Sophie woke up to the sound of voices raised in an argument. Sighing loudly, she propped herself up on her elbows. As she shook her hair out of her eyes, she wondered why the movement felt so strange. Her thoughts were interrupted by someone shouting, "Will you two STOP it!"
There was silence for a moment before the voices began again, quieter this time. The voice had sounded familiar, but for a moment Sophie couldn't place it... "Oh!" she whispered as her memories of last few months rushed into her mind, whirling about until she became quite dizzy. Collapsing back onto her bed, she lay there for a while. She could hear Michael and Calcifer arguing, their voices growing louder and louder. Sophie wondered why they had ignored Howl's warning. She was fully awake by now, she supposed she might as well get out of bed. She wasn't going to get any more sleep anyway, what with all the racket outside.
She slid her legs off the cot, and as her feet touched the floor, she remembered what it felt like to be an 18 year old girl once again. It was such a relief to not worry about injuring herself getting off her bed that she fairly jumped up. Sophie quickly ran her fingers through her hair, trying to remove the few tangles in the long mass of red-gold. She smoothed down her night dress and, taking a deep breath, peeked out from behind the curtain.
She smiled fondly at the site of her three boys, but soon became concerned at the amount of angst in the room. Howl was standing by the workbench, leaning on his hands and listening to Michael with an impatient expression that he was unsuccessfully trying to hide with one of boredom. Michael was half-sitting in what had become known as Sophie's chair, his eyebrows furrowed with frustration as he tried to explain something to Howl. Calcifer was bobbing in the fireplace in an agitated way, looking from Michael to Howl and back. She briefly wondered why he was still there – he was free move as he pleased now that the contract was broken – before her attention was brought back to the conversation at hand.
"I don't want it either, Howl! But I can't see any other way about it." Michael looked on the verge of tears. Howl didn't look to happy either. His mouth was pressed into a thin line, and his whole face seemed to be set in stone. Oh dear, what's gotten them so worked up? Sophie thought before she edged out in front of her curtain. She had hoped they were so focused on each other that they wouldn't notice her, but she had no such luck. Oh my, she thought as three pairs of eyes turned to her. Instinctively, she pressed up against the wall, hoping, in some way, that she might melt into it.
But of course, nothing of the sort happened. Michael's eyes went wide before he hurriedly wiped away a stray tear and excused himself, running up to his room and slamming the door. Calcifer flared a bright orange, then went straight up the chimney with a loud whoosh. Confused and worried that everyone was angry with her for some reason of which she was unaware, she looked to Howl. His eyes were slightly red-rimmed, and he didn't seem to want to look her in the eye.
"Is everything alright?" Sophie asked timidly. She had never seen the three so upset, and she was worried that she might be in the middle of it.
Howl took a deep breath and looked up. His shaggy dark hair fell over his eyes slightly, and his stony frown melted into a small smile as he looked into her big, soft brown eyes. "Don't worry too much about it," he said rather sadly.
Sophie was just about to give a lame answer along the lines of, "Oh, well then." When Howl's now deep green eyes widened and he jumped slightly, straightening and exclaiming, "Yes! I've got it!" He grabbed Sophie's shoulders and kissed her forehead, smiling brightly into her eyes, before whirling around to the door. Stopping and turning to Sophie, he said, "I'll be back in just a little bit. Just, please stay here until I come back, Sophie dear." With that he turned around again, spun the dial to Kingsbury, and flung the door wide open. He turned back to smile fondly at her before stepping out and closing the door.
Sophie just stood still for a moment, still dazed from Howl's bright smile, and wondering what in the world was going on in this castle. Heeding Howl's request, mostly because she had nothing else to do outside of the castle (She was not at all prepared to deal with Lettie and Martha and Fanny and Mrs. Fairfax and everyone who would want to see her), she went to the bathroom, intending to take her first bath as a young woman again. She turned the hot water tap on, grateful that Calcifer had set them near the hot springs, undressed, and sank into the soothing water. After soaking in the almost scalding water for a blissful twenty minutes, she took a bar of soap and a loofah off the shelf, being careful to not disturb any of Howl's spells, and scrubbed herself clean. She then lathered up more soap and scrubbed her scalp with her fingertips, pushing the suds through her long hair. Rinsing her hair, she reveled in the tingling clean on her scalp as well as the rest of her body. She had only had sponge-baths as an old woman, and it felt wonderful to be truly clean. She drained the tub and filled it again, soaking in more very hot water for another twenty minutes before getting out and toweling off. She realized that in her excitement to bathe, she had forgotten to bring a clean change of clothing with her. Sighing, she reached for her old nightgown.
