Astrid was alight with excitement as they drove to Laredo. She knew she was overly chatty and probably driving her boyfriend crazy, but she couldn't help it. She was thrilled to be seeing her family again. Especially because this time she was bringing Hiccup and she couldn't wait to introduce him to everyone.
She filled their drive with fun stories of growing up with her crazy cousins and a million cows. She had spent every free moment at Lucky Acres and had only missed a few summers when she was competing in the major pageants which were always in August. Her father had even agreed to pay Candie's rent as long as she lived within three hours of the ranch, just to ensure that Astrid could be there as much as possible. After his death, her family had taken her mother to court to fight for custody. Unfortunately, Candie had been sleeping with some high powered attorney or judge or something and won primary custody. It had been a fight to keep the visits up because Candie had wanted to increase Astrid's pageant schedule which would have completely eliminated her summers at the ranch. Luckily, her Aunt and Uncle had no problems dragging Candie back to court to ensure that Astrid had as much of a normal life as possible. Honestly, she believed it's the only reason she didn't end up as screwed up as most of the career pageant girls she knew.
She loved telling stories about her cousin's wild antics. Rachel and Tommy were the type of people who lived life to the fullest and Astrid had loved going along for the ride, even it had gotten them grounded a few times. Rachel was the typical wild country girl who had vowed never to settle down and God forbid have kids! Tommy was very intelligent but hadn't developed common sense till his late twenties, and even then it had a tendency to be in short supply. Astrid could easily recall her uncle looking at his son in absolute amazement after some of his more ridiculous escapades. Convinced that the only reason he was still alive was because he had a guardian angel watching over him. The poor thing was probably exhausted and had earned his wings several times over.
Her very favorite tales involved Chicken. Astrid had only been about seven or eight but she distinctly remembered her cousin convincing his parents to let the fuzzy little chick live in the house. Chicken who had been trained to use a litter box, followed Tommy around all day and slept perched on the end of his bed all night. They had been inseparable and he took Chicken everywhere, even going so far as to fit her with a little Chihuahua sized life jacket so they could go fishing out on the pond. The spoiled yard bird had lived to the ripe old age of fifteen and was buried under a tree in the family plot. Chicken's offspring fill the pens on the ranch, though Penny has put her foot down and refuses to allow any of them into the house. Hiccup may be the Horse Whisperer, but Tommy was the Chicken Whisperer.
As soon as they crossed the gate to the farm Astrid started giving Hiccup the mini-tour. "See that tree," she pointed to the massive oak in the middle of a grazing pasture. "That tree saved my life. We were wandering around the ranch and Tommy had disappeared for a bit, which was nothing new so we didn't think anything of it. Suddenly we felt the ground shake and could hear the cows coming at us so we ran for that tree and climbed as fast as we could. Of course, Tommy was at the head of the stampede riding one of the cows with Chicken sticking out of his back pack – having the time of their lives. He had somehow managed to put a bareback saddle on the cow." She couldn't help bursting out into laughter, "I don't think I had ever heard my Dad or Uncle Rick yell that loudly or turn that many shades of purple. That stampede could have killed us all, Tommy and Chicken included. I thought my uncle was actually going to kill Tommy when he tried to justify the stampede with his theory of how cows were better than horses."
They drove straight to Rachel and Fisher's house and when Astrid stepped out of the truck she was bowled over by four little blond girls.
"Auntie Astrid, Auntie Astrid!" They yelled as they danced about her legs tying to climb on top of her. "I missed you so much," came with a chorus of squeals and giggles.
"Oh I've missed you all," laughed Astrid as she knelt down to hug them. "Let me see you!"
While she was getting mobbed a tall, thin woman that shared a family resemblance and a man almost as large as Stoick approached Hiccup. "Hi," she said as she shook his hand, "I'm Astrid's cousin Rachel. It's so nice to meet you."
"Hayden Haddock, thank you for inviting me."
Rachel laughed, "You've made my cousin very happy and I've read your book, twice. I practically begged her to bring you."
