So I don't forget to say it at the bottom, I want to say Happy Birthday to my good friend and amazing second pair of eyes, Midoriko-sama!
She's basically the reason that this story exists, and didn't die alone and cold in some lonely file on my computer.
Black ice is a stupid phrase. It should be called clear ice, or invisible ice. 'Gets into all the cracks in the asphalt and ruins all possible traction' ice.
And today seemed like it might be good. Astrid managed to get out of bed without hammering on the snooze button enough times to incur Ruff's pillow throwing wrath. She has a paper due in her nine o'clock class and it's already edited and printed, waiting patiently in her backpack.
She only needed a two mile run. Two miles. Two miles is a stroll, it's…Hiccup could do it. Hiccup could do it in the ice.
Hell, a ten year old could have done this run without parental permission.
It's not even a long run, or a fast one. A nonevent in the grand scheme of things.
One second she was rounding a corner onto her favorite downhill with that well-practiced easy lope, and the next her right knee wasn't underneath her anymore. It wrenched forward, seemingly disembodied as her foot careened into the curb and she pitched forward onto her hands. Looking back at the fall, there was a definite tearing noise shattering the barely dawn calm.
Like ripping a now invalid check and tossing it in the trash.
Astrid knew something was different the second she rolled over to sit on the sidewalk, an out of character whimper escaping as lightning bolts of pain shot out from her knee in all directions. Something about the deep twinge awakened instant nausea as the world spun out of focus around that scalding, angry epicenter.
Thirty hollow, ringing seconds later, the pain still hasn't passed and Astrid leans down, cautiously probing the sides of that cursed joint with gentle fingers. A panicked cry escapes at the contact and she jerks her hands back, quaking miserably with adrenaline and pain as the thing seems to swell before her eyes.
Maybe this day won't be so great after all.
It's a miracle in its own right that she has her phone zipped into her hoodie pocket. Hiccup has some horrible midterm tonight and he's been calling her right after waking up the past few mornings, asking pointless questions and being too manly to admit that he needs moral support.
She's been giving it anyway.
She hadn't wanted to miss his call and send him into some hyper-stressed wave of hysterics, and it strikes her that just five minutes ago she was irritated by the stiff weight bouncing against her hip with every step.
Something about five minutes ago is different, like she's already looking through one of those closed curtains she never seems to notice until it's too late.
She pulls the phone out with shaking fingers and hovers over Ruff's contact for a moment before grumbling to herself in inarticulate frustration.
How many times has this stupid knee acted up? She lost count of how many hours she spent in an ice bath at some point during her sophomore year of high school. It's just being a brat because it's cold out this morning.
It just hurts because she slipped. She has slipped before, it's not like this is anything new.
It already feels better, doesn't it? She pauses for a moment to focus on the pain, rather than the responding quaky throbbing in her head and stomach.
Ok, it doesn't feel better. It feels worse. She winces as a particularly sharp throb echoes in her gritted teeth and tries to relax her jaw.
Walk it off. She has a meet in eight days. She needs to get her ass up, stop acting like a little girl, and walk this off.
After angrily stuffing her phone back into her pocket, she pushes to her left foot, using a tree near the sidewalk to pull herself vertical. The pain pools in her knee and she clutches at the bark with desperate fingernails as her vision prickles like a broken television.
Maybe she's not quite fine, per say. Meniscus tear? Maybe a pulled MCL?
So she'll miss her meet next Friday, but she'll be fine for Idaho, right?
The uncertainty bouncing around her head rubs every defiant fiber within her the wrong way and she takes a stubborn step forward. Her knee buckles the instant she puts any weight on it and she clings to the tree, groaning deep in her throat and squinting her eyes shut against the surge of queasiness.
She has to be fine, but she's not, is she? This might be bad.
Her hand is shaking almost uncontrollably as she pulls her phone back out of her pocket and looks again at Ruff's phone number. It feels like she's staring at the world from the other end of a long tube, light refracting ever so slightly wrong against her quaking field of vision. Like she's wearing glasses of just slightly the wrong prescription and her brain is floundering on the minute adjustments.
Ruff doesn't breathe for anyone before nine. Astrid is probably about to get her ass chewed out.
She presses send and holds the phone to her ear, the ringing melding with that dizzying echo inside her own head and she swallows thickly, trying not to puke, trying to think of anything but the way her leggings feel like they're groaning against the persistent swelling.
Torn meniscus, it's got to be. Or some kind of sprain from hell.
"What?" Ruff picks up with a bark on the fourth ring.
