Alright, so let's see if I can't salvage a horrible 5 year old story, huh?
Calcifersgrl, who messed with the original two part story.
Iolanthe, who was gracious enough to take on a betaless waif that pounded on her door, infected with passive voice disease and ignorant of the Rule of Three.
DISCLAIMER Not mine. Alas.
The problem with sleep, Sophie decided for the third time that night, is that it isn't something more easily achieved through concentration. She should have been able to drift off easily. She was more than tired enough; the bed was warm and comfortable, and the sound of Howl's even breathing behind her was almost soothing. But she'd tossed and turned for more than two hours, and really, it was all Martha's fault.
A flu epidemic had swept through Market Chipping not so long ago. That in itself would have posed no difficulty if Michael hadn't decided to visit Martha anyway. Martha had rewarded his loyalty by giving the bug to him, too. He had, in turn, infected Howl two weeks ago, and now that they were recovered, Sophie felt it creeping up on her, as well. She'd had the light-headed, weak feeling—Michael's first symptom—for several days now, and this afternoon she'd developed a general ache that ran through her whole body. That had topped Howl's own extremely long list of complaints. She was neither queasy nor feverish yet, having only a vague stomachache thus far, but Sophie knew that they weren't far behind.
It simply wasn't fair; she almost never took ill, but when she did, she always had the worst case possible. Tomorrow, Sophie resolved ill-humoredly, before she felt too awful to move, she should pay Martha a visit to thank her. After all, it wasn't as though Martha didn't know what had happened the last time Sophie had been sick. She'd fallen asleep one day with a mild cough, and woken up in a hospital in Wales, attached to alarming beeping machines and countless needles, suffering some bizarre ailment of the lungs. Howl drank so much the night she woke that he was not allowed in the hospital until the next day, red eyed and glaring at everyone he saw, but mostly at her. She hoped that it wouldn't come to that again. Everything about hospitals made her nervous, and she wasn't interested in another 'if you're ill, for pity's sake say something!' speech. It had been no one's fault but her own for being caught in the rain, and she wasn't one to fuss over nothing. She would leave deathbed scenes over head colds to Howl.
Sophie had tried her best to forget about it and fall asleep, but her aching, weak-feeling body combined with her racing mind left her tossing and turning, to no avail. She had tried lying on her back. She had tried curling up on her side. She had lain on her stomach, wrapped herself around her pillow, and at one point even sprawled herself half on top of Howl, who snored softly through it all. Finally, Sophie spread-eagled face down on the bed.
This is hopeless." she mumbled into her pillow, "Martha, you are in so much trouble."
"What in the world are you doing?" Howl whispered grumpily, only half awake. His hand slid up to rest heavily on her back.
Just what she needed, Sophie thought morosely, glaring into the dark with a faint sigh. The only thing worse than feeling sick, in her opinion, was having people fret over her the entire time. Howl didn't need to know until it was unavoidable.
"Sleeping." she snapped, and shifted again, turning onto her side away from him. She drew one leg up against her chest. This new position didn't feel any better than the previous ones had. She sighed again.
"Really." It wasn't a question. Howl woke up a bit more, and so did his wit. "That's odd. I assumed that you must have been dancing. Dancing with joy, perhaps, with the knowledge that if I don't sleep tonight, I will be tempted to make up for it by lying abed all day tomorrow." His tone grew long-suffering as he spoke. "By staying in bed, not only would I be keeping it warm for Her Highness' eventual return," he sniffed with what sounded far too much like growing hysteria, "But you would receive the added bonus of not having me underfoot. That's your plan, isn't it? That's all I am to you; a bothersome bedwarmer."
Sophie was no mood to indulge Howl's theatrics. He was quite obviously building up for another suitably miserable remark. If he green-slimed the bed, he was going out the window head first, regardless of which world it led to. Turning again to face him, she answered him as sweetly and sincerely as she could manage.
"Of course not! You're far more than that. You reach things on high shelves. You lift heavy things. And you help me when I run into a hard spell. But then," she added with her best imitation of his most charming smile, "Michael does all of that, too."
