Disclaimer: Howl and Sophie belong to Diana Wynne Jones. Dear old Gran is an aged extrapolation of a wonderful character by Laurie R. King. The only characters I can claim at all are Howl's parents and Charlie Perkins. But because of the three previously-mentioned characters, I cannot and will not make any money from this piece, so please don't try and sue me!

Author's Note: First and foremost, I must apologize for the length of time between story updates. My work schedule (the thing that actually pays the bills) has not been very conducive to writing, so it honestly has taken a while. But I have several ideas in various stages of completion, so the next one should be up sooner than this one.

This story is actually a bit different from the others. Yes, there is Howl and Sophie fluff. It's just not front and center. It also took several months to put all the pieces together, since, well, you'll see. Please, enjoy!

Kiss Theme #6 - the space between dream and reality
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama/Romance
Pairing: Howl/Sophie
Summary: In which Howell falls victim to dreams of the past

by Mimea

He was hanging suspended over a churning grey sea. No, he wasn't hanging. He was somehow standing on the blackish wisps of condensation below him. But that didn't make the experience any less scary. People were watching from below, their mouths gaping black holes and their eyes wide with fear. Rather like he felt his own should be. A high-pitched wailing filled the air as greenish monsters with scaly tails rather than legs, skin pale as a fish's belly and as slimy-looking, and withered breasts were tossed and left gasping by the tsunami-like waves in the harbor. He tried to clap his hands over his ears, but even that had no effect against the din.

He heard his name, or a close approximation of it, screamed at him in rage. His head snapped up, and he stood gaping at the terrifyingly beautiful vision before him. Her hair was as red as the setting sun, and her dress draped her form in a flattering mold of crimson indulgence. But her ruby lips were contorted in rage, her eyes blazing as she challenged him. The enraged lines on her face should have made her ugly, but they somehow only enhanced her beauty.

She seemed to falter for a moment, before the mask of hatred snapped back into place. Her mouth and hands worked in unison, creating a mass of flame that should have burnt her alive. Howell watched in horrified fascination as she gathered it in her hands, clutching it with clawed fingers. Her face contorted and her mouth moved as she flung her arms forward, sending the vaporous flames hurtling toward him, leaving her unscathed.

He couldn't duck. He couldn't even move. All he could do was stare in horror as the superheated fog came toward him with superhuman speed. He struggled, the acrid smell of burning hair and the stench of flesh melting from bone assailed his nostrils as he fell down, down into eternal darkness...

"Jenkins. Jenkins! JENKINS!"

Howell's eyes snapped open, and he lunged upright in terror. His eyes bulged as he fought to remember how to breathe. A name rose and died on his lips, the name of the one person who understood his nighttime terrors: Gran. But the voice that had called to him, and the hands that had shaken him awake, were childish and most definitely male.

That was right. He was in a school, but he wasn't visiting his grandmother. Less than a week ago, he had been packed off to this hoity-toity public school. His father had beamed proudly that his son was on the way to "making something of himself" while his mother had bawled and made him promise to take care of himself.

Howell blinked, finally acknowledging the boy at his side. He could feel the ill-wishes of him dorm-mates, and knew that he had been screaming in his sleep. He grinned rather sheepishly. "Sorry, Charlie. Bugger of a dream, that was."

"Nah? Really?" Charlie drawled. Charlie Perkins had the bed to the left of Howell's. He cocked his head to one side. "You're not one of those pansies who wake up every night screaming, are you?"

"He... ck no!" Howell protested. "Just the stress of moving in probably. You know?"

Charlie eyed him dubiously. "If you say so. Just get back to sleep, okay?"

"Right," Howell eagerly agreed with a vigorous nod. He flung himself back down and wrapped himself in his blankets to try and quell shivering that had nothing to do with the coolness of the room. He didn't think he was going to be able to go back to sleep, but somehow, the Sandman's dust seeped into his eyes, and he returned to the Land of Nod.

However, his nightmares had persisted, no matter what anyone tried. And it wasn't always the same one. Oftentimes it involved the lady in red, whose appearance shifted with every dream. Other times it involved wandering about a strange land alone and friendless. Almost invariably, his life was in peril, and he would wake up drenched and shaking at his near-escape. If the rumor about dying in dreams had been true, he would have been dead long ago.

