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if you’d let me catch you

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 There were leaks in the roof which desperately needed fixing, if only because Sophie was rather sick of strategically placing buckets every time it rained, and at least three nests somewhere in the ceiling which produced endless pesky insects to drive her up the walls. And this wasn’t even getting started on the horrible smell which seeped through certain parts of the castle’s upper floors sometimes, which Sophie was absolutely certain meant that some miserable creature had crawled into a cranny on the rooftop and died. Though it was also possible that the wretched thing that stank like death was alive and needed driving off with a broomstick, because Sophie heard such scratching and thumping up there sometimes, more than could be reasonably attributed to little birds. 

 There was only one thing to do. Obviously, Sophie needed to take a look at the roof. 

 “Are you nuts? No way!” Calcifer said. 

 Sophie frankly didn’t see why Calcifer couldn’t sit the Moving Castle down for a few hours (as he’d done before) so that she could climb up there and clean away any nonsense. She said as much. But Calcifer stubbornly insisted that there wasn’t a way up to the roof, there never had been any way up to the roof, and there was no possible way that Sophie could ever get up there without breaking her silly neck, so she should forget about it immediately. 

 “Does that roof look like it was made for walking on?” Calcifer crackled. 

 Admittedly, the Moving Castle’s roof, the ensemble of the top of several structures that had been smashed together, looked like it was being held together by nothing more than sheer willpower, but there were plenty of handholds and Sophie had secured a lot of good, sturdy rope. The owner of the castle could also fly - or at least float. If little Markl had been firmly grounded and wasn’t allowed to open those particular grimoires anymore (for reasons the red-faced wizard’s apprentice was extremely reluctant to say), then Howl could take the time to come up with something clever himself, in the interest of keeping his roof from falling in on his handsome head one of these days. 

 But the owner of the castle, on his part, floated deftly and deafly away every time Sophie tried to bring up the subject of the roof with him, with even more avoidance than every other cleaning-related subject Sophie had tried to bring up with him before. Howl laughed courteously and he smiled prettily and he twinkled very suspiciously, and then he would run for it at the first opportunity. 

 One of them, Howl or Calcifer (which one, Sophie wasn’t yet sure), had gone so far as to cunningly tell Markl that Sophie was trying to get up on the roof. Sophie knew it had been one of them, because she certainly hadn’t told Markl. 

 The young boy had run to Sophie with wide eyes and cried in horror, “Sophie, are you trying to go on the roof?! Don’t do it! The roof is steep and uneven and unsafe! You’ll slip and you’ll fall and it’s a long way down! You can’t go up there, Sophie! You can’t!” 

 They may have been an earlier incident, Sophie would admit, when she hadn’t been as careful cleaning the panes of a window as she should have been. She’d caught herself of course (if barely), but Markl had been so frightened by the experience that it had taken Howl coming down to cook dinner to calm the boy down again. (Calcifer must have told Howl that day, because Sophie certainly hadn’t.) Howl had even gone so far as to politely ask Sophie to please be more careful, smiling much too widely and handsomely for his face to be taken at all seriously. 

 While Sophie hastily tried to calm Markl down without making any promises to stay off the roof, Howl had taken a sudden interest in his new raven hair, despite earlier claims that it disgusted him just to look at, and Calcifer had begun chewing ravenously on a log, as though he had forgotten he’d been complaining about its taste not ten minutes earlier. Sophie later suspected that it had been a mutual decision between them to encourage Markl to randomly pop up in concern every time Sophie went sneaking around the higher floors for too long. 

 They had even enlisted Turnip-Head in their efforts to keep Sophie off the roof. The scarecrow would pop up at various windows at the worse moments, blocking the way with his stupid vegetable grin whenever Sophie tried to figure out how she might climb out of them. 

 This had not stopped Sophie from hunting for a way to the roof. 

 Especially not when she very much had the feeling they were specially keeping it from her. 

 “Let that poor, cursed fellow earn his keep, Sophie, and let them take care of the roof,” Howl said breezily, one day, with pathetically obvious desperation, on his way out the door for another overnight trip on his secret wizard business. “He’s up there all the time nowadays anyway.” 

 “Keeping us all up all night with his hopping,” Sophie muttered, vigorously punishing the soapy pan under her wrinkled hands. “He’s got a turnip for a head, Howl, and no hands.” 

 “He’s also got no bones to break when he tumbles off the castle!” Calcifer called out. 

 “He’s a surprisingly capable fellow. Excellent company. Stellar character. Nothing else to do with his time. He’ll figure it out,” Howl said, with a wave of a hand that had bright pink fingernails and infuriating confidence based in nothing. 

 “Falls off at least twice a day,” Calcifer added. “Sometimes more!” 

 “Master Howl, I found that potion you asked for!” Markl announced triumphantly, hurrying into the room with his offering, which Howl inspected with a dramatic frown before nodding and patting his little apprentice on the head. 

 “Well done, Markl! It’s nice to know I can trust someone in this household with my potions cabinet,” Howl said, tucking the potion into the folds of his great midnight coat. 

 Sophie scoffed loudly. 

 Markl tugged on his mentor’s sleeve. “When will you be back?” 

 “If everything goes well, I’ll be gone only for the night,” Howl promised easily, patting Markl gently on the head again, not meeting his eyes. “Most likely. I shall probably be sleeping the day away tomorrow and none of you are to be knocking on my door with sort any intentions. Try to keep Sophie out of trouble as best you can in the meanwhile, Markl.” 

 At that, Sophie spun around to give Howl a piece of her mind, but instead turned directly into the wizard bending gracefully down to kiss her wrinkled cheek. 

 “Goodbye, Sophie, dear,” he said. 

 Sophie was too shocked to say anything as Howl then whimsically kissed Markl on the top of the head. He got a surprised and embarrassed squeak in return. 

