A/N: Welcome! Just a quick word before the epilogue commences: This is an epilogue. I highly suggest reading Leið first... a 10 chapter tale of Hiccup and Astrid's "Romantic Flight" gone wrong. Or, you can just read the epilogue knowing that Astrid went through Hel to get them both back and alive to Berk.
Part I: The Parents
His hand should have been sweaty. It should have been clammy with the combined heat of their palms, with the nerves and the tightness and his fever, matching his cheeks and neck and brow.
But it felt cold. Cold and dry but just as tight as her own grip.
Their uneven strides took them down the narrow path winding through the northernmost pastures. Astrid smelled moist earth and fish oils and the faint vestiges of smoke in the air. A soft bleat rose from a quiet barn. The Mead Hall doors banged to a close, the abreast torches stale and dying. Beyond her sight, longships knocked against their moorings, the water breaking at their sterns in a familiar, endless chime.
In her ear, Hiccup puffed.
"We're almost there," Astrid croaked. The rocky path became more even, the descent leveling. They moved past a shed, then a house, and then another. The patrols were close enough to hear a murmur. A sneeze. A soft curse.
Hiccup gave another violent shudder at her side and Astrid felt more of his weight in her arms. She hurried towards the nearest source of life. At some point the hand holding his had taken his shoulder in a one-armed brace.
'You can't give up just because we're here, Hiccup,' Astrid thought. 'There's still too much to do…'
Deep voices sounded ahead, slightly to the right, as they hobbled between a pair of sleeping homes. A flickering beacon of light came and went. Two men passed, bathed in the halo of a torch.
Astrid's voice failed her, her thudding heart taking too much of her throat. She shook harder than ever at the first Hooligan face she'd seen since stepping onto Berk's soil.
She knew him. This was real. Broad-shouldered and pot-bellied, bristled beard patched by unrecoverable dragonfire, a hard scar under the left side of his jaw. He bore that line in his beard proudly. Took down a Nadder, he'd say. Slit its throat before it could fire again.
Astrid used to love that story. She used to revere him, along with every other scarred, bellowing pair of lips with a tale of glory that came her way. Now she wondered at the Nadder's side. Its story. Because it had one, just as Toothless did.
She tightened her hold on the fading boy in her arms and called to the patroller.
"Gunth—," she coughed. "Gunthor!"
Gunthor doubled back, peering at them through the flame. His eyes grew wide.
Firelight was shoved in their faces—so close Astrid could feel the heat of its flame. It wasn't as comforting as she'd anticipated heat would feel against the night's chill they battled for so long. She gripped Hiccup harder and she felt his fingers tighten at her waist, his nose buried against her collar.
"Dear gods... Ast—?" He caught sight of her charge. " Hiccup!?"
He took in their pale faces and lank hair, the way they leaned on each other. His eyes drifted downward and, impossibly, widened further.
"Ch-chief," Astrid mumbled out of a dry thought. How could she still be thirsty?
She wished she had said parents. Or Mom and Dad. Or Hoffersons. The only faces she wanted to see. She felt her grip on reality slipping as the activity around her exploded and she pained her fingers with holding Hiccup tighter.
"Git the Chief!" Gunthor bellowed over their heads. "Quick now!"
A loud swear vocalized to their left. Lights flashed.
"It's them! The kids!"
Gunthor was asking them something, shouting in their faces, but alarms began ringing, more shouts joined the first, doors banging open as the sleepy village awoke with the sudden intensity of a dragon raid.
"Wits going on?"
"Has the chief been called?"
A scream sounded and Astrid found herself wrenched from Hiccup, his needle-cold grip gone, her own breathing impeded as thick, sticky limbs attempted to smother her.
Her mind spun for what could have been a heartbeat or an eternity. Panic rose like a long-fingered cinch clawing its way up her body. She couldn't see, she couldn't seem to inhale enough air to shout, hands pawed at her until—
"My girl, my girl, my girl—" A thick voice blubbered into her cheek, punctuated by wet kisses.
For the first time in recent memory, Hiccup didn't occupy Astrid's mind. Neither did dragons. The past three months were snuffed like a pinched flame. Her mother's sweaty scent filled her nose, her father's bearded jaw heavy against her head, their arms and bellies crushing her, and Astrid felt she might die from bliss.
Astrid clung onto her parents, uncaring of spectacle or decorum. She opened her mouth and great, heaving sobs took over, shaking her harder than the high, glacial winds of hours before.
Now she was home.
By Odin's sodding eye, she was home.
The pounding in her head must have woken her: a steady, heavy beat that she felt in her wrists and throat and ears. She was uncomfortably hot—hot to the point where the small of her back was wet and her hair stuck to her neck. The bed she lay in was softer than she remembered, the linens cool and musky, the quilt far too heavy for her sweaty body and clogged head.
Her neck cramped at its angle in the pillow—a pillow!—and Astrid swallowed only to find her throat sore and impossibly dry.
She swallowed again and peeled her eyes apart. An open window at her feet cast blue, dawn light about the room. She lay on her side, in the middle of a large bed, a sense of emptiness at her back. Someone shared the bed with her, inches from her face, meaty breath rolling across the cloths to tickle her hairline.
Another blink, another swallow, another second of breaking through the fog and pain of her headache, and Astrid realized she could see the whites of their eyes, she could recognize the dark blonde locks tangled around them, a face shaped like her own, both cheeks marked in tear tracks.
Astrid willed her lips to part against the dryness and managed to croak, "Momma."
Glüm Hofferson gave a watery smile and reached forward to touch her daughter's face.
"My little battle brat."
Astrid delighted in the touch. It wasn't enough to stave away the memory of cold—biting cold—and of Hiccup, pale and dying. Or the pain. Or the terror.
A sharp pit of worry held tight in Astrid's gut.
Glüm sighed. "I don't know, dear. He was taken to the chief."
Astrid tried to push up. Her head felt worse than ever. Her back screamed. Her body felt chilled the moment the quilt fell.
"Rest," Glüm said, pushing her daughter back to the bed with a remarkably strong hand.
How? How could she rest with so many unknowns?
Head spinning, a crackling pressure spreading behind her forehead, Astrid made another weak attempt to sit up. Her mother would have none of it.
"Don't worry," Glüm soothed, "Just rest for now."
Astrid stayed down this time, "But—"
"Rest." The hand at her shoulder moved up to cup her face.
Astrid closed her eyes at the touch, soon feeling her mother's distinct fingers rake through the short length of her hair. She focused on that, on her tingling scalp, rather than the soreness everywhere else. Her pains faded with every sensational comb through, as did her awareness…
When Astrid opened her eyes again the room had brightened to a warm, yolky hue. The first thing she realized was the pounding in her head had abated to a mere ringing annoyance, though the aches in her body remained.
Also, warmth. Safety. Unsettling safety.
A blind fervency overtook her to push through the waking haze and address her surroundings.
Her parents' quarters. She was in her parents' bed.
Her heart made itself known in the painful beat against her ribs. She took a breath, allowing herself to relax as she continued to drink in her environment.
