It was a never-ending pursuit that kept Howl awake through the night. Like a terrible, persistent march down a long tunnel. Howl turned on his side, but it only seemed to get louder, and he didn’t dare to try ear-plugs. He couldn’t so simply ignore such a dangerous presence.
It seemed like it was getting closer, like it should have been getting closer, but it marched as steady as a soldier going nowhere. If it had been getting closer, the sound might have stopped eventually. But no, it stayed where it was, making its terrible, persistent, endless noise! It followed Howl doggedly through the darkness no matter how he tried to evade it!
It never even changed! The terrible sound couldn’t even have the decency to be interesting by changing it up every now and again. No, it just marched on at its dull, dangerous pace!
Howl turned on his back again, to try and quiet it, and the terrible sound followed him faithfully. Within the minute, it seemed to be just as loud as when he had been lying on his side, with his treacherous ears apparently so determined to follow its pursuit.
Sticking his head under his pillow only would have made it worse.
At this rate, Howl was going to go mad staring at the ceiling, and he’d never get a wink of beauty sleep again. He was almost tempted to get out of bed and fling himself into the distraction of work to escape this wretched racket. He was tempted to drink himself into a stupor on the off-chance he’d pass out. There were nightmares that were better than this rubbish!
“Howl, for goodness’ sake!” Sophie snapped. “What is it?”
“…I can’t sleep.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed that.”
“Have you? Nothing escapes your wrinkled ears, it seems.”
Howl leaned over, put a hand to her cheek, and kissed Sophie on her adorably, regrettably creased forehead. He then took the time to admire her ears, which were not wrinkled at all. She would have terrible trouble scowling wrinkles into them, though he did not doubt his darling Sophie if she became determined to manage.
“I’m lying, of course. You have quite lovely ears, Sophie, have I ever-”
Sophie shoved him off.
“Go to sleep, Howl, you wretched man,” she said.
If Howl were any less of a wizard, such a command would have knocked him right out. Instead of teasing Sophie for the flush he was sure she was wearing in the darkness, he yawned defiantly. Oh, if Sophie could have managed sweet crooning instead of irritable snapping, Howl would have been done for, but he refused to go to sleep just because she’d told him to.
Even Sophie’s dulcet tones couldn’t distract him from the terrible, never-ending noise.
“I can’t,” he said.
Sophie groaned. “Oh, why not?”
“It’s too loud to sleep.”
“Yes. Has something finally escape those ears of yours?”
“It’s quiet as a mouse here!”
“Yes, your shouting is very quiet, Sophie.”
Sophie sat up and glowered at him.
True to Sophie’s will, the room was quiet. The house settled only for Sophie’s demands and nothing outside dared to hoot, chirp, or howl to disrespect her. For Sophie, there was silence.
But for Howl, the terrible noise would not cease its persistent beating.
Howl groaned now, twice as tiredly as Sophie and thrice as disgusted, and sat up as well. “I can’t even hear myself think, Sophie! How the devil do you manage to go about your business like this? How do you ever get any sleep with such relentless racket?!”
Sophie blinked at him. “What?”
“The noise, Sophie! The noise! It’s driving me mad!”
“So you’re going to me mad too? That’s fair is it?” Sophie said archly. “What noise, Howl?”
“My word, Sophie, do those ears work at all? Or are you just not listening to me? My heartbeat! Your heartbeats!” Howl repeated. “Everyone can’t possibly just… go around like this all the time! It would be absurd! I certainly don’t remember this from the last time I had this thing!”
“What do you…? Howl, did you not have a heartbeat before?”
“Without a heart? Why would I?”
Sophie stared at him incredulously. “How were you alive?!”
“...Are you even awake?”
“Howl, how were you alive? Did you have blood?”
“Of course, I had blood! It was magic, Sophie. You should have heard what Calcifer said about it. ‘How should I know how your stupid human bodies work? It’s magic. It does what it’s supposed to do. You handed over your heart and expected to still be alive afterwards, what did you expect?’ Really, Sophie, what else would it be?”
“How did your blood get pumped through your body?”