 “Goodbye, Markl, duck,” Howl said. “Goodbye, Calcifer, darling!” 

 Then the terrible flirt blew a kiss in Calcifer’s direction, turned the door to the mysterious place only he was allowed to go, and fell backwards into its dark depths and vanished. The door slammed shut again before Sophie could begin to make anything out. The location belonging to the black quarter was always dark, even when it was the middle of the afternoon. 

 “...Good riddance,” Calcifer muttered. 

 Sophie harrumphed in agreement and went back to doing the dishes with renewed vigor, her face burning, muttering all the most resistant spots into submission. The dishes sparkled pleadingly by the time she was done with them. 

 In the meanwhile, Markl had applied himself dutifully to the wizarding lessons Howl had left for him, but had apparently fallen asleep in the middle of a rather dusty tome. Sophie sat her old bones down comfortably next to him in front of the fireplace, fished out her new reading glasses and her sewing bag, and settled in with the intention of embroidering more flowers along the edges of one of Howl’s ridiculous billowy shirts. 

 But only because she needed something to do and her feet hurt already, and maybe because she found herself missing the beautiful work of the hat shop sometimes. Certainly not because Howl had laughed so hard that he’d snorted like a pig when he’d found Sophie had viciously added pink butterflies to the ruffled black shirt with a torn sleeve that he’d been about to throw out, instead of simply patching it like a reasonable person. 

 It should have been a lovely way to spend the afternoon. 

 Except Sophie couldn’t help but remember that Howl’s overnight trips on his secret wizard business had lately had a habit of becoming at least two nights. Even when Howl returned in a timely fashion, though this supposedly meant all had “gone well”, he’d recently begun locking himself in his bedroom for several days more, with Markl looking like he might cry with worry for most of them and Calcifer being alternatively too quiet or too snappish. When he would finally emerge, Howl would be too bright and too loud, as though to make up for the fact that he moved too stiffly and stared off into space when he thought Markl and Sophie weren’t watching. And he would always, unfailingly, explain absolutely nothing about his midnight business or what had gone wrong. 

 But Sophie was always watching… and she was always listening… and she had suspicions now that she didn’t particularly enjoy having. She heard the bitter note in Howl’s voice when he made his pitchy comments on the stupid war that should never have started, before alleviating Markl’s concerns over it. She hoped that Howl knew better than to get involved in any of that nonsense, but she knew better than that, because Howl was an idiot, and also he couldn’t help but sneer whenever Sophie brought newspapers home to wave under his nose. 

 Sometimes the war seemed very far away in this moving castle of theirs, and sometimes it seemed much too close. Sometimes, Sophie thought the whole thing just couldn’t be true, because it was clearly pointless and the world really ought to have known better. 

 “...He’ll come back,” Calcifer murmured, curled up among his logs. 

 “In how many pieces?” Sophie asked sharply, because she did as much of the laundry as she could get her hands on around here, and he knew there were pieces of clothing Howl had to be throwing away. Perfectly good shirts - the ones she’d marked with her thread - were vanishing overnight. It was a waste. 

 Calcifer didn’t answer. 

 “You’ll stay in one piece and come home again, won’t you?” Sophie said to the shirt in her hands, not unlike she’d warned the last ones. “You’re going to be much better than those other shirts. You’re made of a wonderfully sturdy material and you’re much too pretty to be ruined, so Howl won’t manage to ruin you no matter what sort of trouble he’s getting into - if you let him, I shall be very cross, do you hear?” 

 

 ~ 

 

 Sophie was feeling terribly cross and crosser by the minute. Admittedly, she hadn’t been sleeping before the noises had started, having made the mistake of falling asleep on the sofa beside Markl and Calcifer. Calcifer, who didn’t sleep and didn’t seem to entirely understand the notion, had let them nap until he’d gotten too hungry and too bored to bear. 

  THUMP. 

 Sophie winced, scowling into her pillows. She hadn’t been sleeping before (not, however, because she had been worried about anything), but this obnoxious scratching and thumping coming from above was the last straw! Sophie threw the blankets aside, pulled her old bones out of bed, rummaged about for a robe and her slippers, and set off with a light to hunt again for the rooftop access. There was something up there and she had nothing better to do than find out what, since clearly she wasn’t ever going to get a good night’s rest around here. 

 Turnip-Head clearly couldn’t be trusted to get rid of the pest properly. 

 Sophie crept along the hallways, listening for more THUMPs and more sssscratches, pulling her robe tighter around herself. 

 The Moving Castle was a different sort of beast at night, one that she wasn’t entirely certain she liked. To say that the Moving Castle creaked in the night implied that it didn’t creak during the day as well. As it walked, the Wizard Howl’s Moving Castle creaked and groaned, it clunked and wheezed, and it shuddered and hissed, but Sophie had gotten used to all that. At night, it seemed to moan. 

 Through the darkness, her hand on the walls which seemed to breathe, Sophie sneaked up to the highest floors of the Moving Castle. “If I were a secret entrance to the roof, where would I be?” she whispered to her flickering candle. “If there was a door handle, you’d make it gleam in the dark, would you? Things look different in the dark.” 

 It shouldn’t have made sense for something to be better seen in the dark, but daylight hadn’t yet worked and right now the interfering little Markl was fast asleep in his bedroom. Sophie had looked in all the logical places and most of the illogical places, leaving... the in-between places, Sophie thought with a sly feeling of realization. She had not looked in the easily overlooked spaces and middling places where doors ought not be. 

 It was possible, of course, that there really wasn’t a door to the roof at all (and that Howl and Calcifer simply had the misfortune to look like bad liars when they were telling the truth), but Sophie had a niggling, spiteful thought that objected to this idea. She followed her spiteful thought and her sly realization and her flickering candle, which eventually led her to an upstairs hallway which no one ever used, which had very ugly, very new wallpaper. There was something gleaming on the ceiling here, sticking out of the wallpaper: a bronze knob. 

