant sight, it might upset Madeline at first. Perhaps I could help you make it look a little more… appealing."

The woman brightened at once. "What a generous offer! Well, I'm sure, if you care about Madeline as much as I do, you'll see why I arranged it this way. Come into the parlor, Sophie, dear."

The parlor was the most dimly lit room in the house, and it took Sophie's eyes a moment to adjust. Once she did, she inhaled sharply. There, sure enough, was Howl, bound to a chair and gagged, and, evidently, unconscious. Sophie's stomach turned over. The compass vibrated violently in her skirt pocket.

"What do you think, Sophie, dear? I found that rascally rake of a man Wizard Howl and brought him here. Madeline can punish him however she likes for breaking her heart that way. You know, she's never been quite the same since-"

"Oh, honestly!" Sophie burst out, cutting off Sylvia in mid-sentence. "How long ago was Madeline involved with Howl?"

Aunt Sylvia's eyes narrowed. "Sophie, dear. I'm sure you wouldn't lie about knowing Madeline, but shouldn't you recall yourself that it's been nearly three years?"

"Exactly!" Sophie cried. "Three years! What sort of a person are you, imprisoning a man for a deed he did three years ago?"

"Three years ago and never been punished! Madeline has never been able to stay in a relationship for more than three weeks since," Aunt Sylvia snapped. "Don't tell me he didn't put some sort of spell on her or- or harm her in some way that-"

"Or else she doesn't want to be in a relationship for more than three weeks!" Sophie returned. "And how do you know he hasn't been punished? What on earth do you think this is going to solve, other than your own twisted desire for revenge?"

"I knew you would't understand," Sylvia said. "I knew I shouldn't have shown you. It's not about revenge, it's about setting things right for Madeline."

"Who probably knew exactly what she was getting herself into," Sophie said. "After all, if you knew he was Wizard Howl, she knew. And everyone knows he breaks hearts. In any case, it's Madeline's decision to make, not yours!"

At that, Howl lifted his head slightly. "Mmph-mph?" he said, most likely meaning Sophie?

"I'm truly sorry if your niece's heart was broken, Sylvia," Sophie said. "But I just can't allow you to make off with my- my… Howl for your own amusement. He's going to come home, and he's going to come home now."

Sylvia stared at her. "Who are you?"

"Just Sophie Hatter," Sophie said, yanking the gag out of Howl's mouth. "Ropes, get out of those knots at once. Do you hear me?"

The ropes sheepishly untied themselves, and Howl sat up, flexing his arms and hands. "Sophie! I knew you'd come for me! Darling!"

"I only did it to keep Calcifer happy," Sophie said unsympathetically, although it was a bold faced lie. "Now get up, and let's get out of this place."

"You're no ordinary witch, Sophie Hatter," Aunt Sylvia murmured. "Truly, Ingary has become a force to be reckoned with."

"She's the most ruthless witch of them all," Howl said fondly. "Although, you could have been a bit quicker, Sophie. This woman has been doing truly terrible things to me."

"Such as criticizing your hair?"

"You saw the state I was in, you heartless woman! And still you make tasteless jokes." Howl crossed his arms. "I'd rather take my chances with the Aunt than go home to you."

"Stop being dramatic, Howl," Sophie snapped. "I'm tired, and hungry, and I've spent all day searching for you."

Aunt Sylvia had been frowning for some time. "You two are married?"

"Not yet," Howl said. "Though I do feel some flutterings of romance in the air. No, it's just the cold breeze from that window."

Sophie rolled her eyes.

"it seems to me," said Sylvia, "that being with each other is punishment enough for the both of you."

"Fantastic," said Howl. "Now let's get out of here before she changes her mind."

 

***



Once they had returned to the castle and had a proper dinner, Sophie gathered up some socks to be darned and settled in by Calcifer. Howl brushed off his blue and silver suit and said brightly, "Well, while not one of my personal favorites, that was certainly a way to spend a day. I do believe my cold has nearly cleared up -- one of the advantages of being tied up and tortured, I suppose.

"Did she really torture you?" Sophie said skeptically.

"You wound me Sophie," Howl said mournfully. "It was dreadful. Among other things too horrible to mention, she read to me for hours on end about moral people."

Sophie snorted "Serves you right." Even though she had to admit it did sound unpleasant.  

"I'm just glad it's over," Calcifer crackled from the fireplace, "You could have at least shouted when she got you- I might have heard."

"There was barely time to leave the compass," Howl said impatiently. "And even that scarcely occurred to me. I was rather hoping she'd leave a ransom note."

"I don't believe she thought there was anyone who'd care if you went missing," remarked Sophie.

"Of course, she was terribly wrong. And you made a marvelous rescuer, Sophie."

"I feel sorry for the niece," Sophie said, ignoring Howl. "What a meddlesome, self-important woman!"

"And you know nothing about meddling old biddies, of course," Howl said dryly.

Sophie dropped her darning in outrage. "I am not in the least like her, Howl Jenkins, and don't you forget it!"

"Of course, Sophie dearest. You take no prisoners."

"Can we skip to the part where you two admit you care?" grumbled Calcifer. "It gets so tedious, day after day, waiting for you both to turn the corner."

Sophie flushed. "Of course I care. It's just that I- well I-"

"Prefer to express your feelings in other ways," Howl finished. "Like with weedkiller, for instance."

"Hmph," was all Sophie could muster. She resumed her darning.

It took her a moment to notice that Howl was on one knee. She noted this as odd, but since she was almost finished with a sock, she put it out of her mind.

"Sophie?"

"What?" she snapped, putting down the sock again. "I'm a little busy, Howl."

"Will you marry me?"

Sophie dropped her darning for the second time. "Now?"

"Well," said Howl, standing up, "no, not for several months, I'd say. After all, there's the ceremony to arrange, and people to invite." He shuddered. "Terrible people, who won't forgive me if they're not invited."

"No, I mean," Sophie struggled to collect her thoughts, "why propose now? Of all the times-"

"Well, you did more or less save my life. Or at least my dignity. I thought it was very romantic, didn't you?"

Sophie sighed. "Yes, fine, it was very romantic."

Despite her obvious insincerity, Howl clasped her hands and pulled her out of her chair. "Oh, Sophie!" He paused. "You haven't said yes."

"Oh," said Sophie. There were plenty of reasons to say no. Most of them she heard in Fanny's voice, or Lettie's voice. "Yes."

Howl danced about the room, dragging her along with him. "Oh, glorious day! I'm terrified down to my bone marrow, but I'm sure that will pass. Calcifer, isn't this wonderful?"

"I don't see what difference it makes," Calcifer grumbled.

"It'll certainly make us seem more respectable," Sophie said thoughtfully.

"Sophie Pendragon. Doesn't it sound lovely?"

Sophie snorted. "You can't mean to make me take your imaginary name."

"It isn't imaginary," Howl protested. "The king of Ingary uses it. And it's what he'll call you."

That gave Sophie a turn. "I won't have to go to the palace often, will I?"

"I don't expect so," Howl said dismissively. "Ben Suliman seems to like those functions well enough and they only need one Royal Wizard to turn up at balls and things."

"Good," said Sophie. "I won't be paraded about just because I'm your wife."

Howl's wife. It sounded ridiculous. That was how Sophie knew it was right.

"I wouldn't dream of it," Howl said, pulling her into an embrace.

Despite herself, Sophie found that she was smiling. Maybe, in its own way, it had been romantic, going to save Howl.

"All right, you get your kiss," Sophie said, and lifted her head.