A/N: I must say that 'Heartbeat' has now gotten four awesome little reviews, and I love them! Thank you, brilliant people!
Before the Dawn
That night Howl kept rotating restlessly in his bed. First he sat up, his hair sticking out. Then he sighed and fell down again. He repeated this a few times. As he turned around several times, he got entangled in his blanket. He was trapped. He thought if he'd shout someone, but it probably wouldn't help. It was hard to break free, and when he finally did, the moon peeped from the window, behind the shabby curtains, its light dancing on his face. It clearly laughed at him in such a malicious way.
Howl continued to spin in his bed until he finally fell off the bed on the cold floor. He lied there, half dead, head aching, and at last he dropped asleep.
When Howl woke up, he was sweating in panic. What a horrendous nightmare it had been! He groped the darkness with his hands, feeling nothing but the empty sheets. He rose up too quickly and a faint sense of giddiness came upon him for a moment. It did not stop him. The panic pounded inside his head.
Howl ran out of his room and rumbled down the stairs like a panicky hippo, it was truly a miracle no one in the castle woke up at that. He had to check one matter - he had to know Sophie was still there. He ripped the curtain under the stairs open and felt so deep sense of relief upon seeing her, sniffling in her bed, that he huffed aloud. Sophie moved fractionally, but did not wake up. Howl spend a moment just watching her sleep, slowing his breath.
He climbed in to the bed next to her on a whim. He was still shocked and needed safety. Howl crawled under the blanket and rested his head on the pillow. Thinking of it by afterwards, it was rather rude without asking Sophie, but Howl couldn't help it.
Sophie muttered something in her sleep and turned over. Now her sleeping face was towards Howl. In the moonlight he saw how she opened her eyes blinking and slowly observing what was in front of her. Once Sophie realized that it was in fact someone, she almost had a heart attack. She jumped up and was about to scream, but Howl quickly put his hand on her mouth and silenced her. When Sophie tried to struggle to escape, he grabbed her hand, kept her steady and hissed, "Shut up, it's just me."
Sophie looked sleepy, shocked and angry - all at the same time. She rubbed her eyes and stammered, "What you-? When-? How dare you-?" She pulled the blanket to protect herself. "Howl!"
"I had a nightmare", he mumbled. Perhaps some kind of motherly sense took over in Sophie's head, because she then leaned down next to Howl, with her eyes now bright and gazing at him.
"I had a nightmare", Howl repeated, looking her in the eyes. It was like the sheets had sucked all the layers he kept up to protect himself, and there was now just him, fragile and vulnerable. He said the sentence without any unnecessary layers, which made Sophie touch gently a lock of his hair. Howl winced.
Sophie frowned. "What?" Howl let out a laugh and kept looking at her beautiful face. Even if it was dark, he saw the red color rising on her cheeks. She was clearly trying to say something. Howl was quiet and just listened.
"Are you sure this is suitable?" Sophie finally got out of her mouth.
"What?" Howl asked, smiling playfully.
"You are in my bed."
Howl tried to look innocent. "So?" But he could not resist and flashed a frisky, boyish smile. Sophie blushed more, if that was even possible anymore.
She sat up. "What are you up to? You could at least once tell the truth. It's just me, you know."
It was night. Howl was dazed. Sophie was next to him. She was looking at him sadly, thinking that he was playing his notorious games again. So he decided to be honest for once. How much could it hurt?
Hoe seized her shoulders and drew her against him, pressing his lips on hers. She released a surprised little whiff. Then she relaxed and responded to the kiss. First her kiss was a friable whisper, but then she got more courage. Her lips tasted like a dream.
Howl thought it felt strange. He had not got used to his heart yet, and if it acted weirdly when Sophie was around, it totally went wild now when they kissed. He felt bubbles inside him, he felt the ripples, running back and forth on his back, and part of them ran off in his arms, he felt dizzy, he felt an enormous passion, but tried to control it and let her decide. He felt like this for the first time in his life.
Sophie let out a quiet groan. Howl pulled back and raised his left hand fondly on her cheek.
He saw a trace of question in the blue-green eyes. She shook her head. "I don't know."
"Me neither", Howl said and lied down on the bed. After a while Sophie followed him. There they laid, side by side in the quiet night, without saying a word, the silence now gently surrounding them. He noticed that they were breathing at the same rate.
After a while Howl got a stroke of genius. Or if he was being honest, the thought had started to form a long time ago. But right then it seemed like a whim he had to fulfill immediately, just like the one before. Howl soared from the bed and ran in his room. Sophie had only a moment to think what had just happened, and then Howl was already back. He went to sit on the floor next to her bed.
"Sophie, come over here."
Sophie was incredulously obeying his request. Right after she looked down at him, Howl took hold of her hands. He looked deep in her eyes and said, "Sophie Hatter, will you marry me?"
Sophie's eyes widened. That made her look like an owl - a red-haired owl, woken in the middle of her deepest dream. Howl thought she looked adorable.
She noticed the ring in Howl's hand, and her mouth dropped wide open. He was afraid that her chin would drop off to the floor. She started to breathe, in and out, closing and opening her mouth several times. That brought the saying 'fish out of water' in Howl's mind.
"Howl, it's like four o'clock in the morning. You just woke up because of a nightmare and then jumped in my bed. Then you kissd me and now you want to marry me?"
"Damn right I do", Howl grinned.
"Why?" she demanded.
"Why people usually get married?"
"You tell me. I know that you don't want to say things straight, I know that you're afraid that you might get yourself hurt. I know that it's the way you are and I'm not asking you to change. I don't demand you anything like that, but this is a quite serious thing you're asking, and I just want to know - why. Why are you doing this?"
Sophie fell silent. She feared her words would make him run away from her.
Eventually Howl smiled. "Since you pushed into my castle, nothing's been like it used to be. I was so lost, but then you cleaned your way in with that broom of yours, and I think that in the middle of everything I fell in love with you. I'm afraid that you can't wash that away, not with soaps or spells, you crazy scientist. That's just the way the things are, and quite frankly I want to spend the rest of my life with you. So, it's all up to you now. Do you want to spend the rest of your life with me?"
He breathed. He was telling the truth, he had revealed himself. But it did not feel bad, not this time, not alone with her. The only thing he was scared of was her answer.
And Sophie thought, so long that Howl began to get nervous. Then it happened, quickly, far too quickly but he still saw it; a little nod. Tiny move of the head, which was apparently supposed to mean 'yes'. First Sophie was serious. Then a huge smile captured her mouth, she seemed to glow in the dark. She laughed while saying 'yes'.
"Of course I'm gonna marry you, do you think I have a choice, you vain man?" Sophie huffed, but her smile showed the truth.
Now it was Sophie's turn to kiss Howl. She did it carefully, with her soft hands resting on his cheeks. She pulled away for few inches, the tip of her nose slightly touching his. Then she whispered, "I love you."
"I love you too", Howl said quietly and pressed his forehead against hers. He took a deep breath and continued with in a complete different tone. "I must admit, I'm afraid you have lost your mind - did you actually agreed to be my wife?"
Howl smiled broadly. "You know, I'm really tired, especially after that nightmare and everything... Can I sleep with you tonight?"
Sophie did not seem to know what to do. "Um..."
"Sophie. I really mean that I am tired. I'm gonna fall asleep any minute", he clarified.
She nodded. "Me too."
That night in the castle was quite peaceful indeed, excluding a couple of fights about the coverage and that one time when Sophie (accidentally) kicked Howl out of bed.