Chapter Ten

Nightfall, Part Ten

If yesterday Stoick had been asked to name the worst moment of his life, and he had deigned to answer such an impudent and intrusive question, he would have named the night his wife and son were taken from him.

He has seen his people through more funerals than he would care to count, for warriors killed in battle with dragons or with rival clans and in falls from ships in storms, of babies frozen or starved or both in the killing cold of devastating winter, of mothers trying to bring those babies into the world, of old men who have withered away to their last scraps of courage and spite, of grandmothers who take with them more knowledge than they ever shared.

He has comforted those left behind when he has no answers. He has lost friends, and relatives, and people he’s promised to protect and failed in that oath.

Today everything is backwards and wrong. Today the sun is dark, and water dry; the skies are shattered and fallen, the air is poison. Ice has consumed the gods who have turned on each other and fallen in meaningless battle.

The worst moment of his life has been eclipsed by one unthinkably worse.

Today his Val is dead at the hands of Vikings, and his only son lives under the care – the care! – of dragons and is all but a dragon himself.

Stoick stares into the dying fire that he has not moved to feed or stoke up since it was lit by someone else – he will remember who and when, any moment now – and wonders if the fire will be cold if he puts his hands into it. For a moment the only light left in his world, the faint glow from the embers, becomes the burning hatred in the eyes of a dragon in a human skin. The fire that had been illuminating an empty house, which had so briefly contained a family and for years has harbored his memories of them and his imaginings of what could have been, becomes dragon-fire that burns it all away to ashes and the smoke of a funeral pyre.

Unable to imagine what his son would have been like as he looked at the children of his tribe and seen the apparently infinite variety that children are capable of, he has tried to hold them in the shelter of his home as dreams better than he had ever protected them in life, forever fragile but bright-eyed infant and bewildered but delighted mother, impossible son and best-beloved wife. In his mind, in this place, they have never changed, untouchable.

Until now.

He has been a warrior all his life, the chief of the tribe like his father before him, and a good one, he likes to think; he has faced monsters and hereditary enemies and friends he has been forced to cast out of the tribe before they unacceptably endanger the safety of them all. He has been argued with, disliked, challenged, and even hated by a number of people.

He has never seen such rage in living eyes as the moment when he’d raised his hands reflexively to protect himself against what all his instincts said was a dragon lunging for him, snarl tearing from its throat and claws going for his face, teeth bared and eyes flaring. The transformation from cowering child – oh, and that hurts too – to lethal animal had come almost without warning. Stoick cannot help but think that the roar that is currently tearing his heart to shreds had saved his eyes the same fate, because otherwise he would not have had enough time to block the leap.

His hands can still feel the scrape of the leather as if its texture had been burned into his skin as the animal attacking him had twisted and writhed, trying to escape his grip on the boy’s gloved, lethally dragon-clawed hands or trying to attack, it had been impossible to tell.

“Val,” he says, to the ghosts that are burning away in that fire even as he speaks, “didn’t you see what he was becoming? Why didn’t you bring him home?”

Stoick knows he will never get an answer, that anything he might want to know about what had happened to his family out there in the wilds is locked away inside the head of a creature who is half broken child and half raging dragon, both halves of which hate him and fear him and neither of which can ever tell him. The knowledge is right there, and he can never reach it.

He had wanted so desperately to know, and now he wishes just as desperately that he didn’t. The image of the boy twisting away from Stoick’s questions, burying himself in the skin of the nightmare dragon rather than look at his own father, haunts him. The sound of the boy’s cry of joy and delight at seeing the picture of the creature Stoick has hated for twenty years digs into his chest and roots through abysses of pain until it finds rage buried underneath.

The way he had reacted! Stoick had expected shock and for a moment he had gotten it. But then the boy had lit up like a candle-flame fed oil and started looking at the sky as if expecting to see the creature appear at any moment, making a clicking purring sound that might have been a name and obviously hoping for its arrival.

Stoick has seen that behavior in his tribe’s younger children: it was the excited delight of a child whose father has come home from a long voyage at sea.

Rage flares up and becomes hate, long-held and long-nurtured but now fed as much fuel as it could ever want from an inexhaustible source.

One thing comforts him, and he feeds it to the flames that are devouring his life grimly. The dragonish boy had looked up as if he had been expecting Stoick’s own personal bane to come for him.