Sophie positioned herself flat on her back, shifting her pillow under her head with satisfaction while Howl digested her words.
Then she suddenly found herself pulled halfway across the bed, imprisoned in a stubborn grip. She came to a stop face-to-face with a rather annoyed looking Howl. She scowled up at him and set about freeing herself. He pulled her back to him, threaded one arm around her waist, the other over her arms, and leaned down, his forehead resting against hers.
"Mari used to do this, too, you know." he said pleasantly in the barest of whispers. "She'd stay awake so long past her bedtime that she was too tired to sleep, so she kept everyone else awake, instead. She was about three, then. She doesn't do that anymore, of course. Mari is, after all, six years old, almost seven. She knows better now. Maybe you two should talk. You might learn something."
Sophie snorted at this absurdity. The enforced stillness was causing her legs to cramp up terribly, making her even more cross than before. She struggled until his hold finally loosened enough for escape, and buried herself in the covers on the other side of the bed, as far away as she could get.
"If I took comportment lessons from Mari, I'd still be biting people who annoyed me." Sophie snapped, her voice muffled by the covers over her head. Even through the layers of blankets separating them, she thought that she could hear his teeth grinding. Good. A fight seemed to be just what she had needed. It was taking her mind off of the sleep that she wasn't getting.
"It's far too late for this," Howl informed the air over her head, "Or should I say early? Sophie, just choose a spot, stop fidgeting, and go to sleep. As you may have chosen to forget, I have to get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow, build a divination spell, go to the palace, and demonstrate to the King, again, that since Strangia is too far away for the spell to reveal anything of consequence, it's utterly useless. Then, I have to explain why it's not my fault. Then, I get to spend the rest of the day explaining it a hundred times over to his advisors." He sighed loudly. "While that may be your idea of fun, coch, it is certainly not mine. I don't feel like doing it on ten minutes of sleep, thank you very much. Trust my luck to get myself appointed Royal Wizard just as a war breaks out." He paused long enough to yawn before adding, obviously as an afterthought, "Why are you thrashing about so much, anyway? Is something wrong?"
Trust him, Sophie thought, to ask the pertinent question after arguing for ten minutes first. It was too bad that he wasn't going to get an answer. Sophie decided to do a bit of slithering herself, so she focused on the least relevant point of his tirade.
"Don't call me that! It isn't true!" Coch was the Welsh word for red, in reference to her red-gold hair, which Howl refused to see as any color but ginger, or, when he was feeling particularly put-upon, red. He only used it when he wanted to annoy her, and it usually worked. Still, Sophie felt just the tiniest bit guilty. She had forgotten all about his appointment, and she really hadn't meant to wake him.
Howl must have sensed her relenting, because he was suddenly right behind her, tugging blankets aside and pulling her over until she was facing him again. This time, she allowed it. He was grinning now in such a way that meant that he was feeling pleased with himself.
"Sophie…" his voice teasing now, "I would have taken you dancing if you'd asked, you know." She stared at him blankly. "So that you wouldn't have to do it in bed," he explained, and then added, "And your hair is red. I've seen it often enough to know, haven't I?
"Hmmph." Honestly! She'd known that 'Happily Ever After' wouldn't always be easy, but if the man was this difficult after only two years of marriage, Sophie didn't see how they'd survive to see fifty. Her legs cramped again, this time accompanied by a dull wave of pain shooting up her back and down again, which reminded her of why she was in this situation in the first place.
"Do go to sleep." she said crossly.
"As you wish." All signs of injury had immediately left Howl's voice once it was clear that she was conceding. "Good night." She felt him kiss the top of her head. When Sophie looked up at him a scant minute later, his eyes were closed and he was already asleep again. His arms, however, had not yet loosened enough for her to move. She resolved to wait until they did, then go downstairs and sleep in the chair. It didn't care if she thrashed. Until then, she threw a leg over Howl, curled herself up against him and waited. Slowly, the heat he gave off made her drowsy. She dozed for a while, but just as she was about to fall asleep properly, her stomach lurched, not dangerously, but too much to ignore.
