Proper maintenance was as key to performance as design, and Hiccup knew that better than anyone. He could build any manner of tool, from the simple to the bizarre, but if he didn't give the thing regular attention, it would eventually fail. A little daily upkeep prevented more extensive repairs later down the line.

Both Hiccup and Toothless' prosthetic needed inspection regularly, especially as Hiccup's design grew more complicated. Occasionally the day got away from him, but Hiccup was careful not to let too much time pass without looking over the artificial limbs for cleaning and signs of wear. Though mechanical, these were still parts of the body and deserved as much care as the rest of them.

But from time to time, other things popped up to steal Hiccup's attention. In this case, discovering his long-lost and apparently not-dead mother, battling a madman with a dragon army, watching his father die at the hand of his brainwashed best friend and becoming the chief of a village covered in ice. Needless to say, it had been a stressful few days, and Hiccup hadn't had a spare moment to think, let alone look the equipment over.

And the result was a peg leg that didn't stay pegged. His foot kept slipping out and trying to rotate back to the position he used for flying, or vice versa. Hiccup expected it just needed a thorough cleaning, there was probably just dirt clogging up all the gears and preventing things from locking into place, but that would involve sitting down and taking the thing apart. It wasn't a hard task, but it required a little time.

He'd just fought off Drago and been made chief that morning, however, so there wasn't a moment to rest. He needed to reassure people, make plans for ice removal, find room for all those whose homes had been destroyed and also the new dragons who'd taken a fancy to Berk. He needed to prepare for the rest of Drago's oncoming armada, who may not have heard of their master's defeat, as well as tend to the currently injured. He had explanations to give, orders to issue and funerals to preside over.

The funerals were the worst. In face of that, Hiccup's rebellious leg didn't seem like such a priority. So he kicked the peg against rocks or the ground whenever he could and tried to force it back into place, silently praying that he could finish his work without falling on his face. Now was not the time to remind everyone that their lives were being run by the village hiccup.

But despite the general stress bringing out his negative side, Hiccup wasn't actually that against his new career. Yes, he'd inherited the title under the worst possible circumstances, but he was coping fairly well to the crash course in running a village. It wasn't easy, but so far the skills he had seemed to be in line with what Berk needed, and if he could keep it up, Hiccup thought he just might do okay as chief. He might even like it.

Of course, he'd never say so in front of his father- even if he could- to give him the satisfaction. Given the choice, Hiccup would have preferred to be a little boy forever, skipping work to fly off into the sunset with Toothless. He still remembered his father lecturing him and encouraging his son to accept his growing responsibilities, even as Hiccup adamantly resisted being groomed as future chieftain. "If you had some other passion, I wouldn't stop you," his father had argued, "But I know you're not hoping to take over for Gobber, and you were saying yourself that the Academy's going to need changes, it's bigger than the six of you. Your map project is something, but it's not enough by itself." That was all true, but at the time, Hiccup couldn't see himself in a chiefly role. That was his father's thing, and he didn't yet know what he was. For most of his life, he'd been defined by other people, and just now exploring the possibility that his entire life wasn't a waste of existence.

Stoick, however, saw differently. "But I see you out there improving the village and settling disputes with Vikings and Dragons like you were born for it. You're building and thinking and laughing like I've never seen. This job is everything you're good at, and there's room for all your interests!"

Even if his father was right, Hiccup couldn't bring himself to agree. "It's also all the stuff I'm not good at," he pointed out. "People get after me whenever the windmill or the water tower break down. What do you think's going to happen when all of Berk breaks down?"

"Oh, you're exaggerating," Stoick had dismissed. "Why do you always think disaster will fall if you set foot out the door?" And he fell silent as soon as he'd uttered it.

"Would you like me to answer that right now," Hiccup asked sardonically, "Or wait until I've got it alphabetized and annotated?" That ended the discussion, at least for another day. Stoick never really gave up on the idea. He was planning to announce his retirement the morning this whole mess started...

"Hiccup!" Hiccup broke out of his memories and shook his head, looking along the path to see who had called him. "Get over here!" It was Gobber, shoving a wheelbarrow full of bent and broken tools to the side in order to cuddle a Deadly Nadder.

A Deadly Nadder with a large, artificial leg... "Thundercry? Is that you?"

"Sure is! Toothless found him, poor fellow looks spooked." Thundercry did look nervous and jittery, understandable after the incident with the Bewilderbeast, but the large dragon relaxed a little when Hiccup scratched below it's chin.

