“Are you certain?” Sophie eyes Howl.
“Yes,” Howl says, reaching up to sift Sophie’s hair through his hands. “I quite like the colour.”
“Don’t throw a fit if you don’t like it in the end.”
“I would never.” Just a little bit of incredulous denial sneaks into his voice.
Sophie steps up onto the stool dyed in watercolours, shifting through the endless bottles. Even though she cleaned the bathroom, Howl’s endless potions and makeup concoctions bump into each other.
“What about this one?” Sophie holds up a bottle with a skinny neck, full of dark grey liquid.
“There should be one with carnations on it. That would be the one closest to yours.”
Sophie picks it up. The liquid bubbles at her touch. The miracles of the castle. The longer she stays here, the more she learns. Markl likes the south balcony, but can’t stand the north since the wind is fierce there. Calcifer prefers eggshells to apple peels. Little things that fill her laughs.
“This?” Sophie shows Howl.
“Should be that one.” Howl grins.
Markl walks into the bathroom then, holding a yellow rag. “Did you want this one, Sophie?”
“That’s perfect. Over here, please.” Markl brings over the square rag, avoiding the puddles already gathered on the floor. Sophie’s going to be in over her head with cleaning after this.
“Okay!” Markl’s bright green clothes need stitching. Sophie makes a mental note. They can get green thread the next time they’re in town.
“Thank you.” Sophie places the towel next to Howl’s head. His hair is dripping wet, hanging over the tub.
“Be careful, darling.” Howl watches Sophie pull out the cork of the bottle. The grey liquid pours into her hand.
“I will. Don’t fuss.” Sophie works the grey into the bunch of hair. “And you’re sure we don’t need to bleach first?”
“I think so.”
Howl’s hair is worn from all the dyes he’s run it through. It’s unfair, she thinks, that he still looks young and fresh. Still, she paints the collection of strands grey. It mesmerizingly turns lighter, lighter, until it’s practically the same colour as hers.
“Sophie!” Howl had said with a grin. “Wow! Your hair looks like starlight.”
His looks like a comet in a sky of darkness.
Often, Sophie finds Howl with a hand to his chest.
“Just checking,” he says.
“Let me.” Sophie replaces Howl’s hand with her own. Her palm finds his heartbeat. It’s strong, boom, boom, boom. It resonates in his ribcage, thundering and powerful. No wonder it could move a castle and fit all of them comfortably.
“Anything wrong?” Sophie asks, just in case.
Howl shakes his head. “Nothing, my love.”
Sophie rests her head against his chest, listening to the soundtrack through his white tunic. Howl hums, with an arm around her shoulders.
They don’t move for a while. They don’t need to.
“Nothing is off,” Sophie says after an eternity.
“I know.” Howl smiles at her. “I know.”
Sophie wakes to the smell of bacon and the sound of little feet running around. Sun filters through her light pink curtains.
“Calcifer, a little lower, please.” That’s Howl, on the other side of her door.
“That’s dangerous, you know. I could burn out.” Calcifer's squabbling.
“We don’t want to burn Markl, do we?”
“Thank you, Calcifer!” Markl always sounds so cheery in the mornings.
Sophie enters their living room, and her eyes befall Howl and Markl. Markl’s holding a pan over a dulled Calcifer, Howl watching over the two of them with care. He’s holding a basket of eggs and oranges.
Calcifer catches sight of her first. “Morning, Sophie,” Calcifer says through the crunch of eggshells.
“Good morning, everyone.” Sophie smiles at them. Rows of Howl’s bedroom trinkets line the walls, framed by her hats and Markl’s new drawings.
“Good morning, Sophie!” Markl turns to her. The grease almost sloshes into Calcifer. “I’m making breakfast!”
“I can see that.” Sophie crosses the wooden floor to get to them. “It looks delicious.”
Howl’s by her side suddenly, arms slipping around her waist. A gentle kiss on her forehead. “Good morning, Sophie.”
“Good morning, Howl.” They exchange smiles.
“It’s going to be a wonderful day,” Howls says into her hair. “They’re remaking the ships in the Porthaven harbour today. We should go see them.”
“Howl said we could go!” Markl licks his fingers. “And breakfast is ready!”
“Here you go.” Howl whisks to Markl’s side with plates. “Carefully now.”
Markl sticks out his tongue in focus, sliding the bacon and eggs onto their plates. Calcifer flares up again once the pan is off him.