Sophie groaned and eased out of Howl's arms. She pushed herself out of bed and, seizing her shawl off of a peg on the door and pulling it around herself, shivering. Even the warmest shawl was no comparison to another body on a cold autumn night. She stepped out onto the landing and started down the stairs. The third step squeaked dismally as she stepped on it, unnaturally loud in the stillness of the castle. It had never seemed that loud before.
"Shh!" she scolded, "You don't want to wake everyone up, do you?" She tested the step again, satisfied when it went obligingly silent.
The darkened room lit briefly as Calcifer flickered up to regard her sleepily for a moment before settling down again without a word.
"Botheration!" She had been hoping for the fire demon's company to distract her until she fell asleep. Now that she was fully awake, however, all of her earlier symptoms had vanished, leaving her with a light-headed, distant feeling that came upon her whenever she was standing. It was better than nausea though, so Sophie remained upright, pacing aimlessly around the room. Actually, she thought a bit vaguely, being so fuzzy-headed and seeing things so strangely was rather like dreaming. So this was almost as good as sleep. After spending the better part of an hour occupied with such non-thoughts, Sophie flung herself into the chair, and spent more time getting comfortable. When exhaustion was at last more pressing than her symptoms, she drifted off, her legs flung over the low back of the chair and her head hanging just off of the seat.
It seemed she had only closed her eyes for a few minutes before she registered heat and light on her face. This made no sense, as the chair was not in a position to receive sunlight, no matter what the time of day. She cracked one eye open, and stared blearily at an upside down, or rather, right side up, Calcifer.
"It's about time!" he fizzed impatiently, turning until he was upside down as well, hovering an inch from her nose, "I've been waiting for ages. You look ridiculous like that, you know. What are you doing down here?"
"You don't have anything better to do then float about watching me sleep?" she asked sourly, glowering at him until her eyes crossed. Now that she had successfully fallen asleep once, she had no interest in speaking with anyone or anything until morning, which, judging from the lack of light from the window, it most decidedly was not.
Calcifer ignored her with as much skill as Howl did.
"I don't see how the two of you can argue when you're asleep. That's why you're here, right? But then, Howl is usually the one who ends up in the chair. Or—" He backed away a bit, and gave Sophie the penetrating, all-knowing fire demon look that never failed to annoy her. After a very thorough once-over, he began to cackle with smug laughter.
"That's it! You're sick, aren't you? I see it now."
Sophie righted herself in the chair with all of the dignity she could muster.
"I should remind you that I can touch you without being burned. If you know what's good for you, you'll behave yourself, or I'll spell you to a candle for a day. I can't help having the flu."
"Oh, but you can." Calcifer floated close again, ignoring her threats. "There are such things as healing spells, you know. It'd be a easy to cure yourself. It's not a cold, after all."
Calcifer was crackling with the same anticipation as when he had persuaded her to enter a bargain with him the day they'd met. Sophie knew that there must be something in this for him, though she couldn't imagine what.
"It is always safest to allow an illness to run its course; use magic only as a last resort." She recited primly from one of her books, just to aggravate him. "Besides, if a cure were possible, Michael would have used it." Howl wouldn't have. As miserable as he'd been, Sophie was certain that he'd enjoyed being bed-ridden.
"Howl has always been too busy with other things to learn much healing magic. And Michael tried to learn; he has no talent for it. But you could do it. And is it really worth all of that suffering, just to be safe?" he wheedled, "You take risks all the time."
Put that way, Sophie really couldn't see the harm. Even if Calcifer was exploiting her somehow, she'd get something out of it. And she probably could do it—using a permanent spell was only a small step above talking herself into feeling well temporarily, and she'd done that often enough. She decided to consider it, which left only one problem.
"I don't know how—"
Calcifer whirled about and made for the bookshelf over the sink, hovering there as he studied the titles.