At long last, with the aid of a psychologist, it was decided that the only cure was to medicate him. After that, both he and his schoolmates were finally able to enjoy an uninterrupted night's sleep.

Howell kept up his daily pill regimen until he entered university. After two weeks of having to decline invitations to late-night debauchery due to the fear of adverse reactions with his medication, he was well and truly sick of it. He had tried being respectable all during his primary and secondary school years, but now he wanted to see how the "other side" lived.

So the medications went unused, and Howell Jenkins was formally introduced to the art of wining, which sounds ever so much better than the more appropriate term "aleing", as well as the more advanced form of flirtation more commonly known as wenching.

His marks fell off a fraction that first term at university, but only enough to cause a knowing wink from his father. Griffith Jenkins gave lip service to the normal parental platitudes that he hoped his son's grades would improve, mostly for Megan's benefit, and sent him on his way. His mother had been hysterical, which was really nothing new. But what hit him most was the look of disapproval from his grandmother when she stopped by for a visit. She was an Oxford don, after all, and she knew her grandson could do so much better.

Fortunately, Howell had always been rather clever, and learned how to balance coursework and fun. Which meant that if a paper was ever started and finished more than a day in advance, he wasn't having nearly enough socialization. Which would have to be quickly remedied.

Yet somehow in the maelstrom of discovering the pleasures of life and pulling academic papers out of his proverbial hat, the little sleep he indulged in was filled with fantastical dreams. They had started very mundanely, images of himself as the apprentice of a creaky old lady who was even more strict than Mrs. Jones, his most detested schoolteacher from his childhood. Then they became even more rich. Sometimes he dreamed he lived in a moving castle, others he talked with what seemed to be a fireplace. Or perhaps it was the odd blue fire. The dreams that had so frightened him as a child, he now reveled in. The woman in red no longer scared him. When she did show, he actually felt sorry for her. At least, until she began throwing fire at him. But even then he took delight in defeating her at long last. It was always a draw or in his favor, as well it should be.

Since he never got any rest at night, his next visit home drew exclamations of horror at his gauntness and the dark circles under his eyes. Mother put him straight to bed and fussed over him like a three-year-old with measles. When he was better, his father suggested he get more sleep, and perhaps take up a sport again to improve his appetite. He'd been quite good at rugby in secondary school, hadn't he?

So when his second year at university began, Howell took himself off to join the rugby team. It was rough going at first, seeing as how even the amazing Howell Jenkins could fall out of practice after so long. But as he slowly improved, his teammates took note. Eventually, he made right wing, and for the first time he was officially accused of being skilled at slithering out of things. But this time it was in a good way. Once he had the ball, it was very hard for other chaps to get ahold of him.

Not only did the exercise lead to more nights of dreamless sleep, they had the decidedly pleasant side effect of gaining him a fan club. He wasn't all that bad to look at, despite his unfortunately plain hair color. He did, after all, have the finest pair of green eyes he had ever seen. And the rugby training had given him lean muscle that rippled under his skin quite pleasingly.

The ladies noticed, and hooted and hollered. His teammates didn't really appreciate it, but Howell most certainly did. He would regale the ladies with tales of his victories, taking center stage after games with every bit of his considerable showman's abilities.

Then, in his third year, his father passed on, and his mother followed a couple of months later. The nightmares came back full-force, no longer full of mere defeat, but rather echoing of helplessness as the world turned topsy-turvy and people he cared about died gruesome deaths, while he could do nothing to stop it.

His days became a jumble of words from textbooks, notes, and papers interspersed with the roar of the rugby crowd, the feel of hands trying to grab him as he feverishly searched for the elusive ball, and the laughter of women as he flirted and sweet-talked them. Usually into either his bed or theirs. In fact, it seemed the only way to dispel these new nightmares was to lose himself in the soft body of a companion for the night. Either the warmth brought him some comfort, or, occasionally, he wore himself out too much for dreaming.

