A/N: It has been too long.


The short winter grass under Hiccup's boots, part of the well-tended lawn stretching for what felt like acres between the Hofferson home and the forest to the east, yielded the glorious brittle crunch that only night dwelling frost could bring, that also brought with it fleeting satisfaction and anticipation of the next step. Jack once remarked it was nature's bubble wrap, whatever that was.

Astrid walked a few feet at his right, her mouth as firmly closed as it had been for at least an hour by Hiccup's estimation. He chanced a few glances at her every now and then, whilst engaged in nothing but a midnight stroll toward a forest, breathing in the crisp, still winter air. Somehow it tasted more fresh than that of Perdition, but whether that was the intrinsic heavy air pressure of the oncoming storm, or the lawlessness, he didn't know. Astrid's face was etched in a light frown in danger of permanent residence, her hands swinging loosely at her sides as she walked.

Chatty, she was not nor did he peg her to be, yet long periods of silence lay firmly in Kozmotis' dominion and thus her lack of loquaciousness had awakened the feeling of disquiet in his stomach, flitting about like an agitated moth. He had assumed her reunion with her friend would have brought an optimistic variant of anticipation, yet a palpable sensation of emptiness clawed at the immediate area around her, like an inescapable black void sucking in all enthusiasm and warmth, leaving only absence and cold of greater potency than the wintry air around them.

Cold was Jack's specialty, not hers, and he wondered if her silence and closed-off demeanour had anything to do with the house several dozen yards behind them.

He looked ahead at the darkened forest, its inherent blanket of night and sinister-looking wild trees reminding him a little too acutely of another pitch black environment. To stave off the ensuing chill, he adjusted the strap of the duffel bag slung over his left shoulder. "So, are you going to tell me anything about your friend-"

He felt Astrid turn her head, setting off a prickle down the right side of his face. Turning to face her with a small smile, he found her expression had changed little. Her eyebrows were no longer furrowed, so that was something.

"-or do I get three guesses?"

Her eyes lingered on him for a few moments, enough for him to question his flippancy, before she turned her gaze back to the forest ahead. Hiccup sighed through his nose, pocketing his hands and regretting opening his mouth. He took one quick look at Toothless stalking along at his left, his body low, his head slowly moving left to right and his movements economic, like he was expecting something to happen and was thoroughly prepared for it.

"I want it to be a surprise."

Her voice was flat and toneless, with less joy than a passed-out bar patron, but it was something better than disconnection.

"Oh, so she does speak?"

There was a sharp draw of breath as though its owner was piqued, before it was sent back out in a long sigh. "Sorry. I just… I know this is probably going to be the last time I'm here. I'm at peace with that, but at the same time… it's still home."

Hiccup shrugged lightly, and reached a hand out to scratch at Toothless' right shoulder just in front of the saddle strap. He didn't respond. "It's still a part of you - always will be."

Astrid snorted, and she turned her head away just as Hiccup glanced at her in response. "Thank you, Mr. Nomad." She held up a hand as though to stop words Hiccup wasn't going to speak in the first place. "Sorry - Mr. Pegleg Nomad."

Hiccup let loose a breathy, wry burst of laughter, and scratched the left side of his head. "That's right. Don't forget that." He cast her a look, and her lips had curled the smallest inch. Progress.

"Speaking of legs - I told a white lie, before. My leg wasn't eaten by a Reaper."

"Oh, no," her voice came out in a deadpan flat drawl, "the truth finally comes out. My world is ending."

Hiccup's resultant smirk was full of impish mischief, and there was a small voice in the back of his mind that suggested maybe he spent too much time around Jack and Anna. Saying nothing, he watched her face tighten out of the corner of his eye as the silence dragged on, until she finally snapped her head to face him.

"Okay, who was it th-"

Her eyes travelled down from his smirk, to the loose fist hovering over his chest, and then to the finger subtly poking toward the culprit. Hiccup was treated to the most spectacular expression of gaping shock he had ever seen.

"Toothless ate your leg?!"

Her hissed exclamation of stunned disbelief was immediately met with an anguished, low groan from the stalking creature. Though he did not speak dragon, Hiccup knew it was the sound of, "Again with the leg thing?"

His eyebrows rose an inch as his smirk levelled into a smile, and he nodded with sincerity as he answered his assent.

"How?! Why… what?!" To see Astrid in such a state sent a flutter of satisfaction through his chest. "You'd better carry on with that story, flyboy!"

Feeling the onset of a sweet numbness in his fingers - not a good sign if Astrid was planning his demise - Hiccup pocketed his hands. "My family had this barn - real creaky thing - where we stored all the fruit and vegetables we grew for the nearby settlement. This one night, I heard someone open the barn doors, so I took my flashlight and went out to have a look."

A quick glance in Astrid's direction revealed exactly the expression he expected - an arched brow of well, that was stupid.

The grass under his boots continued with its regular rhythm of soft crunching. "So I snuck in, waved my flashlight around. There was vegetables all over the place - real disaster scene - but I couldn't see the intruder anywhere. I saw these two green things right at the back, and at first I thought it's just some lettuce they didn't like… until I see the darkness behind them literally move. Then I realised… lettuce doesn't blink. It doesn't have slits for pupils… and doesn't growl."

Hiccup snuck a glance at Toothless, whose head had sunk lower and lower since Hiccup started speaking. He still looked every inch the alpha predator, but one that radiated embarrassment and shame.

"That's when I saw this faint blue glow light up along his body-" he traced a loosely open palm in an approximation of the length, like stroking air, "-and the rows of razor-sharp looking teeth. He advanced toward me, growling and snarling like I'm this huge threat, and I'm paralyzed. I thought to myself, this is it, dear boy. You're going to die."