"Morning sunshine," Astrid greets, fumbling over her words with a foreign fragile tone that takes her aback. She coughs around what feels like a marble digging into the pack of her throat and a pained grunt escapes. Ruff sits up on the other end of the line with a too loud rustling of sheets, suddenly wide awake.
"Did you get hit by a car or something?" And the unkempt tenderness in the girl's usually rough voice is the last straw. Astrid grits her teeth against a horribly insistent sob climbing her throat, hopping to adjust her footing.
"My knee…it went out," she admits like a shameful secret, and the joint shrieks at its mention, gleefully accepting the attention. "And I need a ride."
The athletic trainer's ceiling is boring. They should put posters up there or something, given how often people are stuck staring at the pocked foam.
The trainer, usually so helpful and upbeat, was a real downer today too. All gloom and doom and none of those Olympic jokes that never fail to make Astrid feel utterly legitimate. Now it's all, knee exercises that she should have been taught and careful arrangement of her leg on a stack of pillows, like it's a newborn kitten.
A newborn kitten that's not breathing.
Maybe it is the trainer's fault. Maybe if she'd known about the knee exercises she would have been stronger, and slipping wouldn't have yanked something crucial out by its roots. That's what it feels like anyway, she doubt that's what happened.
She slipped. Just slipped. You never hear about athletes hospitalized for a slip. You do hear about pretty college girls faking hurt on the field to run time down, but you never hear about them actually getting hurt.
Maybe she's faking. Maybe she's stressed and freaking out about the fact that it's the last semester of her undergrad, and she's getting her diploma in May, and there's only two papers left of her college career.
Maybe that's scary for some reason instead of exciting, and it's manifesting itself in some absolutely horrible and weak fake injury that's going to make her look like an idiot.
Maybe the pain will switch off, like a blown fuse, now that she's realized the core of the problem.
She's smart enough to know that theory is bullshit, but she clings to it, because it's the only thing that feels mildly realistic.
Tear. That's what the trainer mumbled under her breath, face grim as she looked back at Astrid and repeated the word as half of a phrase that won't quite coagulate.
She doesn't care what anyone says, this is probably just a sprain.
Waiting here is boring, they should just let her go back to school. Ruff is turning in her homework for her, but that makes her more nervous than relieved. What if Ruff insults a teacher, which is sort of likely, or what if this somehow leaks through the cracks of her roommate's mental vault, and everyone end up knowing?
Right now, it's some sort of silent secret, preserved in a tight circle of intelligence, and the longer it stays that way, the smaller it is, right? Once something gets out to the world at large, it really might as well be true.
She's been in the small scale public eye for years. In high school, she fed off of the publicity, but ever since, people have wanted more of her and she's strived to keep it quiet. Hell, after Worlds, Nike was trying to get her to advertise for them.
God, that would have stripped away the privacy.
It would have voided her scholarship anyway, and she wanted that last season, but now she's wondering if that wasn't the best choice. What if next time, her knee really does go out? Her bank account is depressing, and Nike's numbers were larger than life.
She should call them before this gets out, if it ever does. She can see it now, on the phone, about to sign something when the TV blares in the background:
Breaking news, Astrid Hofferson laid out with some as of yet mysterious knee injury.
Astrid's eyes flicker between her utterly uninteresting phone and the even more boring ceiling, trying to think about anything but the disturbingly new throbbing in her knee. She should text Hiccup. Hiccup would want to know. She didn't even get to see him last weekend because he was so busy cramming.
But her knee is…
Small circle. Small circle.
She repeats it like a mantra in her head, wishing that the trainer had thought to shut the door on the way out. The air in here does feel awfully thin though, inadequate to suppress and diffuse the rushing pain and melancholic stupor seeping through her body.
This…what if this is bad?
She's seen team members get injured, she remembers sitting in the hospital and hearing about Hiccup's leg for the first time. There's a special tone that people use, the same tone from medical shows when the unreasonably good looking intern has to inform someone that their family member is dead. That overwhelmingly gentle professionalism that makes the victim feel dainty and ancient all at once, protected and abandoned in equal parts.
Hospitals, MRI's. No one has mentioned the meet in Idaho. She's smart enough to glean that it's not happening, but the fact that no one has even mentioned it to her makes everything worse.
If she doesn't make it to Idaho, she's going to have to make a hell of an impression in the two weeks after it to even be considered for the national team. Can she get it back that fast? No one has said anything about getting back in shape.
Maybe it'll be easy. Maybe her knee will knit itself back together over a lazy week, and she'll be out on the track by next weekend, and no one will really be the wiser.
A vacation. A mental health leave.
It's probably not going to go like that, is it?
She sighs, swallowing whatever pride she has left and dialing. The phone rings twice and someone picks up.