 Sophie’s eyes narrowed. 

 “Who would put wallpaper on a ceiling?” she demanded, before going off to fetch the stepladders and her tools. Once she was properly balanced, she reached up with a knife. “You ought not be here and I’m taking you down. I’ll scrape you off the walls too unless you start looking a little nicer, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and hope a bare ceiling balances this hall up a little better.” 

 With the application of the knife and a little force, the wallpaper of the ceiling came away, revealing a wooden trapdoor. Sophie wobbled triumphantly on her stepladder. 

 “Not bad for an old woman!” she declared, and pulled the trapdoor down. 

 The door clearly ought to have had a string attached, because it opened with its own ladder (and a terrible crack), and Sophie had to do a bit of shuffling around to bring it down fully. Once it clicked into place, she coaxed a little more brightness from her low-burning candle and climbed up to explore. The attic space above was pitch black, a narrow hallway with steps and turns and slanted ceilings, and it smelled quite rotten up here. There was no telling where it led from this end.  

 “I’ll go in a little bit and then come back,” Sophie decided. 

 She inched along, reminding her candle to last, but it very much seemed as though there might be nothing more to this miserable little hideaway than decades of dust. At least, until Sophie nearly tripped over the ladder of another trapdoor. 

 The first trapdoor Sophie found creaked violently and would open only slightly before coming up against something, a piece of furniture which presumably hid it from view from below. The next trapdoor wouldn’t open at all and, thinking through her steps and from the rattling, Sophie suspected that it would have opened into the laundry room, if not for the mess of pipes across the ceiling blocking the way. The third trapdoor, farther along this strange attic tunnel still, openly smoothly and silently, and Sophie peered down into a room she had seen only once before. 

 It was Howl’s bedroom. 

 Sophie had bustled inside Howl’s bedroom just the once, on her initial cleaning spree, before coming to a horrified halt in the face of an incredible mess and an unreasonable amount of intricate, ticking, possibly magical, expensive-looking junk covering every single available surface. It had been lovely in the way of looking like it had been vomited on by several practioner’s curiosity shops. It had looked like no one should have been able to go inside for fear of setting off a domino effect that would probably end in a magical explosion. Howl had then spontaneously appeared and dragged her out again, asking her politely never to enter if she valued her life, with one of those infuriating smiles that was probably supposed to be charming, and promptly began keeping his door permanently locked. 

 (Sophie had gone on to tidy up the bathroom, an endeavor which had ended in green slime.) 

 “That wretch!” Sophie decided angrily. “That lying sneak! That filthy, nasty man!” 

 The smell had only gotten worse farther along the attic passage and Sophie was now sitting in a small pile of black feathers. Something had clearly made its nest up here and Howl couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it. Perhaps the flowery perfumes of Howl’s eye-searing bedroom might have masked it for him, but that didn’t keep the smell of death from leaking into the rest of the castle! 

 Sophie took up her candle and her knife, prepared to march down into the chaos below, but she heard a heavy THUMP and scrabbling ahead. It was louder than ever up here. Squinting through the darkness, not far ahead, Sophie thought she could see a door. 

 “Well…” Sophie said to herself, with more uncertainty than she would have liked, because that had been quite a loud and heavy THUMP indeed. “I have come this far. It will do me no harm to see what sort of beastly creature that terrible man has allowed to make itself at home on his roof.” 

 She didn’t close the trapdoor to Howl’s bedroom, instead sliding past it, and she found herself stepping directly into more piles of black feathers. It was awful. The feathers were filthy and Sophie hated having them brush against her ankles. What creature shed this many feathers? It was ridiculous! When she finally picked one up for furious inspection, having resigned herself to a boiling bath later to feel clean again, Sophie found herself holding a single black feather that was as long as her forearm. 

 A strange dread crept down her spine at the feather’s size, but even so, she let the feather drop and waded ahead determinedly, following the THUMP, sssscratch, THUMP sounds coming from beyond the door. When her hand closed around the knob, after she took a deep breath to fortify herself for whatever she was about to see, Sophie heard a familiar tap, tap, tap. 

 “Turnip-Head?” Sophie said, bewildered, and swung open the door. 

 The door opened onto the roof - the several roofs, one might say - of the moving castle. Sophie could feel the night wind strongly against her face, though her robe, and it killed her struggling candle in an instant. Suddenly, the groaning and creaking of the Moving Castle’s walk was ten times as loud, without the castle’s walls to muffle the incessant effort. 

 With a death grip on the doorway, Sophie inched outside and peered around. 

 The sky above was clear and starry, but at first, Sophie couldn’t see anything beyond the dark lumps of the castle’s uneven roof. She followed the familiar tap, tap, tap of an animated scarecrow’s hopping. Turnip-Head was awake (Sophie didn’t know if he ever slept) and circling one massive lump in particular, one which was darker than all the others. 

 One which was writhing. Out of synchronization with all the other moving parts. One which was feathered. 

 The beast was massive, large enough to easily prey on human beings, large enough to sweep people into the sky and devour them if it so desired. It was also hidden in its own great wings, which stretched and shivered, shedding black feathers as it writhed, and it moaned deeply and raggedly like a low horn’s blowing. It lifted itself up slightly, only to fall back down with a THUMP, and the sharp claws that came out to make a kneading sssscratch in the metal below could have torn a person to pieces with a swipe. The beast could take Sophie up in a hand and carry her off into the night, if she got too close. 

 Her eyes adjusting to the night, Sophie saw dark puddles and black streaks surrounding the beast, which gleamed wetly in the moonlight. The poor beast looked as though it had crawled onto the Moving Castle’s rooftop to die. 