“Magic, Sophie!” Howl cried unhappily. “And magic had the decency to be quiet about it!”
“And now you’re not used to having a heartbeat again?”
“Oh, so you are listening!”
Sophie rolled her eyes. “Now look who’s the one shouting.”
“Sophie, I am never going to sleep again and you can’t even muster up a scrap of sympathy-ee!”
Howl’s voice went up at the end because Sophie had grabbed him by the ear. It was very alarming, though it was also surprising to realize she’d never done it before. It was even more alarming and surprising when Sophie swung her leg over his and sat in his lap, then grabbed the other earlobe with her other hand.
“Um,” Howl said.
Sophie, looking steadily into his eyes, raised her eyebrows at him. Then she leaned in close – their cheeks brushing as she did, the weight of her shifting on Howl’s lap – exactly like a lover about to whisper into his ear. Except for how she tightened her grip on his earlobes.
“Um?” Howl said.
“You listen here, you,” Sophie said fiercely. “You are doing a very good job, but I need you to do an even better job and not pay such close attention to Howl’s heartbeat now that he’s got it back again. Just like when he was a boy, he needs his sleep, else he becomes an enormous brat.”
It was here that Howl realized she was talking to his ears.
“I would like to sleep again, you see,” Sophie continued. “And I will be very cross if, for the rest of my life, I have to deal with a sleep-deprived Howl. So, you will let… him… sleep!”
Her grip on his ears was very tight now.
“Thank you,” Sophie then said, and kissed the ear she’d been speaking into.
When she released his ears and drew back, she looked very smug.
Howl could only stare at her.
There was silence.
“Sophie, you could have made me deaf,” he said, aghast at the danger.
“Oh? I seem to recall someone who wished he was deaf so he didn’t have to listen to me nag anymore!” Sophie countered, still smug at the magic she’d just wrought.
Howl wished she wouldn’t look so smug. It was a very good look on her, she was still in his lap, and he was very tired. Sophie Hatter was so terribly formidable and Howl was wretchedly jealous.
“Besides," Sophie continued. "it seemed a better idea than trying to talk to your heart about quieting down.”
Howl looked at Sophie in true horror now.
His heart would do anything for her with a single word. He could die like that.
“Please don’t,” he said.
Sophie patted him on the cheek fondly. “Goodness, Howl, it’s like you think I’m stupid. No, your ears and I have come to an arrangement.”
Then she leaned in suddenly and kissed his other ear.
“Besides,” Sophie said, when she drew back to look him in the eye again, “they’re quite lovely ears. Have I ever told you that?”
She was still smiling, so beautifully smug, and Howl felt unfairly flushed.
“I… don’t believe you have, no,” Howl answered, and cleared his throat desperately. “I do believe that they could stand to hear it more often, however. They’re terribly underappreciated, you know-”
Sophie patted him on the cheek. “Go to sleep, Howl.”
With that, she climbed off his lap and flopped back onto her pillow, then pulled the blankets back up. She gave Howl little other choice but to lie back down as well and take what blankets he could, before she stole them back in her sleep. She was a terrible bed-partner like that, he’d had the privilege of finding out tonight, truly an absolute menace.
Howl adored her.
The terrible noise was finally gone. The disappearance was somewhat alarming, as he had found the great thumping as reassuring as it had been frightening earlier, but Howl could still feel his heart pumping under his hand when he pressed it to his chest. That was reassuring enough.
(No one had been able to take Howl’s pulse for years. His rugby mates had once thought him dead when he’d fainted on a pub crawl once, but they’d been easily distracted by pointing out how drunk they were after their awful howling had woken him up again.)
Sophie cracked open an eye again.
“If you wake me up again, Howl, we’ll be having words,” she promised.
Howl leaned in to kiss her on the forehead.
“A true threat,” he said fondly, because it was. “Goodnight, Sophie, dearest.”
She pushed him off, back down onto the bed, putting her hand over the one Howl had resting on his own heart as though to keep him there. Howl wondered if she could feel the heartbeat underneath, thumping faithfully away.
“Goodnight, Howl,” she murmured.