"Astrid?" Hiccup's father asks, voice tainted with fatherly concern that doesn't make her quite as uncomfortable as it used to.
"Hey Jerry," she pauses, wondering exactly how she should phrase this. Of course the words escape in a clumsy rush that would make Hiccup proud. "I slipped and messed up my knee pretty badly, and I need to go to a hospital."
"Are you alright?"
"No…maybe not," she admits with a heavy sigh, free fingers absently clenching around the hem of her jacket. "It's…the trainer says it might be my ACL." The wound throbs delightedly as it's mentioned, a horrible alien clawing.
They asked about her pain level when she hopped in, leaning harder than she should have on Ruff's arm, and she said it was a seven. It's probably more like an eight now, and it peaks above that when she thinks about everything it could mean.
What does that pain scale mean anyway? Could she really comprehend what's supposed to be a ten? She imagines it's something like the dead heavy throbbing when she first saw that dreadful absence of Hiccup's foot. Something akin to that level of heartache, that all-consuming pain that means nothing is alright and nothing is ever going to be normal again.
A ten must be permanent pain.
"Oh…Astrid," Gerard's voice sounds like Ruff's and her trainer's, and like the whispers leaking around the doorway when anyone recognizes her reclined on the seat. It's not the first time that people have harbored that misconception that she's delicate, but it might be the first instance that she's ever considered agreeing with them.
Frustrated, stinging tears pool at the back of her eyes and she sniffs indignant and embarrassed, absolutely miserable that Gerard is hearing her. She swallows and exhales in a measured stream, fiddling with a string unravelling from the sleeve of her jacket.
"It…can you come get me? This…it hurts." The confession rings in her ears and she envisions Hiccup on the other end of the line, understanding beyond judgment. She thinks he gets that from his father, that urge to care for things and leave people better than he found them. "Please?"
Before this, pain has always made her angry, brought out some inner animal full of pride and insistently avoiding any sort of injured honesty. This is worse, this is deeper, altering in that horrible way that muddles the immediate horizon. She remembers asking Hiccup for help back in her darkest days, please landing on her lips like a foreign language.
She leaned on him back then, no matter how pathetic it was.
She doesn't know if anything has ever hurt this bad before.
"I'll leave right now," his urgency melts out of some sort of stuttering shock, and she wishes she hadn't admitted anything. She knows everyone is worried, but hearing it in Gerard's voice is more stressful than anything yet. "Are you with the trainer until then?"
At least Ruff agreed to turn in her paper.
"Oh yeah," she shrugs as if somehow the location really does make this less horrible or shocking. "I'm at the athletic complex. They gave me Tylenol and I'm icing but—" her voice catches in her throat, "but it's not…pleasant."
Her braggart of a knee pumps its fist victoriously against her nerve endings.
"I'll call the hospital on the way so that they'll be ready for you." It's unspeakably wonderful to have someone else take control, someone stronger than she can be right now. It's nice to have that authority on her side even when nothing else seems to be.
"Alright, I'll see you in a bit."
Astrid spends her entire half-hour laying as still as she can manage, teeth gritting of their own accord while she debates whether she should tell Hiccup.
It could still be a sprain, couldn't it? It could still be something smaller, a torn meniscus or maybe just her MCL. There's no need to interrupt Hiccup for a sprain he's…he's…
He'll worry, he'll drop whatever he's doing and come to see her and everything will be real and absolutely horrible all at once. If anyone knows how tough she is, it's Hiccup and if he acknowledges this…her…it's so real it could suffocate her.
But she wants that comfort. She wants someone to hold her hand and not bother to tell her that everything will be alright. She wants a snarky shoulder to lean on, and to distract her, she wants those soft, caring fingers that have never been anything but tender. He's dealt with her knee before, patching up scares so old they're now completely faded, back when he wasn't supposed to touch her.
She wants to cry.
And her team…can they win without her? It sounds conceited, but it's not. She's worked hard to be one of those integral cogs, and all that pride she took in moving the machine forward suddenly seems misplaced and too large for only her shoulders. She'll be back at least in some capacity, right? And soon. It'll be soon.
This is probably just a sprain.
Just a horrible, horrible sprain.
Astrid wishes the trainer would come back and change her ice, something to give her a reason to buck up and ignore the pain spreading up into her fatigued hip, cramped from trying to hold her leg together from the inside. The only thing better than a reason to suck it up would be that singular Hiccup reason to let everything out.
Her thumbs start blazing across her keypad of their own accord, typing out a behemoth of a message.
She tells him that she fell, and her knee might not be ok this time. That the trainer is throwing around words like ACL, and no one is mentioning meets or therapy, or walking it off. She tells him that she's scared and that his dad is picking her up, and that she really, honestly hopes he does well on his test.