She almost jumped with surprise when there was a quiet poof, and a large box appeared on the floor next to her nightgown. Curious, she pulled the wide satin ribbon out of its bow and took the lid off the box. She gasped, staring at the gorgeous white lace dress that lay folded in the box. Lifting it up, she noticed a pair of lacy white undies and a lacy camisole laying next to silk stockings and simple white flats. She eyed the underwear warily - Lace... Someone other than myself is supposed to see these. Sophie blushed deeply at the thought, but she continued to dress. Of course everything fit perfectly and she gasped again when she caught sight of herself in the large mirror. She was beautiful, and she almost cried. This was the best reminder of her returned youth, and she hadn't realized how much she had missed it. She twirled in the mirror a couple of times before braiding her red hair into a long braid over one shoulder. Feeling bold and ready to re-enter the world as an 18 year old girl, she opened the door.
The castle was empty, to her disappointment. She had hoped at least Calcifer would be there to admire her finery. Better yet would be Howl, as she was sure that's where the clothing came from, but it seemed he hadn't returned yet, and Michael's cloak (his regular one, not one of the be-spelled ones) was gone from the closet. He would most likely go to Market Chipping to see Martha, and when she turned the knob blue-down and opened the door, it was pouring there. With no one to talk to, Sophie decided to visit the flowers in the Waste. She liked the idea of wandering in her new dress among the bright flowers, basking in the sun. Howl had told her to stay in the castle, but he would check the garden first once he realized she wasn't in the castle. She took her old cane, as it was still useful to test the boggy areas, and spun the dial to purple down and stepped out into the moist air of the garden.
Sophie breathed deeply, enjoying the multitude of scents. It was hot, but many of the flowers grew so tall and thick that they provided enough shade to stand comfortably in. She wandered about, smelling the flowers she knew she liked and others she thought were pretty. It felt so good to be young and just walk among the flowers that Sophie became quite distracted and, not watching where she was going, bumped right into Howl.
He was standing with his arms folded across his chest, his head tilted to the side as he watched Sophie. He had expected her to see him and stop before she ran into him, but he made the best of the situation by slipping his arms loosely around her waist. She looked gorgeous in the dress he bought her, and he couldn't help but think about the lace undies he had included in the package.
Sophie gasped as she bumped into him and looked up into Howl's face. She nearly melted in his arms when his eyes met hers and she was struck head-on with the adoration in his green eyes. It gave her butterflies in her stomach and she blushed all the way down to the neckline of her dress.
"Do you like the dress?" He asked, eyeing her up and down. Sophie felt like her face was on fire she was blushing so hard. "Yes, thank you. It's beautiful!" She managed. Being so close to him was impairing her abilities to speak or think clearly. What she had wanted to say was "It's gorgeous! You're amazing and I love you!", but she couldn't get the words out, not did she think it was appropriate.
Howl tightened his grip on her waist, pulling her closer, and said in a low voice that send shivers down Sophie's spine, "Not as beautiful as the girl in it." Sophie gulped audibly and tightened her grip around his waist where her arms had automatically settled. Howl felt it and smiled. He leaned down and whispered in her ear, "I've got another surprise for you." It took Sophie a moment to work out the words, she was so distracted by his hot breath on her neck. She looked up at him in surprise, "Another?" He nodded and let go of her waist, taking a step back.
He elegantly dropped to one knee, and Sophie's breath caught. Could he really be... Really?! Looking into her eyes, he took a deep breath – Sophie found it endearing that he seemed to be as nervous as she was – and said," Sophie dear, you are the angel who gave me my heart back. Unfortunately, it seems that I lost my ability to write lovely poetry at the same time. However, since I don't feel that a sonnet would suit you anyway, I'll just go ahead and say, I love you. Just thinking of you makes my heart beat faster. My only wish is to hold you in my arms forever, and to share my life with my angel. Will you marry me, Sophie Hatter?
At this point, he popped open the small velvet box he had been hiding in his jacket. Sophie was already on the verge of tears, but she could see the sparkle of the small diamond set just above a simple gold band. She was surprised that Howl would pick something so simple, but it was exactly what she had always wanted, and she was even more touched to realize that he had obviously spent some time thinking about what she wanted. Her voice came out slightly choked with tears, but she managed to say, "Yes!" before the tears came streaming down.
Howl exhaled deeply and slid the ring onto the hand Sophie held out. Then, pulling her into a tight hug, he picked her up and twirled her around. He set her down, but kept his arms around her, and rested his forehead against hers, smiling so widely he felt his face must split in two. He brought his hands up to Sophie's face and wiped the tears away with his thumbs. He opened his mouth to say "I love you," but found that his voice was choked by emotion as well. Instead, he slid his arms around her waist again and pulled her closer. He leaned in slightly, his mouth only a few millimeters away from hers.