Despite the fact Sophie cleans their dining table every evening, it’s quite messy. Markl’s charcoal set rolls over the maps Howl’s attempting to sketch. Their basket of oranges lies in the middle, a wall of overgrown plants behind them.
“It’s going to be hot, be careful,” Sophie says. Markl’s already digging into his food.
“It’s delicious!” Markl says through his runny eggs. “I’m an amazing cook.”
Howl laughs. “You are.”
Sophie tries the eggs. They’re unevenly cooked and lacking salt. Still, she cleans off her plate.
“My heart likes you more than me,” Howl says, his chin on the crown of Sophie’s head. “It wants to climb out of my chest and live in yours.”
They’re watching the sunset on her favourite balcony. Light wind curls by them, and Howl’s arms rest around her waist.
“It strains for you.” Howl’s voice is honest.
“Don’t worry. It won’t leave your chest.”
Howl sighs. “That’s what my heart is worried about.”
“Hearts don’t worry, Howl.” Her heart is worried all the time for Howl.
“Is that so?”
“Indeed.” Howl squeezes her hand. “It’s a curious thing.”
“Sophie! Look at this!” Howl throws his arms open at the vegetable stand. “There are so many colours of peppers! Look, yellow, and green, and red. Orange, too.”
Sophie grins. For someone so grand, Howl has missed a lot of the mundane things. “I see.”
“Which ones do you like?” Howl picks up a yellow pepper to examine.
Sophie offers the busy vendor an apologetic look. “The yellow ones, or the red.”
“Fascinating.” Howl turns the pepper around in his hand. “I thought there were only red ones.”
“Not only.” Sophie picks up one of each colour.
“We’ll take four,” she says to the vendor, dropping coins into their jar. The vendor briefly nods before turning back to the bustling crowd. The marketplace is always so busy on Saturdays.
“Howl, come on. We still have to get fish.”
Howl follows her, still in awe.
“Don’t you use peppers in magic?” Sophie asks as they head down the cobble street roads.
“Sometimes. But only the red ones.”
Fishermen and buskers call out to them, chimes ringing and three different tunes playing over each other. Sophie scans the set up stands for her usual one.
“Are we in Porthaven?” She asks discreetly to him. Calcifer and Howl had recently relocated the castle yet again. Howl never liked staying in one place for too long.
“Middlegale.” Howl grins. “They have daily carnavals.”
“Carnivals?” Sophie’s only vaguely heard of them once or twice.
“Carnavals.” Howl takes the basket from her. “Full of costumes and stories. I’ll take you tonight.”
“Only if we find the whitetail I’m looking for,” Sophie says. She’s been looking forward to making this curry for the last week.
Howl slides up to a shop with blue curtains and glassy-eyed fish laid on ice. “This one?” He picks up a scaled, fresh fish.
“Yes.” Sophie reaches for her change tote. “That’ll be perfect for tonight.”
And the carnaval is perfect too, jumping fires for silhouette stories and women on stilts and snapping fireworks.
“Is your heart heavy, Sophie?”
Sophie looks up from her rocking chair, embroidery paused. “Sometimes.”
“Sometimes it’s very heavy,” she says. “And other times, it’s light.”
“How?” Howl’s sitting with Calcifer, spun in his chair to face her.
“My heart is heavy when I look at you.” Sophie watches Calcifer flicker. “And then light.” She worries for Howl more than she should, and it goes the same way with loving him. However, sometimes loving him is a burden too. But it’s a weight she’ll gladly bear, it’s comfortable, it slots in her chest right next to the peridot necklace Howl gave her to match his earrings. Well, on the days he wears them.
“Why is it heavy?”
“Because you give me so much trouble,” Sophie teases.
“Sophie!” Howl’s such a child, sometimes. Sophie watches him add a log to Calcifer’s fire.
“But my heart is heavy too,” Howl sobers. “Yet you don’t give me too much trouble.”
“I should hope not.” Sophie says after a beat, “A heart is naturally heavy. Being alive and having a heart is a burden.”
Howl dips his chin. “I see.”
“There are things that will make it lighter, sometimes.” Sophie wonders if it’s a clear night for stargazing. Perhaps there’ll be comets. “You’ll find them.”
“I think I have,” Howl says, his words fond.
I have, Sophie thinks, as she watches Howl glow. I have.