If it does, it will find Stoick waiting, and he will put at least one thing right with his world even after it ends, as it has done.

He buries ruthlessly the memory of the joy and hope in the boy’s expressive green eyes as he’d looked for the creature. His desire for over a week now for the strange boy to be his son wars with his inability to accept the reality over the dream he had constructed for years.

The dream is a child, a son, an heir. The reality is a monster, an animal, a dragon, an impossible mixture of two things that could never coexist, coiled on the ground and snarling.

But whenever he thinks this, however hard he tries to condemn the wild boy as a monster, he hears a child’s voice wrapped up in that of a man’s absent repetition of “Mama” all but buried beneath the impossibly gentle purrs and worried croons of a demon in the shape of a dragon, and –

Val’s dead! part of his mind howls around and beneath it all. Val’s actually, really dead!

For years Stoick has asked himself what Valka would think of something or what she would do if given this problem, imagining conversations with her in the moments of quiet that are rarities on Berk. In the years when she was first gone he had made mental tallies of things to share with her when he found her again, small things that people had done and strange events that had happened, old jokes he had remembered to tell her again and memories only the two of them would know. He does not remember when he had stopped doing so, when he had given up hope that he would ever get to tell her all those things, or when they had boiled down into a single thought.

I missed you, Val, he would say to her when they met again. Welcome home, Val. I still love you, Val.

You’re really dead, Val.

It isn’t possible, Stoick can’t believe it. He could accept that Valka was gone, he had had to. How could he have set out and scoured the entire ocean for her, with a whole island of much-harried but resolute people looking at him to lead them, protect them, to keep them alive through another starving winter and one more dragon raid?

Part of him has always expected her to show up again, on a trading vessel or walking across the rare deep winter ice, or on a nearby island, which she would have gotten to on some ridiculous contraption that would have barely survived the seas, because she would have been so driven to return home that she would have risked anything to come back.

She would have their son with her, a tall and energetic boy, fast and fierce and a fighter who would become his father’s heir and his mother’s protector, and they would step into the paths that their shades had walked through their family’s house for so long and bring their life back to his to make it worth the name.

All of it gone in a dragon’s half-human roar and the flash of claws towards his eyes and a struggling wild creature briefly trapped in the chief’s hands for the first time since it was small enough to be cradled entirely in those hands, trying to escape again even as it screamed with hatred and bloodlust.

On balance Stoick almost prefers the Night Fury, which at least he understands up to a point. It’s a dragon, a predator, a killer. That it obviously dotes on the boy who curls up in its paws and uses it to draw on, that it protects him when he’s upset or threatened, that it lets him ride on its back and care for its wounds, that it gentles under his hands and speaks back to him in soft tones is an aberration, its true colors revealed in the flare of green hatred in its eyes to match the dragon-boy’s accompanying a snarl promising a very painful death, and the screaming fire boiling from its throat around teeth as sharp as new-forged swords, ready to kill when provoked.

It’s clever, the beast, but Stoick is not fooled.

Mama, a small voice says through all this, and his hatred is overwhelmed by grief again. If things had been different, would that voice have said Father, or Dad?

Would it have been a Viking, and not a dragon, if that creature hadn’t –

And he comes around to the dragon from twenty years ago again, the one who had stolen his family from him in more ways than one.

Stoick wonders if he can put Astrid in charge of Berk right now and sail away to find this creature wherever it has laired all these years with his son imprisoned in its grasp and his wife’s blood on its claws, except that –

Pfikingr do! howls the wild boy, in his memories of the worst moment of his life.

Child or creature, monster or victim, he cannot decide. The dragon-boy never shows the same face to his grief for more than a moment at a time, and all seem to be equally true.

Distantly, he becomes aware of a sound on the edges of his hearing, and a movement out of the corner of his eye. Uncaring, he stares at the coals that have long since gone out.

After a few more repetitions, the noise starts to make sense. “Chief?” Astrid is asking him, in the tone of someone who has said the same thing many times before.

“Not now,” he says dully. So that was why Astrid had suddenly come to mind.

“It’s important; I –”

“Handle it yourself,” Stoick cuts her off, turning away.

“But –”

He turns on her with a hand out to stop her where she stands. “I. Don’t. Care,” he says harshly. “My wife is dead, my son a monster. Go away.”