She was alone. The mattress was depressed at her left, and when she reached toward the imprint its coolness told her she'd had the bed to herself for quite some time.
Astrid took another deep breath, and the life she had left behind months ago came flooding back. She shifted in the sheets and stared at the raked ceiling. Distant chatter wafted in from the unshuttered window, riding on a seabreeze. Astrid drew it in deeply; Berkian salted air was cooler than the Reef, and thick with animal musk. Sheep's wool; hair of yak. The surrounding spruces leant an undercurrent of cleanliness the Reef lacked.
She inhaled a fourth time, cleaning her lungs, and looked down. A long sleeping gown—her mother's—warmed her. Flashes from the night before returned: being led inside, shielded from the roaring crowds by flanking guardians. Moving backwards, Astrid pieced together the final hour of an evening she'd rather not remember.
She'd had flat, dense bread shoved at her, of which she managed only a few bites. Her father's arm had never left her shoulders. Her mother then helped her quickly change with the promise of a proper bath later, crying all the while.
A bath sounded wonderful.
Astrid sat up, having better luck than hours earlier, but dizziness still came. She swung her legs to the floor, spine roaring its disapproval with the needle-like spasms she could feel from her hips to her ears, and it was only her Sif-born awareness let her spy the glass of water by the bed an instant before kicking it over. She drank it greedily, taking in chugs large enough to give her the hiccups.
She lowered the glass, collar wet with her urgency, and held her breath. Hiccup. She had to see Hiccup. Toothless was still on the island, flightless. Trapped with Vikings who thought a war with dragons was very much still going on.
They had to announce the end of the war.
…but there was such a story behind it she couldn't do it alone. She wouldn't be believed even with her past popularity and budding potential. And Hiccup… well, Hiccup was known for his tall tales — or not so tall, as the past season had attested — but he had a natural charisma. It hurt her to admit it, but it was there; he'd know how to spin this. His cleverness and her pull. They could do this. Together. She simply had to get to him.
They needed a plan.
Astrid shoved off from the bed, everything aching in the most pleasant way, and thudded, singled-minded, to the door.
The wood pressed cool against the soles of her feet. The cotton of the dressing gown swung around her calves, heavy and rough. Window light speared across the room and prodded her eyes like thick, warm fingers.
Her head felt like a mallet perched on a weak handle, and yet, everything her vision took in lightened her.
She was home. Home. Home.
The heady smell of sheep and bone and roots assaulted her the moment she cracked open the solid door to her parent's bedroom. It was the only walled off room of their longhouse. The rest of the house mapped liked most others on Berk: an open living and cooking area, with additional, informal curtained rooms for privacy. In the Hofferson's case, a smaller corner was partitioned for their only daughter and a larger, unused one for her two brothers adventuring abroad.
Astrid slowly followed the sounds of thumps and clinks and consumed everything as she went. From the dark-wooded walls adorned with tantrum nicks and battle-won decor, to the low roof where farming tools and dragon relics hung like yuletide decorations, to the flashing central hearth where pale smoke spiraled out the open roof hatch in pops and crackles.
A single figure moved in the low-lit room: her mother bent over a table, peeling turnips.
It came out as a whisper, yet the blade still dropped from the older woman's hand as though the word had turned it molten. Glüm twisted around, the hem of her dress catching under her toes as she stepped quickly forward. Her dark grey hair followed suit, which had only been bothered by a frizzy, loose braid, more likely to be seen on a child than a married woman.
Her arms lifted, "Oh, my girl. My baby girl."
Astrid took a shuddering breath—but what should have expelled as a sob instead came as a series of hacking coughs that sent her head spinning.
By the time she regained her breath, meaty hands had been pressed to her cheeks and forehead.
"I prefer it," Astrid mumbled, eyes too busy drinking in her mother's face to dwell on the impossible cold she'd suffered not long ago. Glüm had the same round cheekbones that she bore, but with a dimpled chin and broader nose. Their eyes were a similar shade of blue and they would soon stand level with one another, but for now Astrid was content to let her mother dwarf her.
Glüm inhaled deeply through her nose and seemed to shake herself out of a rapture.
"Right then." She gave Astrid's cheek one last pat. "I'll have a hot meal ready for you in a wink. Go to your room. You need to wash."
Astrid hummed. "A wash sounds nice."
Only the drive towards cleanliness could draw her cheeks from her mother's warm hold. Astrid turned toward the darker half of the house. One side a closed room, to the other, a wall of cloth. Astrid approached a familiar partition and pulled the stained, fawn curtain aside to reveal a bed she hadn't slept in for weeks. The room was even darker than the hall. She reached for a flint and found it exactly as her hand remembered: atop a crate she used to store crafts. The mostly-melted waxed wick was there as well.
She lit the wick and her private space wavered into view, all harsh shadows and warm colors, and Astrid took a moment to absorb the tragically preserved sleeping quarter. To her, it presented a stale image that her parents seemed unable to touch. A potential memorial.
Her bed had the same hastily prepared look: the colorless, wool blanket crinkled, the pillow depressed, a chest with her belongings at its foot. Her axed rested over its heavy lid.
Astrid reached for it. Cloth and grain tickled the heel of her hand. Her fingers sealed around the handle as though Freya herself had bound her flesh to the weapon. She picked it up, her lungs stilling, her nerves collecting high in her breast, and watched the firelight dance along the chipped blade.
Over two months ago Hiccup had flung this from her grip. The last touch she shared with her weapon.
She shifted her hold, passing it between hands, rotating its weight.
This was what she needed. For all her time scrambling around the Queen's nest, kowtowing to the Reefers… if she had had this in her hands she would have been fine.
The floor creaked. A shadow darkened the candle-streaked wall. Glüm entered with a cloth-draped shoulder and a large washbasin steaming with boiled water. She set it down next to a stool and pretended not to notice how violently Astrid started at her arrival—or how completely entranced she had been by the axe in hand.
"Here, love," Glüm said, overly cheerful. "You'll feel like a new woman once you get cleaned up a bit."
"Yeah," Astrid rasped, uncertain why she felt such guilt. "Thanks, mum."
Glüm's eyes were fixed to her brow where the scars lay. Astrid had already caught sight of her own reflection in her mother's looking-glass and hadn't the urge to consider it further. The side of her face was light brown and marbled against her natural pigment, slightly risen and reaching beyond her hairline. It might fade further with time. It might not. She'd have to get used to it either way.
"Mom," she said loudly, startling the woman. "I got it."
Glüm allowed the cloth to be whipped from her hands. "I'll have some hot food ready," she responded, absently.
"Yeah, I'm holding you to it. You already promised," Astrid teased. But her mother didn't so much as smile.
"You're so thin."
"Mom." Astrid forced the word, hoping that her meaning would be understood: a little more like how she spoke to her mother before.
Glüm smiled, pressed a kiss to Astrid's head, and left.
Even so, Astrid waited until she could hear a ladle clang against iron kettle before she moved again. She pulled her nightdress off, body drawing tight with the sweep of cold, and threw it to the side. She gripped the thick cloth, soaked it, and brought it to her shoulders. The freshly boiled water felt wonderful against her muscles.