Astrid stared at him, enraptured and expectant, like she was hanging on every word as though craving them. "What happened next?" she said, her voice breathy.

"I can't remember if it was my survival instincts or not, but I remember taking a step back just as I heard my Dad calling for me, and wouldn't you know it, I slipped on a freaking carrot. There was this almighty crack just before my ass hit the ground - and then nothing but this searing pain, this blinding agony in my leg. I was screaming, crying, Toothless was nowhere to be seen. It's a bit of a blur, but I remember my Dad telling me it was gonna be okay as he scooped me up. I remember opening my eyes, seeing all of the blood everywhere… and empty space where my leg should have been. In two seconds, Toothless had taken off my lower leg."

There was an anguished series of warbles and yowls from his buddy - even all those years on, Toothless still regretted the attack, no matter how often Hiccup told him it was okay. In Hiccup's book, the more you talked about something the easier it was to process. He reached down to scratch at Toothless' ear nubs, reminding him without words he still loved him to pieces.

"Fuck me," Astrid breathed in ill-hidden shock. Her eyes traced a slow line between Hiccup and Toothless, and waved a weak gesture from one to the other. "How did you get from that to… this?"

Hiccup pocketed his hand. That winter chill was being a real pain in the… fingers. He glanced down and watched as his left foot popped in and out of his vision. "Well, when you get a cybernetic limb, they tell you to use it as much as possible so the commands being sent from the chip in your brain adapt to your nervous system. So I'd take these walks around the house in the day - first week I kept stumbling, but after that I could go further. One day I went out to a nearby wood, carrying this stun pistol Dad made me have. I got, like, half a mile into the trees… and then I heard sticks cracking behind me. I turn, point my pistol… and it's Toothless."

"He came back?"

Hiccup did a small but quick nod, smiling at the memory. It always kept him optimistic in the darkest hours.

"Yeah. He was sat on the ground like a cat… but it was different. He looked… sad. I was there with a shaking gun in my hand, scared out of my mind, and he just sat there, looking up at me with those big doleful eyes. He started batting toward me something on the ground, so I looked… he'd actually brought back my leg. It was pretty rotten, and stank, but… but then I understood. He was sorry, and he wanted to show me, to make things right. I looked at him… and I saw myself."

He turned and fixed Astrid with a long gaze, and to her credit, she did not falter even once. "He attacked me, because he was scared. He was scared of me for a reason. I was between him and the way out, so when I stepped on the carrot, his survival instincts kicked in. He had no other choice. I couldn't blame him for that - and when he brought back my leg, I knew right then I had nothing to fear from him. Because he was sorry."

A smile pulled at his lips, and eyes of sincerity bore down on her. "That's how I know you're all good people, Astrid, because your faces when you saw the graves were the same as Toothless' in the wood. You can't fake that kind of guilt."

Astrid snorted, and muttered something under her breath, the only word Hiccup caught being 'figures…'. She followed up with a question about how he and Toothless managed to end up with the Ghosts; Hiccup explained that not long after blooming - "it felt like a bomb was going off over and over in my head," - the A.A.S. arrived to take him away. Stoick told him to run into the woods, but three officers caught up with and cornered him. Enter Toothless, swooping in like a black, feral guardian angel, whose roars and bellows sent the three officers running for their lives. Hiccup realised the creature had been keeping tabs on him since the apology, and all it took was for Toothless to jerk his head toward his back for Hiccup to get the message. They had been flying together ever since, and when one day they saw a young man with white hair, holding a staff and dressed in military gear, soaring completely unaided through the air? The rest was history.

"Hell of a story," Astrid remarked with impressed eyes, nodding with a protruding lower lip.

"Yep." Hiccup scratched at the back of his head as the edge of the forest drew to within ten yards from them, and tried not to think about the strange flutter in his stomach and precisely why he was so anxious to hear her voice. "Crazy times."

"I gotta ask, though," she began, regarding him with a wry smirk that sang of knowing, and Hiccup prepared himself for the question everybody asked first - why it was he went alone into the barn, "Did you tell me all that so I'd be obliged to reveal my surprise?"

"No!" Hiccup stammered. The flush of heat that took pride of place in his cheeks would have been handy to fight off the winter's bite had it not been so embarrassing. "No, no… well, maybe… did it work?"

Astrid threw her head back for a quick guffaw, leaving him curious as to why it sounded so sweet. Hell, it was better than the silence. "Swing and a miss there, flyboy-"

The nickname was growing on him faster than plants under Neve's care.

"-but it does earn you the privilege to ask one personal question."

Eyebrows touching his hair, Hiccup felt his smile widen. "Just one?"

"Just one."

Hiccup studied her out of the corner of his eyes, his open-mouthed expression of I-see-what-you-did-there failing miserably against her turned face. His mind automatically pulled out a series of questions from some kind of thought-box in his mind; queries ranging from the potential ammunition of how Jack was in bed, to why she became a Valkyrie in the first place, along with the question in Perdition that yet remained unanswered. In theory, he had the pick of the litter when it came to learning about Astrid Hofferson, ex-Valkyrie and renegade soldier.

He cast her a quick glance, hoping for inspiration. There was a woman with a sharp, dry sense of humour; competitive; stubborn and proud; protective of her friends and, judging by their sojourn across Unity territory, loyal to the core. Great qualities for a soldier, yet in his mind incongruent to the terrorising, unstoppable Valkyrie. The things they did… it seemed unlike her.

