"Are you feeling any better?" Sophie asked.
Markl had helped her carry Howl upstairs after he'd collapsed. He seemed convinced that Howl was dead, and was still crying downstairs with only Calcifer to comfort him. Sophie was carrying a glass of warm milk. The sight of Howl so pale and fragile was painful for her to have to watch. "Howl…?"An ice-cold feeling dawned upon her as she began to fear the worst. With much difficulty, she swallowed and moved a trembling foot forward, followed by the other. She got there eventually.
Sophie gasped and tried to jump back but Howl had snatched her by the wrist. Her heart was pounding and she was drenched in a sudden cold sweat. She could hear Howl's voice, breathy and weak; she couldn't make out a single word. "S… sorry…?" she managed. Gulping down her fear and trying to revive her paralyzed body, Sophie tucked her hair behind her ear and leant in closer to him.
"Ar…" he breathed deeply after mumbling something. He tried again but his words were still interrupted with pants. "Are you… my So… Sophie…?"
Sophie was lost for words for some reason. "Uh… of – of course I'm Sophie…"
With great effort, Howl shook his head slightly. Several deep breaths. "Are… you… my Sophie…?"
His icy fingers gripped tighter but heat was still radiating from his neglected body. Shivers ran up Sophie's spine. "I… I don't know. Am I?" not even she was sure anymore. Who exactly was Howl's Sophie? Who did he want his Sophie to be?
A period of silence later, Howl continued. "K… kiss me… my Sophie's lips… never lie…"
Her back stiffened. She… well, to put it bluntly, she didn't want to kiss him in this state. Biting her lip, she moved the sheets away from his face slightly afraid of what she might see. Sophie silently gasped seeing Howl's ghostly white face, fading into a bluish colour around his eyes. He had beads of sweat still coating his body. She knew that if he stayed like this he would die soon.
No – she couldn't think like that. She loved Howl. Sophie quickly licked her lips, ignored the sight before her and leant in to connect their lips. Howl didn't respond to her touch. His lips were cold and dry. It wasn't very pleasant at all. Finally pulling away, Sophie hid her shudders and looked at him. His face hadn't changed at all. Waiting for a moment longer, she took a few deep breaths watching the covers rise and fall gently as he breathed. "Come… come down to see us if you're feeling any better, Howl. I'll tell Calcifer to heat up some water for you."
Howl gave no reply so she sighed and began leaving the room. Howl's eyes opened slightly, just so he could see the fuzzy image of Sophie walking out. It had been a long time since he'd seen that. What a sight it was, too. With a weak smile creeping up on his cracked lips, Howl allowed himself to rest…
"Calcifer," Sophie called as she came downstairs. "Could you heat up some water, please?"
"Right away," Calcifer replied and got straight to it. Sophie sat down at the table with her head in her hands. She was trembling. A breath stuck in her throat causing her to let out a hiccup finally realizing how much she needed to cry. Holding back her tears, she noticed that Markl was sitting across the table, staring at her. Had he been there the whole time? How long had he been watching for?
Sophie raised a smile for him but Markl did not return the gesture. She began to feel slightly uncomfortable. "Howl is fine, Markl. He's going to be okay – I promise."
"Are you?" he replied.
She opened her mouth to speak but her face had frozen in place when she heard what he had said. "Of… of course, Markl. Why wouldn't I be? I'm perfectly fine," she answered defensively.
Markl watched her a moment longer. "Right. Just checking." He went back to eating his supper.
Nodding, Sophie looked away still trying to figure out what he was trying to say. Suddenly they all heard the creak of the taps upstairs gushing water into the bathtub. Silence filled the room as they hadn't heard that in a while. The corners of Sophie's lips rose in relief.
Howl wore his black pants and thin white top after his bath with the towel draped around his shoulders. He still hadn't completely recovered so he was still hunching frailly. His skin was still radiating heat and would be covered in another thin layer of sweat soon enough. Even breathing seemed to burn Howl's lungs. His thin fingers feebly gripped the door handle and stepped out.
He swayed back and forth before taking a step forward and trying to regain his balance. His feet were killing. He lifted his head up to find the stairs but his vision had doubled up. Silently groaning, he grabbed the handrail with both hands and shut his eyes tight. God, how his head throbbed. Right foot… left foot… and he shakily made his way downstairs.
Markl sat at the table with his head lying in his arms, staring absentmindedly into space and listening so intently to the delicate thuds that he didn't even question where they were coming from. Thud… thud… thud, thud… loud enough to know they're there but too quiet to bother paying any attention to. His eyes wandered to the stairs catching a glimpse of a foot cautiously lowering itself to the next step and suddenly realized what the thuds actually were.
He sprang up from the chair, startling Sophie. "Howl! It's master Howl, Sophie!"
Sophie spun around and gasped as she saw him begin to waver. She rushed up, taking one of his arms and draping it over her shoulder. Markl went to help her, too, copying her actions. Howl kept his eyes cast to the ground, his hair dangling in his face and his breathing gently pushing the strands back and forth. He was sat down on a chair.
"Howl, are you feeling alright?" Sophie asked crouching down so she could look up at him. "Markl, go get a sheet."
Markl nodded and ran upstairs to his room, snatching the sheet from his bed and running back downstairs as quickly as possible. Sophie removed the towel from Howl's shoulders and replaced it with the sheet to keep his warm.
Howl swallowed and took several deep breaths. "I'm… I'm fine, Sophie," he managed. He did his best to look her in the eyes to show that he really was okay.
Sophie's lips tightened, not sure of she should believe him. She turned to the flame instead. "Calcifer?"
"Master Howl," Calcifer said. "You should be upstairs resting. You need to conserve your energy."
Slowly, Howl shook his head with a lot of effort. "No. I want to be with…" he continued breathing, "with my family." He said this turning to Markl and smiling warmly.
Markl's face lit up as he was filled with relief. He rushed up to him and threw his arms around his weak shoulders. It was painful but Howl didn't mind one bit. Soon he was released and turned towards Sophie who was also smiling. Her eyes were welling up with joy; it'd been too long since she'd last seen Howl like this – far too long. She picked herself up and planted an innocent kiss on Howl's lips. They weren't nearly as bad as before. Blushing, she removed the hair from his face and looked directly at him. "It's good to have you back, Howl."
"You, too, Sophie." He then gulped and delicately took her hands. "When I get better…"
"Sorry?" she said, not understanding.
"When I get better, Sophie," he began looking away. "If you want to, we could try again. For… for a baby, I mean. I… I think I'm ready to be a father."
Sophie watched him then glanced at Markl who looked like he really didn't know what to do with himself. With her mouth gaping, she remembered to breathe again. Sophie shook her head, thinking. "Howl… you're definitely not ready. You can barely take care of yourself." A moment of stunned silence fell in the room. "We've got plenty of time to be parents." The silence continued.
Finally, Howl had enough energy to grin. "Does that mean we can just have fun?"
Eyes widened, Markl looked mortified.
Calcifer burst out into laughter. "Yep, it's great to have you back, master Howl!"
… Heh… hi… uh, me again… as it turns out I'm not dead. Just lazy…
So I've finally finished the story. I really hope no one was disappointed with the ending… I think it may have been a bit of an anti-climax for some. So… anyone still love me enough to leave a review? No? Oh. Well I guess I deserved that… farewell!