He hadn't seen Thundercry since he'd finished the Nadder's metal leg and the dragon returned to his home. "Did you get caught up in all this, too?" Hiccup said in sympathy, only able to imagine the horror all the dragons endured. Whether Valka's peaceful dragons finding war on their shores, the Berkian dragons being taken over in their sleep or the wild dragons captured for Drago's army, no one had escaped the tragedy. "Well, don't worry, you're among friends, now." Toothless wasn't the only brainwashed creature on that battlefield, or the only one in need of a safe haven to collect themselves.

Speaking of... "You said Toothless was here?" Hiccup hadn't seen him for a few hours. They'd been working together for most of the day, but dragon-exclusive duty finally called, and Hiccup had enough human responsibilities to take his attention, so the two were forced to divide and conquer. It was practical to do so, but Hiccup couldn't deny there were several issues shoved to the side in order to defeat Drago, and now that the urgency was passing, an awkward tension was setting into place. They needed to clear the air between them.

Unfortunately Gobber informed him, "He had to chase after a flock of Terrible Terrors before they got into our food stores." Hiccup's heart sank. Later, then. "But don't worry, he gave me those same wounded doe eyes you are, and I told him he'd probably catch you at the forge later tonight. That's where you're sleepin', isn't it?"

"Uh, yeah, if that's okay." With all the destroyed or ice-covered buildings, many families were displaced from their homes, so Hiccup offered up the space in his house. People thanked him, but Hiccup felt they were the ones doing him the favor. He wasn't really looking forward to a night in that house without his father snoring in the room below.

"Aye, I thought you'd be doing something o' the sort," Gobber said knowingly. Hiccup didn't like that he could be read so easily, especially now that he was required to appear strong and dependable. But even so, it was nice to have a friend on his side. Thundercry was oblivious to the potentially serious situation, however, and gave several loud squawks. "Now, what's got you all excited, you overgrown chicken?" Normally, Thundercry would have taken offense to that, but he was preoccupied with getting Hiccup's attention.

"What's that? I'm looking, I'm looking..." Upon inspection, he realized that Thundercry's false leg was dented, and no longer had any bend to it. "Oh, did it get busted in the fight? That's no good. Take it off, and Gobber and I can fix it for you."

"Sure, just add it to the pile." Thundercry pulled back the springform hinge Hiccup invented with his beak, while Gobber sighed. "Look at all this work. Figures it would pile up just as my apprentice resigns."

"What?" Hiccup was so startled that he almost fell over, only barely managing to hold onto Thundercry's leg as the dragon slipped out of it. It shouldn't have surprised him; of course Gobber would have to replace him, Hiccup could hardly run the village and work in the shop full-time.

Still, it felt like one more thing was being ripped away from him. "I, uh, I'm sorry," he said, trying to mask his sorrow at the loss of his boyhood. He hefted Thundercry's leg into the wheelbarrow. "You spent all that time training me, and now it's a waste."

"Hiccup, I know you're the chief's son, this was going to happen eventually," Gobber said, not acknowledging that there was a large span of time where Hiccup's birthright was irrelevant and that he'd just spoken about Stoick in the present tense. "It's not a waste. What's your father's first rule?"

"A chief's first duty is to his people," Hiccup replied, unable to quench the thought that Stoick had ignored all that to go chasing after his son at the first sign of trouble. When he should have abandoned the mutinous and tightened the defenses, he left Berk to go hunting after Hiccup.

Just like he promised he would. "That's right. No one wants a leader who doesn't know anything but how to sit on a throne," Gobber lectured. "You've worked side by side with your people, and now you've got something useful to bring to the job. That's worth having to train up another pint-sized smart-aleck."

"Thanks, Gobber." The words gave him a little more confidence, and he decided it wasn't so bad if Gobber could see through him, so long as the man kept putting a positive spin on Hiccup's emotions.

But Gobber could never resist the urge to tease. "Well, you've hardly shown up for work the past few weeks, anyway."

"Hey!" Hiccup gave Gobber a playful shove, one that didn't move the larger man an inch, but he was smiling again, and it wasn't forced. But the levity soon ended, as an old man further down the path slipped on a patch of ice, and Hiccup and Gobber abandoned their teasing to offer aid. Hiccup stumbled a little when his false leg failed again, but made it to the man's side, whom he recognized as Old Man Canker. "Are you hurt?"

"Just a slip on the ice, no need for all this fussin'," the old man grumbled, and he swatted Hiccup away once he was standing. "I don't need your help, boy."

"We know, we know, you've faced down dragons and Outcasts since you were in diapers, you don't need help from anyone," Gobber said with a wry smirk. "Forgive us if we forget, Your Mightyness." Old Man Canker growled at the mocking.

