In a long sequence of misfortune, Astrid really needed a win. Choosing to hop one island over turned out to be a good decision.
Toothless glided most of the way, with Hiccup hanging onto the tail, his face dangerously close to the water as he held the fan outright to mirror its natural counterpart. Their fear of nearby villages kept them from venturing too high in the daylight, which, in turn, kept them ignorant.
The beach had more sand than rocks. The thicket of trees just beyond—the same they had spied from another shore—was flush with life, just as Astrid had hoped. Darker leaves, richer foliage, and louder. Astrid had the blade out before her weight could fully sink into the sand. Twitters and rustling limbs called to them. She strained her ears for any other sound as she handed Hiccup his prosthetic leg. Her eyes scanned for movement as she helped haul him to his feet.
"Let's get under cover," she murmured. "Find a good place to camp."
Together, the three of them stepped into the lively forest; Hiccup leaning heavily between trees, Astrid traveling ahead with light movements and a tight hold on the knife, and Toothless wired with sensory overload. The dragon's activity countered Astrid's quiet caution. He circled their progress, nose to the ground. He'd pause, perk, flick a couple ear fins, and then resume his loud sniffing.
Astrid spotted bilberry shrubs and bunches of juniper and fallen acorns on their walk. Clusters of milkycaps and the red tops of jacks. Birds flapped in their nests and critters circled trunks, scattering at their approach. If she were lucky she might be able to catch some larger game without straying too far from the boys. They still had more than half a day's worth of light left.
Whether she'd be able to take it down with the meager knife was a different issue.
"Tooth'll sense any humans long before we do," Hiccup assured her. Astrid didn't lessen the grip on her blade.
"I'd feel better knowing where the closest village is." At least then they'd know in which direction to keep an eye out.
What she found, instead, was a surprising amount of light ahead after nearly half a mile. And thinning trees. And the end of the small, dense forest.
"Well..." Hiccup said, awkwardly, braced against a tree, "that wasn't too long."
Toothless bounded back to his side and Hiccup gratefully leaned an arm on his head. Astrid was left to approach the end of the trees first with a glaring sun offsetting her vision and the comfort of no human noise. The light settled, and Astrid found herself staring over an open field of grey-willow and witchwood. It stretched into taller grasses, a meadow dotted with scrub, reaching as far as the hills in the distance, where low, grey clouds—or smoke, she couldn't tell—rose just beyond the crested horizon.
Astrid finally let her blade arm drop. She turned back to the boys. "Seems clear."
"I think Toothless already determined that," Hiccup said, coming up from behind.
Astrid ignored him, squinting at the direct sun. More clouds passed overhead, softening its harsh flare.
"We've got half a day still," she determined. She felt uneasy about crossing the open meadow, about leaving the security of sea and vegetation.
Toothless made a noise—agitated, with an alarming winge to heighten its pitch. Astrid stared at him as he paced back and forth, his head up, alert, and pointed in one direction. She followed it, soon spotting what couldn't be mistaken for clouds: a steady slate stream. Rising smoke beyond the hills.
Her stomach lurched and Astrid heard her own voice form a word within the resulting exhalation.
At least they knew where a village was.
"We wait until dark and move then," Hiccup decided. He limped over to a thin tree, a Moor Birch, and lowered himself to the ground by the weight of his one good leg. "'Suppose it's good," he grunted as he settled on the hard roots, bracing his back against its slender trunk, "that we made the jump. We got a decent read on what's ahead."
Astrid found herself nodding.
They had the trees for cover and an open field separating them from civilization. They'd be fine.
"Alright," she began, and with a sharp flick of her wrist she threw down the knife so that its tip buried into the moist earth at Hiccup's hip.
"Astrid!" he shrieked.
Astrid threw her head back and laughed. It felt good.
"Sorry," she said without meaning. "You hold onto that. I'm going to forage while it's still light out."
Hiccup shifted where he settled, but didn't take the knife. "Shouldn't you, uh, take it? I have Toothless..."
Astrid shook her head. "Just keep an eye over the field. I won't be too far."
"Well then have Toothless go with you," he argued.
"I won't be too far," she stressed again. "Toothless can help you on lookout."
Hiccup twisted the prosthetic from his leg and glared at Astrid through his bangs.
"I don't need help watching hills, Astrid."
"And I don't need him making noise as I pick up mushrooms."
Toothless appeared to decided for himself what he'd rather do and laid down at Hiccup's side, opposite of the knife. Astrid found herself pleased at seeing Hiccup sandwiched by means of protection.
He didn't seem to agree.
"Really?" he deadpanned at his dragon. Toothless responded by dropping his chin on Hiccup's lap, his large, triangular head dwarfing thin legs. He stared up at Hiccup until Hiccup begrudgingly settled his hand and raked his nails along the dark crown.
"Thanks Tooth. I'll be back before you can count to one hundred."