Kozmotis once called him naive; having disappeared to counter-flank a sneaky clone squad during a raid, his dark counterpart returned not long later, his entire body covered in sprays and splashes of the clones' blood and wearing one hell of a manic grin. Hiccup had then offhandedly made a sarcastic quip if he enjoyed himself, to which Kozmotis replied with startling contempt that he was naive not to understand why.

It had filled Hiccup's bones with such deep unsettlement - because he didn't understand. He couldn't fathom why Kozmotis looked like he was having fun.

Did Astrid have fun? How far into the shadowy persona of the Valkyrie did she resign herself? Was he walking with someone who revelled in violence as much as Kozmotis?

He didn't know how she became a Valkyrie, or why, that much he assumed would reveal itself in time. He wanted to know who she was behind the mask.

And whether that person still existed.

"I do have one for you," he spoke, focused on the trees ahead, and his voice was edged with surprising hardness that Astrid threw him a wary glance in response.

"Okay," she responded as little more than a simple prompt.

Hiccup took a long breath in and out his nose; he knew he was about to open a door that might lead to a beatdown, and permanently sour his budding friendship. Steeling himself for the potential explosion, he fixed her with a scanning gaze, and asked, "Did you enjoy them?"

Astrid's brows furrowed to a mild frown, and she looked at him like his question was a confusing waste of breath.

"Did I enjoy what?"

Hiccup swallowed and paused for a moment. "The things you did as a Valkyrie… did you enjoy them?"

There was a sharp intake of breath, and the way Astrid's face changed with such startling speed sent a dull, painful prang through his heart, setting off an uncomfortable twist of his gut. Her brow relaxed as her entire face fell, leaving an expression of muted anguish and eyes that glistened in the ethereal moonlight. She looked more like a stung child than a proud, capable woman, and he was struck with the self-reproachful realisation that words could harm her more than physical violence ever could.

Her eyebrows knitted together in a peak, and her voice was breathy and hurt. "How could you ask me that?"

"Because it's important to me."

Astrid's arms folded in on each other, but the way her lithe, toned body was mildly hunched in on itself screamed protection rather than defense. The breathy voice became a slow hiss, and her glimmering eyes radiated incomprehension and fear… and anguish. "Why?" she said, the words cracking a little. "Why is it so damn important to you?"

Hiccup let loose a small sigh from his nose, regretting the question, yet knowing that the door had been opened and he was already halfway through. He stepped forward, noticing in the corner of his eye Toothless plonking himself down on the grass, and held Astrid's taut upper arms with a feathered, tender touch. Astrid immediately flinched and snapped her eyes away, her brow dipping whilst her lower lip hid between her teeth.

"Because I wanna remember what you say, right now."

Her eyes met his, and her lips parted with an almost imperceptible breath. In the pale moonlight she looked so vulnerable, that the urge to hold the unholdable and sooth the furious blossomed within him. She ducked her eyes to his shoulders, and after a moment's hesitation his fingers knew the absence of her arms. She walked past him, and he turned with her, watching the back of her her head as she faced the distant amber lights of her family home.

"I'm angry, Hiccup."

Her voice was quiet, so much so that Hiccup almost missed it and likely would have done had it not been for the pin-drop silence around them. A sigh escaped his throat, one of self-reproach for seemingly putting her in a worse mood than to begin with.

"Look, sorry I-"

"Not what I meant," she said, slicing his sentence in two like a swing of her axe, the abrupt tone of her voice a warning to shut the fuck up. Hiccup wisely acquiesced, and pocketed his hands.

She took a moment, and when the night was once more graced with her voice, composure and drive accompanied it. "I am angry person. I've always been like it, ever since I was little. I figured if I was angry all the time, then someone out there cared enough to feel something about me… even if it was just me." Her head lowered a little, and Hiccup fought the urge to rest his hand on her shoulder. "Sure, my maid Helga cared… but she wasn't enough."

The words, "Your parents," escaped his lips before he could stop them. His left eye wrinkled in a cringe, and braced himself.

No fury was sent his way, but a snort more bitter than the winter air and a reply with sarcasm potent enough to melt unidium. "Shyeah - if you can call them that. They didn't even bat an eye when Larsen's goons came for me. They just signed the conscription papers and sent me away."

Hiccup frowned with a mild gape of surprise. "You were conscripted?"

Astrid turned halfway, just enough for him to see her face, but also to avoid looking at him. Her sky blue eyes, veiled by the night and her own emotion, fixed themselves on the ground.

"We all were. Elsa was the only one who wanted to become a Valkyrie."

Hiccup opened his mouth to enquire further into that, but a strange tightness in his chest reminded him he only had one question, one she hadn't answered yet. The story of why Astrid was conscripted, he decided, would have to wait.

"So how does that relate to what I asked?"

That time she did turn her face to him, and under the glow of the moon, her face told a tale shared between desperation, worry, and indignant irritation.

"It relates, because I never asked to be what I am," she snapped. Her gaze eroded Hiccup's will to stand back and wait, but he knew enough that it would likely cause more problems than solve them. She stared at him for a few more seconds, before her face relaxed into a forlorn demeanour, eyes glazing over as her voice softened, and became toneless. "I had to act the part of the Valkyrie, so that meant I had to do what I did, and convince everyone around me that I was in it one hundred percent. I had to be flawless. I had to make both the people fighting beside me and the people fighting against me believe I was some terrifying warrior, committed to the mission to take you and the Ghosts down."