Hiccup had never been in the man's good graces, though he took solace in the fact that very few people were. The man was more tolerable than Mildew, and more reasonable, but still just as cranky and with no particular love for Hiccup. He distrusted any enterprise Hiccup had a hand in, and only begrudgingly deferred to him on dragon matters. When Hiccup's first windmill design had broken down, Old Man Canker took him to task in front of the whole village, hurling insults like poison darts. In seconds, he'd been reduced to fifteen years old, a pathetic waste forced to hear how ashamed his father must be.

Stoick hadn't been there at the time, but word got around to him eventually. Hiccup really didn't want to know what he might have heard, and so refused to talk about it.

There wasn't much the chief could do anyway. He could lecture and demand respect for his son, but he couldn't force people to feel respect in their hearts, and some people were always going to see Hiccup as useless, incompetent and damaged. It was a tough lesson to learn, but Hiccup had to remind himself, Old Man Canker's opinion wasn't shared. On that occasion, his fellow villagers had stood up for him and gave the support he'd been denied in his youth. He'd make mistakes, just as any other human, but Berk was no longer tolerant of pelting Hiccup with cruel words for every little thing.

Because of that, Hiccup could see Old Man Canker was just one man out of a hundred, and he could walk away from it. His father had brought about that change, cracking Berk open like a walnut to get to the truth of things.

Old Man Canker now squinted his eyes and looked Hiccup over. "I suppose I'm to be calling you chief, now?"

"Well, uh, you don't have to," Hiccup stammered, before catching Gobber's eye. "Hiccup is fine," he continued more confidently. "I'm still me, I didn't change overnight."

"No, you never did," the old man drawled, and Hiccup again felt fifteen, waking from a coma and wondering how the world changed so radically without him. "I suppose we could do worse." He waved off any further helping hands and walked down the lane, leaving Hiccup to accept that that was the closest thing to a vote of confidence as he was likely to get.

"Pay him no mind, Hiccup. You're doing fine," Gobber reassured, and Hiccup smiled gratefully. "You're doing your old man proud."

"I hope so," Hiccup exhaled, but he felt heavy as they walked back to Thundercry and the wheelbarrow. Gobber clapped a hand on his shoulder.

"He had faith in you. He loved you, don't be forgetting that."

"Yeah, I know," Hiccup sighed, shrugging a little. "But did he have to go that far to prove it to me?" Gobber's eyes were warm, more caring than Hiccup usually saw.

"There was nothing he'd rather die for than that." Both men had to turn their heads, suddenly emotional. "I'll just be dropping this off at the forge. Take care, Hiccup. Put your foot up and rest."

Hiccup promised to do so, and watched Gobber hobble down the road for a bit before turning to the Nadder. "Hey, think you can give me a ride to the Great Hall, Thundercry?" The dragon chirped in agreement, and Hiccup gingerly climbed up onto its back.

It was only after making the request that he remembered this was a massive inconvenience to Thnudercry. Bending down to give Hiccup access required putting the dragon's entire body weight onto one bent knee, and on top of that, it was likely that Thundercry was out of practice for carrying humans. But he seemed happy enough to do it, and Hiccup was glad to see that the harsh dip to the side upon takeoff had lessened considerably. In their time apart, Thundercry had learned to balance.

So had Hiccup, for the most part. "You missed a lot, big guy. There's been so many improvements since you left. I designed upgrades to the mill, all you can eat feeding stations, even state of the art fire prevention. Even if Berk weren't covered in ice, you'd still barely recognize the place." There were many changes over the past years, and how ironic that the most obvious changes happened after Berk stopped remodeling their houses every other month?

"You'll also be glad to hear Dad and I fight a lot less," Hiccup continued, before the horror of what he'd said struck him. It was all he could do to keep from falling off the dragon. "Well, actually, now we won't fight at all.." Thundercry tilted his head and looked back to Hiccup in that peculiar way only Nadders could manage, but the boy couldn't meet his eye.

"I'm the chief now," he whispered, finally having a second to feel all the extra weight that came with the fact. There would be no guiding hand to train him in his duties, and no more towering figure to look up to when he found himself at a loss. No more laughing together by the fire while Hiccup drew maps and Stoick relaxed with his woodwork. No longer would he pour out frustrations to a man who could tell the difference between the buried rage that needed to be said and when his son was being a whiny child. A father who understood how badly Hiccup needed to be that child, even when throwing tantrums, because he'd been deprived of the chance and never really learned how to love and be loved, how to discern between abuse and discipline, or how to express his anger appropriately. The person who understood Hiccup the least was simultaneously the one who understood him the most, and now the whole paradox was gone.