A clump of conker-soap rested by the basin. Astrid sudded it against the cloth and got to work scrubbing the last few days from her skin.
There went the wild dragon in the forest. The unexpected Peaceable encroaching on her and Hiccup.
She wrung the cloth and got the grime from the dried heels of her feet to her knees, where scrapes had fogged brown, packed with dirt.
There went the freezing nights airborne, wondering if Hiccup would survive. There went the crick in her neck huddling under Toothless' wing, trying to keep her skeletal, dying charge warm enough.
She got to her arms. From the soft-haired pits, to the fading, pebbled burns, to her wrists—
There went the hands. The fear. The helplessness—
Astrid threw her whole head into the murky, sudsy basin. She saved her hair for last as the heat leached from the water. Goosebumps coursed over her arms and breasts and she hastened to rinse the lingering suds from the short bob, thankful to be clean. Her mind kept trying to replay the final moments in Hackett's home, but she clamped it down as she swallowed her breath, fingers working at a frantic scrape.
Worry over what awaited outside her home soured true contentment. Beyond the sanctuary of the Hofferson walls would be scrutiny—scrutiny more intimate than what she had to endure as an outcast on the Reef Island.
Astrid pulled her head from the basin with a gasp. Water sloshed to the floor; cold, fat droplets trickled down her back and over her shoulders. A chill traced her spine, renewing her goosebumps, and Astrid threw open her trunk. An assortment of summer sheers and training pads layered the top. She burrowed beneath for a heavier tunic, managing to snare one that was dim, pilled, and with the slight oaky musk of something packed into the corner of a trunk for a year, but warm.
Astrid looked down her body.
Her mother was right: she had lost weight. She was weaker. The scars on her arms were dark purple in the naked, cold air. Her hip bones were more pronounced than she recalled. Her ribs more stark between her breasts. Her skin more freckled.
She pulled on a bind, and the grey tunic, and thick leggings. She had no battle skirt any longer, but a wide, studded belt gifted to her last yule worked just fine to aid in cinching her clothes.
Astrid reentered the stofa and a rush of warmth blessed her arrival. Like a picture in a storybook, her mother stood at the table and spooned a large portion of stew into a carved, lacquered bowl.
"Come eat, dear," Glüm said, but Astrid had already moved to where it was set on the table. She had three spoonfuls in her mouth before the flavor hit her.
It tasted like home. Stringy meat and salted broth. Animals raised on their land. Spices traded with summer merchants.
With a sudden threat of tears renewed, Astrid buried her face in the stew. Her stomach cramped after the first bowl but she happily allowed her mother to refill it. She had a body to restore, after all.
And not just her own.
"I need to see the chief," she mumbled the next moment her mouth cleared.
She heard the ladle dropped into the pot. A rag thrown on the table, the bench across from her pulled out.
Her mother sat down, a thick hand reached across to hold Astrid's wrist. It was enough to pull Astrid's face from her meal.
"I need you to tell me where you were," Glüm parried.
Astrid opened her mouth to answer. She could say the Reef Warriors, right? Surely that wouldn't lead to discovering a Night Fury hidden on the island…
But then the question of how they'd gotten on Reef Island would arise. What could she say then? That she and Hiccup got into a fight and… and sailed into territory Berk had unsuccessfully hunted for generations? Leading them to the nest, that lead to their injuries, that lead to Hiccup losing a foot…?
No. The Hooligans would immediately assume they were kidnapped and a cry for retribution would swell in the coming days, loud enough to drown out whatever pleas she and Hiccup reasoned. They couldn't get out of one war just to start another. Hiccup had made her paranoid and her time with the Reef Warriors showed her, more clearly than ever, that old rivalries hadn't died. That bad blood still flowed, the veins merely squeezed by the grip of dragons, not severed.
"I need to speak with Hiccup," she said, staring into the bowl. She wished she could keep her voice more steady. Louder. She wished she could look her mother in the eye and that the stew didn't roll in her stomach as though she were guilty of anything other than surviving.
Perhaps she was being a bit dramatic. But she just spent the last two months reaping the ridicule of the three Norns, as though she had somehow offended them greatly. She still felt it—the foreboding wait for the other boot to drop. Getting home and alive was too good for them. For her. Something would go wrong.
Much like something would have gone wrong had Hiccup not awoken back on Reef Island.
She could still mess it up.
She could still fail.
"Astrid." Her mother's voice sounded anything but stern. There was something heartbreaking about it—still fresh with grief.
Astrid swallowed back the aftertaste of salt and fat and turned her hand under her mother's grip so that she could entwine their fingers. With courage beyond what most warriors require, she met her mother's eyes.
"Mom, we were…" Her mother deserved the truth. "We were in trouble. But we made it. But there are things… there are things you wouldn't believe. Hiccup will know how to explain them… you have to trust me."
"That boy lost his leg, Astrid." Glüm rasped, her blue eyes more candescent than Astrid could stomach.
The tentative control she had over her own tears cracked along with her voice: "I know."
"Mom, I know. It looks bad." Astrid elbowed her food aside to take her mother's hand in both of hers. "But you need to trust me."
Glüm sighed and squeezed back. She nodded, sniffed, and Astrid felt another blanket of contentedness settle over her bones for being back with her people. Her network of support and warmth and understanding.
She would speak to Gothi. She would take a more active role in worship if it meant never having to give this up again.
"The chief stopped by this morning, actually."
Astrid withdrew her hands and sat back.
"Your father had it out with him."
Despite her watery eyes, Glüm couldn't keep the grin off her face. "Wanted to speak with you as soon as possible, you see. Wanted his own answers. But you were sleeping, and we were gonna let you sleep for the next two days if you wanted to."
Astrid frowned and took up the spoon again.
"You should have woken me."
"He's the chief, not a god."
"He's worried about Hiccup."
"He's worried about his child, aye, and we're worried about ours." Glüm touched Astrid's hair again, focusing on her scarred brow. Astrid ducked to spoon more broth into her mouth, hardly chewing before she swallowed, and her mother's hand dropped.
"I got burned from dragon fire, mom, but I'm fine. I survived way better than Hiccup."
"Saved him, did yeh?"
Astrid didn't like the tone behind the question.
"He saved me first, and then I saved him…" Astrid paused to take a deep gulp of the mead her mother set out. The sweet tang came with a thousand more memories of Berk and she took another mouthful before she'd finished swallowing the first. Then another, and another, chugging half the pint before gasping out a belch and a careless sleeve across her mouth. "…And he saved me again… and I… I think we saved each other too many times to keep count."
"I ain't trying to keep count," Glüm was quick to protest. "Even so… well, when the chief's son disappeared—ah—"
Astrid put her mug down. "Yes?"
Glum returned to stroking Astrid's resting hand, as though she had to constantly touch her daughter to make sure she was real. Astrid knew the focus was on the scars along her arms but this time she let her mother explore them. Glüm lifted her cornflower eyes, "They said you had killed him."