Hiccup snorted. "Just shout if you need help."
"For Toothless? Sure."
"No," Hiccup drawled, "for me. You know me. Speed dragon."
Astrid rolled her eyes and returned to the abounding forest, retracing their straight trek of earlier to where she had last seen edibles.
She returned nearly half of an hour later with her tunic half-lifted and cupping a collection of berries, mushrooms, and some acorns. Her walk took her far longer than a count to one hundred; even with her good haul as an excuse, Astrid expected a snide remark upon her arrival.
Somehow, she wasn't surprised to find Hiccup asleep instead.
His eyes were closed, his head rested firmly against the tree, and his hand remained still and heavy atop Toothless's head. Toothless, at least, remained awake. He fixed his half-lidded gaze on Astrid as she emerged from the forest and thumped his tail against the ground.
The knife was exactly where she had left it.
"Some watch," Astrid muttered.
The field appeared as undisturbed as she had left it. Longer shadows, perhaps. More rustling as the winds picked up...
Her attention shifted to the steady smoke stream, just as heavy as it had been before.
It must be a smithy to be running all day like that…
She tried to imagine the village on the other side of the hills. Was it like Berk? Lumber-driven and painted? Were the sunny side of those hills dotted with sheep and farmland and fallow fields?
Or were they like the Reefers? Rock and hearty and fishmongering?
She leaned towards the Berkian side. The village was set too inland to be a fishing village. She knew also knew Puffins to be peaceful. Towards Hooligans, that is. Not so much to dragons.
Astrid took a moment to observe the pair: Toothless with his head on Hiccup's lap, dozing but alert. Hiccup entirely pale in contrast to the bark.
She frowned. If he got sick from his leg... well, even if they got back to Berk it might be too late.
Toothless must have mirrored her thoughts, or read the naked worry on her face, and let out a low moan.
Hiccup stirred. The hand on Toothless's head clenched into a fist and he shifted, opening his eyes, seeming shocked at the weight on his lap before registering who it was.
"Hnnn, oh, damn," he blinked, straightening his neck as he rubbed his face, "Hey 'strid..."
"Mmmhmm," Hiccup hummed, wincing as he shifted again. Toothless picked up his head, freeing Hiccup's legs, and gave Hiccup a nice, heady lick to the face.
"Ugh, no—Tooth—please—" He pushed the head away, wiped a hand across his cheek, and froze.
Astrid realized, with slow-rising mortification, that she still had her shirt half-lifted to hold the food, leaving her midriff, perhaps the underside of her wrap, exposed.
She dropped to a crouch by Hiccup's side, near where she had thrown the knife, and cleared her throat.
"Well I found some snacks," she said, quickly brushing away leaves and twigs and loose dirt before dropping her plunder on the cleared ground. "They'll keep us going, at the very least..."
Hiccup sat up straighter and fixated on the knots of indigo fruit. "O-oh, yeah. Uh, that was... quick."
Astrid kept her head bowed to hide the quirk in her lips.
"I'm more worried about water," she admitted, picking a milkcap from the pile. It had occurred to her as she walked the sun-patterned woodland, chewing on a dew-soaked mushroom.
"Yeah," Hiccup coughed, as though realizing his own thirst. "I was thinking the same thing." He plucked a truss of bilberries and shoved them into his mouth. A happy sigh followed. "The berries'll have to do for now," he said over the mouthful. "I wish we had something to carry liquid in. We might be able to boil some of the sea water..."
"I'm not comfortable lighting a fire when we can see their smoke from here..." Astrid paused with her own berries in mouth. "Unless..."
"There might be a stream. Or a river."
Hiccup swallowed. "You think?"
Astrid nodded, angling in her crouch to look at the climbing exhaust.
"The village—that way—they're too far from the shore." She had to wonder at that. Maybe the western coast suffered bad storms? Her eyes darted higher, to where the clouds thickened in the past day. "There could be a source of water though... one that runs through the hills. If we were to walk the length of the forest we might run into it."
Hiccup nodded, chewing his next mouthful quietly. His eyes fell to his lap.
"Tonight," Astrid stumbled on, embarrassingly loud at first. "Tonight, when we fly. We'll stop by whatever we can find." She popped one last berry into her mouth and removed herself from the food. It would last them a while more. She'd be sure to forage again well before dark.
"Think you can wait that long?" Astrid asked.
"I can, yeah." Hiccup eyed her. "Can you?"
She considered their itinerary. Some water, one more stop, then home. Astrid would go the entire journey without water if it got her there faster.
Excitement flooded her core, spreading down to her legs until she began bouncing on her heels.
In the meantime, she should get some energy out of her system with some of her old routines. Maybe she'd exhaust herself enough for a nap. Or feel more comfortable with her body.
She rolled her shoulders and shook out her hands.
"Thirsty people don't work out," Hiccup called from the shade.