She backs away, and he goes back to staring at the cold, dead fire in the cold, empty house.

The door slams, and he doesn’t flinch.

“No,” says Astrid.

The big Viking chieftain growls, refusing to look up but forced to acknowledge her presence. “What are you still doing here?”

“Handling it myself. Get up, chief. Your people need you. Grieve on your feet.”

Stoick can’t count how many times he’s said that to people, and he can’t be bothered to try to count now. “Don’t you dare say those words to me,” he says threateningly.

“Then don’t make me say them again.”

He bellows, suddenly enraged, and snatches up the nearest thing to hand and throws it at her as hard as he can.

Considering the many edged and heavy weapons he keeps in here, she’s fortunate that it’s only a plate, and he misses anyway as she dodges adroitly, leaving the ceramic to smash against the door behind her in the dark. “You can do better,” she dares him.

Stoick is so angry that he almost takes her up on it, and he has another plate in hand and ready to throw before he realizes what she’s done.

“Damn you, Astrid,” he grumbles, looking at the plate in his hand as if he’s not sure how it got there. “You’re going to get yourself hurt someday.”

“Already have,” she says immediately. “Survived. Learned to dodge faster. Care to try me?”

He drops the plate rather than throwing it at her. It breaks anyway, which he supposes is an acceptable compromise. “No. Get out of here.”

His hand is in the air to stop her next remark almost before her mouth is open to make it. “I,” he says pointedly, “will be right there.”

Her slim shoulders drop ever so slightly with relief. “Good choice,” she dares to say. “Gobber was next in line to talk to you if you wouldn’t listen to me.”

Out, Astrid.”

Although he is suddenly much more appreciative of her methods, considering the possible alternatives his old friend might have come up with, even if he is down two perfectly good plates.

When Stoick emerges from his house he is taken aback by the brightness of the sunlight. Hadn’t the blazing thing gone down at some point? Or is this now tomorrow? He blinks and squints against the light for a moment, until his eyes clear and he can immediately see the problem that Astrid wants him to come and deal with.

Fortunately, it is a situation that requires being able to shout louder than anyone else rather than one that calls for tact and diplomacy. Stoick is not feeling very tactful right now.

From the headland his house is built on (give or take a few reconstructions over the years), he has a clear line of sight into the bay, where several ships from the island’s fishing fleet seem to be attempting to tie up in the same place at the same time.

Now, while this may sound like a relatively minor problem, it is rapidly becoming actually a bigger mess than it really needs to be, because several years ago, someone clever – Stoick does not quite remember who, although he needs to track him or her down and rub the appropriate nose in this mess right now – had figured out that the fishing vessels could store more fish after they’d caught them if they carried more boats with them. As a consequence, every longboat sent out fishing in the waters of the Archipelago and beyond, if the winds are right (or very wrong), goes stocked with more outrigger boats and small vessels than people, and on a good day with the right wind in a fair current like the one leading conveniently just past Berk, fishing vessels may come back with entire little fleets of small boats being towed along in their wakes, ideally filled with fish and covered with canvas to keep off anything looking to help itself.

So there are not currently three ships competing for the same space, with much yelling of insults and claims of precedence – because we have the bigger haul, don’t you know, can’t you see, are you blind or just stupid? – and waving of arms and axes alike, and a collision that is about to happen between two of the bigger ones any moment now. No, there are dozens, most of them with no ability to steer on their own and laden with fish.

It is exactly the sort of stupid thing Stoick can count on his Vikings to do, and exactly the sort of problem that needs to be shouted at extensively.

On the one hand, their return is wonderful: he can feed his people for a little while longer with their catches. On the other hand, their idiotic jockeying to be the first to return with said catch is going to end up with all of it in the bay, and salvaging capsized boatloads of dead fish out of cold ocean water is fun only for the very crazy. On a third hand, which might have to belong to Astrid as he delegates, is anyone watching the skies in case the local dragons decide to show up and eat it all while his people scream at each other? They might as well all be standing around yelling, “Free lunch!”

…which admittedly had worked for a while, until the dragons had caught on.