Sophie's arms were still around Howl's neck, and when he leaned in, all she had to do was tighten her grip a tiny bit and his mouth was on hers. He felt like hot velvet against her mouth and she couldn't get enough.
Her heart felt ready to burst. She had never been this happy in her entire life. Howl's mouth on hers was enough to make her knees give out. Had he not been holding her tightly, she would have collapsed into a smiling, crying, giggling heap. As it was, she was pressed up against him, curling her fingers into his soft dark hair. She was in heaven.
After what seemed like ten glorious minutes, Howl broke the kiss and, still slightly breathless, hugged her to him tightly before pulling back and looking into her eyes. Taking a deep breath, he said, "I should probably explain that argument this morning, now."
Sophie's breaths still came quickly and her face was still flushed, but she swallowed and nodded. She had been so worried that she had done something wrong.
"Last night, before we could get everyone out of the castle, your dear mother Fanny pulled Michael aside and went off about how it was improper for you to stay with me now that you're a young woman again, and that you should move in with her immediately. He must have been thinking about it all night, because when I came downstairs this morning he was waiting for me. He launched into this speech about how Fanny was right – socially, you shouldn't stay with me – but he was almost crying the entire time. Then Calcifer joined it – he obviously doesn't care about social rules, and started arguing with Michael. That's when I raised my voice a bit. I am sorry if I woke you, my dear," Here he paused to gently tuck a strand of red hair behind her ear, smiling warmly, "In all honesty, I couldn't see a way around it. I couldn't imagine my life without you, but I knew that if you stayed here as you were you would become a social outcast. Neither option seemed acceptable. That's when I realized that if we were wed, it would be perfectly appropriate for you to live with me! I plan on marrying you anyway. Does that explain everything?" He looked so adorably concerned that Sophie had to stop herself from kissing him again. Instead, she hugged him tighter and said, "Yes, that explains everything. I'm still sorry I caused so much fuss!"
Howl laughed, and the reverberations through his chest made Sophie giggle. "It's only because we love you so much. Though," he added slyly, "No one loves you more that I do." Sophie's breath quickened again as he brushed his nose against hers, then pressed his lips to hers once more. This kiss was less chaste than the first, and his hands moved up and down her back, making her shiver. Howl leaned in a bit more and Sophie's back arched slightly to accommodate. He moaned into her mouth before moving and planting soft kisses down her neck. Sophie gasped when he stopped to suck gently on the sensitive skin where her neck met her shoulders. Breathing heavily now, she had just enough wits about her to pull him back up into a kiss before whispering, "We're not married quite yet."
Howl smiled deviously, "One of the perks of being appointed Royal Magician – I can marry us. We don't have to wait," He whispered into her ear, making her shiver slightly. As a child, Sophie had never been one to fantasize about her wedding day, so this seemed a perfect plan.
"I'm ready. I'm in a white dress and everything." Howl smiled crookedly, and Sophie knew he had done that deliberately.
"All right," He said, pulling out another small velvet box that contained two gold bands. He held it between them for a moment, and when he let go it stayed in the air, floating. Standing back and taking hold of both her hands, he said, "Sophie Hatter, do you want to marry me?" Sophie giggled at the informality of it and said, "I do," squeezing his hands gently. He smiled and said, "And I most definitely want to marry you." Here he took the smaller of the rings a slid it on top of the engagement ring he had placed there just minutes before. Sophie's eyes widened in wonder as the two rings glowed slightly before melting into one ring. The diamond shattered gently and settled into the gold band, making it look like stars were spread across it. It was beautiful. She looked up at Howl, who smiled and nodded to the open box. She took his gold band and slid it onto his finger. "I now pronounce us man and wife," Howl said with a smirk, and pulled her into a kiss. He must have done something special, because Sophie's head felt like it was full of sparkles. When he pulled back and she opened her eyes, she was not entirely surprised to find that he had transported them. After a moment she realized that they were in his bedroom, though it didn't look anything like the dust covered room she knew. Everything was clean, and there were new blue and white sheets on the bed and drapes from the four posts. The window to Wales was clean, with a sheer white curtain drawn across it.
Turning to Howl with her hands on her hips, she said with mock anger, "You could have done this at any time? Instead you chose to live in filth and torment me?" Howl actually looked a little sheepish when he said, "It did actually take some time. It really was quite dirty." He rubbed the back of his head in an endearing, embarrassed way that made Sophie want to hug him.
She put a hand on the side of his face and said, "It's beautiful," with a smile. Howl slipped an arm around her waist and said, "It's ours," with a decidedly mischievous look in his eyes.