"This one explains how, and this one, and this one." he announced gleefully. Sophie was reluctant to leave the chair even briefly, and when she finally did, her knees wobbled. She collected the texts in question and returned to her place, collapsing into the chair gratefully as she cracked open the first. Calcifer floated over her shoulder, providing light and driving away the chill in the room. She discovered that she also needed a diagram of internal human anatomy found in another book, so she fetched that as well, and balanced that on her knee for reference, taking notes as she read.
The spell was actually quite fascinating. Early on in her magical education, Sophie had discovered that she preferred magical theory over practical application. She liked knowing how and why spells worked, on paper, in much the same way that she had enjoyed studying from books in school. The only structured spell work that she did was meant to prove to Howl that she was actually learning something. Supposedly, there were few spells that were beyond her, if she took the time to learn the procedure correctly. She rarely did so, which usually resulted in explosions of both spells and tempers. This particular spell was comprised of mostly gesture, with some speech, all directed inward. Interesting though it was, the words and pictures eventually began to blur, despite all of Sophie's commands for her eyes to clear.
"This doesn't look very hard." she decided aloud, "I think I'll try it." Rather than letting the books drop, she set them down carefully, remembering her father's admonitions on the proper handling of books. Then, ignoring Calcifer entirely, she turned herself back over the chair in hopes that it was still a position conducive to sleep, and allowed herself to drift off again.
She snapped awake again when she heard something fall. Sophie opened her eyes and watched Howl move towards the bathroom, stumbling over stools as he went, ignoring the one that he'd knocked over. Gradually, it occurred to her that it wasn't 'the crack of dawn' yet. It was most likely, she realized with a small laugh, about two hours before then.
Howl heard her, and came to the chair to regard her odd position. "What's so funny?"
She snorted. "It's ridiculous. You're depriving yourself of sleep for the sake of your face." They'd had this discussion before, and his answer was invariably the same.
"My face has to last me a lifetime." He looked her up and down again, or rather, down and up. "That looks incredibly uncomfortable."
Sophie couldn't rightly say whether it was or not. She couldn't feel her legs or her shoulders just then. Howl reached down abruptly, and the blood rushed from her head. Once she was lying sideways across the chair, he resumed his previous course, whistling softly. The bathroom door clicked shut and Sophie was left to rub feeling back into her legs and try to get a bit more sleep.
When she stirred again, the room was a little brighter, and the bathroom door was still closed. Somehow, she felt no more rested now than she had before she slept. Surprisingly, Calcifer was still asleep despite the noise of early risers, and just as surprisingly, Sophie was hungry. She debated the wisdom of eating when it was possible that she'd just be sick afterwards. But she didn't feel ill just then, and it would be best to eat while she was still able. She rose out of the chair and stretched, every joint cracking, and set to work.
"Not too much… Just some toast, I think, and maybe an egg." she murmured, bemused when her voice came back to her ears as though over a great distance.
"It's a bit like being inside a glass box, and having everything around you seem muted." she remarked to the cupboard as she rummaged about inside it. "But I feel much better now than I did last night. At night, I think, when there's nothing to distract you, everything seems worse."
Armed with the frying pan, an egg and a loaf of bread, Sophie headed for the fireplace. If she had to be awake this early, then so did Calcifer. He'd woken her up, after all. Sophie braced herself for all manner of mocking remarks. He had spent a great deal of time making fun of his ailing castlemates, and Sophie didn't even have the gratification of knowing that he'd get sick too. Fire demons didn't appear to suffer the maladies of humans. She knelt before the hearth, laid out the bread, and carefully set the egg on the flagstones.
She took up a log and was reaching out to prod Calcifer awake when a weight descended suddenly upon her shoulder, coupled with a faint waft of lavender. Before her sleep-deprived mind could put together what this might mean, Sophie whirled around, heedless of the pan she held. Howl must have seen what was coming; he flung up one hand in self defense. He caught the edge of the pan, but it was heavy iron, and Sophie had swung hard. He managed to soften the blow, but the pan still connected with a solid sounding thunk. Howl yelped and straightened in a hurry, clutching his head with a grimace.