Hiccup just nodded and gave a bit of his crooked smile, "Thank you."
Fisher noticed his discomfort from his very direct wife, "Fisher Ingerman," he said as he shook his hand. "You look like you could use a cold drink."
Hiccup's eyes lit up, "It's been a long trip so yah, that would be pretty welcome right now."
"Let's go inside and leave them to get their hellos done. The girls are pretty excited because we didn't tell them you were coming till after lunch and they've been watching the driveway for the past half hour."
Hiccup followed Fisher inside and was grateful for the quiet as well as the offered beer.
"The rest of the family is on their way down. I'll warn you now, my in-laws are a bit on the over-protective side when it comes to Astrid. They've been saving her from Candie's psychotic clutches since she was a little girl." He looked back, "Oh, sorry. You know about Astrid's crazy mother right?"
"I've heard the stories. It's hard to believe someone could be so cold to their own child."
Fisher gave a frown as he handed Hiccup a cold glass bottle of his favorite microbrew, "Candie is one of those women who thinks she's better than everyone else, including her only daughter. She would send Astrid here with a food scale, limited calorie menus, lists of food restrictions and beauty routines she was supposed to follow. Luckily Rick and Amy trashed them and let Astrid be a kid."
"Holy shit," whistled Hiccup. He'd known that Candie had obsessed over Astrid's diet. He just didn't think it was possible to be even more disgusted with her.
"You're telling me," agreed Fisher. "I've met Candie a few times and well, as Grandma Josie would say 'I wouldn't offer that woman a glass of water, even if she were on fire."
Hiccup could only agree, even if he'd never met her. No one deserves to be treated like a pawn their entire life. He'd never really appreciated how lucky he'd been until Astrid had started confiding in him about some of the more horrible things her mother had done. His parents may have been overprotective but he'd never once doubted that they'd loved him, even when he and his dad didn't see eye to eye about anything.
Fisher broke him from his thoughts, "I've read your book too by the way. I think almost everyone around here has. So I hate to say it, but you'll probably get bombarded with tons of questions at the party tomorrow. Birthdays are sort of a big thing here. I think we're expecting about 40 or 50 people. I apologize in advance for the chaos but hopefully it's nothing you're not used to."
Hiccup shrugged, "My mom loves to throw parties. When it gets too much I usually escape to the nearest barn with some horses in it."
Fisher took a long pull from his own bottle, "You'll fit right in with the rest of us. The parties are fun and never too formal, thank God. But after a while, chatting with Great Aunt Rosalie is a bit much so a bunch of us head out to the barn to drink beer and throw horseshoes. If the weather's right we grab some poles and head to the pond to fish or sit on the pontoons."
"That sounds perfect."
"Hiccup," said Astrid from the entry way, "Did Fish start jabbering your ear off already?"
"We're good," he replied with a chuckle as he noticed Fisher's confused look.
Astrid greeted him with a kiss, "I forgot to ask you if you wanted me to call you Hayden around everyone else."
Hiccup smiled down at her, "No worries." He looked over at Fisher, "My family calls me Hiccup. So please feel free to as well. Hayden is for book signings and lecture halls but I really don't mind Hayden."
"No, Hiccup it is," said Rachel as she entered the room. "I even think we should introduce you as that tomorrow. Let them all try and figure it out, might add some excitement and the guys won't run off to escape as quickly."
Fisher tried to look innocent, "We don't go to escape."
"Sure honey," laughed Rachel as she pat his side and kissed his cheek. "Come on I think I hear the cavalry arriving."
Being introduced to the rest of Astrid's family went the same way. Rick and Amy were like gushing parents and Amy hovered over Astrid like a mother hen constantly hugging her and telling her how good it was for her to be home. Tommy and Penny came with their four boys and as soon as the hello's were out of the way the kids were all begging to do anything but stay around the adults and be bored. Knowing if they were made to stay inside it would only spell disaster all eight of them were sent outside with the two oldest put in charge of making sure the little ones stayed in the play yard.
