It was ridiculous, he knew that much. Yet, he couldn't stop his fingers from pulling the black curtains apart. It had become a habit, maybe even a ritual, to watch her sleep. Though it was never for more than a breath ("Okay, maybe a bit longer. She doesn't need to know! Don't you dare wake her Calcifer, please shut up."), watching his old/young self-appointed cleaning lady curled underneath sheets that used to be his and his only, sometimes with a small smile on her lips and the occasional sigh that drew from those aforementioned, he felt something. A feeling he wouldn't mind living in: something akin to what he felt holding Calcifer for the first time all those years ago and the way he feels at the occasional hug from Markl. If only his heart was still his, hidden behind his ribs, he was sure it would be leaping out of its confines to attach itself to the young girl/old woman.
He flinches away from the nook at the thought, for his not-in-its-place heart had been broken by others far too many times, and the curtains fall back into place, obscuring his vision of the sleeping girl.
The first time he saw Sophie sleeping as, well, at-the-proper-age Sophie, he nearly bolted out of the castle. He knew his self-appointed cleaning lady was cursed however that did not mean he was expecting to see her when he opened the curtains. He had quickly turned to Calcifer, letting the curtains fall.
"Did you know?"
Calcifer is surprised to wake up to a gasp, from Howl of all people. Yes, that friend of his was dramatic, a lover of theatrics, but his gasps were never that genuine. Peeking behind his slowly diminishing log he is, to be frank, not shocked. He would question Howl's reaction but he quickly remembers that the man is never home at the lovely hour that is 1:00 PM. Just after lunch, the perfect time to take a nap.
A sentiment that not only he, but also Sophie and Markl were sharing as well. They were sharing the small sleeping nook, Sophie curled around Markl, the said child looking tinier than he usually did as only his hair was visible beneath Sophie's arms. It couldn't be comfortable, it shouldn't even look comfortable, but to his horror, Howl thought it was.
He felt like he disturbed their peace, like he was not supposed to see this precious event, even though technically this was his house, his castle. He looked towards Calcifer, hoping to find him sleeping but just to his luck, his friend was staring right at (and frankly somehow through) him.
"Hello, lover boy."
"Oh shush you."
They needn't wake the two up, the day was still with no upcoming duties (if you didn't count the impending war) and frankly, he couldn't find it in his i'm-not-actually-in-here-so-please-stop-blaming-things-on-me heart the want to rouse them up anyway. So he did what any other
loving father figure decent host would do: he put two glasses and a water pitcher on a small stool nearby, pulled a light blanket on them, and closed the black curtains. Then, he outright ignored the pointed looks coming from Calcifer and made a run for his room.
Just like any other decent host would do.
He went through the motions, stuck on a (to be frank very willing) repeat, every night. He would retire to his room after sharing after-dinner silence with Sophie and Markl while Calcifer complained about "the thing of the day" (yesterday it was Sophie putting one less log next to him as she went about her day, today it was that Howl had asked for a warm bath, and tomorrow? only time could tell - the only thing Howl was sure of was that Calcifer was going to complain about something
they he could never escape), right when Sophie started to play with Markl's hair and either talked, sang or told a story to the young boy. Howl stayed once, he fell asleep to the lull of the moving castle, to the small smile in Sophie's voice as she told a story about a prince-turned-frog, his eyes following her fingers as they caressed the young child's odd-coloured locks; he woke up the next morning underneath a thankfully sleeping Markl - he was simply terrified.
She would always come up an hour or so later, with a warm glass of milk for him and a small cardigan for Markl (after that nap he had, uh, barged in to, Howl had come to the realisation that the boy preferred to sleep nestled next to the "older by day, younger by night" woman). After a brief "Thank you, Sophie." and "Good night, Howl.", he had come to learn that Sophie would fall asleep in fifteen minutes to half an hour. Then, to the dismay of Calcifer, Howl would sit on the lowest step, move the curtains to the side with magic and just look? meditate? fall down into a rabbit hole that only consists of more questions and visions of a sleeping Sophie and Markl? Who could know? Definitely not him.
This somehow grounded him? Like he, the Howl with the Moving Castle (trademarked), felt grounded by the sight of his self-appointed and cursed cleaning lady cuddling with his apprentice. Maybe it was the normality of it all. To an outsider, he thought, they would appear to be a family. Sophie, the mother (that was an old woman during the day but let's move past that for a second let me imagine Calcifer), their son Markl and- Howl as the father. Well, he would be a bad father, with his spending habits, tendency to disappear for a few days, and at this point probably the unavoidableness of "I'm a kind of cursed, but definitely a bird-monster, it was lovely to spend time with all of you but this bird has to take flight and never come back, bye fami- brethren!"
Yeah, he definitely didn't know - and oh, he was definitely heartless. For a fact, he was about to turn bad like everyone except his fami- his two brethren expected him to.
That's when Calcifer decided to speak up:
"Big bad Howl is in big bad trouble, isn't he?"
Big bad Howl was indeed in big bad trouble.
He had done the unimaginable he- he stopped dyeing his hair. Well, at least he had thrown a temper tantrum over it so his reputation was mostly intact. Markl had asked him, when the boy was tasked with cleaning him, "Do you want me to dye your hair back, Master?" He had just shaken his head from one side to the other, remembering Sophie telling him something along the lines of "This colour suits you, too!". That woman was going to be the death of him for sure.
Now, as he looked at her more-grey-than-brown hair and thought that she would look good in any hair colour, too. He was surprised to hear his own voice ask,
"Calcifer, what do I do?" The being rolled its eyes.
"Don't ask me, I'm just a simple demon."
"You kissed me."
A soft voice, coming from underneath his right arm, answered to his sudden voice. "What are you talking about Master?"
"Markl, honey, we talked about this, stop calling him Master you're going to send his brain into overdrive." He looked down, not really focusing on anywhere specific, to Sophie who was hugging his left side. "Yes, I did."
"But I didn't-" he started, trying to remember whatever he could from heaven knows when.
"You were on the cusp death, dearheart. I don't, and could never, hold it against you."
"Did we have this conversation before?"
She giggled. He made her giggle. That made him giddy. Oh no, he was truly in trouble, wasn't he?
"Yes, yesterday morning, and late midday before that. Though it was after the Prince had left and you were terribly confused - wait stop laughing, why are you laughing, Markl why is he laughing?"
Honestly? Howl didn't know. He was just, so, so incredibly happy.