"Oh!" Sophie tried for something more coherent, but it wouldn't come. So she tugged on his hand, instead, until he knelt and let her check for permanent damage. For a moment, she thought that the grate lit up a bit, but when she looked, there was no sign of Calcifer, which was just as well. He had enough to tease her about without witnessing this. She sifted her fingers through Howl's hair carefully, searching for any obvious injury.
"I just finished arranging my hair" he grumbled, but he continued to hold still. Sophie snorted.
"All you did was mess about with it until it looked like you didn't do anything at all." She found the spot that she'd hit. The skin didn't even appear to be broken. "I had to make sure I didn't crack your head open." she added, "It's too early for me to mop the floor." Satisfied, she sat back and indicated that he could rise. He didn't move.
"Sophie," Howl sounded confused, which was unusual, and wounded, which was not. "Are you angry with me?"
"I don't believe so. Should I be?" Conversation was starting to break her out of the hazy state she'd been in, and this time she was certain that she saw a flicker out of the corner of her eye. Botheration! The fire demon had a sense for impending drama which rivaled Lettie's. It likely came of living with Howl for so long.
"I'm beginning to wonder. First you abandon me in the middle of the night without a word…" he scowled and added reproachfully, "I thought that you'd run off to Porthaven again."
"Honestly!" she bent to retrieve the maltreated frying pan. "That was years ago. We weren't even married!"
"You left without telling anyone! What was I supposed to think?"
Sophie glared at him. "Well, I certainly wasn't going to tell you. You were the reason I left!"
And now," Howl continued as though she hadn't spoken, "You've seen fit to abuse me with cookware. I was certain that I'd committed some grievous sin against you. Were you making breakfast? I'd like some if you are." He neatly turned the subject before she had a chance to defend herself, or question him further. If he had done something, he only sounded remorseful at the possibility of being caught.
At least, Sophie thought wryly, if he was hungry, he probably wasn't concussed.
"I'll need some more eggs, then." Sophie slammed the pan down over Calcifer's smirking face and spoke as much to him as to Howl, to rid them both of any other foolish notions. "I just couldn't sleep, so I came down here. And you surprised me. I wasn't listening for you. Perhaps," she added in a near shout as he startled her again, three eggs in hand, "If you walked more and slithered less, we wouldn't have this problem!"
Howl stared back at her, eyes wide with innocent surprise. "We have a problem?" Sophie scowled for all she was worth.
"We probably have several hundred." she muttered, cracking the eggs with a fierce rap on the pan.
Breakfast was over, three arguments begun and resolved, and the dishes were soaking before Sophie realized that Michael hadn't been down.
"Michael isn't helping you today?"
Now in the second half of his apprenticeship, Michael had begun taking on more spellwork for himself, as well as accompanying Howl to the palace. Howl claimed that this was to learn the formalities which were as much a part of the business as the spells. Most often, Howl just used him as a way to get out of paperwork.
Howl smirked and gestured towards the door.
"You must've missed him. I gave him a day off; he's been gone for ages. He's probably visiting your sister, early as it is. Why he would choose a girl over sleep, I don't know. Very strange."
Sophie frowned at him dourly, brandishing the pan. Utterly ignoring the implied warning, he crossed the space between them in three large steps and titled her chin up for a quick kiss, which made it rather difficult for her to stay annoyed with him. She hated it when he did that.
"You ought to go back to sleep." he said seriously. "I didn't mean to wake you so early, or frighten you."
"I can't go back to sleep. I have too much work to do." she informed him, "And you'd have thought it was funny if I hadn't hit you. I don't suppose you bothered to make the bed?"
Howl smiled his very sunniest over his shoulder, which told her that he hadn't, as he opened the door to the yard.
"I think that I'll work on the spell out here and avoid being assaulted again, if you don't mind. I should out of your way completely in a few hours." And with a soft click, the door fell shut.
Believe it or not, this chapter lost 300 words in the last revision. SO wordy. Onward!