Her eyelids drew over, and her head moved away from him. Hiccup heard a long, sorrowful breath, and saw a hand grasp at her upper right arm that hung loosely at her side. "But to do that, to convince everyone, I had to tap into that anger. Every time I stepped onto the battlefield, I was the teenager so angry at the world that she wanted to make it hurt as much as she did. After a while it got easier… so… yeah. I did enjoy it."

She looked over at him, and Hiccup was struck with the sheer absence of her bravado, her front, her bulletproof armor. There, in the field between the sinister-looking forest and her family home, Astrid was vulnerable.

Her voice when she next spoke, was breathy and faraway. "And I hate myself for it."

Neither of them spoke any words for several moments, for Hiccup was bereft of the cognitive ability to form basic sentences, and in amongst the feeling of his chest squeezed by a vice and the ache of his heart, he suspected Astrid had no more to say. Under the pale moonlight, she looked tired.

"I need to go." She turned away, her blonde hair shimmering with the movement, and her gaze rested upon the family home. Her arms fell to her sides, and she took a step. "There's something I left behind."


She held a hand behind her to stop him. "Just stay right there until I come back."


"I won't be long." She started off in a brisk jog in the direction of the house.


She skidded to a stop and rounded in him, wide-eyed and teeth-gritting frustration written on her face, her arms wide as if to say 'the fuck is your malfunction?'


Hiccup didn't flinch, nor did he hesitate. Certain he had her gaze and her attention, he said loud enough for her to hear, but soft enough for sincerity...

"I care."

Moments passed while her sky blue eyes regarded him with a blank look, like she didn't know what to make of what he had said, or of him himself. He wondered if he should follow it up, but something seemed to reboot behind those eyes, and with a couple of glances back at him she turned away and continued toward the house. Gently lowering the duffel bag, Hiccup watched her figure melt into the darkness, before turning to his buddy.

"I think that went well." He gestured toward Toothless, who was still sat on his hind legs, his tail curled around him and his wings idling either side. "What do you think?"

Toothless gave him a look that screamed so much of 'unimpressed', it could only have been perfected by an arched brow.

"What? I think we made real progress-"

That time, his words were cut short when he noticed the subtle change in Toothless' left eye, from his usual pseudo-oval to a more rounded green orb. Definitely an arched brow.

Hiccup's nostrils flared as he let loose a long sigh, and he wore a cringe as he scratched the back of his head. "Yeah… I messed up, didn't I?"

Toothless didn't even need to nod or make a sound for Hiccup to sense his agreement. It used to take him off guard how the winged creature was often displaying qualities more human than animal. At least, until the bunker in Greenland… where he found the truth.

Toothless decided he was going to flop down on the grass while he waited, but just as he crossed his forepaws and lowered his body, he tensed as something in the air caught his attention. Curious, Hiccup watched as his buddy's nose rose to the sky, taking quick but deep sniffs of the cold winter air, head moving to and fro in search of the scent's direction.

"You got something?"

Toothless gave no indication of an answer, other than rise to his paws and stalk away from him toward the forest, staccato sniffs and snorts leading him on.

Perturbed, Hiccup called to him, "Hey, we're supposed to wai-"

His words died in his throat the instant Toothless let out a long, low, menacing growl. Many years had tuned Hiccup well into the various sounds, gestures and expressions Toothless made, and that one meant only one thing: there was a threat hidden those trees, moving in the dark. Hiccup felt a prickle of anxiety in his spine that went nicely with the newly formed knot in his stomach.

If it couldn't get worse, it did; Toothless bounded straight into the wood.

"Hey, wait!" Hiccup shot after him, no longer concerned with staying put. "Toothless!"

His footfalls carried him past the treeline and into the darkened forest, shadows growing and morphing around him where the moonlight feared to tread. He called out again as he ran, the crack of wet sticks underfoot providing a rhythm of tension he did not need, starkly aware of the futility of chasing after a black-scaled dragon in a pitch black forest, the dragon likely in stalking mode and therefore silent as the grave.

Nevertheless, he ran on, hoping for a stroke of luck, a small crunch, a shadowy movement, anything that would lead him on. Heart thundering in his ears, his feet pounded the forest floor in a blind direction… until the futility grew too much for his hope to hold back.

Panting, though less of exertion and more of tense anxiety, Hiccup slowed to a halt and held his hips with his hands, shaking his head in exasperation as his eyes struggled to dismantle the blanket of night around him. He threw his hands into the air, trying to ignore the realisation tightening his chest that he was lost in the woods of Itchy Armpit for all he knew it was called, alone and vulnerable.

Jack's warning before they left rang out in his mind.

It was at that moment his mind automatically established an environmental baseline - rather, everything that didn't fit into it - whilst his eyes adjusted to accommodate the pitiful beams of moonlight filtering through the dead branches. Even at night, a forest like Itchy Armpit would have some form of life. Nocturnal creatures shuffling over the forest floor in search of food. The cries of foxes in search of their mates. The hoots of owls as they stood vigilant for prey.

Silence greeted him like an oppressive veil of danger…

...punctuated by naught by the heavy, regular snaps of twigs behind him.

Hiccup's breath caught in his throat. At first he entertained the hope that Astrid had returned, or Toothless had come back for a thorough reprimanding, toting some sort of animal in his jaws. Both would have been vastly more preferable to the pervasive realisation the steps were too heavy for a human, and weren't coming in beats of four.

Not to mention the sensation of hot breath against the back of his neck, sending the hairs to attention with a paradoxical chill. Blood running cold, his heart joined his stomach on the floor - and flashes of the last time it happened crossed his mind. Led by his head, he turned to face his hunter.