  Tap, tap, tap. 

 Turnip-Head, proving himself worthy of his name, hopped to what might have been the front of the beast and smacked his full body against its monstrous bulk. Tap, tap, tap. Turnip-Head smashed himself insistently against the beast again. 

 The beast snarled and tried to curl even tighter in on itself, a mass of black feathers and black blood. Doing so, however, must have aggravated one of its many injuries, and its wings flared slightly out again as it groaned in pain. 

 Sophie was more than ready to race downstairs and to kindly inform Calcifer that there was a ferocious beast on their roof. She was ready to stay inside until Howl came back and she could force him to deal with this thing properly, whatever it was, presuming it to most likely be one of the Witch of the Waste’s terrible minions. But when the wings flared up, Sophie caught sight of a familiar coat, and she froze exactly where she was. 

 That was Howl’s coat. 

 The beast had Howl’s coat. 

 Sophie put down her candle and took a better grip on her sturdy knife. Thankfully, a rational thought shoved its way to the top of the bubbling and incandescent fury, and pointed out that the castle was walking very slowly at the moment. Indeed, the Moving Castle was barely moving at all. 

 The roof was as steady and flat as it would ever be, without the Moving Castle stopping entirely, as though Calcifer was being gentle. Calcifer was capable of being gentle, when Sophie was doing a particularly delicate bit of cleaning on the upper floors, which sometimes had the tendency to give innocent occupants motion sickness. Cacifer was also capable of being quite rough, when he was in a foul mood. Calcifer was capable of being extremely rough, when he made the mistake of stepping too near the nest of something large and territorial, or when he claimed the Witch of the Waste’s blobmen were uncomfortably close at hand. 

 The beast was sitting on Howl’s coat. 

 Sophie didn’t see how Calcifer - who could deftly avoid farmer’s fences, had once avoided stepping on any sheep even after a rather stupid dog had herded the flock directly underfoot, and could count how many times per day Turnip-Head fell off the castle - could not know that there was a beast on the roof. 

 It had Howl’s coat. 

 Turnip-Head noticed Sophie’s approach before the beast did, wobbling in place the same way that a person might freeze in surprise. The scarecrow then hopped determinedly, frantically in front of her, as though trying to convince her to turn back for her own safety. Tap, tap, tap! Tap, tap, tap! Turnip-Head was extremely persistent, but so was Sophie. 

 “Get out of my way, Turnip-Head!” she snapped finally. 

 The beast, which had writhing, stilled. Turnip-Head and Sophie faced it warily, as the great wings slowly lifted away enough for a face to peer out from the great, dark, bloody lump. 

  “Sophie?” it growled, its voice misshapen and raw and familiar. 

 “Howl,” Sophie returned, in her most civil manner, as though she was greeting a nosy neighbor on the street, not standing on top of a magical walking castle in her bathrobe and slippers. 

 Howl’s face was too pale and too sharp, his eyes were red-rimmed and unfocused and too bright, his teeth were pointed, he had feathers where his hair and neck should have been, and there was a streak of dark blood across his nose. The body he was attached to was enormous and animalistic. His wings lifted higher, looming over them, dripping blood and shedding feathers. 

 He looked like he was in agony. 

 Sophie took a deep breath and then, despite every bit of her that told her this was a very bad idea, started yelling. She couldn’t help it. “What in the world did you do to yourself, Howl Pendragon, you great idiot?! How long have you been dragging yourself through that miserable tunnel into your bedroom in this state? You’ve left a great big mess! All over that passage! All over this roof! Do you know how long it’s going to take me to clean all this up?!” 

 Now, Howl also looked confused. He bared his fangs. 

 “Don’t you look at me like that,” Sophie said, breathing in sharply, her voice tight. “Pull yourself together! Get back into a human shape so we can patch you up already. Right this instant, get back into a human shape! I mean it! I don’t know where to begin as you are now and I don’t want to be picking feathers out of a drain. You remember how to be human, don’t you? Act like it.” 

 With effort, Howl seemed to focus on Sophie, his eyes were too bright and too wide, but they were becoming clearer. His claws came out of the roof (no wonder there were leaks) and his wings folded back. 

 “ Sophie,” he said again, in the voice of a man who was more than half a monster. “Don’t look at me, Sophie. Go away.” 

  Tap, tap, tap, Turnip-Head went urgently. 

 “Oh, shush!” Sophie told the scarecrow. She was having enough trouble with the thrum of her own heart at the moment and she didn’t need any other distractions. 

  “Go away,” Howl growled again. 

 “With all the racket you’re making up here? I couldn’t sleep a wink,” Sophie scoffed. “I’m not leaving you here to bleed through all the leaks in our roof. Now, get those wings back where they came from or else you won’t fit in the doorway. And those claws! No wonder I keep having to leave buckets out when it rains! If I leave it up to you, you’ll probably whine and moan and shed feathers up here all night long-” 

  “GO AWAY,” Howl roared. 

 Sophie had never been roared at in her life. If she had been who she’d been before she’d gotten cursed, she might have scurried away like a mouse. At the moment, however, she was old and tired and scared and angry, and this was Howl. (Howl who was hurt and who was hurting himself by not doing anything about it.) Sophie wanted to roar back. 

 So she did. 

 “YOU MADE ALL THAT FUSS WHEN YOU ACCIDENTALLY TURNED YOUR OWN HAIR BLACK!” Sophie yelled back. “And you’re content to just roll around looking like this?! I won’t leave you up here! If I can’t see your skin, I can hardly be expected to treat your wounds, and your hair could probably do with a wash besides! What is that? Blood? That can hardly be good for it-” 

  “The hair… was your fault,” Howl interrupted, with a monstrous glower. 

