Sophie Hatter was head-over-heels in love. She was young again, having melted her curse away the moment she began to push Howl's heart back into his chest. He too was unbelievably infatuated with his better half; besides having his heart restored, Howl was finding the domesticity that came with having Sophie around rather refreshing. There was something so calming about coming home to see her, something invigorating about crafting the perfect surprise for her, and a sense of what he could only define as happiness each night when the three of them - Howl, Sophie, and Markl - all sat down to dinner together.
Markl himself was becoming a rather genius little boy, always running around their home in his green pants and vest, simply bursting at the seams to learn more magic from his mentor. While he still seemed to keep Howl at arm's length (always calling him "Master Howl", even now, and behaving so stiffly around him), Markl had taken to Sophie more and more each day. Although the two of them did become rather close while she was under the witch's curse, seeing and interacting with Sophie as she was meant to be was a much different experience for Markl than having tea with an elderly grandmother. Sophie herself began to feel as though she had a child of her own, and found after a few months that she quite enjoyed the feeling.
Howl himself was growing somewhat jealous of the way Sophie had managed to charm Markl. In the past, he had simply adored having a student to teach, someone who obeyed his every command and could one day grow to be a wonderful wizard because of Howl's own teachings. But now that there was love in his life, a heart that he held so delicately within his chest and hoped to God that he would never again lose, not at his own hand, nor someone else's, Howl found himself wanting more. He wanted Markl to see him in the same light Sophie bathed in. He wanted to be a caregiver, with something to offer Markl besides room and board. That was when Howl decided to give Markl what he had always wanted: increased magic lessons.
It began small. Howl taught Markl, much to his delight, how to conjure a specific kind of flower. Previously, if Markl could conjure anything at all, it would be something random, thrown haphazardly into his bedroom as soon as the boy realized it was not quite what he was hoping it could have been.
"Close your eyes, Markl, remembering that you are inside the circle," Howl instructed. "Breathe deeply and calmly. In this moment, there is nothing else besides you, and the circle, and the magic it holds." Somewhere beside them, Calcifer crackled softly, watching with a curious gaze. "Now," Howl began, positioning Markl's hands just so, as if a flower already rested between his fingers. "Summon it!"
With the tinniest flash of yellow light, Markl's magic exploded between the bottoms of his feet and the magic circle. The floorboards creaked under the pressure as the light traveled up to his hands, where a gorgeous lily appeared from thin air. Upon feeling the stem between his fingers, Markl's eyes flew open, and the light that bathed the room vanished, leaving only the flower behind as proof of the feat. He gasped, loud and childish and excited. It was these moments that reminded Howl of how young Markl still was; when he practiced magic in this way, strong and determined and controlled, it was easy to imagine him as an older boy despite his short stature. The enthusiasm, or rather the sight of the boy running around excitedly with his prize, calling for Sophie, was an apt reminder for Howl.
Once she heard her name, Sophie appeared She smiled widely, happily, as Markl shoved the flower into her grasp, announcing that it was for her and that he had created it out of practically nothing at all, only a little chalk, and that, of course, had only been to draw the summoning circle with Master Howl.
"That's quite impressive then, Markl!" She gave him a gentle pat on the head, and from across the room, Howl felt his heart skip a beat. His heart... that's right. He had one of those again, no matter how often the fact slipped his mind. His heart allowed him to love Sophie as he did, and love Markl as he did, but it also allowed him to realize that, somehow, he envied Sophie in this moment. Perhaps Markl needed to learn something that was not so easy to give away. Something that could be just his.
That would make Howl his hero, as Sophie so clearly was. Right?
Next, Howl taught Markl to create fire. From there, they tackled fog and escape tactics for battle, and the two stopped short of Howl's animal transformation technique only because of Sophie's numerous and loud protests. It still hurt her to remember seeing Howl that night, his big body draped in elegant black feathers, all of which seemed to cause excruciating pain as he forced them back under the surface of his skin, where he banished them back into nothingness.
Howl taught Markl day and night, never stopping to encourage him to study harder, try numerous different kinds of magic, see what was easiest and which was hardest for Markl to master. Some nights, the boy refused dinner, working straight through the night until morning, when he would collapse into bed, too exhausted for a bath.
To Howl, it was all too perfect. Sure, he was still "Master Howl", but any day now that would change. Markl used his magical abilities in many ways similar to Howl, in that they both crafted better versions of life for Sophie, no matter how small the changes actually were. He began helping with the daily chores, using magic as his aid. Suddenly, Sophie would find laundry folding itself, or a pot being stirred by an invisible force. She scowled after the thrill of it all wore off; the already disliked how often Howl used magic as a crutch, and had hopped their ordeal with his heart would have crafted a better relationship with magic, but apparently, nothing changed. Markl wanted to make Sophie happy, and wanted to make his master proud. The two had spun into a deadly combination.