Its features were too veiled by the dark for any discernible detail, but what he could pick out, chilled him to the bone. A tiara of monstrous spikes sat upon a round head, which sported wide jaws with rows of vicious-looking teeth. It looked at him from the side like a horse, and atop its nine foot at least frame were two bat-like wings, leading to a tail that languidly swished back and forth like a stalking cat.

Whatever it was, Hiccup could safely slap the title of Predator upon it.

"Hey there," he managed a croak.

It startled the creature into action. Snarling, it swung its head at him with jaws wide open, intending to take his head off. A yelp of shock tore from his throat, and Hiccup threw himself to the side, narrowly avoiding the snap of its teeth. Scrambling to his feet and sputtering the dirt from his mouth, he ignored the winded sensation in his chest as he propelled himself in hopefully the direction he came.

His right hand went down to tap at his thigh, and the chill in his spine renewed - no sidearm. He thought he didn't need it. He had Toothless, and Astrid said she had his back. Now, he had neither, and was being chased by something that could bite him in half if it wanted to.

There was a faint hiss, and his right eye twitched in reflexive response to something whizzing past his face - he was lucky Jack didn't witness the subsequent recoil and high-pitched yelp as he skidded to a halt - followed by three dull thuds against the tree ahead he was going to hide behind. Attracted by the sound, his panicked gaze flicked to its origin.

Three spikes were protruding from the tree trunk, illuminated by a provident beam of moonlight. They weren't there before.

That beast could fling spikes.

Something about that tickled at his memory. He frowned; why did that arouse a faint familiarity?

The menacing sound chitter and rawk from behind him put that question to bed. He glanced around the forest floor for something, anything, to use as a weapon. Finally settling upon a long, thick, wet branch resembling a scythe, he whirled around and drew it over his shoulder like a bat...

...just in time to see the creature, in the midst of charging toward him with its jaws open and head held horizontally, be tackled from its right side by a pleasantly glowing, shrieking blue blur.

"Toothless!" Hiccup cried out in relief and a half an octave higher voice.

His companion of perfect timing could not answer him. Recovering quicker than either of them anticipated, it scrambled to its feet and immediately began snapping for Toothless' neck, feet, wings, anything it could reach while Toothless did his best to dodge the attacks and counter with his own. It swung its comparatively larger head into Toothless' side, taking advantage of the latter's attempt to avoid a bite mark in his wing, and as he was knocked on his side it tried to take a chunk out of his exposed neck.

Toothless remedied the affront by holding the assailant's jaws with his forepaws, and thrusting his entire lower half up to apply an almighty kick to the creature's side.

Hiccup was rooted to the spot, like invisible ropes had tied him to the ground. He could only watch as Toothless and the creature locked themselves in a frenetic battle for dominance, with the creature attempting to get past him to Hiccup on several occasions, only to be stopped either by a tackle to the side, or by Toothless blocking his path.

Deciding enough was enough, Toothless leaped into the air and propelled himself toward the creature, slamming into its side with a right shoulder check. Sent flying a few feet, it darted its feet just as Toothless bounded toward Hiccup and put himself between them. He spread his wings wide, his blue glow faintly reflected off the frosty trees around them, and the night sky was torn asunder by one of the loudest, longest roars Hiccup had ever heard his buddy give. Ducking down, Hiccup peered under Toothless' left wing to see the creature unfurl its own wings, reply with a deafening howl, before its open mouth began to glow.

Just like Toothless.

He could hear Toothless suck in a breath.


A pair of legs dashed through Hiccup's vision just as both combatants were about to let fly - Toothless turned just in time, enabling the purple blast to disintegrate the trunk of a wide tree ten feet at the creature's right, whilst hot lava-like sprays went harmlessly wide, cascading to the left and clear of any targets. Toothless folded in his wings, allowing Hiccup a perfect view of the new arrival, illuminated by the amber glow of the patch of burning flame.

Astrid, her face clearly pale even in the faint golden hue, stood between the two animals, her hands held either side of her like some freaked-out peacemaker. Her head whipped to and fro, hands thrusting outwards every two seconds.

"Friends!" she yelled. "We're all friends here, right?! So let's just..." she hesitated for a few seconds, whether out of the violin string-taut tension or inability to articulate anything further than, "...be friendly!"

Frowning in bemusement, Hiccup stood up and gave two soft taps to Toothless' left hind leg, a wordless command to stand down. Circling the wings - Toothless had evidently decided to remain on yellow alert - he stood close to his buddy's head and regarded Astrid with a wary gaze.

"Astrid? What's going on?"

He caught the deep rise and fall of her chest, and her hands began to lower. "This… this isn't how I wanted it to go."

Hiccup glanced between her and the two creatures, both of which watched each other like hawks, neither prepared to yield. "Wanted what to go? Astrid, what are you-"

It clicked, less of a penny drop and more of a gigaton bomb, when Astrid quickly jogged over to the mysterious animal and began to mutter to it in a soothing voice, her eyes checking every visible inch of it.

"This is your friend…"

Astrid threw him a hearty glare, and moved to stand in front and to the side of it. "This is a she, Hiccup," she snapped, "and her name is Stormfly. You could have hurt her."

Hiccup gaped - the fuck? He was nearly killed by this Stormfly, and she had the temerity to chew him out?

"She nearly ate me!" he yelled, "If it wasn't for Toothless, you'd be explaining to Frost why his X.O. was coming back in a dozen pieces!" He turned to the saviour in question. "I'm still pissed at you for running off like that."

Astrid issued an offended gape, and canted her hips as she threw him an angry gesture. "Yeah? Well, if you had stayed put like I asked, none of this would have happened!"