 But the feathers around his face were disappearing now, into his skin, and a dirty lock of hair had already fallen free. Sophie was sure that his claws were shrinking. 

 “ I didn’t tell you to pour that rubbish into your hair without looking to see what you were doing,” Sophie answered indignantly, appealing to his vanity, since that was the only thing that seemed to be getting through. “I’m certainly not the one who’s ruining your nails on your roof right now. Look what you’ve done to your nice hands! I hope you’ve remembered that you promised Markl to paint his nails too the next time you do yours! You’ve stretched yourself much too thin; I’m sure you’ll feel much better once you get back into your usual shape.” 

 As the feathers disappeared, Howl’s bones began to crack. It sounded hideously painful and it looked worse, so much so that Sophie wanted to throw up, but soon she was seeing fingernails and fingers and bare arms, so she kept talking. Unfortunately, the skin she was seeing was absolutely covered in scratches, and the shirt that appeared from underneath the feathers was in shreds. Sophie saw now that even his handsome coat beneath him had been torn into pieces. 

 “Look at what you’ve done to your clothes!” Sophie said, loudly disappointed. “I put all that effort into that shirt and look what’s become of it! Well, that back of yours is getting into shape nicely, at least. As soon as it’s back to how it ought to be, I’m stripping you of that shirt before you can throw it out, and I can only hope it’s good enough for the rag basket.” 

  “I… needed... the protections,” Howl wheezed, his voice breaking. 

 “What? Oh, never mind. Those wings are nearly gone now, well done, though your poor feet could still use some fixing. I shan’t even ask what happened to your shoes. Chop, chop! Back into proper toes now, if you please. I’ll have to mop the floors again and I’ll not have any scratches in them. You’ve still got a few feathers in your hair, you know. Frankly, I’m not sure why you’re still so upset about what you did to your hair, because it’s a rather lovely color and your hair always looks perfect anyway. Mine frizzes. Oh, your hands aren’t quite there yet, you’ve got quite lovely hands as well, you know, with those long fingers of yours. Ah, there they are! Much better!” 

 Sophie talked and talked until it felt like she was beginning to say nearly anything, and then she kept talking, because it seemed to be working. While, Howl squeezed and screamed his way back into a human shape, Sophie asked Howl’s ears to behave themselves, she reminded his collarbone that it had a very important job to do, and she said, quite frankly, that there was absolutely no need whatsoever for Howl to have a feathered tail at the moment. 

 “Your behind looks much better without it,” she declared. 

 Sophie talked until a fully human Howl was hunched over in a pile of black feathers and dark blood, covered in all sorts of terrible slashes and scratches and burns, and she watched him fumble desperately through his ruined coat with shaking hands that left wretched marks. He didn’t reply when she asked what he was doing. He pulled out the potion he’d made Markl fetch him before he’d gone out yesterday and drank the whole thing. He shuddered violently afterwards, coughing and retching, and Sophie bent down and patted his filthy, twitching back. He still had a few feathers peeking through his skin (she wanted to pick at them, but resisted valiantly). 

 Howl squinted at her, his hair the worst she’d ever seen it. “Sophie,” he said hoarsely, still trembling violently but sounding much more like himself. “How are you real?” 

 “I don’t think you have any room to ask that,” Sophie answered sharply. 

 “No, I- Sophie-” 

 And then Howl’s eyes rolled back into his head and he passed out in the middle of his sentence, which was maddeningly unhelpful. Sophie was left with a half-naked wizard who at least thankfully didn’t seem to be bleeding freely anymore, an incredible mess all over his creaking roof, and an anxious scarecrow with a turnip for a head and a stick for a leg. 

  Tap, tap, tap, Turnip-Head hopped. 

 “...How long has he been doing this?” Sophie asked shakily, peering up at the scarecrow. “Has he been making you look after him and clean up his messes? I thought he didn’t trust you. Wretched, stupid man. We’ve got to get him to bed at once.” 

 Sophie felt rather like passing out herself, or perhaps bursting into tears and then passing out, but she shook her head instead and refused to let the panic still flooding her chest take control. “There’s not any time for fainting or anything right now,” she told herself, “and you’re not that sort of person anyway. You’re much too old for any of that silliness now, Sophie. All you need to do is get Howl inside and get him cleaned up after this stint of his as a great big bird monster, then you can go scream into a pillow and take a nap and do whatever else you like.” 

 Howl was not a small man, which made it a great hassle just to get him back in through the roof door. Turnip-Head hopped about like he wanted to help, but he still didn’t have any hands and he was too tall to fit in through the roof door. So, instead the scarecrow hopped around in encouragement while Sophie put Howl on his ruined coat and dragged him. 

 “He’s not that heavy, really,” Sophie insisted, panting. “You’re a tough old bird, Sophie, and he’s a stick who floats about like dandelion fluff most of the time. You can do this. You’re almost there.” 

 It was still a greater effort than she would have liked. Once she got him in the door, however, there was the problem of getting Howl down the ladder. Unwilling to shove him down the trapdoor and hope he landed on his bed, no matter how much he deserved it, Sophie went to go fetch her sturdy rope and drag poor Markl out of bed. Howl’s bedroom door could thankfully be unlocked from the inside. 

 Markl was at first confused, then frightened by Sophie’s filthy, bedraggled appearance, and then he was frantic with worry when Sophie told him Howl needed his help. Markl was gratifyingly surprised by the trapdoor and he nearly burst into tears when he saw the bloody state of his mentor, but he held himself together and, between the effort and ingenuity of two of them, they managed to get the lanky idiot down the ladder and into his bed. It felt like quite the victory. 

 Of course, the job was not done here. Sophie and Markl treated Howl’s injuries and cleaned him up as best they could. This took a long time. At first, little Markl tried to insist that he could do it all by himself, in some valiant yet undeserved effort to preserve Sophie’s modesty or maybe his mentor’s dignity, but Sophie was too tired and angry to even think of caring about any of that. 