Astrid coughed on a bit of carrot in her mouth.
"Rumor had it that the two of you were quarreling for the duration of our Nest Quest, and for the final test, well—"
"Mum," Astrid moaned.
"I didn't believe it, 'course," Glüm said quickly. "You were furious, and rightfully so…" She trailed, watching Astrid's head cock. "You aren't mad?"
"I'm a bit… insulted," Astrid responded, honestly. "But I obviously haven't killed him."
"Some might think yeh took his leg, though."
Astrid couldn't believe what she heard. The stew sat heavy in her stomach. Her own village couldn't… they couldn't… this wasn't the Reefers… they…
Glüm reached across again.
"Hey, I said some. This island… you know how they get with rumors. Hiccup had become a village darling just before the both of you disappeared. I wanted to warn you, should you leave the house."
"I know. Thank you." Astrid swallowed thickly. "I should go."
And with that, a wild panic overtook her mother. The fingers exploring her scars clamped down and Astrid had to fight the impulse not to jerk away from the pressure on her wrist.
"Now? Didn't you hear what I said?"
"Yes," Astrid said with forced calm. "And waiting won't change anything."
"You should rest a bit. Let the food settle—"
Astrid extracted herself as gently as she could.
"Mom, I'll be fine. I'll come home right after, I promise."
Glüm appeared pained.
"Don't leave the village," she begged. "Don't go exploring."
Astrid wanted to respond exactly how she would have two months ago: a scoff, an eye-roll, and quip about how she was 'not Hiccup'. As though she would leave the village for mere exploring.
Things were different. So different. Her mother's fears were real; her voice had more pleading, more weakness to it than Astrid could ever remember.
And Astrid needed to leave the village. She needed to check on Toothless, eventually.
"I won't." Astrid promised. "I don't want to leave this island for a long, long time."
The misdirection felt as dense and guilty as the two bowls of stew in her belly.
Her mother's warning rang in her mind as Astrid stepped from the skáli. It was already noon, judging by the activity of the village; a weather front had spread in fast, and grey clouds now choked much of the light from the sky. Winds whipped from the west and Astrid spared a thought towards grabbing the hanging shawl just on the other side of the door.
Some might think yeh took his leg, though.
Three pairs of eyes were already trained on her, and more followed. Astrid anchored her resolve against the heavy food in her stomach and plowed on.
Her time with the Reef Warriors had her nearly accustomed to being stared at. There was a wariness there. Perhaps she imagined it. Perhaps her mother's words and the lingering memories of weeks past had her feeling the cold stares.
Astrid startled. Unkar the Ironfisted waved a wild, stubby arm from his perch on a ladder.
"'Lo there, lass!"
She managed a grin and a wave and kept walking before he could finish shouting, "'Where yeh bin?"
She had a nosey village to cross. It occurred to Astrid that she didn't have answers for anyone. Not even her own mother. All the answers lay within the chief's home, with Hiccup. She had to focus on their collaboration.
"How ye feeling, Astrid?" Freckled Frenya called from somewhere behind her.
"Good," she answered, not breaking stride. "I'm fine."
A heavy body was thrown in her path.
"Glad you're back!"
Astrid dodged the outstretched hands, "Thanks—"
"Look at you! All sunned and blonde—why your hair's practically snow! Hardly anyone will notice those scars."
Astrid grunted something about the chief and struggled forwards.
The chief's home sat highest, much like it had with the Reefers, but Stoick's enjoyed a grassy hillside. Warmer, if anyone were to ask her, with a greener forest crowned around it.
Astrid quickened her pace. She felt the burn in her legs. With her eyes on the stout door, she hoped against all hope that no one else would stop her, least of all her peers. She had no answers. Not for them, not for her family, and not for her village.
Not on her own.
"Later!" she called over her shoulder and jumped the last climbing paces to Stoick's. When she knocked on the door it felt like she had every eye in the village trained on her.
Astrid waited, painfully aware of the attention at her back.
She heard thudding before she dared peak behind her.
Then the click of a latch.
With that, her desperation for her destination reversed.
Stoick emerged from the shaded interior, taller than Astrid seemed to remember. She had forgotten his girth. Forgotten the size of his full red beard. Forgotten how incredibly hard to read he could be: imposing, with nothing but a brief shine in those sea-green eyes at the sight of her on his doorstep.
Despite herself, Astrid took a small step back.
Then she took a breath.
"Astrid," he nodded, opening the door a mite more. "Are yeh well?"
"Yeah," she answered. "Yeah, I'm okay." She tucked a short lock of hair behind her ear. "How's Hiccup?"
Stoick seemed to think on it for a moment. "He's… he's missing his leg."
"I know." She felt stupid saying it and forced herself to keep talking. "It's… he was… he was walking for a while but then it got worse. Is he going to be okay?"
Again, Stoick didn't immediately answer. He stared at her, searching. "Aye," he finally said. "Gothi seems to think so. But he's got to beat the fever first."
"Um," Astrid fought the urge to fidget, "is he awake? Have you spoken with him?"
Stoick stepped onto the stoop, into the muted sunlight, and Astrid took another step back.
"I'd like to hear your side of it."
It sounded more a command than a request. Still, Astrid steeled her resolve. "Can I see Hiccup first? I need to make sure he's okay."
"What happened, Astrid?"
He was being as gentle as he could, Astrid noticed. She wondered, not for the first time, how someone could balance being a father and being a chief. Hiccup must have made the line between the two the thinnest one could walk.
"I can't answer that," she said. He didn't like that answer; his expression made that clear enough, and Astrid was quick to keep talking. "Not without Hiccup. It's… it's his story to tell more than anyone's."
Something in Stoick seemed to darken and deflate.
"We'll tell you everything!" Astrid insisted. "I promise. We just… it's a hard story, and we have to tell it right."
He stared at her a moment longer and Astrid could only concentrate on not blinking too much and not taking any more steps back—
"Come in, lass."
Air rushed between her lips—she hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath—and Astrid followed the chief into the cool, dark home.
A potent smell immediately assaulted her, one not unlike Irpa's hut.
A shock ran through her body.
Stoick coughed, "Gothi was just here not too long ago. Had to do some local…brewing."
Astrid swallowed against the painful tightness in her chest, swallowed down her rapidly beating heart, and tried to pass off her sudden nausea as due to the smell and not…
It's in the past. She was safe now. She was here. She was on Berk.
"His leg will be okay?" Her question came out more as a croak and Astrid doubled down on her attempt to keep it together. She kept her fingers from twitching by rubbing her hands on the hem of her tunic. She ignored the coldness clamped around her wrists.
"It's gone, Astrid." He sounded so tired.
"I know, but the infection?"
"Too soon to tell," the chief said shortly, hand against the wall. "Gods, if we have to cut away more…" Stoick cleared his throat. "He's up here, lass."
Without looking to see if she followed, Stoick started the climb towards the loft. Astrid trailed behind, her innards tight and high, making her aware of how uncomfortably full she was.