"I'm not that thirsty yet," Astrid countered. And it wasn't a workout. Just exercises.
She spread her stance and leveled a couple side jabs to her left. She felt it down her back—the tightening and the release. She did a couple more, faster.
"Besides," she said with a right hook to interrupt the series, "We don't know who we'll run into." Cross right. Knee. Duck. "I need to know how to fight."
"You know how to fight." She could hear his dry amusement. She didn't need to look at him to know his brow had gone flat and his eyes had narrowed as he shook his head.
Astrid repeated the series again, faster.
But not as fast as she used to be.
"I need the reflexes back," she grunted, keeping her weight on her toes. "I spent too long—"
And then Toothless was in front of her, crouched, pupils as large as her fists. Astrid yanked her arm with a yelp.
"Nnngh—Toothless! This isn't play time!"
"Hiccup—no!" she snapped, using the same voice of disapproval she had on the dragon. Hiccup picked up the knife from the dirt, grin in place, and started shucking the bark off a short stick he'd found within arm's reach.
Astrid blew the hair from her eyes, held out a palm to Toothless and commanded, firm and singular: "No."
The dragon appeared to have settled. Satisfied, Astrid turned to put him at her back and started her boxing series again.
A real partner would have helped—something her fists could connect with. For now, just reinstituting the old reflexes would have to be enough.
Black swung into her vision again and Astrid pulled her hand back just in time for Toothless's swipe to miss it.
Hiccup's cackling had her snapping his name next.
Toothless bounced to the side and then back in front of her. His back claws skidded up dirt. His tail curled upward, waving like an off-timed pendulum. His earfins pressed against his neck.
"Toothless, come on!" Astrid moaned. "Hiccup, can you—?"
Hiccup had pulled his full leg to his chest and rested his cheek against his knee. "I think you should play with him."
"I'm not playing," Astrid growled. "I'm—hey!"
Toothless tried to paw at her front again. Astrid jumped back in a wide stance, to which the dragon stooped, his back end squirming.
"Hiccup," she started again, mustering as much threat as she could between clenched teeth, "I swear, if he tackles meeeee!
Astrid pitched to the side with a great leap. Her hands scrabbled against the earth as she darted to the only safe-haven she knew: into the forest, slipping around the base of a wide tree.
Toothless gave chase. She could hear him behind her: his grunty breathing with his tongue hanging out, the thud of his wide feet kicking up soil and roots.
"Toothless," she gasped, "co-come on—! No-n-no—eek!"
She swiveled around another tree. And another. She pranced over roots and slipped on dried leaves and scrambled from the dragon's reach again and again, sensing more than seeing him. He sounded so close—always just behind her—that Astrid was left wondering if he kept a purposeful distance.
Her blood rushed and her face felt hot and her cheeks oddly cold. She huffed and shrieked and, every now and then, an expletive laugh would burst forth, mingling with her huffing and squeals.
Toothless cut her off for the second time and Astrid only just managed to duck the paw batted at her by taking a sharp right through a tangle of spiny evergreen creepers that snagged her trousers. She didn't know if the blow would knock her down or knock her out. She didn't know if Toothless knew how to play with humans.
Using another sharp pivot that nearly wrenched her ankle, Astrid switched direction, the momentum allowing her to dive just below Toothless's chin and summersault back to her feet. The dragon was left stumbling into a pair of close-growing trees.
"Ha!" she crowed, sprinting back to the meadow, straight through the thinner trees, finishing with a jump over the half-eaten pile of edibles.
She didn't feel the burn in her lungs until she had lurched to a stop, blood pounding all the way down to her heels.
Hiccup slowly chewed on a milkcap, its tawny brim poking between his lips as he pared a pointed end to the stick.
"Gooh workouh?" he asked around the mushroom.
Astrid spit several stray hairs off her tongue and rested her hands on her hips. "Well," she panted, "I guess that was one way to—"
A black mass rushed her peripheral. Then a great weight slammed Astrid to the ground. The power of the blow resonated through her ribs and back, rippling muscle and bone, all before the crushing burden pinning her down registered.
"Easy, Tooth!" Hiccup's voice came, alarmed.
Astrid screwed her eyes shut and coughed in air. Her neck ached from straining to save her own skull.
Something wet lapped at her ear and Astrid released an undignified squeal.
She wriggled her arms free and pushed at his muzzle, attempting, to the best of her disadvantage, to shove his head off of her.
Hiccup's moment of apprehension edged back into laughter. Astrid was going to stab him with that stick he'd sharpened.
She settled for clamping Toothless's jaws shut with her hands as best she could.
"If this were a real fight I would be stabbing you in the eye right now," she snarled in her efforts. Toothless managed to dart the forked tip of his tongue out to flick at her chin.
"If this were a real fight, do you think he would just be pinning you?" Hiccup chuckled.
Astrid found herself unable to match his amusement.