Her resolve to leave him out of this doubles with that last point and she deletes the message.
It's not like she won't still be hurt when he's done.
Unless she's in a psychiatric ward for delusions. Slips don't hurt this bad, she could definitely still be going crazy.
She quickly types that he'll be fine and that she loves him, hitting send and setting her phone against her clammy stomach. Her eyes slip shut, mind exhausted with the effort of tuning out that persistent throbbing. After an indeterminable amount of time, a hand lands on her shoulder and she jolts, trying to sit up and wincing when her whole leg twitches. Jerry jerks his hand back at her pained expression, backpedaling to stand closer to the door.
"Oh, er…sorry," he stands sheepishly at arm's length and Astrid grits her teeth, pushing onto her elbows. It's obvious that Gerard is staring at her knee, purple below her rolled up sweatpants and almost twice its normal size. She shifts, pushing the cuff of her pants back down and shuddering when her shaking fingers brush against the joint. "No, sit still," he steps forward at her quiet whimper, and it's every time Hiccup tried to get up off of the couch when he was still on crutches.
"I want to get out of here," she tries to snap but it comes out softer and she flushes with pain and embarrassment, grunting as she sits fully and drags her useless leg over the edge of the cot.
Faith feels like the only thing holding her leg together as her foot swings imperceptibly, sending lightning bolts of pain up her spine. For a moment, the mint green room is lost in swirling fuzz and then she's leaning forward into a big, warm hand on her shoulder.
She blinks and glowers at the floor, partially eclipsed by her sympathetically swollen ankle.
"Do you—" His tone is horrifically gentle.
"I can walk with crutches, they said I can walk with crutches." Well, they said that she might be able to, but she absolutely refuses to let go of that little smidgen of freedom.
Once Hiccup finds out, she's not going to have freedom for weeks. Even if she's better before then.
He's not going to let her go to the bathroom alone.
Fuck, could she go to the bathroom alone?
"Are you sure?"
"You sound like your son," she scowls at him, slipping down onto her good foot and hopping unsteadily. Ruff's impossibly dented crutches are leaning against the wall and she leans towards them, arms too short. "Hand me those."
Jerry is smart enough not to offer to carry her.
Astrid should care that she's in a hospital gown in front of Hiccup's father, or the more important fact that she hasn't asked the man to leave. Her knee looks…bulging, but fine. Nothing about the slightly pudgy and purple appearance of the joint suggests the pain and she wonders again if she's just going soft.
The swelling went down in the car too. The pain went up, but it's not like psychosomatic pain follows physical rules.
It's been more swollen that this before. Hell, back in high school it would blow up like a balloon if she offended its finicky tastes by warming it up a minute less than it would have liked.
Her trainer just must be an idiot, sending her to the hospital for this. It's hardly a sprain, just look at it.
She's a big baby. If she'd just bucked up and ran home, it would be stretched out and fine. Now it's just tight and obnoxious because she didn't cool down.
She's an idiot.
This is her fault.
"How is it feeling?" Gerard asks from the chair in the corner, outwardly jittery in that way that can only mean he's remembering the last time he was in the hospital waiting for news on an injured leg.
She sympathizes, and all that deeply morbid corner of her brain can think is that they're going to amputate.
Hey, she and Hiccup would match.
"I'll live," she tries to laugh, but her voice is tight and grim in her throat, insisting it's somehow smarter than the rest of her. Really, it's probably more arrogant than it is a harbinger, and it's trying to convince her back into that pathetic self-pity that got her here in the first place. "I'm starting to think this is all overkill anyway. It's probably just a sprain."
Gerard nods warily.
"It's best to be sure," he cautions too gently, and Astrid rolls her eyes, drawing strength from the surliness.
"Look at it," she gestures to the elevated knee, ignoring the fact that when she wiggles her toes they respond with irritating jolts of pain. "It's been worse before."
"Astrid, have I ever told you about my senior football season in college?" He phrases it carefully, avoiding last and end like potent curses.
"Please tell me this is about a Rose bowl you never told me that you won," Astrid laughs, eyebrows furrowed anxiously behind the diversion that's so obviously Hiccup's influence that the man's paternal instincts kick into high gear.
"Got sacked mid-pass in the first round of the play-offs," he can laugh at the memory now, but the bitter disappointment still hovers over the back of his tongue, the gateway to that untraveled road taunting him. "My shoulder was never the same, I never even got back up to my peak bench weight," he laments and Astrid scowls at him, even as her eyes fret.
"It's a sprain," she insists, "and if I knew you were going to be so upbeat, I would have called Hiccup to treat me like an invalid."