Hiccup noticed immediately that though the twin siblings were not identical, they were as close to it as possible. Their mannerisms and speech were eerily similar and he really enjoyed watching them interact. As someone who had just spent a great deal of time studying behavior, theirs was truly fascinating to observe.
"You ok?" asked Astrid as they were moving from the living room to the much roomier sunroom.
"Just fine," he let out a contented sigh as he happily got comfortable on a gliding loveseat that looked like the perfect place for an afternoon nap.
"You seem quiet," she sat down next to him and put her feet up on her favorite cushioned ottoman.
"Really? Sorry. I really like your family. You're cousins are a riot, I can see why you love it here so much."
Astrid let out a sigh of relief, "Thanks. I was afraid they were too much. They have a tendency to talk in incomplete sentences and not realize it. I think it's because they understand each other so well they forget about the rest of us. We are all used to it."
"I've caught that a few times but it wasn't anything that I couldn't piece together. It's not uncommon for twins to behave that way, though it's more common in monozygotic than dizygotic."
At Astrid's confused look Hiccup backtracked, "Sorry identical versus fraternal. My brain reverted back to school for a second."
She gave him a quick kiss, "You're so sexy when you get all sciencey and use big words that nobody understands."
He couldn't help but blush a bit when he looked up and noticed everyone staring at them.
"Ok, either I've been married too long or you two are kind of disgusting," deadpanned Rachel, who was actually thrilled to see her cousin so happy.
Astrid snuggled closer to her boyfriend, "I'm not even about to apologize because you and Fisher were absolutely nauseating for years. You're just too exhausted from the girls to remember."
"We have our moments," she said with a wink to her husband.
The conversation turned to horses and of course to Hiccup's book and his gift of Horse Whispering.
"It's just following nature," he said simply. "Horses are instinctual creatures, very empathetic. They read your body language and will sense if you're angry or relaxed and mean them no harm. They'll know what kind of person you are before you step within 10 feet of them, so they'll either trust you or they won't. The wilder the horse the more instinctual they'll be. Some horses are so far bred from their natural state they're like drones. The challenging ones are those that are closer to their ancestors." He looked around at his attentive audience, "Sorry, didn't mean to lecture at you."
"Are you kidding me," chortled Rick. "I feel like I should be thanking you for the free advice. I know some people that have hired you and they've said it was worth every penny."
"Thank you. I like my work. I'm pretty lucky that so many people are interested enough to buy my book or even hire me to help them out. But you're Astrid's family, so don't worry, there won't be a bill."
Rick liked the man's dry sense of humor. "Well if you're handing out free advice, care to go for a walk and take a look at my granddaughter's present?"
Hiccup smiled at Astrid then looked at Rick, "I love meeting new horses."
They took a truck past the main house and up to the horse barn. It wasn't as large as the one at Vast Acres but it was still sizable, big enough to hold 20 horses.
"Here she is," said Rick as they approached the stall. He was about to open the door when Hiccup stepped up, "Would you mind if I take a look first?"
"Certainly," said Rick with a huge grin knowing he was in for a treat.
Astrid, Rachel, Penny and Amy had held back a bit so they could chat. Amy leaned over to Astrid, "If you don't marry this man as soon as he asks you I'll never forgive you."
"Aunt Amy," she exclaimed in a hush tone.
"That man is a gem," she whispered. "He's gorgeous, successful, sweet as pie and absolutely adores you."
"She's right," added Rachel. "His eyes follow you around the room and he smiles to himself when you aren't looking. I had to stop myself from running over and hugging him."
"He is pretty wonderful," she sighed as she leaned against her cousin. "But being this happy makes me nervous."
"Darling," reassured Amy, "Don't let one bad apple spoil the bunch. Your Hiccup is a good man. There's not a phony thing about him. What you see is what you get and from what I've seen so far. Well, if I were you I would heat up a branding iron and claim that pony before some other filly beats you to it," she said with a giggle.
Penny and Rachel laughed, "You sound just like Grandma Josie!" they exclaimed in unison.