It was like learning to walk with a peg leg. Theoretically he know it would work, but there were a lot of painful steps before the activity became functional, and it was never quite the same as before. Hiccup knew he would be fine, but he shuddered to think of all the steps he'd take to get there.

Thundercry landed, a little clumsily. Hiccup was right to assume the dragon hadn't carried humans for awhile, but he touched down on his one leg without falling over, which was more than Hiccup could say for himself. His foot rotated out of place the second he put weight on it, and Thundercry had to catch him before the boy face-planted into the dirt. Hiccup frantically kicked his leg back into place before anyone noticed, while Thundercry helped and hindered by nuzzling him with his beak. While it didn't help Hiccup stay upright, it was the most comforting thing Hiccup had felt since letting go of Toothless.

When he finished, and didn't see anyone pointing or laughing, he let out a sigh of relief. "Thank you." Hiccup gratefully stroked Thundercry's scales. "For the ride, and for everything." It was good to see an old friend, and he'd have loved to stay petting dragons for the next several hours, but he was chief now, and he was supposed to be doing the reassuring. "Everything's going to be fine. The Bewilderbeast and Drago are gone, and Toothless will take care of everyone now." Hiccup closed his eyes for a second and recalled the image of Toothless radiating that bright, brilliant blue. It canceled out the narrow, soulless eyes that were also burned into his brain. "And there is no one I trust more for that job. You're always welcome on Berk, you know that."

Thundercry chattered happily and Hiccup promised to have his leg fixed the following morning before the dragon flew off. The sun was starting to go down, casting an orange glow across the blocks of ice. It was beautiful, in a strange sort of way, but more importantly, it looked warm, like a fire on the hearth.

Warm, peaceful and quiet. His people had endured grief and hardship and would slog through more in the coming days, but right now they were all safe, fed and everyone had some sort of shelter to protect them from the night cold. In the aftermath of the greatest dragon raid Berk had ever known, that was one thing to be grateful for.

Hiccup walked into the Great Hall and made sure the bedrolls were enough to meet demand, that the food stores would hold up and that all the fires were stoked before finally accepting a plate of warm food and finding a quiet table to sit at. A few people came up to ask how he was holding up, add the the ever-growing list of needed repairs or exchange sorrow for their mutual losses, but after awhile, the people in the hall turned to their own business and left their new chief have a moment to himself.

Hiccup wasn't really in the mood to eat. He hadn't eaten since having a few bites of his mother's admittedly awful fish back at the dragon sanctuary, and had skipped breakfast before that, so he forced himself to swallow a bit in the interests of health. But it all tasted like sawdust. In the end, he only finished half his plate before he turned around to gaze at the shields along the wall.

All the past chiefs and their sons, immortalized for all eternity. Not far from Hiccup was the end of the line, the portrait of himself and his father. Both of them looked so much younger.

And happy. "Gods, I miss you, Dad." And this was only day one. Would it get easier or harder from here?

"Mr. Hiccup? I mean, Chief..." Hiccup turned to find two small children at his elbow.

It still felt weird for people to call him by his father's title. "Hey, Goose-egg. Rusthair. What can I do for you guys?" Except decree new traditions in naming children, trolls be damned.

The girl, Goose-egg, was holding a large steaming mug out to him. A tea, with a familiar mix of yellow weed and sprigs of lavender. The smell was one Hiccup knew well, ever since his father had sought Gothi for advice on helping his son. Once she'd told him of the plant's properties, Stoick had run out and gathered armfuls of lavender to fill up the house. Hiccup had come home to find the house a purple field, with sprigs sticking out of his father's beard, and he'd never laughed so hard in his life.

He did find it helped during the trying times, when his world had been melting down around him and trying to build itself up at the same time. The fact that both the yellow weed and lavender were medicines usually given to help mothers cope with newborns hadn't escaped Hiccup, or that Stoick procured these things for his son without a shred of shame or secrecy. That in itself may have done more for Hiccup than the plants themselves.

They'd come a long way since Hiccup was barred from eating in the Great Hall until he learned to use his right hand. "Mama said to give this to you," the little girl said, and her brother nodded beside her.

"She said you'd like it," the boy said around a sucking thumb. "I think it smells like bath water." Hiccup chuckled and took the mug, looking across the hall to the hearth, where the children's mother was dishing out soup to hungry villagers. When he caught her eye, the woman gave him a curt nod before retuning to her work, and Hiccup felt a strange warmth that didn't come from the drink.

"You have a very thoughtful mother," he said quietly, not sure if he was grateful or amazed or both. But whatever he felt about it, there was clearly no point in pretending to be the leader his father was. Berk already knew what he was and all the things he wasn't, and seemed mostly okay with it.