As Stoick's hulking mass cleared the top landing, the lay of the loft came into view. It was as spacious as her family stofa. Where the downstairs had decorative tapestries and weapons adorning the walls, above were papers and dents. Some natural light filtered in, weak and thin, through a lone window, but the warmer glow of candles overshadowed it, waving around a sturdy looking box bed that had been set against one wall to leave an open floor.
On that bed, already pushed upright, sat Hiccup.
He was still gaunt and pale, his hair still lank and dirty and brushing his exposed collar bone. He wore a faded, blue tunic that might have fit him better two months ago but now arched too wide on his freckled chest.
"Astrid!" He grinned his crooked grin, reaching towards her. Astrid felt her insides loosen. Her legs moved on their own, past Stoick, and before she realized it she crouched at his bedside, her hand gripping his outstretched wrist.
His skin felt warmer than he looked, and he had reached an arm around to take her shoulder in a distant hug, as if wanting to prove that he still thrummed with life.
And he did. He was alive. He was…
"We did it," she breathed. Her eyes drank in his face and her fingers tightened over his palm, feeling the heat of it. A frightening and embarrassing need to burst into tears rose inside her so quickly she feared she wouldn't be able to swallow it back. When would it stop? The sledgehammer realization that they were home — here —a dream turned reality? She couldn't help but think back to less than a day ago when they were freezing, starving, relying only on desperation and thin hope to move forward.
Or even weeks and weeks ago when she was alone, stranded on enemy territory and terrified that Hiccup would be put down for the burden he presented.
Or just before that: broken, lungs burning, stricken and despairing.
"Yeah," Hiccup rasped, and Astrid was startled to find his eyes shining much like hers probably were. "Yeah," he said again, clearer. "We did."
"You're okay," she whispered. Her grip remained on his arm, but her free hand moved to touch his temple. Then his ropy hair, which had fallen over his eyes.
"'Course." He gave that cocky, half-shrug. The one proving annoyingly hard to hate.
"Not, okay," Stoick interrupted with a pointed stare at the uneven lumps beneath the blanket.
Astrid yanked her hands away. Her fingers felt cold, her cheeks heated.
Hiccup's chin rose defiantly.
"Dad, can I talk to Astrid?"
Stoick crossed his arms. His expression muted, stoic, but the firelight dancing across his cheeks betrayed the intensity of his gaze. Hungry. Desperate.
His voice came as tight and controlled as his body language, "I'd rather talk to you both, right now."
Astrid winced. Hiccup had a way of making everything sound conspiratorial.
"We'll tell you everything," she interjected. Hiccup made a noise in his throat, like a displeased yak, and she leveled such a look at him. "Everything." She emphasized, maintaining her stare.
She entertained the notion that he could feel her intent, but seeing him react to it gave her an unsettling sense that there might be another way to communicate—one that didn't rely on words and actions alone.
Hiccup's flared his nostrils and muttered, "Vikings don't understand such things."
"They'll need to," she pressed, aware of Stoick's presence.
The war was over. The truth will out. Toothless was still on this island, crippled, needed them. They both understood this.
Astrid understood Hiccup's reluctance. Of course, she did. She understood the sordid history. The disillusionment. The likelihood that some vikings would never be persuaded. That Toothless and similar dragons would always be in danger of "tradition" so long as those who remembered the killing years remained. She understood the danger. She understood the necessity that they work together. That the middle ground must be found.
But Hiccup needed to understand that middle ground couldn't be reached without working with the Vikings.
Hiccup sighed. His nod came next; slow, plaintive, but the 'Yes, we will' read clear.
"We promise," Hiccup said. At Stoick's hesitation Hiccup lightly added, "Astrid doesn't make promises she can't keep."
"No," she preened. "I don't."
It came naturally, but also felt part of an act. Like she had responded in some expected way, some needed way. An unexpected sensation, bolstering her bold words by meeting Stoick's eye. This was a game, she quickly realized. A game of pretenses. Of knowing your audience and reacting accordingly.
Is this what Hiccup knew back on the Reefer island? How he managed to garner their cooperation shortly after gaining consciousness?
Then what was her part there? To play the scrupulous viking who only wanted what was right?
"Please, dad," Hiccup begged quietly at his father's thunderous quiet. "You'll know everything."
He fidgeted at her shoulder, but for the first time Astrid tried to see him as playing a part just then. Perhaps his own father wouldn't believe her if Hiccup weren't against it somehow…
"Fine," Stoick agreed. He looked at Astrid, however. She gave him a nod. She would make sure he was informed later. That was her role, she supposed.
Stoick stared at them a moment longer, his mineral eyes somehow so dark as to appear brown. Then he turned and descended the stairs.
Astrid waited until the heavy footsteps had faded and the creaking ceased before pulling her gaze from the loft's dark landing.
"You got a bath," Hiccup observed.
"You didn't," she shot back, without thought.
Hiccup grimaced. Fingers laced through the dark strands of his hair and drew them behind an obtrusive ear. "It's on my to-do list," he muttered, seeming to shy in.
Astrid rubbed his back, still feeling cold and bone, but content the former was nothing like it had been the night before.
"You look good," she said, and before he could shoot that signature scathing look added, "Alive."
Hiccup sighed. "It wasn't that—"
"Hiccup, you nearly died." And like a Snapshot's flame, the sociopolitics of Berk didn't matter. Those nights did. Those weeks. Months, at this point. Hiccup should be dead. Astrid couldn't imagine herself surviving what he had.
"I didn't nearly die—"
"Yes." Astrid's grip on his shoulder tightened, as if to emphasize her feelings, and the thin, cold bone beneath bolstered her. "Yes, you did. If we'd stayed any longer—"
"But I wanted to."
"So did I—deep down," he added, at her expression. "But we're here now."
That they were. "And we have to tell your dad everything."
"Everything," Astrid pressed. Hiccup took a breath, and Astrid interjected: "We'll need him in our corner, Hiccup. We aren't getting Berk to listen to us without the chief."
"I—you're right," he conceded. He slumped and Astrid let her hand finally fall from his back. Months ago Astrid might have taken his posture to mean concession, but she saw by the set of his jaw and the way his eyes fell to the knobs his knees left under the furs that he was strategizing.
"And there's my mother," she added. "… I can't lie to her forever. Or my father."
Hiccup straightened at once, green eyes fixing on hers with startling intensity.
"Did you lie?" he said, breathless, as though suddenly aware of a whole knew danger he hadn't factored. "What have you said?"
"No," Astrid answered, biting but honest. "I—I evaded. But…"
Hiccup was nodding. "I know, you hate it."
This shocked her. His… machinations she could somewhat emphasize with. Her own lifestyle, however…
"You don't?" she managed to cough out.
He shrugged that half-shrug of his. "It's nothing new."
Astrid knew that. This was where they clashed, still. Hiccup and his secrets and independence and she with her need to… to sleep at night. To feel connected. It was a simplified way of life, she's learned. But it still mattered—mattered to each of them, in their own ways.
"Look," Hiccup began, after a breath. "I agree with you. We have to tell Berk."
"We just have to do it right ," Astrid finished.