Her wrists throbbed. Her stomach tried to climb out of her throat. That rising, simmering panic returned, quickly and unwelcome, always impossible to fully swallow.
She focused on Toothless's fish-heavy breath and forced calm over herself.
"Okay, can he get off me now?" Her voice came steady and low, to her immense relief. Hiccup, still chuckling, half crawled the short distance to where she was pinned.
"Watch," he instructed. He reached forward and Astrid had to tighten her gut to keep from reacting as his fingers neared her side. She concentrated on his movements, watching as he took three fingers to the depression beyond Toothless's jawbone and scratched with some force.
Astrid felt the following purr resonate through the dragon's throat against her stomach. She witnessed large, green eyes roll back into his head—an expression of utter bliss taking over, discernible even on a dragon—before Toothless fell into a boneless daze.
For the second time she felt the wind expel from her lungs.
"What was that?" she grunted. She managed to shimmy sideways enough to free herself from the dozing dragon. She could feel a throbbing somewhere along her shoulder blade and knew it would likely be black and blue tomorrow.
Hiccup made a show of examining the same nails that had just put a Night Fury down.
"Oh, a little trick I figured out..." he said in faux lightness. He glanced at her and smiled. "I even used it in the kill ring once or twice during training."
Astrid paused in shaking dirt from the back of her tunic.
A lifetime ago when she stood before a downed dragon with her axe held eye and her arms falling limp.
"Wait... the Nadder?"
Hiccup scratched his chin. "Yeah. Yeah it was a Nadder. Good memory."
"I remember because I was gonna get that," she muttered. She certainly recalled the rage that followed in the wake of her shock. The self-imposed humiliation. The feeling of being cheated. She had been so furious with Hiccup...
Hiccup didn't seem to be following her same line of thought. His smile grew larger, if rueful. "Good thing I got there first."
"Good thing..." Astrid repeated. She knew it was better, on some level, that she had been bested back then. She had been bested several times since. She had been nothing but bested...
"It's a pressure point," Hiccup was saying. "As far as I've figured, anyhow. It might not even work for all dragons... Hey, are you okay?"
"Yeah," Astrid said immediately. Her hand sprang away from her wrist. "Yeah, sorry. His head was just heavy. I couldn't breath, is all..." She gestured to where Toothless—
She stared at the imprint left by his body. "Er... where...?"
She whirled about. She couldn't take another tackle.
"Oi!" Hiccup barked, directly at the meadow, "Toothless!"
"Not too loud!" Astrid hissed, but she followed his hard stare to the Night Fury slinking deeper between broken hedges of witchwood.
"You were screaming not too long ago," Hiccup bit back, not taking his eyes off the dragon. "Ah, damn, he's all wound up now," he grumbled. "Toothless, get back here—it's too light out for this!"
The dragon continued to ignore him—just a flick of a tail, a ridge of spines, breaking through tall grasses—and Astrid found herself agreeing with Hiccup's single-minded concern. The dragon's dark hide stuck out against the sea of green-grey.
She took a step towards the hills.
"Want me to go after him?"
"No," the response came in a grunt and Astrid turned to see Hiccup crawling back towards his prosthetic. "He might have sensed somethi—oh, here he—oh—that—okay. Yep."
Astrid spotted Toothless' return. He bounded forward, grass clinging to his wet nostrils and the corners of his gums. He dropped a mouthful of it at Astrid's feet, clumps of thick-bladed grass bound by saliva.
Toothless stooped to sniff it. Then lifted his head to sniff her, ruffling the hair at her neck.
Astrid leaned back, patting his cheek.
"Thanks? For the grass?"
She looked to Hiccup for help. Every time she thought she had the dragon figured out he went and got weirder on her.
Hiccup looked at Toothless rather warmly, hardly paying attention to the pant leg he had been twisting around his stump.
"I think he's apologizing," he said.
Astrid drew her toe away from the goopy greens. "With grass?"
"Oh-okay. Ready to continue the lesson? Dragons love this. I don't think it matters how angry they are, this stuff'll stop them in their tracks."
Toothless thumped his tail on the ground and yammered. His jaws—with teeth retracted— opened and closed and he made noise as though he were trying to talk.
"Right?" Hiccup laughed.
Astrid snorted. As if he could understand.
Toothless puffed, shook his head with flopping earfins, and nudged the slimy pile at Astrid again.
"Toothless, that's so nice of you to share," Hiccup said fondly. "But Astrid doesn't need it. You can have it." He gave Astrid an encouraging nod.
"Ah-uh, yeah," she agreed. "You have it, Toothless. You won before."
Astrid took another step back from the pile and that's all Toothless needed to pounce on it. He circled the mess with deep huffs and flared nostrils.
"I haven't figured what exactly's in it that makes dragons go nuts-" There was undue effort in Hiccup's words and Astrid realized he had been tucking his leg back into the prosthetic. He was going to stand.