It wasn't often Hiccup lost his temper - if at all - but there were certain situations that got on his nerves. Jack's excessive pranking was one. Nearly being eaten by a strange predator, and then being blamed for it?

That was new.

"Excuse me?!" He took two steps forward, arms wide. "I was chasing Toothless, who ran into this forest 'cause he smelled a threat. A threat, Astrid."

"Stormfly is not a threat, Hiccup!"

"To you, maybe! She could have killed me... this, right here, is why I asked about her! All of this could have been avoided if I'd had just a little heads up!"

"Don't put this on me-"

The argument was brutally cut short with a plasma blast from Toothless directly and perfectly between them. Hiccup whirled around, startled by the bright, loud blast, and found his buddy alternating his irritated gaze between them, scaly face a neon sign saying, "you done?"

Hiccup let out his anger and frustration in a long sigh. Maybe he was right, and for Toothless of all to desire an end to the bickering…

He turned to Astrid, who oddly mirrored his expression of awkward apology. "Sorry," he said, "I shouldn't have gone off on you like that."

Astrid waved it off. "Yeah, well, I'm sorry too." Her right hand went to her hip whilst her left rubbed a rough patch on her forehead. "You're right, I should have told you - I was just so wrapped up in wanting to see your face when you saw her… I forgot she doesn't like people. I figured she'd had some bad experiences with Unity, or something."

The faint familiarity tickled at his mind once again - he put it down to the similarities between her and his initial experiences with Toothless and nearby people.

"Okay, well," he said, clapping his hands together, "let's do this right. Hi, Stormfly," he gave her a little wave, "I'm Hiccup, and this is Toothless."

Stormfly's head moved between him and Astrid, possibly looking to her for reassurance. A suspicion confirmed when the blonde spoke to her in a soothing, encouraging voice. "It's okay. He's a friend. They both are."

Stormfly's slight backing away, and the low groan she emitted seemed to indicate she was unconvinced. Astrid took a step toward her whilst gently gesturing back to Hiccup. "Don't worry, girl. You can trust them. I do. Come on... let them see how beautiful you are."

Something Astrid said seemed to have the right effect, whether it was the soothing encouragement with which she spoke, or the appeal to some sort of vanity in Stormfly, but she nevertheless took three wary steps forward into the dying light emitted by her fire blast.

It was as he laid eyes on the majestic Stormfly, without the threat of consumption, that the tickle of familiarity morphed into a full-blown itch. She walked on two thick legs not unlike a bird, but her lizard-like frame gave of more of a dinosaur-like vibe than anything avian. Her tail, swishing left and right, sported dozens of vicious-looking barbs - Astrid, noticing that, scurried over and began smoothing them down with loving strokes toward the tip of her tail. He glanced over at the patch where her liquid flame had once happily burned, now a black, charred shape in the forest floor.

It clicked.

"Subject Beta," he breathed.

Stormfly heard him - and was not impressed. She ducked her head low with a protracted growl, and a yelping Astrid barely pulled her hands away before the barbs shot up again. Toothless let out a defensive snarl in response, and stalked closer to Hiccup.

"The hell did you just say to her?!" Astrid barked, glaring fiercely in his direction.

Unable to take his eyes off Stormfly, Hiccup said, "Astrid… where did you first find her?"

Astrid shrugged, her hands flying into the air as though he had just asked the stupidest question, given the circumstances. "Here, in this forest! I was camping out 'cause my parents were arguing again, and when I came back from a toilet break she was eating my food!" Her left hand waved between them. "And she reacted just like this-Hiccup, what did you say to her?"

He ignored her - it couldn't be true. What were the odds of Subject Beta surviving the C-112 facility disaster, to then be the best friend of Astrid - the ex-Valkyrie in his company? He didn't bother calculating them; the word astronomical seemed to suffice.

Turning to Toothless, who was looking at him as though witnessing a descent into insanity, he said, "Bud, think back to when you were at the facility."

Toothless scowled, and snorted as he jerked his head away.

"Do you remember if you had a friend there? Another experiment, just like you?"

"Experiment?!" Astrid sputtered. Hiccup paid her no heed, focusing on Toothless - who looked back at him through the corners of his eyes, frowning.

"They escaped a few times - breathed fire that looked like spitting lava. Spikes in their tail."

Toothless looked away, and it didn't take years of experience with him to notice the cogs turning behind his eyes.

"They escaped so often, they… they had to wear a muzzle. Do you remember?"

Hiccup watched Toothless' eyes move left and right as he visibly searched his memories, and then witnessed possibly a change into the most glorious expression he had ever seen his best friend wear - the dawn of recognition. Toothless' wings fell to the ground, and his eyes went wide as his mouth dropped open.

"Hiccup, I swear to-"

If the hand he held up to cut her off had caused a serious glare to be cast, he didn't notice nor care, so focused was he on his friend. Toothless' gape morphed into a goofy, toothless grin as he recognised Subject Beta before him, and immediately he began bouncing on his paws like an excited dog, issuing a guttural noise that sounded suspiciously like hur-hur-hur.

Stormfly looked at him like he had gone crazy. As did Astrid.

Hiccup, too.

Undeterred, Toothless dropped low to the ground and curled his wings over his eyes, and occasionally drew them back for a weird game of peek-a-boo over and over again.

Still, Stormfly regarded him with a wary eye, as though his antics were a threat to her personal safety. Hiccup considered backing away; the fearsome dragon, bane of Einherjars and Helas alike, was playing peek-a-boo with his rapidly disappearing dignity.

So, Toothless brought out the big guns. Curling his wings around him, he rolled onto his back and grasped his tail, bringing it to his mouth where it was kneaded and 'bitten' by his gums.

