Sophie couldn’t sleep. Again.
It had been this way for several weeks, ever since the whole debacle with the Witch of the Waste and Miss Angorian.
Sophie thought it was silly of Howl to begin their happily ever after by moving the castle back to its initial location in his house in Porthaven and setting Sophie up in her old home in Market Chipping. More than silly since Howl made one of his Castle doors lead to the flower shop, but closed the wall between the shop and market chipping house. Sophie argued that Howl would just have to move the castle back sooner rather than later, for the Market Chipping house was much roomier. But, Howl decided that was the future’s problem and, to Sophie’s dismay insisted on Fanny’s insistence that things remain proper.
“The last thing I need is your family coming round, trying to boss me about in my own home,” Howl told her, ignoring the obvious fact that by acquiescing he was still being bossed by Sophie’s family; not just in his own home but about his own home.
Still, Howl set Sophie up in her new, old home.
Sophie could visit the castle through the flower shop, requiring her to walk past the prying eyes of the customers and gossips in Market Chipping, much to Fanny’s approval. The whole thing was ridiculously absurd and absurdly complicated and Sophie made sure Howl knew it when he took her and Fanny on a tour of the new, old residence. Still, Fanny left, satisfied that her step-daughter’s reputation and virtue would remain intact. She insisted that Sophie not stay in the castle past supper, or else people would start to whisper.
Sophie very nearly reminded Fanny that shenanigans could happen at any time of day and not just after supper, thank you very much, but decided that would cause Fanny to return to her first insistence that Sophie move into the mansion with her and Mr. Smith’s instead. So for once, Sophie kept her mouth shut.
No one bothered to ask Sophie her opinions on propriety or virtue (both of which were rather low) which made her even more cross about the whole situation. Finally free from the witch’s curse and her own personal fears, and Sophie found her life to still be out of her control, this time not ruled by the tenuous forces of destiny but by the restrictions of propriety .
Once Fanny was satisfied and out of their hair, Howl immediately built a secret door between the upstairs of the castle and Sophie’s new, old room.
“It’s the bookcase here,” he said, pressing gently on a dull looking book about deeds and property lines that he thought wouldn’t likely be touched by nosy visitors.
The shelf gave way, pushing in to the upstairs hall of the castle where the empty wall at the end of the hall used to be with Howl’s room to the left and Michael’s room further down.
“You should still make a point to come and go through the shop if you want to keep your family out of your hair, but this way we’re close if you need us. You know, I thought nosiness was a trait that you distinctly perfected, my dear, but it seems to be a genetic condition.”
“Howl, this is all so absurd,” Sophie said, her fingertips pressed to her temples as she peered into the castle from the other side of the bookcase.
“Well, if you’d like to tell Fanny and your sisters that you’ll maintain your residence in the castle then, by all means,” Howl gestured toward the castle meaningfully, looking like the cat that got the cream.
For once in her life, Sophie decided to slither out.
And so, she lived alone in her old room in Market Chipping. She’d never lived alone before, and the quietness of the big, empty house was terrible. Things weren't so bad in the daytime, she worked in the flower shop, studying magic with Howl in between custom. Once they closed for the evening she dined with he and Michael and Calcifer. On nice evenings Howl would take Sophie on an idyllic stroll about town before escorting her home.
But trying to sleep was the worst. Sophie lay awake listening to her own breath, along with every familiar creak and crack of the house. She missed the quiet breathing and warmth of life that came from living with other people.
The tiredness started to affect her. She had difficulty paying attention to Howl’s lessons and often got spells wrong. Instead of turning her daffodils pink they exploded, instead of making the store a bit warmer she started a minor, indoor blizzard. Even doing something simple like conjuring fire nearly set the castle, and Howl ablaze (though Sophie didn’t mind rubbing salve over Howl’s reddened back one bit). By lunch, Sophie was always so bedraggled she’d nap on the couch, only to be awoken by Michael or Calcifer or Howl with some need or want. Help with a spell or courting advice for Michael, new firewood or companionship for Calcifer, and soft kisses or small quarrels for Howl.
Most days Sophie felt dead on her feet but still, she just could not fall asleep in that big, empty house.
