When Howl wakes up, there's something wrong with his chest. It's heavy, too heavy, as if there's something on it - in it? - that's weighing his whole body down. And something keeps… no, pushing isn't quite the right word; squeezing? Pulling? Contracting, that's it, there's something in his chest that's contracting, and Howl has no idea what it is.
One of his hands scrabbles over his chest, but it meets no resistance. Whatever's there is in his body, then, and if someone has managed to put something in his body that shouldn't be there… Howl needs to get it out.
The contracting picks up speed, and he jerks upright, one hand pressed against his chest as he feels this thing pound faster and faster and faster. The sound of it echoes in his ears, drowning out anything else, and it seems like whatever it is has affected his lungs as well, because they don't work, and maybe it's reaching up to his throat too because his throat feels like it's closing up, and he-
"Howl!" yells a voice he knows well (but a voice that shouldn't be here in his room, should it? He can't focus enough to be sure). "Howl, calm down!"
"Calcifer," Howl gasps, "Calcifer, something's wrong with my chest-"
"Yeah, you're panicking and clawing at yourself," Calcifer retorts. "Calm down, would you? I didn't guard your heart for years just so it could explode in your chest the second Sophie shoves it back in."
The second Sophie…
And then Howl remembers.
"My heart," he whispers. He slowly flattens his hand over his chest, only then realizing that he had actually been clawing at it, and feels a steady thumping under his palm. It's a rhythm he knows, even if he hasn't felt it in his own body for years.
"My heart," he whispers again, a little more wonderstruck this time, feeling his heartbeat slow to a more sedate pace.
"Yes, your heart," Calcifer huffs. "Try not to tax it so much next time."
"But-" Howl looks down at his chest. "Why did I- Calcifer, I've never felt panicked like that before."
"You haven't had a heart in years," Calcifer retorts. "What, you thought things would be the same as they were before? A lot of things are going to be different now." He shoots Howl a look that he'll never admit is concerned. "Are you calm now?"
"Calmer," Howl says. "Calcifer, I have my heart back."
"And it seems to be making you thicker than ever," Calcifer says. "Yes, Howl, you have your heart back. Try to take better care of it."
Howl nods distractedly, now taking his pulse at his wrist, and Calcifer huffs and flies off. Howl probably should have been listening to him more - he's still not quite sure what the changes to his life will be - but… Well, he's just gotten his heart back after years of having nothing but an empty hole in his chest. It's only natural that he would be a little distracted.
He'll talk to Calcifer about it later. For now, he's counting his pulse as it steadily thumps along, and he'll throw out anyone who tries to stop him.
Somewhere around the fourteenth spell, Howl begins to feel a curious tugging in his chest.
It feels almost like his chest is tightening, and it sort of reminds him of the panic he woke up in the morning before, but he's not panicked this time. This must, he thinks, be another new aspect of living with a heart, although he doesn't quite know what it is this time. He'll ask Calcifer about it when he's done with his work.
The tugging only gets worse as he finishes the fifteenth spell, and by the time he's halfway through the sixteenth, his chest is so tight he can hardly breathe. Something is wrong, he thinks, and that feeling is only solidified when he loses proper control of his motor skills and drops the bottle he's holding.
Sophie looks up at the noise, a frown creasing her face. "Howl?" she asks.
Her voice sounds like it's coming from very far away.
"Sophie," Howl says, and his voice sounds strange even to his ears. Sophie looks alarmed now, and she's halfway out of her chair when he slides out of his. He's unconscious before he hits the floor.
The next thing he knows, he's lying in what feels like his bed, and someone is muttering angrily next to him. He can't quite make out the words, but he recognizes the voice. Of course he recognizes the voice. It's very recognizable, especially when it's angry.
"Howl!" Sophie cries. She sounds furious, and when Howl's eyes flutter open, he sees that she looks the same. He's just wondering if it's too late for him to try to fall back asleep - or at least pretend to fall back asleep - when Sophie smacks him.
"Ow!" Howl says, even though Sophie only smacked his shoulder and she didn't hit very hard. "What was that for?"
"You're not bonded to a fire demon anymore, you… you foolish idiot!" Sophie cries. "Did you forget that magic has limits?"