Regardless, it is solid ground Stoick desperately needs beneath his feet right now. It’s a real problem with a real solution, and if that solution happens to involve cracking the heads of some more than usually argumentative ship captains together until they ring and then throwing the spectators, who are standing around on the pier laying bets on which small boat is going to capsize first or who is going to get knocked overboard, into the water to go cut those small boats loose and tow them away out of immediate danger…well, all for the better. It does mean he has to listen to the usual complement of good ketch/good catch jokes from people who have been telling the same jokes all their lives and still haven’t caught on to the fact that none of them are funny, but that is something he can deal with.

Grieve on your feet. What in Hel’s forsaken realm had he known about it when he’d come up with that?

For a while, then, he can think about boats. Boats don’t care if his world has just turned upside down or that somewhere on his island there’s a boy who should have been human and instead is a dragon, they don’t know that his wife is dead, murdered by humans rather than killed by dragons like he’d half-believed for so long but hoped against the whole time anyway, and they wouldn’t care if they did. Boats are boats. Boats don’t care.

Stoick wishes he didn’t either. Being human hurts. For the first time he wonders if it’s easier to be a dragon.

What do dragons have to worry about, except where the next meal is coming from, which is too often right here?

Anyone who comes to see what all the fuss and shouting is about – and Vikings cannot resist free entertainment, especially when it involves fuss and shouting – is immediately roped into helping get all these fish in somewhere safe from dragons. That’s quite literal in at least one case as a net fight breaks out and is broken up again by the chief, who grabs all the nets and physically drags the brawling crews over to help unload the boats the swimmers are bringing in. As he does so he roars at them that he doesn’t care which ship brought in more fish or who had caught the biggest one or that someone had shot a dragon out of the sky when it came to see if it could steal some of their catch, save it for the party!

This remark, of course, spreads much quicker than anything else the chief has said, and Stoick finds much to his surprise that he seems to have announced a feast that he doesn’t feel remotely like participating in, much less organizing or even being on the same island as. Maybe he can borrow one of the rapidly emptying fishing boats and leave until his people are done being happy. He can’t face that right now.

Fortunately, Vikings can throw a party all by themselves, and people who were avoiding the work suddenly decide to join in as long as there’s a feast at the end of it for them.

Astrid has taken up a defensive position on one of the upper ramps and distributed armed guards across the rest of them, keeping a watch out to sea and up over the bulk of the island as much as on the people below. When he looks back, she’s disappeared, only to reappear a moment later at his elbow.

“Chief? I’ll be right back. We’re missing some people who should really be here, mostly because I don’t want them to be anywhere else.”

“Oh?” Stoick surveys the busy crowd. “Like who?”

She grimaces. “Look around. Has anyone managed to tangle themselves in a net and ended up hanging in it from a mast yet?”

He sees her point immediately. “No twins.”

“And no Snotlout. Some of his buddies, but not him. And no one is keeping an eye on them.”

Stoick has a very bad feeling about this. “You think –”

“That I had better run right now for the western shore? Good idea, Chief. The guards can handle themselves, because if they don’t, I’ll be very upset when I get back, and they know it.”

She takes off running.

Snotlout really wishes he hadn’t brought the twins with him. Wander around in the woods with Ruffnut, yes. Wander around in the woods with Ruffnut ­and Tuffnut, no. Not that he’d actually invited them. They’d invited themselves, just because they happened to run into him, with that uncanny ability the twins had to be where they weren’t wanted at the moment when they were most unwanted.

Well, he’d sort of run into them.

“That’s a big sword,” Ruffnut had said out of nowhere, appearing in much the same way.

Snotlout hadn’t even gotten a chance to make a joke out of that before her brother had appeared on his other side and announced, “If you’re going dragon hunting, Astrid’s gonna kick your butt. She’s kind of bossy like that.”

Astrid, Snotlout thinks, is gorgeous – but an arrogant know-it-all; bossy isn’t the half of it.

For a while, Snotlout had wanted Astrid’s job. Being the chief sounded pretty good to him; he’d be in charge and could shout at people and go wherever he wanted to. After a few months of listening to him complain whenever her back was turned but he knew she could hear him, Astrid had proposed a bet. She would be him for one day, and he would be her, and if he still wanted to be the chief-in-training by the end of the day they’d talk about it. How hard could it be? So he’d agreed, and she’d made sure everyone in the village knew about it.

Only afterwards had Snotlout suspected that he’d been set up. It wasn’t possible to have so many dumb questions and boring things to deal with in one day, and by noon he’d been desperately hoping for an attack of dragons, or an eclipse of the sun, or Ragnarok at that, to just make it stop. He’d never been so bored in his life, and that was saying something.