  “What dignity,” Sophie snarled, and Markl promptly gave up. 

 By the time Howl was cleaned and bandaged, tucked snugly into a warm bed with freshly changed sheets, Sophie and Markl were beyond exhausted. Howl was still unconscious. There were ropes hanging from the ceiling and black feathers on the floor. The bedroom was a mess, but through furious shoving and stacking, Sophie had at least managed to clear a wide path between the bed and the door. 

 “What happened to him?” Markl asked finally, in a dreadfully quiet voice that made him sound exactly as young as he was. He sounded as young as Sophie felt old. 

 “I don’t know,” Sophie admitted. 

 What could Howl be up to that he’d make himself a monster? Was someone else doing this to him? This clearly wasn’t the first time this had happened. It likely wasn’t even the third time this had happened. Either Howl was doing this himself or he kept on going back to someone who was doing it to him, but Sophie thought the former sounded more like him. She was too tired to figure anything else yet. 

 She ached all over. For the first time in a while, Sophie wished quite seriously that she hadn’t been cursed. There had been good things about being young. She wouldn’t have wanted to do all this clean-up then either, but at least she might have had more energy for it. She was much too old to keep up with the likes of Howl Pendragon as she was now.  

 Despite their exhaustion, because it had to be done, Markl and Sophie cleaned up the room and themselves. By the time Sophie could wander near a window and look out of it, she found that it was past dawn now, so she left Markl to hover by his mentor’s bedside and went to make breakfast. 

 She found Turnip-Head along the way, peeking in through a window, and she opened the window to assure the anxious scarecrow that it looked like Howl was going to be fine despite all his best efforts otherwise. Sophie also threatened to break Turnip-Head’s stick in half and boil his head if he didn’t come fetch her immediately the next time Howl did something so profoundly stupid. The scarecrow hopped and bobbled and twirled in what she hoped was agreement. 

 She made breakfast itself, however, in silence. 

 “Aw, come on, Sophie. What was I supposed to say? I was trying to talk him out of it, you know! I tried! I don’t like seeing him drag himself home half-dead and looking like a monster either; I’ve told him it’s not good for him, but he doesn’t listen to me! I didn’t know it was getting this bad, Sophie. Please stop giving me the cold shoulder. Sophie. Sophie.” 

 “Thank you for holding the castle steady, Calcifer,” she said coldly. 

 “Don’t be like that, Sophie, come on! Do you have any idea how stubborn he is? He’s impossible! I couldn’t do anything! I am stuck in this grate, Sophie. I can’t hold him back when he decides to go flying through fire! Figuratively speaking. Mostly.” 

 Sophie knew that she was perhaps being unfair to Calcifer, who looked quite pitiful sulking in his grate, but she didn’t really care at the moment. She had needed to wash herself clean of Howl’s blood several times today already, then to change into clean clothing that wasn’t stained with Howl’s blood, and as she had washed her hands again in preparation for cooking breakfast, she had somehow still felt the cling of the dark blood dripping from Howl. She still had that feeling, though her hands felt cracked and dry. 

 It was perhaps for the better that she was too tired to be nearly as angry as she was. 

 “The transformation thing was all his own idea, I swear, Sophie!” 

 Besides, Calcifer was only the liar who had been unable to stop the real idiot here from, apparently, involving himself in something very dangerous. Sophie didn’t know if Howl’s troubles were sourced from the war or the Witches of the Wastes, but it didn’t matter what was trying to kill him, really, because as soon as he woke up, Sophie was going to do him in herself. 

 “Sophie, please. Sophie. What can I say to make you forgive me?” 

 “You can stop the castle for a few hours so I can clean up the roof, for starters,” Sophie replied finally. At the very least, she wanted to attack that wretched attic space Howl had been dragging himself through after flying out to get himself all cut up. It couldn’t do a sick man any good to have that filth over his head, no matter what markings he’d apparently drawn into his ceiling, and Sophie wanted to hit something repeatedly with a sponge. 

 “I can’t do that!” Calcifer complained. “Anything but that! I can’t stop moving anymore! If I stop moving, it’ll make it that much easier for the Witch or Madame Suliman to find us.” 

 “Madame Suliman?” Sophie repeated. 

 “Er.” 

 Sophie committed the name to memory for further investigation, while Calcifer simmered in the fireplace and muttered about cursed old women and bleach-brained wizards. Something about the name sounded familiar, Sophie thought with frustration, but she couldn’t remember where. She finished cooking breakfast muttering about a heart-eating fool of a wizard and the lengthening list of scorned women who apparently wanted him dead. 

 She brought breakfast upstairs to Markl, in silent flagrance of her own rule that food was not allowed upstairs under any circumstances. The little wizard’s apprentice looked miserable, hunched on a stool by Howl’s bedside, his hair still wet at the ends from his washing. His mentor was still unconscious on his massive bed, breathing slowly, and what little of Howl’s skin wasn’t bandaged was turning into a violent rainbow of bruises. (Sophie hoped the other person, if there was one, looked much worse.) 

 “Eat up, Markl,” Sophie ordered. “You’ll do him no good if you waste away!” 

 Markl picked up his fork with greater reluctance and unhappiness than Sophie had ever seen from a little boy who seemed to swallow meals without tasting them. Even eggplant didn’t garner such a pathetic listlessness. He picked helplessly at his food. 

 “I’ll spoon-feed you if you don’t eat,” Sophie threatened, eating from her own tray with a hasty vengeance. She wasn’t hungry either, but they had to eat unless they wanted to follow a certain fainting fool’s example. “Don’t think I won’t shove that food down your gullet, young man.” 

 “...Is he going to be alright, do you think?” Markl asked, instead of obeying. 