Amy smiled widely, "Why thank you!"
Astrid looked at them and gave a sly grin. "Well, I've actually been waiting to tell you in person."
The ladies looked at her in anticipation.
"We said the big words about a week ago."
The girls squealed and Astrid quickly hushed them, "Shhh," she said as she eyed her boyfriend and waved at his curious look.
The men looked over at the giggling ladies.
"Oh, they're definitely talking about us." Tommy gave a satisfied smile as he pat Hiccup's back, "So glad you are here brother. You my tall friend are the new fresh meat up for the slaughter and we are off the hook for the time being. Those lovely ladies over there are definitely talking about you, pointing out all your faults and helping Astrid figure out how to change them to turn you into the 'perfect' man."
"Thanks," grumbled Hiccup, "I feel so much better now."
Fish gave Tommy a fist bump, "Better him than us."
"You said it," he agreed.
"Relax," chortled Rick. "You already passed my test, otherwise you would never have been invited past the front gate."
"See that," he nodded in Astrid's direction and clapped Hiccup on the shoulder. "That is a special kind of smile that I have never seen before. You helped put it there and I am forever grateful. Now, if her daddy were here. He'd be havin' a nice long chat with you in the gun shed, reminding you that he was Special Forces and could kill you twenty different ways." He gave a sly smile, his friendly clap now becoming a very firm and almost painful squeeze. "My brother entrusted me to take care of his precious baby girl and it's a promise I take very seriously."
Hiccup just stood there as Rick walked away chuckling to himself.
Tommy nodded his head in memory, "Uncle Mitch was a complete badass."
"So is your dad," added Fisher. "When Rach and I started dating he took me hunting. Army Rangers never miss a shot."
They two men continued to talk as they left Hiccup alone with the horse.
Astrid looked over at her boyfriend, having a fair idea of what transpired. She waited for her uncle to reach her, "Did you just do what I think you did?"
Rick just grinned, "I have no idea what you are talking about."
Astrid rolled her eyes and shook her head, "Be nice, I happen to be in love with him and I don't need you reminding him that you could take him out from a thousand yards."
"Now why would I say something like that?"
They stayed on the other side of the barn so Hiccup could check out the new horse.
Rick was a bit surprised as he watched Hiccup open the stall door and back up a few yards. "He doesn't lead the horse from the stall?"
Astrid smiled, "No, he wants to see if she'll bolt. Don't worry, they never do. Somehow they always know who he is and just trust him. It amazes me every time."
"I have absolutely no worries my dear. I'm just thrilled as all hell to be able to watch him work."
They continued to watch and listen as Hiccup made some clicking noises and whispered some indistinguishable words. The horse made its way from the stall and looked around. Hiccup stood there with is hands down by his sides, palm forward not saying a word. They watched in awe as the horse looked around and then spotted Hiccup and ambled her way over to him. She sniffed his hands and then his face and then nudged him a few times. He brought his hands up to her nose and then lifted her nose back up to his face and then leaned his forehead against her muzzle. He then took a few minutes to walk around her, gently gliding his hands across her coat during his inspection. Finally he looked up and smiled at Astrid who led her family back over.
"She's a fine horse," he said happily as he scratched under her chin. "A bit skittish so I would take it easy at first, have Katie spend a few days walking her on a lead before she saddles her. But she's a gentle soul and perfect for a ten year old little girl. I would have picked her out myself."
Rick was shocked at himself when he breathed a sigh of relief. Hiccup's stamp of approval for his gift to his granddaughter was as good as gold.
"Astrid and I will be more than happy to come out and work with them. This little girl will make a fine show horse if that's what Katie wants. She'll sit an English saddle well and seems to have a good temperament. I'll take a closer look if you want to see if she'll be a good jumper or even barrel racing."
"You can tell all that by just looking at her?" asked Fisher who couldn't help but be in a bit of awe.
Hiccup nodded as he continued to run his palms flat against the horse's sides and down her flanks. "A horse's build will tell you a lot. Just like I'm sure tons of people you meet ask you what position you played in football."