Hiccup thanked the children before leaning his back against the table and breathing in the steam. He could do this, he knew he could. The had been a time when he wasn't so sure, a time where buried doubts threatened to crush him, but he was stronger now. Berk was stronger now.

He had his father to thank for that. He'd been loved fiercely, and sometimes poorly, but he hadn't been abandoned as a failed project along the way, even when he was close to giving up on himself. Stoick was adamant and determined in everything he did, and once he was set on the right track, his efforts to help and mold his son into an adult actually brought good results.

They went through all of Hiccup's feelings, all his childhood, digging deeper and deeper into the mess and trying to make order from chaos. There were times Hiccup felt like giving up on all of it, and sometimes he and Toothless made it as far as Dragon Island before something inside made Hiccup turn around, every time hoping he wasn't a fool to do so.

And every time, Stoick would welcome him back with open arms. "I'm not in this for the end result, Hiccup," his father insisted. "I love you now, just as you are. And if any of this is making the world a little easier to live in, then it's worth it in my book. I'd give up the earth to have you here with me."

When they finally put words to what had happened, went beyond the misunderstandings and admitted to all the neglect and abuse, Hiccup found he didn't hate his father. He raged like a wildfire, now that he was allowed to voice all his buried feelings, but hate wasn't at the core, much as it may have looked that way to an outsider. One the night that Hiccup finally released his soul from its deepest chains, he'd railed against his father and futilely beat his fists against that massive chest.

"I didn't do anything to deserve that!" he'd screamed, fully comprehending that for the first time. "It wasn't my job to make you love me!"

He was thinking of that when his mother, Valka, sat down beside him and startled him out of his memories. She was holding two tankards of mead, but was disappointed when she saw he already had a drink. "Tea? I would have thought you'd want something stronger," she said, almost as if confused by the concept of drinking something so bland.

Hiccup just chuckled and refused the offered drink. "Nah, Toothless might need to fly and I'm no good to him buzzed." As much as Hiccup wanted to get drunk off his face, he had responsibilities now, and Berk was still in a state of uncertainty. He couldn't disappear into a bottle while crisis still loomed on the horizon, and anyway, past experience had taught him that pouring alcohol on his problems led to extremely self-destructive decision making. Best to wait until peace was assured, and Hiccup had come to terms with his new situation a bit, and then he could consider drinking his thoughts right out of his head.

He was much better off with the tea in times of stress. His mother wrinkled her nose as Hiccup sipped his fragrant concoction, but chuckled to herself. "A Viking who turns down a drink, that has to be the first." Hiccup almost choked. He'd forgotten that even though Valka shared a lot in common with him, they were different as well. She might sympathize with dragons, but she was still a strong, powerful warrior and fit the Viking image in just about every other respect. Her idea of making peace was unpopular, but she wasn't weak and helpless, and after seeing her on the battlefield defending against Drago, Hiccup was fairly sure his mother had enough courage and skill to stand at Stoick's side without shame. Even now, most of the tension or awkwardness between Valka and the residents of Berk came from the fact that Valka hadn't spoken to another human in nearly two decades and that everyone thought she was dead.

They were alike, but also so different, and Valka didn't know anything about Hiccup's life before her. She didn't know that her son had grown up aggressively defined as "not-like-the-rest-of-us-Vikings" and he wasn't sure how to tell her, or if he even should.

Valka continued to make faces at the tea's aroma, but finally raised an eyebrow in recognition. "That smell, is that...?" She'd just realized the usual purpose of those plants. Now it was Hiccup's turn to make a face.

"Yes," he grumbled, and said no more. Valka didn't ask. Instead, she let her eyes wander to the shield paintings on the wall, while Hiccup breathed deeply and sipped his tea. Now that they actually had time to catch up and build a relationship, he wasn't sure exactly how this would go. "Have you decided where you're going to stay tonight?" he asked, "There's still some room in, um, our house." Another awkward situation. Technically, it was just Hiccup's house now. Except it had been Valka's before Hiccup was born. But who was to say she wanted to stay there now that Stoick was gone, even after all the refugees were cleared out, or if she'd recognize it after it had been rebuilt so many times?

"I thought I'd sleep in the stables with Cloudjumper and the other dragons." She said 'stables' like she still couldn't believe that existed on Berk. "It seems half the village is holed up in that house. Is there even room for you?"

"I'll be sleeping at the forge until we get those homes rebuilt," Hiccup laughed. "I'm an only child, I'm not so good at sharing a room."