 “Of course. He’s too much of a fool to die,” Sophie replied. 

 But then Markl sniffled and Sophie saw that the boy was crying, great gobs of tears were dribbling onto his plate. There was nothing to do here, of course, but put both their trays aside and take Markl into her arms. The little boy clung to her desperately, burrowing his snotty face into her chest, his shoulders shaking, and Sophie wondered not for the first time where Markl’s parents were in all this wretched mess. She held him and patted his back until his sobs faded to hiccups. 

 “He’s going to be just fine,” Sophie promised. “Don’t you worry. He’ll be up and causing trouble again in no time at all, you’ll see.” 

 She glared at Howl’s unconscious body as she said this, just in case he was having any ideas about proving her wrong. She’d bully the wizard back to health if it was the last thing this old woman did. For little Markl’s sake if no one else’s, Howl would get better, since the boy apparently had no one in this world besides a fool for a mentor. 

 “If you say so, Sophie,” Markl sniffled. He tried to rub at his red face, but Sophie stopped him, gave him her handkerchief instead, and made him go wash his hands again. 

 Sophie left Markl the best instructions for looking after Howl she could come up with, mindful of the fact that he was only a child himself, and considered whether or not it would be safe to bring a doctor into the castle. (Howl and Calcifer would probably throw fits, she thought.) Then, with the morning sun high in the sky and the whole day ahead of them, Sophie put her old bones to bed and told the world that, unless Howl woke up or Markl needed her, this old woman’s rest was not to be disturbed for anything. That said, she pulled the covers over her head and fell asleep instantly. 

 

 

 Sophie woke up in the late afternoon and found a lopsided sandwich next to her bed, made with the clumsy care of a young boy, and she scarfed it down hungrily. She brought the plate back to the kitchen and said good afternoon to a dim, sulking Calcifer, who brightened instantly at the greeting. Calcifer still wouldn’t say how many times Howl had gone out and come back like this, but Sophie didn’t push him too hard, because whatever deal Howl and Calcifer had made once upon a time clearly went far deeper than Sophie and Calcifer’s hasty agreement to try and break each other’s curses. 

 On her way upstairs, she saw Turnip-Head peering in through a window again, and told him that she’d slept well and was on her way to Howl’s bedroom now. Turnip-Head bobbled happily to hear again that Howl was going to be fine. He hopped so excitedly, in fact, that he fell off the castle again, and Sophie leaned out the window worriedly until she spotted him jumping along down below. 

 “One of these days, you’re going to snap your stick or get caught in a bush again!” Sophie shouted down at him. To herself, she muttered, “Goodness knows how Howl didn’t die with only a scarecrow to scrape him off the roof after his secret bloody business.” 

 After that, Sophie went to Howl’s room, where she found that Howl hadn’t yet woken up and poor Markl had fallen asleep at the end of the bed. It was almost adorable. 

 Howl didn’t wake up until the next day. With their embroidery and homework respectively, Sophie and Markl had fallen into shifts at Howl’s bedside as he slept the sleep of the exhausted, so deeply that Markl worriedly checked to make sure he wasn’t under some kind of Sleeping Beauty spell. It was during one of Sophie’s shifts that Howl first opened his eyes. She presumed that Markl, at the time, had probably been telling Calcifer or Turnip-Head all about Howl’s progress. 

 “Oh, thank goodness,” Sophie said, when she noticed Howl staring unfocused at the ceiling. 

 Howl scowled with the effort of seeing, looking in her direction. “...S’phie?” 

 “Who else would it be? Turnip-Head?” 

 “Are…” Howl coughed painfully. “What happen’d? Are… you alright?” 

 “No thanks to you,” Sophie snapped, reaching for the glass of water at his bedside. 

 “What?” Howl’s unfocused eyes went wide and he tried to sit up. “I don’t r-” 

 Sophie immediately shoved him back into the blankets. “Oh, no, you don’t. Drink your water. I don’t have a scratch on me, unlike yourself, but this old heart doesn’t need any more surprises or stress,” she explained, and helped him drink. 

 “Lies,” Howl rasped, once he pushed the glass away. “You adore stress.” 

 He seemed to be looking through her rather than at her, however, so Sophie ignored his silly and extremely incorrect statement. “Back to sleep,” she ordered. “You’re much too injured to be walking about. I don’t want you bleeding all over my floors; I’m going to have to do enough mopping already. You must be exhausted and you’ll feel much better if you don’t fall flat on your face again.” 

 Howl scowled at her, but he was asleep before he could argue with her good sense. 

 This pattern of waking blearily, asking if she was well, and falling back asleep continued for the rest of the day. Howl tried to get up many more times, but he was weak and therefore much more pliant than usual. The only time Sophie let him believe he might get out of bed for longer than five minutes was when Markl came in and sobbed all over his lap, and Howl fell asleep while patting the boy’s trembling back without any encouragement on her part. 

 “Sophie, please,” Howl said, when he woke up again. “Stop making me sleep, I need to-” 

 “Do absolutely nothing,” Sophie finished for him. “Sleep, Howl. It’s healing.” 

 The pattern broke eventually, however, when Sophie had to go make dinner. She returned to find that Howl had somehow snuck off into the bathroom. When she barged into the bathroom to make sure that the fool hadn’t accidentally drowned himself for the sake of a shampooing, she found that he’d enlisted a red-faced Markl’s help to take a bright blue (probably magical) bath, and they both begged Sophie to get out. Sophie, with a hand in front of the bathtub to preserve her own modesty, marched off to go tell Calcifer he ought to have given Howl a bathtub full of cold water to teach him a lesson. 

 “I tried that once,” Calcifer crackled thoughtfully. “You should have seen that slime.” 