She turned to her side and stared at the bookshelf. It felt even worse that Howl never once came to visit her at night. It felt as if he didn’t want to be alone with her. He had no problem waking her up when she was actually comfortably napping on the sofa or in her old bed under the stairs (which he and Michael had not yet bothered to put away. Typical ). But when she lay awake alone and agitated Howl was nowhere to be seen. Leave it to Howl to turn into a gentleman only when it was the most inconvenient.
“Go on house,” Sophie declared, trying a bit of magic. “You’re too quiet to feel lived in, let’s have a bit more noise, shall we?”
Sophie wasn’t sure what she hoped to have happen, which was probably why the spell went a bit wrong. The house obliged her, raising it’s volume quite high. Rather than feeling warm and full like it did when all the Hatters lived there, the old creaks and groans grew louder and louder until they were near deafening. Like angry ghosts clanging about and out for revenge.
“Stop it!” Sophie screamed to the house, covering her ears with her hands. “That is quite enough, I’ll have nothing but quiet from you, house.”
The house went eerily still, which was very nearly worse.
“Bother Fanny and her propriety,” Sophie said to the room, vaguely concerned that she may have picked up her habit of talking to objects again. “I’ve got to get some rest .”
With an indignant fury, she climbed out of bed and threw on her dressing gown. It was still the middle of the night and the moon shone full and bright, illuminating the inside of her little room through the white curtains. Sophie smiled feeling relieved at the thought of having several hours of unperturbed sleep. She might even be able to slip back to her room before the residents of the castle found her.
It took Sophie a minute or so in the dim moonlight to find the special book to push on, as she had rarely found cause to use the secret door, and she had quickly filled the shelves with her own library. Eventually, she found the right spot and the bookcase slowly pushed back with a creak. Once through, she closed the bookcase behind her, revealing another bookcase on the castle side of the wall. Only after the secret doorway shut did Sophie realize she didn’t know how to open it from this side.
Before she could try to figure out the way back, Sophie yawned. The doorway suddenly seemed to be tomorrow’s problem.
Padding down the hallway in bare feet, Sophie stopped in front of Howl’s door, briefly contemplating what he would do if she surprised him. It would be completely unlike her to slither into his room while he slept, which seemed great fun. She smiled, thinking of the stunned expression he would have, hair mussed, stubble growing, bags under his eyes, uneven skin, purely natural Howl. Surprising Howl without his beauty spells seemed almost worth foregoing sleep for. Still, Sophie’s resolve to rest was too strong. She would just have to remember to surprise him another night.
As quietly as possible, Sophie crept down the stairs hoping Calcifer was asleep. If he was awake at all, he left her be as she passed his glowing, blue form smoldering in the fireplace.
Sophie drew back the curtain to her old little room under the staircase, hung her dressing gown on her hook on the wall and tucked herself into her familiar small bed. Listening to Calcifer’s crackling, and Michael’s gentle snoring coming from upstairs, and feeling the warmth and life of their little home, Sophie drifted off to sleep.
Sophie woke to Howl’s voice. She blinked her eyes open, wondering what he was doing in her new, old room. Once her eyes adjusted to the darkness she saw and remembered where she was.
Then she heard Calcifer’s voice, much more clear and distinct now that she was coming out of her drowsiness.
“It’s going to get better,” Calcifer said, unable to hide a slight edge in his voice. “You’ve got to give it time.”
Sophie willed herself to be as quiet as possible, and gently pulled the curtain a few inches aside so she could see what was happening. Howl was slumped in the stool in front of the hearth, his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. Calcifer glowed blue and green, hovering in front of Howl, as close as he dared. Howl’s face and hair illuminated in Calcifer’s blue-green light.
“It’s just so - the nighttime is the worst,” Howl said with a quavering voice.
Sophie thought she saw something glistening drop from his face. A tear?
“You know, as much as I love being woken up for our nightly talks, there’s someone else you could share your feelings with,” Calcifer said, the edge in his voice now turned annoyance.
“Sophie?” Howl said and Sophie almost responded with a gasp, afraid she’d been discovered eavesdropping, until she realized he was talking about her and not to her.