Astrid sat down at his side. She didn't know what possessed her to other than some unvoiced plead to keep him from getting up. The nap he had earlier, all the laughing he had done in the past few moments, hadn't erased the purple creeping under his eyes. It hadn't made her forget the stark contrast of his freckles against near bloodless cheeks.
So she took a hurried seat in the dirt, the half-eaten pile of berries at their backs, and watched the Night Fury play with a pile of grass. She didn't look at Hiccup as he settled back on the ground. She didn't give any indication of being pleased. He wouldn't have appreciated it then.
Instead she focused on Toothless, who had gone from sniffing the grass to rubbing the top of his head on it. Which then turned into a heavy back flop—drawing a compulsory gasp from her lips and another chortle from Hiccup.
Toothless writhed on his back, belly exposed, grinding the grass against his neck as though he could absorb it through his scales. His purr rolled louder than a rusty crank. Every now and then he would pause and look at them, thump his tail on the ground, and return to his wriggling.
Astrid could see the apple of her own cheeks crest her vision and knew a smile crossed her face, even if she couldn't quite feel it.
She shook her head. "I never thought I'd be sitting here watching a Night Fury act like..."
"Fiddlesticks?" Hiccup finished.
An image of a matted, ear-tattered tom cat sprung to mind so clearly, so suddenly, that Astrid couldn't believe she had forgotten him.
"That's right," she said, turning to Hiccup. "You had a cat!" It was such a weird animal to have on Berk too. They were more for mainland households. But then, the weird son of the chief got to have weird pets. She often saw the cat in barn rafters and napping near cattle in the winter. "Whatever happened to him?"
"Same thing that happens to everything on Berk."
All traces of laughter had gone from his voice, and with it, Astrid's smile.
Hiccup didn't look at her. He watched Toothless for a moment, mouth twitching with an uncertain explanation.
"I let him out during a raid," he settled on. "Dragons were just being dragons."
He turned his unfocused stare to his leg, fingers playing with fingers. Astrid saw anger in his profile. She couldn't tell if it was at his past or his present self.
In an unconscious movement that nearly shocked herself, Astrid reached out and placed an hand on his arm, stilling the twisting digits.
"There won't be any more raids, Hiccup."
He flicked an eye on her touch, then her, then back to his leg. He nodded. She saw him swallow, the sharp bones of his neck jumping.
"You've already done a great thing for Berk," Astrid continued. "For the world. For dragons, even. I mean... they were basically slaves to that thing, right?"
He nodded again. Some of the anger softened, but his gaze was unfocused.
"Yeah. Yeah, thanks."
A moment passed where he observed her hand on his arm. Then he gently pulled it from her reach, put his weight overtop his foot and his peg leg, and rose to unsteady footing.
"I just gotta move around."
Astrid swallowed back every caution about how he may be feeling or what she would prefer he be doing, knowing it would only add to whatever aggrieved him.
Instead, she held her palms up, and returned to watching the one member of their group who seemed, in that moment, free of burden and worry.
Twilight struck, and it felt uncomfortable. All of it. The shade of the sky. The final, orange outline of the hilltops. The darkened treetops. The trilling meadow.
Astrid tried not to think about exactly a day earlier-the sick terror-but the thoughts were already in her head.
"Ready bud?" Hiccup called. Toothless trotted over and made a noise that sounded like a cross between a meow and a roar.
Toothless reowed again.
Hiccup nodded, apparently satisfied, and turned to Astrid.
"Let me check the tail and we'll be off."
Astrid pulled her hair back only to find she had nothing to tie it with and little to do so if she did. Annoyed, she watched Hiccup bend to Toothless's side, crossing her arms against the oncoming chill.
Hiccup gave the frayed, leather straps a couple tugs and nodded. "Seems to be holding up. This should definitely bring us to Berk." He remained on his knees, hands planted on his thighs. He looked back. "Ready, Astrid?"
Astrid considered him for a moment. "Why don't I do the tail thing today?"
Hiccup gave her a look of hilarity.
Something about the combination—a smile and denial—reminded her bluntly of Hackett's reaction to when she first claimed to be a warrior. Anger swept in, immediate and frighteningly easy.
Hiccup only blinked. The smile didn't quite leave his face.
Astrid placed her hands on her hips. "Hiccup, I won't just be a passenger."
He pushed up, still with that odd look on his face, like she was asking something completely absurd. Toothless stared at the pair.
"You have to be a passenger," he said. "You can't do anything else."
He didn't back down. "You don't know this! If he had the rigging, yes, I could talk you through flying him, but this—"
"I can pick it up!"
"You want to waste time doing that? Look, I—" He glanced down. Nearly all his weight went to his good leg. His limp grew heavier by the day.
His leg wasn't well. He needed healers. Astrid knew this. She knew her imprudence couldn't overpower her ire.