And he hadn’t seen Astrid anywhere the whole day – he rather suspected that she had just never gotten out of bed at all. That had probably been Astrid being funny. Well, he wasn’t laughing.

“I’m not going dragon hunting,” he’d said defensively to the twins, not that contradicting them ever made any difference. “What makes you think I’m going dragon hunting?”

“’Cause you’re going west?” Ruffnut had said like it was a question. “And you sound like an ironworks when Tuffnut’s knocking things over. Which is always.”

All right, so Snotlout had been carrying quite a few weapons, including his favorite big sword, as Ruffnut had observed. It had occurred to him that he owed the dragon and its monster companion a few scars of their own from it.

“Hey! I only knocked over Gobber’s stupid shelves because you pushed me! And then you fell into them because you tripped over your hair or something stupid! And you smell like an ironworks, too.”

It had taken a moment for Snotlout to realize that Tuffnut had addressed that last comment to him. Not that it had mattered, because Ruffnut had instantly retorted, “No, that’s your hair.”

“No, that’s your hair!”

“Is not! You dunked me in the well. People will hear you coming from way off, and so will that dragon,” she’d switched effortlessly to advising Snotlout. “You should be sneakier.”

“Yeah! Like us!”

After watching for a few minutes, Snotlout had not been entirely sure what part of rolling around in somersaults on the ground whenever someone looks at them, tiptoeing elaborately, shushing each other loudly, and looking around suspiciously could be counted as sneaky, but he knew that next to them, no one would look at him twice. Or even once.

Sure enough, someone corralled the twins to ask what they were up to, since anyone acting that suspiciously had to be up to something, and Snotlout congratulated himself on his escape from both the town and the twins, heading off to do what should have been done a week ago and kill a monster.

But they’d somehow reappeared again before he’d gotten there, which is why Snotlout is trying to sneak up on an incredibly deadly dragon despite two of the loudest people on Berk following him.

“Quiet!” he tells them finally. “The whole island can hear you.”

“That’d suck,” says Tuffnut. “Astrid’s going to be so annoyed.” Ruffnut giggles, although what exactly is funny about Astrid being mad at them isn’t clear.

“Shut up.”

With two temporarily quiet twins in tow, he leads the way to the rocky shoreline where the three of them had first found the cave the dragon is reportedly nesting in. From the ground, the cave is completely invisible, and the fallen rocks sloping down to the water provide plenty of hiding places, if it’s even here.

He risks a peek over his shoulder and notices that the twins are competing with each other to be the most determinedly and overdramatically silent. It’s only now that he notices neither one of them is armed. They’re probably planning to head-butt it to death, or shout at it, if they’ve thought about it at all.

“Did you bring anything to fight a dragon with?” he asks.

“Sssh!” they both tell him in unison.

Fine. He’ll save both their skins when that thing attacks. Snotlout draws his sword and swings it a few times, getting ready as he advances on the empty coast step by step. He likes fighting dragons, he’s good at it. He has been desperate to fight this one since the moment it fell from the sky; he wants to be the first Viking to kill a Night Fury.

Now, if only he knew where it was.

Unfortunately for him, the next sign of life (that isn’t one of the twins doing her very best to fall into a tide pool) happens to be Astrid, who appears at the end of the vaguely defined path panting slightly, as if she’d been running.

“Snotlout!” she roars, at a surprisingly impressive volume for such a small woman who’s at least slightly out of breath.

“Sssh!” the twins tell her, way too caught up in the moment as usual.

Astrid glares at them.

“He started it,” they both say instantly, pointing at Snotlout, who is quite obviously standing out in the middle of a beach they’d been forbidden to go to, with a big sword.


“Really?” she asks him. “What part of ‘stay away from the Night Fury and the dragon rider’ did you not understand?”

“Keeping ‘im all for yourself, huh?” Ruffnut says. “Is he cute?”

Astrid’s face is utterly indescribable. She looks at Ruffnut like she’s never seen the other Viking woman before and doesn’t particularly want to now, because her eyes and ears are clearly lying to her and no one quite so clueless could ever exist.

It’s an excellent look. Snotlout is quite impressed. He must see this look more often.