And yet, he did not dare stay with or favor one particular girl over any other. He could not bear the thought of someone actually trying to count on a wreck like him; a man who couldn't even be responsible for himself. So he took what was offered, but when they started becoming attached, he would flee.

Some even tried to "keep him" in ways that should have grossly affected his view of women. But even the ones who thought to capture him by bearing a child they would not love did not succeed in their plans. The rugby field was not the only place where thorough preparation, back-up, and an almost inhuman ability to slither out saved his skin. He did have a certain fondness for children, he had to admit. But the thought of having one without actually loving the mother held absolutely no appeal for him. He, the mother, and most especially the child, would suffer for it.

Then, in his final year of undergraduate studies, even the sensation of warmth was not strong enough to dispel the darkness. He dreamed of fantastical things, terrible creatures threatening him, Megan, and her family. Living in a country torn by War. The sight of a faceless young woman he could not quite place bound by orange restraints, struggling against some unseen horror. Tears came unbidden, stinging for release as he found himself powerless...

The beds he shared seemed hollow, and physical fire was not enough. He woke one night, beside a brunette he didn't even know, thoroughly chilled. He felt her hands on his shoulders, her soft voice murmuring, but he did not understand a word. Her hands moved, and he responded instinctively, desperately throwing himself headlong into the darkness of oblivion.

The next time he opened his eyes, it was to somewhere unfamiliar. The walls were dark, but not the grey of stone. Instead, they were almost black. The room was livened up by a myriad of trinkets and tapestries that leant a jewel-like glow and added warmth to the darkness. He turned onto his back to see an embroidered canopy overhead, a lone spider attempting a creation in one corner. The coverlet was the same old one from his bed at home, mended and somehow restored to its original, unfaded state.

Then he realized he wasn't alone.

He jumped, staring wide-eyed at the figure beside him. It stirred, and in his sleep-muddled haze, he was terrified.

She turned toward him, the early morning light from the window opposite making her blue eyes seem to glow. His heart all but stopped, lodging painfully in his throat.

"Howl? Is something wrong?" she asked, coming more fully awake.

Her voice grounded him back in reality; the dream at last releasing its hold. He was no longer schoolboy, or even university student, Howell Jenkins. He was Royal Wizard Pendragon, and he lived in another world altogether from the one he'd been born and raised in.

And the woman he had been dreaming of since his university days, no longer faceless, was lying here beside him. His thumb stroked the band around his left ring finger.

She was his wife. Intriguing, exasperating, passionate Sophie.

Howell shook his head. "I'm all right," he told her.

Her hand landed on his shoulder, small yet strong from all the work she did every day. "Liar," she softly accused.

"One of my better qualities," he quipped.

"Not when it makes you wake up in a cold sweat! Of course, if all the rumors about you were true, I doubt you'd be able to sleep at all!"

Howl let a warm, sly grin cross his face as he regarded her. "Oh, I highly doubt that. I have such a nice, soft, warm pillow next to me, I'd drop off regardless."

"Howl!" she exclaimed.

He could tell she was blushing. But he hadn't been entirely joking. He could feel the warmth of her hand through his thin nightshirt and the heat her body radiated, even though she insisted on wearing that silly flannel nightgown.

"What?" he asked with a roguish grin.

To his slight surprise, the glint in her eyes matched his own. Her hand moved from his shoulder up closer to his neck, her fingertips toying with the ends of his hair. Howl leaned in closer, and Sophie's fingers cupped the back of his neck, drawing him down to close the distance between them.

This was definitely no dream. Her lips were slightly chapped from the harsh winter weather they'd been having, and her hands clutched almost painfully tight in her eagerness. He could feel the muscles move beneath cloth and skin as he worked his hands down her spine to start bunching up the fabric that concealed her. Sophie let out a gasp, and he deepened the kiss. Her mouth still tasted of sleep.

But he would take reality, with all its imperfections, over the incompleteness of a mere dream.

And the only other dream he was planning on having that night was already in his arms.


Author's Notes: Yay! One more down! I seem to be on a serious streak lately, but there will be funny ones coming up, I promise. And everyone who reviewed? Thank you so, so much! Your feedback always means a great deal to me, and you guys are all fantastic! passes out hugs and desserts