"It'll only make it worse again," she insisted. She wasn't wrong either. "I should be doing the physical stuff."
"Ideally, sure," he said shortly, "but you can't."
"I'm—," she stopped. She didn't know which words to use; only that she felt uncomfortable frailty in her stomach. Like she was falling with no control. It made her irritated. Antsy. "Don't tell me that I can't do things. I'm not useless."
Hiccup huffed, arms dropping from the cross he had against his chest. "Why do you keep saying that?"
"How... how weak you are and how useless you are—how can you possibly think that about yourself? You're... you're the strongest, most-most useful person I've known."
He faltered halfway through, his face reddening.
Again, she couldn't explain it. She didn't know how to handle this sense of loss she carried. Nor how to shake it. She didn't know what to latch onto or how to move forward. She was flailing, and even with hope on the horizon, a poisonous seed of dissatisfaction—with herself—continued to take root.
She would never be rid of it.
Astrid blew the fringe from her eyes, trying, and failing, to keep them from straying to the ground.
"I know how to fight." Not as well as she once thought. "I know how to fight dragons." Which she wouldn't be doing anymore. "I can't heal people. I can't bargain. I can't... outsmart them. "
"Yes, you can," Hiccup said, immediately.
"I can't fly dragons."
"Not this one, but others."
"There's so many things I can't do," she pushed on. "This has been..." An eye-opening ordeal. "When you were out, when they took your leg..." And they took it. She hadn't known. They had just taken it and she was none the wiser. It was a power play that haunted her even now, rôsts and weeks away.
"You survived," she settled on, "but it wasn't because of me."
"It wasn't," she said, barely more than a whisper. She met his eyes, cutting across dusk, so he would understand. "Yeah, I got you to help. But anyone else? Most anyone else... they would have died. They would have died from shock, or infection. You were sick for so long. You pulled through, even when everyone thought you were as good as dead."
Hiccup was shaking his head. "I only got the treatment because you brought me there. You were working so they'd keep treating me."
Astrid jolted. She remembered when Hiccup had been threatened with euthanasia.
A chill ran up her arms. Had there been additional ambiguity in wanting Hiccup dead? A greater power to hold over her in threatening his life?
It had made an innocent sort of sense before: Hiccup was a burden, seen as a wasted effort; they were strangers using up resources. Now she would look back on everything with new questions. With new perspective. The most basic of interactions tainted...
"Astrid, what happened?"
She was wringing her wrists again.
She needed to stop.
She needed to.
Hiccup watched her, lips tight, eyes large and sorrowful and empathetic. She wished he wouldn't. Her stomach continued to writhe, loose and weak as ever. She took a short breath and felt thankful for the fading light.
"The Lava Louts were going to get us. Hackett found out who we were. I don't know how..." It struck her just then. How had Hackett known? Was the meeting still in effect? Who had he spoken to? What were the exact contents of the letter—
"So we had to leave just then," Hiccup surmised.
"Yeah, they were... they knew. I was... con-confronted," her throat seemed to spasm over the word, followed by an upwell of sickness. The skin beneath her palms started to ache with the endless twisting. "...and I ran. To you."
Hiccup watched her and she knew he recalled her hysteria. Astrid cringed at the memory, wishing she could have kept it together. She didn't want Hiccup to know exactly what Hackett had done. She couldn't speak the words. She likely never would in her lifetime.
"And playtime was over."
Astrid snorted. "Yeah, playtime was over."
Hiccup inhaled, and nodded, and Astrid knew that he knew. He knew there was more she wouldn't say and she knew he wouldn't push her for it. That was all she could ask for.
"Let me handle the flight," he said, steady. "Please. When we get home, I'll teach you."
Maybe it was him speaking of home—using 'we' and 'when' and 'home' all in a sentence. Astrid felt that flutter of hope—the same that kept her going; the same that made her vulnerable. She found herself nodding along with him.
"Thank you." Relief ladened his voice with a sort of heaviness that seemed to settle in Astrid's stomach. Her eyes fell to his leg again as he adjusted the tailfin's hastily constructed makeshift straps—knotted leather rather than buckles. He limped profoundly; all the weight had been shifted to his good leg, even as he lowered himself to the ground. His fingers worked, bone-thin and pale. His shoulder blades upheld the tunic falling against his back.
"I'm thinking that maybe I should keep Toothless hidden first," Hiccup said as he worked, and the mere sound of his voice had Astrid's attention jumping elsewhere, "make a new saddle and tail rigging, and then tell everyone? You know... just in case there's a bad reaction?"
But how long would that take? Astrid wondered. How long before they were let out of anyone's sight?
And that's if Hiccup was even well enough to work in the forge by the time they got home.
She couldn't let herself worry over the trials that would surely follow their return. There was too much now—too much in their immediate future left before she had the luxury of moving on with nuanced concerns.