 When Markl called down to Sophie that Howl was ready to go back to bed, she took his dinner tray back upstairs and went to go make sure that no one got a concussion in the process. Howl returned to his bedroom with undeserved dignity, wearing a fluffy bathrobe, with his hair wrapped up in a towel, using Sophie’s favorite walking cane. Sophie’s eyes narrowed on the handsome cane, which should have been in the umbrella stand downstairs, and she glared at Markl, who shifted very guiltily. 

 “I had to use the bathroom before you accidentally put me into a coma, Sophie,” Howl said, without any guilt whatsoever, trying to pretend that he wasn’t shaking violently as he crawled back into bed. “Ow, Sophie! There’s no need to tuck me in, I’m- well, there’s clearly no arguing with you, is there?” He waved a trembling hand and inclined his head. “I am your faithful prisoner once more. Do as you will.” 

 Sophie set the lunch tray over his lap, having beaten his pillows into supporting submission, and dropped back onto the little stool beside the bed. “Do you have any strength left with which to feed yourself,” she asked icily, “or did you waste it all looking after your hair?” 

 “Master Howl has potions which make him heal faster, Sophie!” Markl offered, as he’d squeaked before, when Sophie had first burst furiously into the steamy bathroom. “HIs injuries look much, much better now! I helped him with the bandages!” 

 “He still looks black and blue to me,” Sophie sniffed, though she almost immediately relented in the face of the apprentice’s earnestness. “Thank you for looking after him, Markl. There’s soup for you downstairs in the pot on the stove. Do you need any help serving yourself?” 

 “I can handle it!” Markl insisted, running off. 

 “Don’t feed any of it to Calcifer! He’s already had plenty of chicken bones!” 

 “Alright!” 

 When Sophie turned back, Howl looked very amused for a man who was slowly being consumed by a mountain of pillows. “He’s a fire demon, Sophie. He can’t overeat.” 

 “He’s greedy,” Sophie declared. “Markl is a growing boy who needs his full meals, no matter how much the bottomless pit in that fireplace begs. He already sneaks all the vegetables he doesn’t like to Calcifer, you know, much like someone else I could name, who probably gave him that bad habit.” 

 “Hm,” Howl answered absently, frowning at his bowl of soup. He tried to lift a spoonful to his mouth, but his trembling hands couldn’t keep any of it on the spoon. 

 “Oh, give that here,” Sophie said. 

 “I’m not a child,” Howl protested. 

 “Obviously not. Children can’t get into nearly as much trouble. Open.” 

 “I was rather a capable child, actua- mmph!” 

 Sophie fed Howl like the baby he was, until the bowl was empty and he begged for mercy. He was barely keeping his eyes open at this point, unable to support his head anymore, but he was scowling as though he could prevent falling back to sleep through sheer stubbornness. When Sophie tried to leave, he caught her wrist, though he barely had the strength to keep his grip. 

 “Sophie… what happened?” 

 Sophie sat back down. “How do you mean? I should think you should know.” 

 “My memory isn’t… always reliable… afterwards,” Howl said quietly, his hand travelling along her wrist. “I… You found me on the roof. How did you even get up there?” 

 “I found the trapdoor you’d wallpapered over,” Sophie told him. “I heard your scratching and thumping about up there, so I went up there to investigate and found you in that… state… making a horrible mess. No wonder it smells like something died up there! I’ve half a mind to make you sleep somewhere else with that above us, but Markl said those markings on the trapdoor are some sort of magical seal and you’re very inconvenient to lug about.”  

 “Hm,” Howl said, apparently fascinated by Sophie’s spots and wrinkles. “I noticed you’ve wreaked havoc on the careful order of my bedroom. What happened after you found me?” 

 “I told you to pull yourself together and brought you down here with Markl’s help,” Sophie summarized. 

 She was determined to yell at him for being so incredibly stupid and interrogate him only when he was conscious enough to appreciate the full weight of the disapproval she was still composing. At the moment, Howl looked like he was falling asleep on her. 

 “...Is that it?” Howl said. 

 “Yes,” Sophie said. “Well, you growled at me a bit. It was extremely rude.” 

 Howl’s eyes shut and he was quiet for so long that Sophie thought he’d fallen asleep holding her hand. He wasn’t breathing like someone who was sleeping, though, and eventually he opened his eyes again despite the apparent great effort of it. 

 “Just like that,” he sighed. 

 “I couldn’t leave you up there to be nursed back to health by Turnip-Head,” Sophie said. “How long exactly has Turnip-Head known about this mess? I thought you didn’t trust him.” 

 “...No one was supposed to know,” Howl scoffed. 

 “Except Calcifer.” 

 “Calcifer knows everything,” Howl agreed mournfully. 

 Howl’s gaze drifted into unseen horizons, unable to hold up the weight of his eyelids any longer, and his hand fell limply from Sophie’s back onto the blankets. He wordlessly let Sophie rearrange his pillows so that he was lying down properly again and Sophie didn’t even bother telling him not to get used to this sort of treatment. She was sure that Howl was soon to be patient so unpleasant that she’d tip him out of bedrest herself, just to stop his demands and complaints, but at the moment he was quiet and pliant and not like himself at all. 

 “We’re going to have a long talk when you’re better,” Sophie promised darkly. 

 “Oh, dear,” Howl said. 

 “I mean it,” Sophie said warningly. 

 Howl just hummed agreeably, as though speaking had become too much effort. 

 Sophie collected his tray and stood again to leave. 

 “Sophie,” Howl mumbled. 

 She paused with her hand on the doorknob. “Yes?” 

 “Earlier… when you told me to ‘pull myself together’ again…” 

  “Yes?” 

 “Did you compliment the shape of my behind?” 

 “Don’t be ridiculous,” Sophie snapped, her face burning, throwing the bedroom door open to slam it behind her. “Go to sleep, Howl!”