He snapped his fingers. "Yes, exactly. If we say something too soon, I'm just afraid that—"
"They'll jump to conclusions."
"Exactly! Thank you!"
They stared at one another for a moment.
"Everyone's watching me," Astrid said, softer. She almost said 'you're lucky you're stuck inside' but a last minute flicker of tact stayed her tongue.
Hiccup nodded, expecting as much. "I just don't want…"
He paused as though gathering his thoughts. Or perhaps to choose his phrasing.
Astrid voiced what she found to be the greatest concern: "For them to start a war with the Reef Warriors?"
Hiccup's eyes—so much darker than his father's—startled wide for a second.
"I mean, yeah, but I was thinking of T—" he cut himself off and waited until a muted clang came from directly underneath them, confirming that Stoick wasn't eavesdropping at the foot of the stairs. Still, Hiccup lowered his voice. "Toothless. And the other dragons. All dragons."
Astrid nodded. Her other concern.
"The war is over." She'd said it to herself so many times before, but it still didn't seem to sink in.
It was over. And they had ended it. All three of them.
"Yeah it is."
"Now we have to figure out how to tell Berk."
The task seemed tremendous. Unachievable. But then, so had getting home.
They could do this.
"My dad won't let you leave here without getting some answers," Hiccup warned.
"I know." And Astrid couldn't blame Stoick. She opened her mouth, the enormity of her concerns causing her to hesitate, before settling on: "At the very least we tell him where we were."
"But if we say we were on the Reef Warrior island, they'll want to know how… if we weren't kidnapped." Astrid mused. "So that leads us to the Nest, and how we got there in there first place—"
"But we don't tell him about Toothless," Hiccup said quickly. Astrid had a hundred questions about managing that and it must have shown on her face because Hiccup became frantic. "Not yet! I can't have them finding him!"
"How do we explain it then?" Astrid asked. "We… stole a boat? Took a voyage together?"
It sounded stupid even as she said it.
Hiccup shifted under the furs to better face her. "I won the Kill Ring challenge right? And you were furious? Thought I was cheating—so we could say you challenged me to a regatta, but we got caught up in a storm, ended up on the nest—"
"Hiccup, stop," Astrid commanded. The way he spoke it made her think he'd spent all his non-feverish hours spinning stories like this for the sole purpose of circumventing the truth.
"I promised your father the truth," she spoke over him.
"Yes, I know. You did. And he'll know the truth, I promise," he swore, his voice thick with pleading. "But—you don't understand—he's not… he'll never—"
Astrid's hand went to rest on his leg, hoping to assuage his panic, if only a little.
"We don't have to wait, though," she said in a gentler tone. "We shouldn't. We just need the right words. You're good at that. That's why I'm here. So we can figure out the right words together."
Hiccup shook his head, hair falling back in his eyes.
"I need to be out of this bed before we tell him."
The floor beneath was silent, but Astrid's thudding heart wasn't caused by the threat of being listened in on. She drew her hand away and regarded Hiccup with a cool gaze.
"Meaning you need the option to run away."
The muscles in his cheeks twitched as he grit against what she could only imagine was his first response.
"I won't—" his voice sounded rough again. A bit desperate. "I promise, I won't run away. But if Toothless's safety comes into question then I need to be able to—to…"
"Run away," Astrid finished.
"Back off," Hiccup said strongly. "Back off, not disappear. Just an island or so over. I need to be able to keep him out of their reach until they're willing to listen."
This time, he reached out to her. Before his thin fingers touched her shoulder, he withdrew. It managed to catch her attention nonetheless. Astrid took in his tight, gaunt face. The hands fidgeting in his lap. The way the prominent soft bone in his neck bobbed before he continued:
"After everything we've gone through, it can't end with him… I-I can't risk him, Astrid. Vikings… they hit first, listen later."
Astrid felt something very uncomfortable worm around in her gut. She tried to pass it off as the unnecessary double helping of her mother's stew.
"Okay," she said, softly. "So we don't mention Toothless… exactly. But we can still tell the truth, right? This all started because you learned the true nature of dragons through a Night Fury—one we don't have to name!" she finished with the hasty addendum.
"—And one that wasn't necessarily crippled and trapped," Hiccup continued. "Yeah… yeah, we can omit certain parts…"
The tension seeped from his posture and Astrid felt her own body relax. Now aware of her aching knees, she shifted to settle on her hip, legs curled to her right, and leaned on the stuffed linens of Berk's heir.
"So that's what we do," she decided. "We tell your father—"
"Show," Hiccup interrupted. It seemed he hadn't even noticed her more intimate settling. One fist tapped against his palm and he bit his lip, eyes darting across his lap once more. "A demonstration. If we did a demonstration… oh! A demonstration with the dragons in the kill ring!"
Astrid caught on. "Could you do that?"
Hiccup's fist stilled. He caught her eye through a curtain of fallen hair and smirked.
"I was winning at dragon training, wasn't I?"
Unable to help herself, Astrid scoffed. "I wouldn't say winning. You were cheating."
"By viking rules maybe, but those are bogus."
"I won't leave."
The swift pivot from raillery to solemn word startled Astrid enough to make her swallow her feigned outrage.
"I won't leave you," Hiccup clarified. He met her silent stare in earnest. "But until I get better just…" he trailed and quieted. He must have seen something in her expression because his own tightened. "Let's just save the dragons."
Astrid couldn't help but hear the underlying message: he still needed that option of running away.
And if Hiccup left it would be all up to her.
She didn't want to do this alone.
"Can you get my dad?"
Astrid gaped at him. "Now? Are—you're sure?"
"Yes," he said. "You were right: we need to tell them the truth but we can omit the parts that will put Toothless in danger."
"For now," he accepted, still not meeting her eyes. "Let's just… let's get this over with."
On that, she could agree. Astrid got to her feet and stepped to the mouth of the stairs. "Chief?"
Nothing more was needed. Clatter sounded from directly below them, as if something soapstone and heavy had been dropped. A chair scraped. Footsteps stomped.
When Astrid turned, she finally allowed her eyes to roam the room. She noted the heavy chest with iron nails and ornate patterns insculped on every slat. Then a work desk which looked to be of fine wood, but stained with charcoal and nicks, stacks of scrolls piled atop and haphazard parchments slipping off the side.
In the darkest corner of the room, diagonal from the bed's placement, Astrid thought she spied old winter game equipment, shoved aside for the summer months. The pitiful reach of the candles allowed a pair of skis and the white gleam of bone used for ice skating.
Hiccup was quite good at both, if she remembered.
The stairs started to creak and Astrid took her spot back by Hiccup's side, making herself comfortable and leaning heavy on the warmed bed. The linen felt clean and cool under her palms and softer than anything her family could afford. It smelled faintly of Hiccup's sickness and sweat, but the mordant smog of Gothi's medicines had abated and Astrid now found the air far less offensive. That or she had adjusted to it in her time spent there.
"Dad," Hiccup started, even before Stoick finished his climb, "you have to promise me, now, that you won't… that you won't do anything until we've given you all the information, okay? The whole story."