"I'm not saying I'll run away or anything," Hiccup added quickly at her silence. "But Toothless is the priority here."
Astrid shook her attention to the present.
"Getting you home is the priority," she corrected.
For Freya's sake, it's what she'd been killing herself over for the past couple months. Return the heir. Save Hiccup.
She looked at Toothless, his head level with her shoulder, those large, intelligent eyes reflecting colorful remnants of the sun, and gave his chin a good rub.
She couldn't deny Toothless was a priority either. Somewhere along the way, his safety mattered to her as much as anyone's.
There had been a river. A littler farther north than the course they had plotted but the water had been well worth it. They quenched their thirst and filled their bellies until they cramped. They wiped their mouths on threadbare tunics, took turns relieving themselves, and readied to set off once more. Astrid straddled Toothless's neck with Hiccup's prosthetic tucked under her arm, Hiccup arranged himself to position the tail, and together the three of them took to the skies.
The recent ascensions weren't nearly as frightening or steep without the cage of trees and pursuers, but the air was just as biting, just as thin, as the night before. More so, if Astrid were to gauge. The winds had augmented, screaming at her ears with shrill cold until they felt aflame with raw chill. She spent nearly as much time looking backward as she did forward, knowing that whatever discomfort she suffered could be nothing compared to Hiccup's.
Before it was the irrational fear of being followed that kept her flight alive with terror. Now it was the injured boy keeping them airborne at his own expense. The memory of his enhancing frailty overlapped the four-limbed wrap he had over Toothless's tail. One arm always held the tailfin out, flat. No rest. No hiding from the cold.
The vision of him losing consciousness as his sickly body gave out, of them plummeting to Midgard below, tormented Astrid. She forced her mind to the gods, thick wispy clouds dampening her hair, with silent prayers and pleas for protection and promises of piety should they make it. She focused on landmarks, counting each advance as a blessing.
They passed the Puffin's large village to their south right. Acres and acres of hilly farmland reached between clusters of homes. Sparse lumber and plenty crop. They passed smaller isles of land: some more village than beach, some more forest than village, and most of it farmed.
Then came the sea and Astrid turned all her focus on never losing sight of the dark, dark mass in the distance that she knew to be their next terrain. The water below blinked at them under the passing clouds, restless with the promise of coming storms. Astrid hugged the prosthetic to her chest, metal denting her flesh, just to know she still had it. Her fingers had gone completely numb. Her cheeks stung.
They rounded the long beaches of Bashem. The densely populated town that—unlike the Puffin Isles—seemed to merge with the forests rather than clear it, quieted, light-by-light, as sleep took over.
The village crossed much of the island, tapering off and filling, rising, with trees as the lands stretched into uninhibited rock and mountain.
Astrid directed them over the highest peaks. The tall range had deep depressions—paths, likely—but no village on the other side. Just a short span of remaining timberland before it dropped into a cliff, soft sediments and orange rock that melted into Bashem's infamous Oyster Beds.
"Here, Toothless," she said to the dragon's ear, hopeful of certain privacy with the blockade of mountains. Then she repeated the command louder to Hiccup, though she swore the words that left her mouth couldn't be heard as clearly as they resounded in her head, swallowed by the howling cold.
He must have heard her, for they circled down into clearing between trees, far enough from the cliff's edge, a good walk from the mountain paths, and made a jerky drop to the ground.
Astrid's nose was numb. She kept sniffling and rubbing it, trying to bring some life back to her face. She couldn't feel her fingers or her feet. She felt thirsty again—as though the cool taste on her tongue had only seeded a stronger desire for it—but her exhaustion was stronger. She slid off Toothless and stumbled to Hiccup, who had gracelessly rolled off the tail and remained on the dirt and leaves, drawing deep breaths.
"Hiccup?" she asked, refraining from throwing herself into a panic. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," he groaned.
They hadn't the moon and stars of yesternight but Astrid could still see his skin against the dark ground, like white-blue bones. She stumbled over their distance and crouched, touching his arm.
He grunted, clenching his eyes shut. "So are you."
Astrid couldn't feel her arms. She touched the bare skin of one and only registered pressure. Gods, what she wouldn't give for a set of furs. For a long-sleeved tunic.
Even the at ground level, Astrid couldn't discern much difference in the air. Except, perhaps, a thickening. The sort that could cloud a mouth just before rains.
She craned her neck back at the sky, unable to make out any stars at the moment. At this temperature the threat of rain would turn to snowfall soon.
They had to get home.
"I'll start a fire," she announced, pressing a hand to her thigh to help push up. "You rest."
Hiccup, still spread-eagled on the ground, held out a hand.
"Give me my leg."
Astrid only saw a starkly pale claw. His eyes were dark and set, and the skin around them just as hollow. Her gaze danced down to the limp fabric of his left pantleg, no longer tied, no longer cupped by a peg leg. An uncomfortable vacancy.
She kept her hold on the prosthetic.