"Of course I know that," Howl retorts, because it sounds better than admitting that maybe he sort of did forget about that. "Sophie-"
"Your heart almost gave out," Sophie says, a mixture of anger and fear - but mostly anger - in her voice. "I had to convince it to keep beating." She smacks him again, a little harder this time. "Don't you ever make me do that again."
"And you left your spell half finished, so it almost exploded," Sophie adds. "Michael was only just able to contain it in time. Don't do things like that."
"I won't," Howl promises.
"You say that now, but what about next time?"
"I'll be more careful," Howl says. "I will, Sophie. I'm being honest."
"You're never honest," Sophie grumbles, although she sounds like she half-believes him anyway.
"I'm being honest now," Howl says, reaching out to take Sophie's hand. "Do you want me to summon a wind? Will that prove it?"
Sophie softens a little, but she's still Sophie, so she doesn't soften too much. "I still don't see how that wind advanced your mind," she says. "You seem as foolish as ever to me."
Howl claps one hand to his chest dramatically. This is more what he's used to. "How you wound me! After all I did for you-"
"All you did for me?" Sophie cries. "Who put your heart back in your chest?"
"Who stopped Miss Angorian?"
"Who beat her over the head with a stick while you lay passed out on the floor?"
"She squeezed my heart! You'd pass out too, if someone squeezed your heart!"
Sophie rolls her eyes. "Get some rest, Howl. And don't be such an idiot with your magic next time."
"So rude," Howl mutters. "Why do I even put up with you?"
"I put your heart back in your chest, and I just made sure it didn't stop beating when you overtaxed it like an idiot."
Howl pretends to think about it for a moment. "I suppose those are fairly solid arguments."
Sophie rolls her eyes again, but she does it more fondly this time. "Get some rest," she repeats, standing. Howl grabs her hand before she can go and lays a kiss on the back of it.
"Thank you for saving me, Sophie. Again. What would I do without you?"
"Die surrounded by filth?" Sophie teases.
"I think we both know very well that I have a heart," Howl says, putting Sophie's hand to his chest. "You gave it to me."
Sophie flattens her hand against Howl's chest. Howl can feel his heart beat against her palm. A slight smile spreads across her face.
"So I did."
The less said about Howl's attempt at running, the better. "Are you sure," he asks Calcifer, doubled over and clutching at his chest, "you don't want my heart back?"
"You're hideously out of shape," Calcifer says in what Howl deems an unnecessarily judgmental voice. Yes, Howl might need to take up some cardio, but he hasn't been able to do any real cardio for years, so he doesn't think it's really his fault.
"We could make a new deal," Howl suggests, still panting but vaguely more upright now. "Since we broke the contract before and now we're starting a new one, would we still be running the risk of ending up like the Witch of the Waste in a few years, or would the clock reset?"
"I don't want your heart," Calcifer scoffs. "I just got rid of that thing. You think I want it back?"
"Rude," Howl mutters, now mostly recovered. He smooths down his suit. "I happen to think it's a very good heart."
"Then you keep it," Calcifer retorts.
"I will," Howl retorts, and only after Calcifer flies away does he realize that he just declared he would do the exact opposite of what he started out the conversation trying to do.
Well, he hadn't been serious about making a new contract, and he knew that Calcifer would never agree, so Howl decides it's alright, as long as he never lets Sophie do that to him. Calcifer beating him in an argument is one thing - it's happened many times, but Howl's beat Calcifer in many arguments too, so it's okay - but Sophie beating him in an argument, especially this way, would be another thing altogether. Howl will have to keep his guard up.
And, he thinks, looking down at his chest sorrowfully, he'll also have to start doing some cardio if he doesn't want to make an utter fool of himself next time his rugby mates suggest a friendly match.
There are some definite downsides to having a heart again. Howl will admit that in a (somewhat ironic) heartbeat. He can't do as much magic, and he's got all sorts of limitations, and when he panics now, he really panics. It's very irritating.
But on the other hand, feeling his heart flutter and skip a beat when Sophie kisses him and says that yes, she will marry him… Well, Howl thinks that makes his heart worth it.