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In Which Sophie and Howl Try to Make a Good Impression But Cannot Stop Squabbling

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"Howl!" Sophie called, banging on the bathroom door.  "We're going to be late!"

"Beauty takes time and effort," came back Howl's muffled voice.

Sophie huffed and flounced into her rocking chair.  "He always does this.  Every single time we go out."

Michael nodded absentmindedly as he measured out blue powder for a shrinking spell. 

"Why don't we go without him?" Calcifer asked.

"If we were going to any place but Wales, I would do just that," said Sophie.

"I'm glad I'm not going along," said Michael.  "Howl's sister is scary."

"Scarier than Sophie?" Howl asked, leaving the bathroom in a cloud of gardenia-scented steam.

"Howl!" said Sophie.

Michael busied himself with his spell, not wanting to get involved in another of Howl and Sophie's fights.

"Aren't we running late?" Howl asked.  "Calcifer?  Sophie?  Come along now."  He turned the knob black side down and opened the door.

"Slither-outer," muttered Sophie. 

"We've been ready this past hour," Calcifer complained.  He floated across the room and out the door, with Sophie right behind him.

"We'll be back in an hour or two," Howl said to Michael.  "Try not to shrink any of my things while I'm gone."  He stepped through the door and swung it shut behind him.

It was an overcast day on the other side of the doorway in Wales. Calcifer stared around at the square, blocky houses and the horseless carriages on the the strange, black road.

"Go explore all you want," said Sophie.  "Just remember how to find this house again."

"It looks so different from Ingrary," said Calcifer.  "Good luck with Howl's family."  He drifted away down the road, turning himself invisible.

Sophie felt a breeze on her legs and discovered that the hemline of her new green dress had rose to her knees and the flounced petticoats underneath had disappeared.  “Howl!”

“Now, Sophie,” he said laughingly.  “When in Rome, you know.”

“No, I don't know!  Change my clothes back.”

“No one wears petticoats here.  You'll look odd.”

Sophie frowned down at her dress.  “Grow longer.  Go on.  Longer.”  The hem of her dress obediently lowered to a decent level.  “Stop right there.”  The skirt stopped growing.

Howl shrugged and rang the doorbell.  The door opened almost immediately. Megan stood in the doorway with her arms crossed.  “Normally, you drop in without any announcement.  Why the advance notice this time?”

“Aren't you going to invite us in before beginning the interrogation?” asked Howl.  Without waiting for an answer he pushed his way in, dragging Sophie behind him. 

Megan followed them to the living room.  “What's going on?  Who is that?”

Howl placed his arm around Sophie.  “Sophie, this is my sister Megan. Megan, this is Sophie Hatter.”

Sophie had barely said “How do you do” when Howl announced airily, “We are getting married next May.”

Megan's jaw dropped.  “Married!  What?!  How long have you been going out? How come you've never mentioned her before?  Where did you two meet?”

Sophie raised an eyebrow at Howl.  "Why haven't you mentioned me before, Howl?"

Howl threw up his hands.  "Can't we all sit down before starting the inquisition?"

"Have a seat, then," Megan said grudgingly.  "I'll brew some tea."

Sophie and Howl sat on a worn sofa facing a black box on a cabinet.  Megan wasn't long in returning with a tea tray. 

"How long have you known each other?" asked Megan after she had poured everyone a cup of tea.  "How did you two meet?"

Howl and Sophie looked at each other.  "We met at the May Day festival a few months ago," said Sophie.  "Howl accosted me in the streets."

"Accosted! I only asked if you needed me to escort you to your destination.”

Megan raised an eyebrow but decided not to comment.  "What do you do, Sophie?"

"I work in a flower shop.  Before that, I worked in my family's hat shop."

"What is your family like?" asked Megan.

"I'm the eldest of three.  I have two sisters, Lettie and Martha.  My mother died when I was two and my father died just last year.  My stepmother recently remarried, and so now I have a stepfather."

Howl got up and leaned against a side table, safely out of Sophie's reach. "Don't forget about your Great-Aunt Sophie."  He put his cup down and said to Megan, "Sophie was named after her Great-Aunt Sophie.  I bought her to meet you once a few months ago, remember?"

"I remember," said Megan icily.

"Unfortunately, Great-Aunt Sophie won't be able to make it to the wedding," said Sophie through gritted teeth.  "She recently moved far, far away."

“Too bad,” said Howl.  “I'm going to miss her.  I think she was in love with me herself.  I once caught her spying on me from behind a bush while I was courting her great-niece in the flower garden.”

Sophie wished Howl was still sitting next to her so she could give him a good kick.  “I notice you didn't mention that it was my sister Lettie you were flirting with in the flower garden,” she said.  Now it was Howl's turn to glare at her. 

Megan pursed her lips disapprovingly.  “Really?  Howl was dating you and your sister at the same time?”

“Well, not quite,” said Sophie conscientiously.  “Howl met Lettie before me.  And Lettie was never really interested in him.  She was in love with someone else.”

"I see," said Megan.  She took a sip of tea and studied Sophie closely.  “How old are you, Sophie?”

“I'm eighteen.”

“Eighteen,” Megan repeated.  She turned and glared at Howl.  “And how old are you again, Howl?”

“Megan!” said Howl.  “I can't believe you forgot how old I am.  And after all the times I showed up laden with presents for Neil and Mari's birthdays, not to mention your own birthday.”

Sophie glared at Howl.  She leaned towards Megan and said confidentially, “I thought Howl was awfully old the first time I met him.  Very old and very sophisticated.  But when I got to know him, I realized that he's really only about five years old inside.

"And Sophie is really an old lady inside," said Howl.  "She was born ninety years old."

"Howl is a terrible coward," Sophie shot back.

"Sophie is horribly nosy."

"And Howl is vainer than both of my sisters combined.”   

"While Sophie never thinks before she acts," Howl retaliated.

"Howl slithers out of everything."

"Why on earth are you two getting married?" Megan broke in.

Sophie looked at Howl and Howl looked at Sophie.  They stared at each other for a long moment, then smiled and said together, "I think we'll live happily ever after."