Stoick sighed, arms akimbo. "Yes, Hiccup."
"Until we say that we've told you everything—"
"I promise," Stoick cut in, impatient now.
Astrid and Hiccup met eyes, both with their mouths partially open, both ready start a tale, both wanting the other to begin.
A faint bell sounded from the harbor. Uneven thunks of hammers laced with the high pitch of wood being sawn as repairs went on beyond the walls. An occasional swear rang out; distinct voices could be discerned if one were to concentrate.
Astrid knew it would be best coming from her, even with her limited history with the chief. She'd inferred enough to know Stoick would relate better to her than his own son.
Her first instinct, upon forming words, was to ask for her parents, because she didn't think she could tell the story twice. In fact, when she started to speak—a choked out, "We"—her throat seemed to sputter shut and her eyes, to her immense mortification, burned.
Horrified, she fisted the cloth of her leggings and bowed her head.
"Sorry," she rasped, exceedingly aware of how close Hiccup sat. He had now seen her undone like this more often than anyone save her own parents.
"Stare at the ground if it helps," Stoick said softly. "I'll relay all the information to your folks, if you wish."
He understood. He'd suffered horrors, probably seen friends lose limbs—Gobber in particular.
His empathy had the opposite effect. Astrid found it difficult to keep her breathing under control. Every time she tried to collect and focus her thoughts—to put into words what happened—her senses would speak first. Like something had finally broken, something that had been waiting to break. Her inability to breath from burning smoke and crushed ribs and the acrid scent of cooking flesh that made her stomach buck. Her despair. Her terror. Her overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Her certainty of death and failure and utter aloneness.
And then, incredibly, Hiccup reached for her hand. They'd held each other plenty of times, but Astrid became acutely aware that this was the first time she could think of that he'd reached for her and not the other way around. Hiccup didn't use physical means of communication; it didn't come naturally to him. Yet he gripped her and, unconsciously, Astrid squeezed back.
"She doesn't have to," she heard him say. "We can do it later."
"Hiccup, I need answers."
"I'll tell you what happened, then."
You were unconscious for most of it.
"Let's hear it."
"I… b-back before you left for the nest… that last raid—"
Is that where we're starting?
"The one where you cost us a ship? Aye, I remember."
Hiccup's hand became painfully stiff around hers.
"I told you that I hit a, well, a Night—"
"No." The single word seemed to cost all the air in her lungs and Astrid drew a deep, steadying breath. Both men immediately quieted. She took another breath, kept her head bowed, and focused on the droll cloth of her tunic across her lap.
She spoke. "When your son was winning at dragon training, I got jealous, so I followed him. The way he was winning wasn't normal. He wasn't defeating them, he was…" Astrid paused, fishing for the right word. "Taming them. Finding weaknesses. Turning them into… well, dogs."
"Dogs?" Stoick echoed.
"Dogs out of wolves." Her breathing came a bit easier, but she still had to concentrate on her lap. "If you remember the test before the final exam, well, you saw what he did to the Gronkle. The Gronkle was fine."
"Aye… aye, it was." She could hear the ponder in his voice; a little distant, as he drew forth the memory.
Hiccup's hand squeezed hers. His other covered her knuckles.
"Well," she trailed, "he was learning from the source."
She squeezed back. Hiccup took over. "That Night Fury I said I shot down? I did."
"Hiccup," Stoick began, more exasperated then frustrated, despite what the low set of his brow might suggest.
"He did," Astrid quickly interjected, finally looking up to catch Stoick furrowing and off-balanced. She glanced at Hiccup, their hands still joined. "I know, because that's what I ran into when I followed him."
Stoick took three thundering steps towards the teens, and sat down at the foot of Hiccup's bed. The candlelight cast his eyes in a cat-like orange. Predatory. "A Night Fury?" he whispered.
"A friendly Night Fury," Astrid added with half a smile, "though not towards me since I had approached Hiccup rather… angrily."
"He became protective of me, dad," Hiccup explained. "I had him caught up in my bola canon. He was—a little roughed up. I was going to kill him but… I dunno. It seemed so wrong. I let him go. Cut him free. Then I befriended him."
"You befriended him," Stoick echoed before blinking, his voice rising, "You cut—"
"Friendly Night Fury," Astrid reminded him.
"He taught me a lot, dad," Hiccup went on. "Not just about taming dragons but… we flew. He let me ride on his back."
"Hiccup—" Stoick appeared flabbergasted, as well anyone might, but more alarmed and disbelieving. He kept switching his bewilderment towards Astrid, a figure he'd never anticipate tall tales from, perhaps hoping she was in on some elaborate joke no one had the patience for.
But all she could do was shrug and say, "That's how we got off the island, chief."
"I know dragons dad," Hiccup affirmed. "I know their soft spots. Pressure points. Grasses that knock them out. And how to fly them."
He'd spoken quickly, as though he wanted to keep his father fazed. Astrid jumped in with an interpretation that might better suit the ears of a Hairy Hooligan: "He was learning their weaknesses and tells from the very source. Which was clever, but also very reckless to do in the first place."
Hiccup ignored the implied barb.
"The viking way wasn't doing it for me so I went the dragon way."
"Hiccup," Stoick uttered for the umpteenth time.
"Chief—Stoick—" he looked sharply at her, "I promised I'd tell you everything, but you promised you'd hear the whole story," Astrid said boldly. "I need you to honor that promise."
Astrid had spent the better part of an hour seated at Hiccup's bedside and still her legs felt weak. She met Stoick's eyes, and her stomach roiled; in another life she'd be appalled at the directness with which she'd challenged him. Stoick may have recognized her discomfort and granted her a mercy when he gave a slow nod.
Astrid opened her mouth to speak, but Hiccup beat her to it.
"We know the source of the war. Well, we knew it. It's over."
Stoick looked at him. So did Astrid.
"Over…" Stoick murmured.
"The war has ended," Astrid affirmed, drawing his attention back to her. Gods above, this was a mess.
"Which is why there've been no raids since we disappeared," said Hiccup.
Stoick said nothing. Did nothing. Other than look between the pair of them.
"There haven't, right?" Hiccup pushed.
Stoick couldn't have gotten away with a lie at that point even if he had intended one. His face was too open.
"Aye…" he said, low and cautious. "So, this Night Fury you supposedly tamed— what happened next?"
"Hiccup wanted to show me how… controllable dragons were," Astrid began. Hiccup's hand slipped from hers, though the hold had loosened to the point where she hardly noticed.
"Relatable," he cut across. "Which leads to the source of the war—"
"We'll get there," Astrid hissed. She knew the way she wanted to tell the story would appease Stoick more.
Trust me, she tried to mentally scream. Let me do this the viking way.
Hiccup gave her a side-eye and slight nod, but she could tell his hackles had been raised.
Astrid steadied herself on her knees and tried to meet Stoick's gaze, but found it permanently fixed on his son. Right until she started speaking, "When I saw Hiccup… well, consorting with the Night Fury I started to run back to the village. Hiccup flew on the Night Fury's back to catch me and to, well, I guess his plan was to change my mind about reporting him."