“One,” Astrid says deliberately, “ew. Two, EW. Three…”

One sharp punch puts Ruffnut down on the rocky, gravelly, wet sand instantly.

“– go home!”

Ruffnut is undeterred. She sits back up, wiggles her jaw back and forth, pulls a face at her twin, who is gloating at still being on his feet when she’s not, and pipes up again, “So is he?”

“Get lost!”

The twins get lost, although as they go Snotlout can clearly hear them arguing about whether they’re actually going back to the village or if they’re going to really go and get lost, because if they go back to the village someone will probably make them do something boring like gutting fish, and the villagers are so not cool about knife fights with fish-gutting knives on the table even though the fire that had gotten started when someone (“You did!” – “No, you did!”) kicked over a candle had made things so much more interesting, and they were going to cook the fish anyway, weren’t they? and it had only been a small fire…

“Don’t make me punch you too,” Astrid warns Snotlout. “It’s been a bad couple of days and I really want to hit someone.”

They have hit each other before. Astrid hits quite hard for someone so much lighter than he is.

“I can go get Tuffnut back for you,” he offers hopefully.

Astrid has a wide assortment of glares, but the you-are-stupid-and-I-hate-you-go-away-right-now one gets a lot of use.

Snotlout gets lost too, although not as literally as the twins do, who don’t show up in the village again until it’s almost dark, with twigs in their hair and mud on their clothes and a number of interesting bruises and the really good excuse of having walked into a net trap and been stuck in a tree in it for most of the day.

“I’m sorry,” says Astrid to the empty beach. “I didn’t know.”

She wonders if the boy, who now is definitely the chief’s lost son, or at least had been at some point, is so very much more dragon than human because he was hiding from the nightmare buried inside his memories.

“We didn’t mean to hurt you. I want you to like us. We need you. I know you don’t understand what I’m saying, if you can even hear me, but you could help us a lot.

“Please forgive me.”

She’s not sure she’s ever said that to anyone before. But Hiccup is so inhuman most of the time, and so very much not here at this exact time, that she feels like he doesn’t even count.

The shore is silent, except for waves and wind. Even the sound of the twins retreating into the distance, bickering the entire way, has faded from her hearing.

Astrid should go back and help with the fishing fleet.

She should make sure that Snotlout actually left like she had told him to, and isn’t about to jump out of concealment with that oversized sword and a reckless scream even though he’s terrible at hiding – too much of a showoff.

She should keep an eye on the chief to make sure that the pain he was feeling – that she knew he was feeling, that she had seen as they left the beach yesterday with the dragon-boy’s wails of hatred and pain and grief echoing through their heads and he didn’t say a word to her, just walked away and into his house and closed the door behind him without even looking at her – stayed hidden from their people, because anything that shook a leader’s foundations shook those of the tribe as well. Who would stand for them if their leader couldn’t stand strong himself? Or herself – Astrid has spent most of today and a good part of yesterday covering for Stoick and making sure no one else suffered because of the chief’s pain.

She does none of this. Out of habit and curiosity and, she admits only to herself, sympathy, she goes to sit down on the same rock where she had, at whatever distance, worked with wild, broken, lost Hiccup before.

Mama go…Pfikingr do! her memories whimper and then roar, as Stoick asks after the fate of his wife.

“No wonder you’re afraid of me,” she says to the rocks and the sea.

Sometime later, she still hasn’t been able to bring herself to move. Astrid is the leader-in-training for a close-knit village that has more people in it than might be expected, despite all the hardships they face. There is always someone who wants something from her, expects her to do something, expects her to be something. It’s no more than she does to herself, but it is one more thing…

“I sent them away,” she says. “I don’t think they’ll come back. Not anytime soon, anyway.”

Still nothing. She doesn’t hold out much hope that the dragon-boy will want anything to do with her. Surely he and his Night Fury companion had fled at the first sign of strangers, since Snotlout hadn’t been blasted to little burning shreds by a dragon protective of its rider, one it – he – so obviously loves.

Astrid is almost jealous. She hates dragons. She does. She’s fought them all her life and she’ll probably die fighting them. But she lost her parents early, and her favorite uncle later in life – she does not remember anyone ever holding her and loving her the way the Night Fury loves Hiccup, unconditionally and devotedly.