She doesn't need anyone nagging at her to be careful, or to think about the situation, when her knee reminds her of its gravity with every heartbeat.
She wishes Hiccup were here.
"Have you let him know?"
"I feel dumb enough calling you about what is obviously just a sprain, and he has a midterm tonight," she bites her lip and nods to herself, preoccupied. "Or maybe it's a torn meniscus, but probably not bad. That's only a couple of weeks recovery time."
Gerard stares grimly at the wall, relieved and disappointed when he can't bring himself to be the bearer of bad news. Astrid is tough as nails, always has been. Last summer she tripped on barbed wire and cut her shin almost through to the bone.
Any normal person would have stopped, but she ran home, complaining to him about her time while rinsing her blood soaked sock and plucking rust flakes out of the gash with a pair of tweezers. Hiccup almost fainted at the sight of her humming to herself and butterfly clipping the skin together, evidently unperturbed.
Gobber is full of stories about Astrid not knowing when to stop. About blisters the size of silver dollars on pacing runs and bleeding from under toenails because she tied her shoes too tightly.
The fact that she didn't pick herself up and run home is evidence enough that this is more than a sprain.
The doctor is in the room five minutes later, narrowly avoiding a wicked punch when Astrid reacts violently to the onslaught of renewed pain. He shakes his head grimly at Gerard when she's not looking, ordering an immediate MRI.
"What do you mean it's my ACL?" Astrid asks, beyond frustrated as she pushes up to her elbows and grimacing as even that completely unrelated motion sends a bolt of stabbing pain through her knee. "I was running, I'm a runner. It's not even a pivoting sport. It can't be my ACL."
This is the trainer's fault for being right. It's Gerard's fault for forcing her to go through with going to the hospital. It's…It's…it's this dumb doctor's fault for speaking to her like she's stupid or about to cry.
"Astrid," the doctor says her name gently, like it's something fragile that will shatter on his tongue, and her face flushes angrily. "If you look at the MRI," he points again to that infernal image, where everything under her patella is lit up like the Fourth of July, "you can see—"
"I don't want to look at the MRI," no matter how fierce she sounds, it occurs to her that she's whining, and she snarls. "Where is it?" He shows her the clearly torn ligament again, tracing a pale finger to another suspect zone, lit up bright fuchsia.
"Your PCL appears to be stressed too, and this swelling could indicate a cluster of micro-tears, probably something around a Grade 1 sprain," and it's so clinically simple, the shredded tendons that she can't wrap her mind around. "You've had problems with this knee before, right?"
She nods, and the action reeks of understood permanence. But she doesn't understand. She doesn't understand how this happened, or how this perfectly normal morning ended up like this. She doesn't understand anything.
"Always. It's always been…finicky," the responsible adult hidden deep inside the distraught young woman answers in a monotone, and the doctor points to something else on that too bright photo.
"You have a thin part of the meniscus here," she can't really see what he means, can't see anything but the wreckage an inch away. And it hurts. It all hurts too much to concentrate, but not bad enough to justify crying in this room full of grown men. "It's probably congenital, but it rocked your femur forward on the joint, and when you tried to correct your balance backwards, the joint twisted."
That noise like tearing paper echoes in her memory and she swallows hard, trying not to gag. She wishes Hiccup were here. She wishes Jerry would stop looking at her like she's about to explode or cry or kill someone.
She feels like a mountain lion that's been hit by a car. Everyone stops to stare, and says how sad it is, but no one actually helps.
Or a wolf, she guesses they get the same treatment.
"What's the plan of action then?" Gerard asks after Astrid sits silent and gaping a moment too long, face uncharacteristically pasty.
"Because of the PCL, I do want to repair the ACL surgically, her other tendons can't pick up the slack right now…"
Astrid zones out entirely, staring at the ceiling and trying to absorb all of these words she doesn't want to hear. Surgery. Tendon grafts. Physical therapy. She was on the other end of this years ago, listening to the doctor while Hiccup zoned out, adjusting to a new reality.
It feels horrible to say, but she envies Hiccup here. He woke up to a different world rather than weathering the transition, watching the world morph and change. He didn't see his life alter, he winked out before it was solid, before anything lost was permanent.
No Regionals this year.
So…bit of a rough start for Astrid here. I know this starts out dark, but I promise that it does get better from here.
Also, I ended up doing so much research on knee injuries in college age female athletes, which is a surprisingly large body of information, so I can actually attest that anything I describe is very possible and accurate.
Please tell me what you guys think! I am more nervous than normal posting this, for some reason. I guess two months is long enough for me to lose all that nerve.