Fisher chuckled, "More times than I care to think about. I played but I was more interested in math than sports. I manage the cattle contracts and ranch finances, they handle the livestock, though I do help out when I can. I might not know one end from the other but I'm sure helpful when they need to hold one down."
Hiccup liked this guy already. He leaned over and whispered but still loud enough for everyone to hear him, "I'm actually kind of a geek myself. My first degree was in mathematical engineering."
"You're kidding," said Fisher who now felt much better about not being the only self-proclaimed geek in the family.
Hiccup nodded, "I was going to be an engineer but changed my mind and stayed with ranching."
Amy wrapped her arm around her niece, "No wonder you and Astrid are perfect for each other, talented elsewhere but love ranching."
Rachel bumped her hip to Astrid's, "Speaking of your insane talent. You are still singing at the party right?"
"Of course I will. Am I dressing up again, or is ten too old for princesses?"
Rachel gave a look of disappointment, "Though I never thought I would ever be sad about this, ten is too old to have a princess at your party. We are going to Sweet and Sassy for a spa day. This place is incredible, like a pink and purple glitter bomb went off. Katie is so excited. Especially since they have a stage with karaoke and she can't wait for you to sing for her friends. Did you get the list of songs?"
Astrid nodded, "So it's not a princess party but I am still singing several princess songs?"
"Yep," smiled Rachel, "In Katie's own words, she's too old to have auntie dress up like Elsa but she and her friends still love the songs so it's ok to have you sing them." She hugged her favorite cousin, "Just stick to the list and you'll be fine."
The girls looked over when they heard the guys laughing, "What is so funny?" they asked.
Hiccup tried to keep a straight face, "Please tell me you have pictures of Astrid dressed up like a Disney princess."
Astrid knew her boyfriends twisted mind and his smirk was a dead giveaway. "You are such a perv!" she huffed and then grabbed her cousin's hand and marched out of the barn.
"What? I was not thinking that!" Hiccup tried to look shocked as he handed the reins to Rick, who he could tell was trying not to laugh. "I'm not thinking that."
"I see Astrid's temper hasn't changed," he asked as he led the horse to the door to the adjacent paddock.
"Meaning, do I get in trouble a lot?" Hiccup shrugged, "A few times, but nothing serious. Astrid is actually a bit more understanding than I deserve. She put up with me while I was prepping for my dissertation; living off caffeine, power bars and very little sleep. If she didn't kill me then I think we're good."
"Good to hear. Astrid told us you got your doctorate. Congratulations on that, it's quite an accomplishment."
"Thank you. I'm relieved it's done so I can start focusing on the ranch and my clinics, though my publisher is driving me crazy wanting to know about my next book."
"Yah, Astrid tells us she sends you weekly emails."
"She does tell you everything, doesn't she?"
"Don't worry, not everything, though we have our ways of finding things out." He eyed Tommy and Fisher who each smiled in acknowledgement. "Let's just say, one of Astrid's past boyfriends didn't treat her very well and after all was said and done I paid him a visit with a few Ranger buddies so we could let him know that his behavior didn't come without consequences."
Hiccup nodded in understanding and grinned, "Ethan?"
Rick gave a small satisfied smile, "We let him know that his new police record was the least of his problems. If he so much as Googles Astrid's name our next visit won't be so cordial." He hadn't learned about Ethan's abusive treatment of his niece until after he had already been fired from the show. Once the police were involved Astrid had finally decided to call and tell them everything. It took everything in him not to fly out and pound the man into the pavement. The friendly visit took place shortly after and though they never laid a hand on him they made sure to communicate their displeasure in his treatment of Astrid.
"Thank you," said Hiccup.
"It was my pleasure," answered Rick. "Though, let's keep that between us. Astrid doesn't know that last part and though I know she's perfectly capable of fighting her own battles, I felt I owed it to the little prick for treating her so badly. If Astrid's dad were alive he would have made sure Ethan disappeared off the face of the earth so I figured I was taking it easy on him."