That did it. Stormfly's mouth went wide, and she began issuing a series of excited chirrups and rawks while her head bobbed up and down, before scampering over to the now-righted Toothless. Hiccup watched with a growing grin as the two creatures engaged in some sort of goofy 'dance' around each other, feeling his heart blossom with warmth at the sight of a reunion between two old friends.

Astrid appeared beside him, regarding the adorable scene with a bewildered eye. "Okay… what?"

Hiccup could only offer a shrug. "I guess when they were kept in the facility, Toothless kept Stormfly entertained by doing stuff like that."

He felt a hand enclose around his left upper arm, and steer him to face its owner. Astrid looked at him with a serious, no-mess face, keeping their eyes locked.

For some reason, Hiccup felt his stomach leap.

"You have some explaining to do."

"She was an experiment?"

Hiccup had gotten so used to the strong, confident, robust quality of Astrid's voice, that the faraway tone of disbelief and shock had pulled at his heartstrings like a plucking hard-light violinist.

Anxious to vacate Itchy Armpit as the scuffle between two dragons was bound to have drawn attention, Hiccup had promised to tell Astrid what he knew as soon as they found a place to stay for the daylight hours. Having zeroed in on suitable shelter halfway between Astrid's home and the small warehouse near the southeastern coast where the Fairy lay hidden under camouflage - an abandoned hospital, which was not eerie at all - Hiccup then made good on his promise over a small campfire and survival rations in the waiting room.

Astrid, for her part, was the perfect audience. She had listened patiently and attentively to every word out of Hiccup's mouth, her eyes leaving his only to glance upon Stormfly, and then return. He explained that, like Toothless, Stormfly was the product of genetic engineering, the splicing of DNA to form new life. She was the result of science without ethics, morals or boundaries. He explained the treatment the two dragons went through, and there was a moment where, as her face was wracked with ill-concealed fury, he thought the floor vibrated under him.

He then finished off by explaining that the same serum the scientists used to create the two dragons was the same used on humans, and that not only were Stormfly and Toothless 'born' in that facility, but the first abnormals, too.

Everything could be traced back to the illegal facility, destroyed by a Russian missile.

Then came the inevitable questions.

How did he know?

His immediate reply was the factual truth; he'd found observation reports, assessments, photographs, everything detailing the experiments on the two dragons - Pitch had even found records of the early experiments into the first abnormal. As expected, Astrid asked if she could see the documents for herself at the earliest opportunity. He couldn't fault her for it - she thought she knew all there was to Stormfly, and there he was, turning her world upside down.

Therein lay the rub - the documents were still at Sanctuary.

"I… can't, right now."

Astrid had looked less than impressed and more than skeptical, tilting her head and throwing him a wholly unnecessary glare.

"That's not good enough, Hiccup. You just told me my best friend was born because some asshole scientists thought they were above right and wrong, but you haven't got the proof to back it up."

Nor could he have blamed her lack of belief. The whole thing sounded like fantasy, even in the age of holo-imaging, endless power generators and people who could manipulate the elements on a whim.

"I know," he had said, cross legged on the dusty floor between two faded red plastic benches, trying to avoid. "I know it's a lot to take in-"

"No fucking shit, flyboy!" Astrid had went from serious and stern to full-on furious in the space of a sentence, her abrupt loudness causing both Toothless and Stormfly to cast wary glances from their curled up positions near the door. "I'm not taking this at face value - you tell me, right now, how you know-"

"I can't!"

His outburst had caused a trifecta of two dragon-glances at him, plus one hell of a startled recoil from Astrid, lips clamped shut and eyes wide. Chalk that up to the list.

It was then Hiccup had realised just how tired he was, and how much nearly twelve hours of solid flight, meeting and nearly being eaten by Stormfly had taken out of him. His limbs felt like lead with fatigue gnawing at his bones, and his normally vast patience was wearing thin.

He rubbed hard at his face, and tried to interest himself in the dirty, debris-strewn hospital waiting room while he calmed himself down. Once upon a time, it would have supported dozens of souls in need of healing; now, it was just another room that had succumbed to the ravages of time and war, with ripped-out benches and abandoned personal belongings the only signs life once existed. Lifelessness always clawed at his soul.

"Why not?" she had then asked, her voice measurably quieter.

He'd sighed, bowing his head and closing his eyes. She didn't deserve his outburst and he knew it - he was just in an awful position.

He could answer with a spectacular and nifty evasion of the truth, perhaps a subject change… or he could give her the truth.

The truth being he couldn't tell her.

"The reason I can't tell you," he said, his voice strained and quiet, "is because our leader Neve and three hundred brave people sacrificed their lives for something. Something bigger than you, me, those two goofballs over there," he gestured to the two animals, who sat in front of each other and batted at a spindly ball of tumbleweed, "bigger than the Ghosts or the Valkyries."

He forced himself to look at her; still she regarded him with eyes of uncertainty. Her braid, thicker and more practical than Snow Queen's, sat on her right shoulder, and her bangs tickled at her eyebrows.

"It's not that I don't want to tell you. It's that I can't without betraying everything they died for. I'm so sorry, Astrid… but…"

"You don't trust me enough."

Her words, elegant in their simplicity and brutal in their honesty, brought back a healthy dose of reality into the situation he was in. Maybe he was too naive. He'd come close to telling someone, a total stranger in the grand scheme of things, the greatest secret of his kind. Jack would have had his head. Kozmotis would have sliced and diced the rest. Anna would probably have burned it all.