Markl would spend hours upon hours practicing his magic in the flower field, whilst simultaneously completing his chores with magic. While it annoyed Sophie well enough, it also worried her to know end. She was unfamiliar with magic and the aspects of it that could be taxing on one's health, but she knew when too much was too much just by looking at their situation. Howl was enjoying their time alone whenever he could, flirting, lifting her in the air, and above all else making Sophie feel like a queen around the house. But it was difficult navigating the pleasures of a crown when the boy who she had come to love like a son had seemed to be spreading himself to thinly. Howl continuously reminded her that he was the expert and that this was normal, he did these sorts of things constantly in his youth.
"But Howl!" she would argue, "Markl is just... so much younger!" Exasperated, she would give up every time the topic arose...
...until it all came crumbling down.
"Something's wrong." Calcifer warned Howl, upon seeing the man sleepily ascending the stairs.
"What?" Howl had just gotten out of a morning bath, and was planning on teaching Markl his most complex spell yet. It was a special one to the wizard, he having been much older than Markl when he learned it. Then again, Markl had been learning so many of his older spells lately, it seemed only fitting for Howl to remember him now as a prodigy. "Everything's perfect, Calcifer, stop worrying." He added a log beneath Calcifer's spot in the fireplace.
The fire demon sighed and continued to press his master. "I mean it Howl." He warned. "Something is definitely wrong. I can feel it. Or do you forget that I still control this house?"
"Alright, I'll keep my eye on it."
Calcifer rolled his eyes. "I am a powerful and free demon," he muttered, "why I stay here is beyond me."
"It's because you love us, Calcifer!" Sophie cheerfully interjected. She walked up behind Howl, wrapped her arms around his center, and gave him a great squeeze. "Good morning, Howl." she mumbled, pressing her cheek against his back. Before he could respond, a ginormous crash erupted from the kitchen. Pots of things lay spilled on the floor, with other things like spoons and curtains lay strewn across the counter tops and floor, as if while in use they had been dropped and then abandoned. All at once the three of them knew what must have happened, and cried out in unison, "Markl!"
Upon hearing his name, the boy came down the stairs, rubbing his eyes tiredly. It was the first time Howl noticed in a long while that there was no light in Markl's eyes. His skin was pale and sticky with sweat, and his eyes were dark and sunken. Sophie gasped in dismay.
"M'sorry, Master Howl," He began, voice scratching painfully against a dry throat. "I had a little, uh.. blip, I guess..."
Sophie ran towards him, scooping the child up into her arms before pressing her lips to his forehead. "You have a fever," she mumbled between kisses. Something about seeing him like this made Sophie want to curl up and cry. He was so small and so fragile, and she was supposed to protect him. She was a mother for him to have and to hold, and that she had let things grow this out of control. "This is because of the magic lessons," she muttered, scooping Markl into her arms and glaring at Howl.
"Magic! Always magic!" Sophie exclaimed. "The things you two could simply learn to do on your own!" Before Howl could interject, she gestured to the feverish blob that Markl had become, laying on the side of the sofa, Calcifer glowing a little brighter beside him at the fireplace, trying to provide whatever sort of comfort he could. "Honestly!"
Howl was trying to reason with her. Trying. "Sophie, please, I was only trying to-"
"I know what you were doing! You wanted another project, now that the war is done and everything is wonderful, you couldn't just be happy. Didn't you feel it?" she pleaded. "Didn't your heart tell you that it was finally fine to relax?"
Howl sighed. "Of course it did, Sophie. My Sophie... I was just trying to become something."
"Just something else!"
At that moment, Markl rolled over and coughed, bringing the other two back down to reality. Sophie relaxed her shoulders and shot Howl a softer, kinder glance. "It doesn't matter now, my love." Howl's hear fluttered wildly at the pet name. "We can discuss it later."
Markl's fever continued to climb at a rapid pace for the next hour, in which Sophie refused to leave his side. Howl was then tasked with fetching things for the two of them; a colder cloth for Markl's head, a glass of milk for him to drink, Sophie's favorite book so she could read to him.
His magic had ripped through his veins and taken all there was to take. It had happened to Howl before, numerous times, but it did not help to alleviate the sting of seeing someone he loved so much in so much pain.
After a few more hours, Sophie had fallen asleep with Markl curled up beside her. She was exhausted, Howl reminded himself as he leaned down to give her forehead a kiss. As he pulled away, he noticed Markl looking up at him, eyes barely open and watering up.
"Don't be sad, little one," He hummed, scooping him up as if he was a baby.
"Papa?" came Markl's tiny voice.
Howl hummed once more, letting Markl's feverishly warm skin press against his neck. "That would be me," he chuckled. Pressing a kiss against the top of his head, Howl murmured a soft apology, and sat down beside Sophie on the sofa. There, they slept until morning, the three of them curled up together, warmed by Calcifer's gentle light.