Dragon or no. As impossible as it seems, she has no choice but to accept it. Toothless fights for him, protects him, not only lets the boy pet him but encourages and desires the contact, and plays with him. He flies on the dragon’s back, a concept Astrid still can’t even imagine, not having ever seen it for herself.

After yesterday, she is absolutely sure that if she is ever in a position to do so, it will be because they are fleeing Berk as fast as they can.

“I’m sorry,” says Astrid again, and then says something she hates to say, but her honor demands it of her. “I was wrong. And so is he. You’re not a monster. There’s something very wrong inside you, but you’re not a monster. Either of you.”

She is talking to no one. With no one watching her, Astrid drops her head to her bent knees, closes her eyes, and sighs a long and tired sigh.

When she looks up, Toothless is standing on the shore watching her.

Astrid gasps, reflexively. He is staring, not threatening, not snarling, not preparing to blast her from the rock, but there is something about the Night Fury’s eyes that hits some weak and vulnerable fear she did not know she had. They’re too intelligent. If he decides to kill her, it will be because he has thought about it and chosen that he wants her dead.

“Toothless?” she says, wondering why her voice has made it into a question – surely there’s no other dragon like this one, especially with that one wing still trailing. “Is Hiccup all right?” She looks around the shoreline but cannot see the dragon-boy.

Until a shadow on the dragon’s back, all but invisible in his own black scales and worn leather, moves slightly at the sound of his name and uncurls, and she sees the dragon-boy’s face glance at her, then pull away again.

They make no demands of her or attack; they do not even look at her after that announcement of their presence. Toothless wanders away down the shoreline and curls up on a rock that protrudes over an area of deeper water. She sees Hiccup slip from his back and settle himself in the curve of the dragon’s body – then he vanishes from her sight again as Toothless wraps a wing over him.

“All right,” says Astrid. “No lessons today. I didn’t even bring you any food, and I should have, with all those fish. You’d just eat them raw, wouldn’t you? If you didn’t give them to Toothless instead. And you would.”

She sits very quietly as the afternoon wears on. It’s oddly relaxing, which she could never have imagined would be a term she’d use about any environment that includes a living dragon out of nightmares.

Eventually, she notices movement in an area that the waves have pounded flat to leave an expanse of silt that has currently dried until the next time the tide sweeps over it. Hiccup is hunched over it drawing something at length. Curious, she watches him. When he moves away, back to Toothless, who welcomes him back, she ventures off her rock and carefully approaches whatever he’d been drawing, keeping an eye on dragon and rider all the way there.

When she gets there the space is full of designs and drawings, some of which she can’t begin to interpret. But the pure unhappiness in most of them is clear. Astrid can’t explain, even to herself, why they are unhappy, but just looking at most of his work makes her throat catch and her chest hurt, quite against her will. She wonders if this is Hiccup thinking out loud, and wonders what it must be like inside his head right now. She realizes she has no idea, except that apparently dragons – or humans who think they are dragons – know how to hurt and grieve. There’s sorrow in there, and longing, and fear, and she doesn’t want to emphasize this much with him. She doesn’t.

Some of it is recognizable. She sees Toothless several times, roughly drawn because of the unreliability of muddy sand rather than any inability to draw the dragon. She thinks she recognizes the dragon that Stoick had drawn to show to him, although she can’t remember what Hiccup had called it or even hope to pronounce it, in all likelihood. She might even see herself, a crude figure sitting down.

Some areas have been violently blotted out, silt smeared flat or fingers dug into whatever had been there like claws as if he’d been trying to fight or destroy whatever thought had made it from his mind to his hands.

There are multiple small shapes that she thinks might be the Terrible Terrors that like to visit him. One picture baffles her completely. It’s a dragon, but not one she’s seen before – smaller than Toothless, and invariably accompanying him, but bigger than the Terrors, with small wings and an attempt at the texture of scales, but no tail.

Something occurs to her.

“Is this you?”

The dragon-boy nestled against the dragon’s side ignores her, looking out to sea and making very soft noises to Toothless that Astrid can’t hear at this range. Only the faintest hint of it gets to her.

“This is you. You really do believe, don’t you?”

Astrid doesn’t know what to make of that, so she keeps looking at the pictures. She’s not quite sure what she’s looking for, but the strangeness of it all – but just on the edge of half-familiar – keeps her looking.

She squints at something that is vaguely dragon-shaped, but not quite. It takes her a moment to work out what it is supposed to be, and then it hits her.