Maybe one day the Ghosts would trust their new companions with the knowledge of Sanctuary, their greatest secret and their last, best hope for survival - because if there was even a one percent chance they were not on the level, Sanctuary's secrecy demanded he take it as an absolute certainty.

He had to face it - after less than a fortnight, the Ghosts just didn't know the ex-Valkyries that well.

He inhaled a deep breath, letting it flow out in a long, resigned sigh. "I'm sorry, Astrid. Please don't take it personally. I like you, I consider myself a bit of a rule bender… but even I won't break this one."

She emitted a small sniff, and offered him a smile that would have come across as sympathetic had disappointed hurt not laid behind her eyes. "I'm trying not to… but I get it. I know what it's like."

Her eyes found the flickering gold of the campfire, and the heavy frown that took pride of place on her features coupled with the way her body closed in on itself was a screaming clue the topic was over.

The problem was, and it was one he well knew he had, was that he was often blinkered.

"I need to ask you something."

Astrid snorted, and even though he could only see one eye, he knew they were rolling. "I bet you do," she said in a low, brusque tone, glaring at the flames. Maybe she was keeping them going.

"I know you don't have to-"

"Spit it out, Hiccup," she said in a half-sigh.

"What did you go back to the house for?"

There was an audible catch of breath. Hiccup didn't miss how her entire body stiffened as though receiving a mild electric shock, and her widened eyes instantly went to a place far further than the cracked, heavily faded blue painted wall at the other end of the room. Nor did he miss the way her left hand suddenly dove into the pocket of her hooded sweater.

Bringing his voice down to soft, "Astrid?"

Her eyes slowly fell like a descending feather, and her hand once hidden in the safety of her hoodie carefully withdrew, clutching something in her fingers.

A doll.

It had two black buttons for eyes, brown wool for hair, and a triangle of faded red material for a dress.

Hiccup recognised it instantly.

"That's Sophie's doll," he murmured, unable to take his eyes off it. "She's one of Jack's kindergarten kids. How… how did you get it?"

Astrid too gazed at it like it like it intimidated yet enraptured her. "During the Purge. I was… I saw it… I couldn't help myself..."

She trailed off, unsaid words hanging in the air like invisible omens. Her voice was shaky enough to put Hiccup on edge, and he glanced between her and the doll, wondering why such a haunted look sat upon her normally proud, strong featured. It reminded him of battle-shock - why Astrid was exhibiting signs, he did not know.

Until she spoke, her voice barely above a whisper, but with a resolute strength in her tone. Her eyes remained yet on the flames, like they were telling her life's story.

"I'm going to ask you something, and I need you to promise me you'll tell me the truth. No matter what."

Hiccup slowly nodded. "I promise."

"When we destroyed the Guardian Star," she hesitated, as though preparing herself for an answer she did not want to ask, "were there… were there any children aboard?"

It was a question easy to answer, and didn't require any of the truth-dodging he expected he would have had to do. No, it was a simple plea for reassurance, from someone likely unaccustomed to pleading or needing reassurance. A faint smile tugging at his lips, though she did not see it, he answered.


Astrid gave a sharp, shuddering intake of breath, and under Hiccup's watchful gaze she closed her eyes, and covered her mouth with a loose, trembling fist.

"You're sure?" she whispered.

"As sure as Stormfly is sitting over there."

He then heard Astrid emit a sound he never thought he'd hear; a faint, breathless whimper, and a sight that pulled at his heartstrings - a lone, thin, solitary bead of liquid descending from her left eye.

She murmured something under her breath, words Hiccup barely would have caught had he not been listening so intently.

"Maybe I can find redemption…"

"Astrid?" he asked quietly.

Her eyes snapped open, and within a second she was rising to her feet and striding away like hell itself was behind her, loudly and brusquely informing him she needed to be alone for a while. There were moments Hiccup swore he heard sounds of sniffs and sobs, but the hospital was that old and damaged, it could have been the wind for all he knew.

When she returned half an hour later, just as dawn was breaking through the shattered, window-less revolving doors, she set about making space near the fire to sleep whilst explaining the doll; she took it not only to remind her of just where her path of anger had led, but also in the hope that, one day, she would be able to return the doll to her owner.

"To say sorry for taking her home away from her."

It was on the tip of Hiccup's tongue to build on that hope by saying the day may yet come - but he was bound to silence.

Astrid's tone had left no room for further conversation, so as she wordlessly laid down with her back to him, he fired off a quick check-in over the earpiece and settled down on the hard ground to get some shut-eye of his own.

As the first golden rays of morning sunlight beamed through the broken windows, turning the particles of dust in the air into tiny glittering stars, he glanced up at Astrid and began to wonder what it was like to have never been loved.

It was as his eyes fluttered closed, the flight fatigue and the night's excitement catching up with him, that a pleasant thought crossed his mind and filled his heart with promise.

If she were to become part of the ragtag bunch of misbehaving miscreants called the Ghosts… then she would know the love of a family.

A/N: It's been a while. Partly due to Overwatch, mostly due to a severe lack of motivation. A few other things, but I won't go into detail.

I haven't really got much to say down here, other than I hope this was worth the wait. I'm a little unsure about it at the moment, maybe it's the time it took so the doubt swelled. Maybe I've made it a little heavy. I don't know. I hope you'll all let me know.

I'm also planning an Overwatch fic called "Imperfect", featuring a Widowmaker x Soldier 76 pairing. I know other fans have their preferences, like PharMercy, Mercy 76, Gency, WidowTracer et al, and I'm not gonna start a conflict. Tired of it.

Next chapter, everything comes to a head in a hopefully satisfying conclusion of the first book.

Peace out,