"Tattling," she heard him mutter.
"And he managed," Stoick said, sounding anything but believing.
"He took me up too. We flew on a Night Fury, sir."
Stoick's mouth was slightly ajar and he glanced between the two, as if waiting for the real story.
"And then the Night Fury took us to the Nest."
Now she had his undivided attention.
"And that's where we saw…" she paused. How could she describe it?
"The Queen," Hiccup said, quiet.
"The Queen?" Stoick whispered. The disbelief had gone. The hunger had returned. The candles around them seemed to suck in light rather than provide it. Astrid shivered.
"A dragon nearly the size of Berk itself," she said in a voice as low as his.
"We saw hundreds, maybe thousands of dragons there, and they were dropping livestock into her mouth," said Hiccup.
"Like offerings," said Astrid.
"That's why they've been raiding us, for our livestock, or even people."
Stoick's face had gone white.
"And when a Gronkle had nothing to offer she ate the dragon itself. They had no choice. It was give food or be food."
Stoick's focus was on the floor now, elbow digging into his knee, hunched with a fist to his mouth.
"They had it bad, dad. They were living in as much fear as we were. And she controlled them using… something. I haven't thought on it enough."
"She spotted us," Astrid said, trying to keep on task. "The Queen did. Er, we call her the Queen because of how she controlled dragons—"
"—Like with a bee hive—" Hiccup added.
"Right. So she followed us and we had no choice but to fight her off."
"You fought off a dragon the size of a mountain," Stoick deadpanned.
"We couldn't have done it without Toothless," Hiccup assured him.
"And Hiccup, he was clever." Astrid hurried to add. "They worked together—"
"Alright," Stoick slapped two hands to his thighs and made to get up. "Enough."
"We'll take you to the body!" Hiccup near shouted.
Astrid had not been expecting that, nor had Stoick. He seemed to sink back into his seat.
"But before we do that…Dad, when I can, I want to do a demonstration for the village. I want to show you how to tame a dragon."
Stoick blinked, face clearing of whatever demons had gotten the better of him.
Hiccup immediately protested the quiet assertion, and over him Astrid cried, "Chief, please! I'll be there—"
"You lost a leg, Hiccup," Stoick said, back on his feet, not even hearing Astrid.
"And it was to the Queen, dad, not her slaves!"
Astrid's heart lurched before she was prepared. She held onto her heavy meal, against a reel in her gut her she had never expected. Hiccup might believe that the Queen was responsible for his amputation. But did he know? Did Toothless?
"Where have you been the past months…" Stoick said, low voice, Astrid felt the hair raise on the back of her neck and realized they hadn't even gotten to the most important part.
"In the aftermath—I mean, with the Queen. After she was dead, I—" She swallowed four times against a sour rise in her throat and carried on roughly. "I—I crafted a raft to get us off the island—there was nothing there," she added quickly. "Just me and Hiccup and…death, I guess… I didn't know if he was going to die or not… and I didn't know if there was anything beyond the sea…I just knew—I was desperate, sir—I just knew there was nothing there on the island. We would have died if we'd stayed—!"
"You don't need to make excuses," Hiccup broke across her. "All your decisions kept us alive."
The calmness in which he spoke made her aware of how quickly she had been speaking.
They may not have been the best decisions, she wanted to say, but instead went with, "We landed on the Reef Warrior—"
And Stoick stood: all seven feet of him towering, beard bright by the firelight, face thunderous.
"DID THEY TAKE MY SON'S LEG?"
The sudden need to not start an unnecessary war sent a wave of lightheaded panic over her.
"I tried pushing the bones back into place but it was—" Astrid had to throw a hand over her mouth. Her skin felt unbearably hot and the acrid scent of burning flesh filled her nose and the all too real feel of structured flesh could be felt along the pads of her fingers.
Hiccup was snapping something at his father and Stoick looked shamefaced.
"There was nothing—" she rasped, senseless, "—I tried—"
Hands were on her shoulders. Astrid wanted to shrug them off. She wanted to hurt herself. She wanted to stop having these uncontrollable reactions to things that happened weeks ago. Months ago.
"Astrid, you did everything—I'm alive because of you—"
"Lass, I didn't mean to imply—" She heard Stoick inhale. "I know what it's like, to look back and think there must have been something different that could have been done, that it was your fault. It wasn't. Some injuries can't be saved."
"This was one of them dad. We fell hundreds of faðmr into fire. My leg got crushed; there was no saving it. It would have killed me if Astrid hadn't gotten get us off the Nest."
A hand on her shoulder, so large if felt like the weight of a heavy yak cloak, "Lass… I'm grateful for all you've done for my son. Do not forget that. You brought him back to me."
Astrid nodded. "Sorry, I…"
This wasn't like her. She hated it. It made her want to hate herself. Which made her hate it even more.
"I get it. This is normal. This is normal, lass."
The hand left, and Astrid felt cold rush in. She embraced the sensation. Focused on it. She breathed through the tactile memories threatening her poise.
"So," Stoick said, settling back at the foot of the bed, "you were on Reef Warrior territory."
"I think that's a conversation for after we do the demonstration," Hiccup said quickly.
"As well as you can," said Hiccup while Astrid spoke over him with their promise: "We will tell you everything."
With no small amount of relief, she heard her own voice steady.
"But you also need to understand," Hiccup carried on, "you need to see it. How I came to trust dragons. Why I did. They're… they're like us, in a way. Victims in this war… like we are."
Astrid could see Stoick swallowing his scoff. "The war is over," she reminded him. "You won't see another raid. Not from dragons."
"They didn't know who we were," said Hiccup. "The Reef Warriors, they saved my life. We were pretending to be Murdanoes. Danger Brute prisoners. They cared for me. They took my leg, but it was only to save my life."
Stoick had one hand pressed to his mouth. He stared at Hiccup. Then her. Then the bed. The uneven lumps.
"Did they find out you were Hooligans?"
"Eventually," Astrid responded when Hiccup hesitated.
"And how did they react?"
Astrid couldn't answer right away. It took all her concentration not to physically react. Not to remember. Her skin prickled in all the wrong areas. Her hands fisted in her lap and she cleared her mind.
"Not well," Hiccup spat, nearly a growl, in a manner Astrid hadn't heard from him before.
The tension in the warm room rose again, like a swelling tide before a storm.
Do not start a war. Do not start a war. Do not start a war.
Crushing every ill-boded feeling threatening her composure, she lifted her chin.
"Good thing we had a friendly Night Fury to save our lives."
A candle flickered violently, as though an unseen breeze had escaped into the room.
"One last question," Stoick said, face shadowed, voice heavy, "and I'll let things rest… for now."
Astrid already felt herself sagging against Hiccup's bed.
"Who is Toothless?"
A/N: Thank you all for your patience, especially those who! A HUGE thank you goes out to anhedral for combing through this monstrosity for all sorts of errors. It's such a great help, man, you don't even know.
Now I have an excuse to write the next part! Please let me know what you think! Questions, comments, concerns, social security numbers... whatever you feel like giving up.