"The forge!" Valka looked almost scandalized. "You're sleeping in the blacksmith's shop? Oh, Hiccup, there's not enough walls to keep out the cold-"

This from a woman who was planning to sleep in the stables. "Relax, Mom. I used to sleep there all the time." He was about to say that once he lit the forge, the cold wouldn't be a problem, but Valka's face had grown dark.

"What do you mean, all the time?" she snapped. "What was your father thinking, letting you camp out surrounded by swords and molten metal?" To be honest, Hiccup wasn't always sure what his father thought of it, or if he was aware of just how frequently Hiccup used the forge as a refuge. But since the time he was very young, he'd escaped to a marginally safer place after an argument, or even an evening with such sparse conversation that the silence suffocated him.

"It's fine. I work with all those swords and molten metal. Or I did, until today." His face fell at the reminder, while Valka's looked interested.

"You're the blacksmith?" She was surprised, and pleasantly so, by the tone of her voice, but Hiccup also caught a hint of disbelief. Her eyes darted to his thin arms and slight shoulders, and Hiccup's lip twitched in irritation.

"Apprentice, yes. And I'm very good." He'd not only designed half the village, but help Gobber build most of it, fashioning every last scrap of metal into shape and overseeing all the construction.

His dad was right, in a way, Hiccup had been carrying out chiefly duties for years. Perhaps the adjustment wasn't so wide as he imagined it would be. "I never knew." Valka sat back and once again looked to the painting of Stoick and his son. "There's so much I never knew..." She trailed off, eyes roving over the portrait, and Hiccup joined her. Despite his tumultuous thoughts, it brought a smile to his face. He missed his father terribly, but he had no regrets or unfinished business to cloud the good memories, and that was something to be treasured.

Eventually, he noticed his mother's eyes looking from the shield to his foot, and back again. He saw the question on her lips even before she voiced it, and rolled his eyes. Sooner or later, everybody asked about the leg. "How old were you, when it happened?"

"About fifteen. Not long before that painting, actually," he thought back. That was so long ago, it was hard to remember if it had been three months, or closer to six, or had they posed for it much earlier, while winter was just thawing out?

"So young," Valka breathed, and Hiccup took a sip of tea.

"Yep," he smacked his lips. "New Berk record!" He smirked a little at his mother's aghast expression. "Not like anyone's really anxious to take my title." When she still looked horrified, Hiccup sighed. "It's not a big deal. Not like I forget it's there or anything, but I barely remember what having two legs was like." He held out his left leg, remembering that he needed to clean out those gears before he went to bed. "This is just who I am now. It's part of me. All the things I lost are part of me, now."

He hadn't meant to say that last bit. It revealed too much, but it just slipped out, and he saw Valka puzzling over just what else Hiccup might have lost. "How did it happen?"

"Fighting the leader of the dragons' nest. It was a pretty tough battle." He wasn't sure how to best condense the story to hide all the personal things he wasn't ready to share, but his mother's reaction told him he could have chosen better.

"Your father sent you to fight a nest of dragons at fifteen?" she hissed before Hiccup could elaborate, again the feral woman he'd first been introduced to.

"Um, that's not exactly it, uh..." he wasn't too eager to explain how he'd lost his best friend, father and tribe in one go, and running in to save them all at the eleventh hour was the last thing Stoick expected or wanted. "More like I volunteered..."

His mother was not appeased. "And where was your father while his child was signing up to be maimed?" Her fury struck something in Hiccup, stirred up a bunch of bitter embers that he'd been content to leave alone.

"A lot closer than you were," he snapped, though he regretted it the second he'd said it. Valka looked crushed, and while there was some validity to Hiccup's words, this wasn't how he wanted to go about resolving the issue. "I'm sorry, that was really..." Harsh? Blunt? True? "...rude." Whether his feelings were justified or not, Hiccup could recognize that he sometimes let his anger rule him, lashing out specifically to hurt rather than to express his grievances.

His dad took it in stride, at least once the doors of communication were opened. "You're just in one of your moods," he would grumble once Hiccup calmed down, careful not to raise his voice and add fuel to the fire. "You don't have to fight so hard for people to listen to you." And that was a tough thing to remember, because he'd spent most of his life with an almost innate knowledge that no one would ever listen. He blocked lectures with sarcasm while his own words were waved off like mosquitoes, and once it seemed he could directly challenge his father, he suddenly had so much worth yelling about.

Hiccup hadn't lied when he told Valka he was willing to give her another chance. He wanted her to stay, and he wanted to get to know his mother, have her be a part of his life. But he was a grown man now, and there was a darkness in his past that she had no knowledge of.