"Stay there," she said, taking a step back, "with Toothless. I won't be—"
His voice cut her. The tone like her father's. Like Stoick's, the way he would say Hiccup's name when the boy wasn't listening.
Hiccup sat up, and Astrid felt the leg leave her hand before she thought to draw it back.
"Don't put it on," she ordered, desperation tailing in a whisper. "Just… stay by Toothless. We'll make quick work of this. We'll have fire and... just rest."
Hiccup ignored her and went about stuffing the extra fabric into the cup.
"Hiccup, please!" she begged. "You wouldn't let me help fly—"
"You did help," he snapped, "you navigated—"
"The hard part!" she barked. Her voice bounced in the quiet trees and she drew a breath.
All three of them stayed silent, waiting...
Astrid released the air, feeling it shudder over her tongue.
"Stay," she continued, "by Toothless—"
What was she doing? Astrid changed tactics. She turned to the dragon. "Toothless, keep him here."
"Astrid—" Hiccup started, his tone warning.
"You can count to one hundred," she interrupted, "and if I'm not back and sleeping by then, then you can help."
Astrid turned and ran without waiting for an answer, further into the forest without care for direction. She bent in the dark, squinting under the light of whatever star could escape the heavy cover, and reached for any remotely dry wood she could find-thin sticks and sharp, fallen branches, her fingers, cold and clumsy, struggling to keep hold of everything she found. She knocked her knuckles against rocks, against roots, with nicks and light bruising blooming across her hands.
It didn't have to be pretty. It just had to hold a flame, and fast.
She was pleased to find Hiccup still on the ground, now nestled against an alert Toothless.
"One-oh-eight," cut the dry greeting through the dark.
Astrid dropped the wood over an arm's-length away from where his feet might have stretched to were they not curled up to his chest.
"Liar," she said.
He snorted and said nothing more as Astrid made quick work of setting her meager collection into anything that could maintain a fire while she could still move her fingers. The lack of light frustrated her, forcing dependence on senses the night had long since numbed. She only just remembered to brush a clearing around the wood before she stepped back, the bleeding back of a finger in her mouth.
Without any further prompting Toothless blew life into the ramshackle and rather embarrassing tower.
Their small, hasty camp came alight with blessed heat. Heat that cupped Astrid's cheeks and sent hammers pounding at her fingers as she held her palms towards the flame.
She looked across it. Hiccup was drowsy eyed and bare white against Toothless's hide, like a bloodless corpse. He seemed as thin and frail as he had been on that bed months ago. Like he was moments from death.
Like he could fall asleep against Toothless and never wake up again.
This couldn't happen. She would never allow it.
Astrid curled her fingers against her palms and stood. She walked around the fire, taking small comfort in the complete silence of the night, and crouched down to nestle herself in between Hiccup and Toothless's hind leg.
The dragons seemed to read her movements, and lifted his tail to allow her to join the bed they made.
"What are you doing?" Hiccup asked, his voice tilted with bemusement.
"You're too cold," Astrid muttered. She wiggled down, settling, pressed deeply against Hiccup so that she could feel the shivers running through his body.
Thor Almighty, she wished for a blanket. An extra strip of cloth even.
"We need to take turns watch—"
"I'll stay awake," she promised. "I'll listen. You did the hardest part, you need to sleep."
Her hand went behind her and patted Toothelss's side. She felt she had to. She had to acknowledge that he, out of all of them, had likely done the hardest part. Then she let it rest around Hiccup's shoulders, the ball that he had become.
He didn't shake her off. He didn't move closer either. Nor did he stiffen at her half-hold. He trembled too much to do much else.
"You don't have to," he mumbled.
"Just sleep," she said. Her legs curled up, much like Hiccup's had, and Toothless's tail came around to embrace them both.
The wetter wood popped. Invisible smoke rose. The smell warmed Astrid just as much as the heat. The trials of flight melted away under the ambiance of fire and the sense of safety and their huddle of bodies, even though Hiccup was sick, and feverish, and drifted off too easily at her side with his cheek on her shoulder and an unusually warm forehead against her jaw.
She struggled to stay awake, as she promised, for as long as she could. Hiccup breathed lightly across her chest. His shivers slowly abated. The movements of flame pulled her.
Astrid didn't stay awake. Toothless had. Somehow, she knew he would.
She only needed a few hours, anyway. Just to recover from the night. She could rest more during the day, under the warmth of the sun...
A/N: Once again, I update after an embarrassingly long wait. No decent excuse other than Life. Thank you all for the reviews and feedback and enjoyment! As always, a GINORMOUS thank you to Jenna-sais-pas who has been a marvelous and patient beta for this story. There are no words!
One more chapter to go! I know I said THIS would be the last one, but I lied. I'm so good at lying. I'm so sorry, but this "final chapter" just got horribly long. Had to cut it! Please let me know what you think!