It’s a Zippleback, a two-headed dragon, but the heads have long hair and Viking-helmet horns.

“Um, yes, I suppose so,” she says, looking directly at Hiccup, who won’t look at her. But she thinks he’s listening. “The twins. Yes. They’re weird. Sorry about them.” Astrid looks at the drawing again. “Is this a question? There’s no way you just made a joke. I don’t even know if you can do that, and the rest of this is far too upset for you to try to be funny right now.”

She knows he doesn’t understand her words. But –

Astrid wonders what he’ll do with the drawing next, if anything. She picks up the discarded stick and holds it out to him – she sees the barest flash of eyes at the movement – then puts it down and moves away back to her rock.

Some more time goes past, but she’s patient. She’s learning to be, challenging her warrior self, who prefers action and consequences and immediate effects, the more time she spends trying to interact with Hiccup. She wishes she’d insisted on more time before Stoick had tried to talk to him; she can’t help thinking that how badly that had gone had been her fault for not teaching him more or getting through to him better. She knows it’s not, but her pride suffers even at the suggestion. Astrid had decided some time ago that she will be a better chief some day if she can be patient as well as shout at people (even if those people are Ruffnut, Tuffnut, Snotlout, or the many other frustratingly crazy and infuriating people who inhabit Berk) and fight her people’s enemies, and she has always been meaning to learn. She had never imagined that a wild boy who is essentially a dragon would be teaching her as much as she is teaching him – maybe more.

It helps that she will never have to admit this to him. Or anyone, ever.

He eventually returns to the drawing, making a few changes and retreating from it again.

Astrid can’t wait. Are they almost having a conversation? But she approaches it carefully, not wanting to scare him away again by running at him. She’s only now come to realize how much she must frighten him.

He’s added more shapes and lines and shadows that even scratched into the sand mean pain. But there’s now also a line encircling the Zippleback twins, and she can’t make any sense of it at all.

“No, I’m sorry, Hiccup, I don’t know what you mean,” she calls to him.

He shrugs – a movement that seems to be universal whether he thinks he’s a dragon or a human – and vanishes beneath Toothless’ wing again. The dragon sticks his nose under it to lick or nuzzle him, or maybe just to talk to him.

Astrid lets her mind wander. If she were curious about the twins, if she thought in terms of dragons…what would she want to ask that could only be expressed as a circle around a dragon?

“Oh!” she realizes. “It’s an egg! A single egg! Yes, Hiccup, they’re twins…do dragons have twins?” They must, because he’s tried to ask. But…

“Hiccup, Vikings don’t come from eggs.”

She sees his eyes emerge from beneath the dragon’s wing again. He looks puzzled and surprised. Had he understood what she’d just said? And why out of all things were they talking about this?

Still, it’s better than trying to think about the heartbreak scrawled across the sand.

Even at this distance, she can see him grimace the way he does when he’s trying to get his mouth around words he doesn’t naturally say. “Pfikingr,” he manages after a moment, “nuh ekkk?”

“No. No egg.”

He looks at her like she’s just announced that the sky is made of rocks, and then as if she’s followed that absurdity up with the proclamation that all those rocks were going to attack him now, an outrageous and threatening proposition that she couldn’t possibly actually mean. He really doesn’t have any idea how expressive his face is, does he? she wonders. Part of her mind tries to clean up what she sees and tries to make it human rather than just human-shaped.

Gods damn Ruffnut. A certain malicious trickster must have had a hand in coming up with her; there is no other possible explanation.

He might be, at that, under it all. But there’s too much of the animal to him, she thinks, and she suspects there always will be.

Anyway, if she is going to say such clearly nonsensical things, he is apparently going to give up on understanding her, asking her things, or even paying attention to her at all more than his usual awareness of her presence as a possible threat. He does not reappear from beneath the dragon’s wing for what must be hours, and Astrid is just about to give up and go back to the village – it’s getting dark and the water is rising – when she sees him reappear briefly only to dive into the pool below Toothless’ rock, reemerging with a fish that he offers to the dragon before himself.

“Sorry,” says Astrid, quietly. “I’ll be back tomorrow if you’re still here.”

She actually hopes he will be. Maybe all is not lost and she can still convince him to send the dragons that plague her people away.

Maybe he’s still the key.

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