He thought of all the years he'd been alone, and of the difficulty he had convincing Berk to accept dragons. He remembered how he'd convinced himself he could remember his mother's face, remember her playing with him, only for his father to finally sit him down and explain that he'd been too young to ever really know her. He thought of the daydreams where his mother wasn't eaten, but alive and well on some faraway island and someday she'd come back.

But all of that had to be brought to reality eventually, because Hiccup had never known the love of his mother outside of infancy, and she had to be dead, because if a woman loved her son enough to give her life, surely she would have tried to come back to him if the dragons had let her draw breath?

His mother had twenty years to contact her son, and her husband. At any point, she could have sailed or flown by, even if it was just to tell Stoick that she needed to stay away. She could have tried to work out a compromise, could have sent a message detailing her choices and begging for understanding, or even snuck by Berk in secret to see if her son and love were still alive.

All the choices she could have made, and Valka had written them off. She hadn't sought him out, but would have been content to be alone until he happened upon her, and he only had a chance to form a bond because he fit the arbitrary criteria she'd set out. If he'd have taken more after Stoick, burly and less into flying, she would want nothing to do with him.

He shuddered to imagine what might have happened if they'd stumbled upon each other before meeting Toothless, when killing a dragon was the entire purpose of Hiccup's life and he had no reason to believe that was wrong.

Yes, he understood that the situation was complicated and his mother regretted many of her choices, but it still hurt. Valka hadn't meant to send the message that Hiccup was not worth the trouble, hardship and grief that might have come with staying on Berk, but that was what she'd said with her actions, and she hadn't yet proved herself trustworthy enough to set that aside. Forgetting Hiccup was easier, running away from problems was easier, and who was to say she wouldn't run again when things got hard?

He wasn't sure he was ready to go through the whole cycle with a second parent. Hiccup sighed and set his mug down. "Mom, I'm really glad you're here, and I do want to start over, but there's some things you need to understand." He turned to face Valka, waiting until she lifted her face to meet his.

He didn't want to hurt her, he really didn't. But Hiccup had been hurt, both by her absence and by so many people in the interim, and he needed to protect himself. He wouldn't survive giving out pieces of his heart to people he didn't trust to take care of it, leaving himself open to further injury. And it was his right not to. They were his issues and this was his heart, it was not his responsibility to make himself someone his mother would love, or to make her feel good about herself. Forgiveness, he could give easily. Trust and a healthy, functional relationship wouldn't come until everything was taken apart and cleaned out.

"You missed a lot while you were gone." So, so much. And Hiccup had no guarantee that she would accept him once she was caught up. Stoick may have been able to accept his son as a hiccup, a dragon sympathizer, and a broken, damaged human being, but it meant he had to change. Stoick changed Berk and changed himself all so that Hiccup would have a safe place to grow, and Hiccup had no idea if his mother would be willing to do the same. "There are some things in my past I'm not ready to share with you, yet."

Perhaps she would be ashamed of him, or maybe she'd think it was too awkward to deal with, or too much work to repair what she'd broken with her absence. He'd like to think higher of Valka, but Hiccup had a lifetime of rejection to tell him not everyone could be depended on. Certainly, not everyone could be expected to make the same monumental changes as Stoick the Vast. "You're my mother, but you haven't been my mother for a very long time, and we're going to have to work on that."

"I understand," she said quietly, and Hiccup nodded. His parents were human, they made mistakes just like he did. They weren't Gods who knew all and saw the consequences of their actions before they made them. Now that he was older, he was starting to wrap his head around that concept.

"Second," he felt his voice waver with emotion, the memories still too close, "You don't get to judge Dad." Because it would have to come out eventually. Before Valka could say anything, he pushed ahead. "Dad made a lot of mistakes, and some of them are really hard to live with, but he never ran away from any of them. He faced up to every single one, and I raked him over the coals for it, but he stayed and did everything he could..."

Not for himself. That was what convinced Hiccup to stay, when he felt it would be easier to just run away with Toothless and never come back. His father's efforts to make things right with his son weren't born from personal need, or even a plea for forgiveness, though Hiccup granted that without much work. Everything was for Hiccup, every last effort was for Hiccup to feel whole and loved again, regardless of whether Hiccup forgave his father or accepted him back in that role.

It was a tall order to ask of his mother, but his father had done it. Because he felt Hiccup deserved that. "It was hard for him, but he never made me feel like I wasn't worth that, and I was so loved, Mom." That was one thing he'd never forget, after all he'd been through. Hiccup was loved. He'd never felt that more than in these past two years where he'd carved open pussy and infected wounds until he couldn't help but scream. "And he had to go through that alone. So please, don't think bad of him. He did his best." His very best. Hiccup was proud to have Stoick the Vast as his father, flaws and all, and no one would ever again convince him that the feeling wasn't mutual.