“I can’t go sneaking into her room in the dead of night, unexpected and unannounced like some sort of-”
“Womanizer? Cad? Rake?” Calcifer suggested unhelpfully. “I think she would rather expect that from you. All things considered.”
“Besides, how can I tell her?” Howl continued with a sigh, ignoring Calcifer’s “help.” He lifted his face and Sophie could see the wet streak of tears glistening on his cheeks under Calcifer’s lights. Without his beauty spells he looked just as Sophie had remembered when he came to her rescue at the Witch’s castle, stubble, red-rimmed eyes, and all.
“You know very well that you should be more open with her. Especially if you intend to marry-”
Sophie sat up. Her mouth fell agape and her heart leapt to her throat. She knew Howl wanted a happily ever after with her, but the discussion of marriage hadn't yet come up between them. Or was that what he meant by happily ever after? Was that the closest Howl could come to being pinned down?
“What do you suppose she’ll think if I tell her how desperately alone I feel since she put my heart back?” Howl interrupted.
“For reasons I can’t understand, Sophie loves you, you old fool.” Calcifer said, chidingly. “You can open up to her.”
“Calcifer, she’ll think I don’t love her!” Howl moaned, pressing his head back into his hands.
“Do you really think so little of me not to understand?” Sophie asked with a grave indignance. She folded her arms across her chest.
“Sophie?” Howl startled, sitting bolt upright.
“Finally, I can get some proper rest,” Calcifer said with an exaggerated sigh.
“What are you doing here?” Howl asked, stunned still on his stool.
“I can’t sleep in that lonely, old house,” Sophie said.
“Look, what I said-” Howl started but Sophie cut him off.
“You spent years bound to Calcifer always feeling him with you, even when you were apart from each other. As much of a relief as your separation was, I can imagine it feels like a great loss and quite lonesome. Do you really think I’m such a shrew that I wouldn’t understand that?”
“No, Sophie, no,” Howl rushed to the edge of the bed and took her hand in his. His eyes glistened like emeralds behind his tears.
“But really, woman. Does your long nose know no end?”
“What!?” Sophie’s eyes widened.
“To sneak down here and listen in on my private conversations, I mean honestly, woman. Though I shouldn’t be surprised knowing you as I do.” Howl squeezed Sophie’s hand.
“Oh, you silly man,” Sophie said softly, deciding Howl needed a win. A smile forming on the corner of her lips.
Realizing she didn’t have a handkerchief on hand, she lifted the edge of her nightgown and dabbed the tears from Howl’s face. She pretended not to notice him noticing her exposed legs and the form of her body under the thin fabric of her nightgown.
“I suppose we’re both having problems adjusting to our new life,” Sophie said, carefully smoothing down Howl’s blond hair.
“You look so tired,” Howl said, finally taking in her weary face.
“You’re just noticing that? Self-absorbed peacock,” Sophie said tenderly.
She slid her hands to either side of Howl’s face, feeling the scratchy tickle of his beard stubble. She leaned forward and touched her lips to Howl’s in a chaste kiss.
“I love you, Mr. peacock.”
“I love you, Mrs. Nose.”
“We should both get some sleep,” Sophie said.
“Can I stay here with you? Just for a little while?” Howl asked.
This gave Sophie pause as she had never seen Howl so… vulnerable. Even the day that Howl had a cold and Sophie saw him cry - this seemed so different. Without pretense or suspicion he was here before her, raw and open.
Lost for words, Sophie nodded and pulled Howl down into the bed with her. He lay next to her with his head nuzzled under her neck and one arm wrapped around her waist. His body weighed comfortably heavy against hers and the warmth of him caused Sophie’s face to flush and her body to tingle.
After a few, quiet moments, Howl’s breathing grew louder, more rapid and uneven while his broad shoulders shook. She felt his warm tears wetten her chest and her nightgown pulled at her waist where Howl grasped the fabric in a white-knuckled fist. As Howl silently cried, Sophie brushed her fingers through his fair hair, humming the saucepan song into the top of his head.
Sophie lost track of time, holding Howl to her chest. But eventually, the two drifted off to sleep.