Valka nodded, forcing a small smile. "I know he was a good man, and that he loved you. He'd be so proud of you now." Relieved, Hiccup sat back and returned to his drink, sucking up the last, flavorful drops in an attempt to hide his face. "He was," he murmured around the mug, feeling awkward and embarrassed now that his speech was finished.

"I wasn't there for you, when you were a wee thing trying to make your way in the world," his mother said softly. "But I hope I can be there from now on."

"I'd like that." Hiccup's voice was just as subdued. "That would be..." a miracle that only existed in his dreams "...great. It's just going to take time." Valka nodded.

"I suppose it's as they say, Time heals all wounds." Hiccup frowned, but said nothing. Soon after, he bid his mother good night and walked down to the forge, trying to cast off his murky feelings. It was just a saying, and Valka hadn't meant anything by it, but Hiccup knew time didn't heal anything. In his case, time made everything worse. Waiting around and hoping the problem would go away if you didn't bother it was how they'd let the situation get so bad. Time didn't heal all wounds.

Effort did.

But effort was difficult and time-consuming, so Hiccup supposed he'd just have to reconcile himself to the fact. His mother's magical reappearance in his life wasn't going to be sunshine and flowers all the time, but that didn't mean everything wasn't going to be okay. He limped into the forge, heavily favoring the leg he knew wasn't going to collapse under him, and smiled when he saw Toothless waiting for him in the dark.

"Hey, there, bud..." Toothless jumped to his feet and it was a small miracle that nothing was knocked off the walls or shelves in the dragon's attempts to greet his rider. "Missed you, too. It's been a long day."

Too long. And the day before that was even worse. "How are you holding up?" He meant the responsibilities, the grief and loss, or even the weight of anticipation and excitement that came with his new position, but Toothless instead turned to jerk his head at the riding gear. By misunderstanding or willful avoidance of Hiccup's words, he indicated that something was wrong with the left foot pedal, it had been forced out of alignment. Hiccup noticed that while flying earlier, Drago had utterly mangled the gear in taking over Toothless, and while the pedal still worked, it was bent and askew like a frustrated toddler had bashed it with a bludgeon. Luckily, it was nothing a few twists with a wrench couldn't fix.

If Toothless had nothing more pressing to ask of him, then Hiccup was happy to help with this problem. But he remembered the dragon's horrified eyes as his best friend shoved him away, and the almost disbelieving joy he'd seen when Hiccup finally found him again. After a lifetime of whining that no one could be trusted, no one ever listened, everyone was so willing to push him away when things got hard, it was Hiccup himself who turned his back on a friend who'd proved himself at every turn.

He wondered if this was how his father felt, sometimes. He finished screwing the pedal on straight, then took Toothless' face in his hands. "Hey, bud?" His voice was serious, and Toothless shrunk a little in anticipation. Hiccup hated that, Toothless had never cowered in front of him before, not even when Hiccup held a knife over his heart.

"It wasn't your fault." There was no need to explain the subject. "But I made you feel like it was. I'm so sorry."

Toothless gave a sad croon, forgiving Hiccup. He'd probably forgiven Hiccup the second it had been said, but that wasn't the point. Hiccup knew that just because you forgave someone didn't mean the pain left, although it did help. It was just one step of the process, and it was Hiccup's job to go the rest of the way.

"I was wrong, bud. You've never done anything but good for this family." How scared Toothless must have been, being controlled and taken against his will, seeing Stoick lying amongst the rubble, having a madman in his saddle while Berk crumbled to ruin below him. They could have mourned together, found their courage together, but Hiccup had chosen anger instead. "You didn't deserve that. I'm sorry that I pushed you away, and that because of me, you didn't get to say goodbye..."

He felt Toothless nuzzling his chest and smiled; they would be okay. They'd lived through Hiccup crippling Toothless, they lived through the Red Death and they would survive this loss, too. As long as Toothless understood his friend was simply an idiot, and Hiccup didn't let this grow into something worse, they would be fine. "I was angry and hurt, but I shouldn't have taken it out on you. It wasn't your fault, and I love you more than anything else." He pressed his head to Toothless', closing his eyes. "Please don't feel guilty about anything."

Toothless bumped back Hiccup's face and licked it, and Hiccup laughed through the wall of slobber. It could be he was over-reacting, after all, Toothless rarely took him seriously when he was angry and ranting anyway. But still, he knew how easily a thoughtless word could be left to fester, and he didn't want to start a trend where he yelled at his best friend and Toothless accepted that as okay.

They lived in a different world now, a better world, and his father was the one to teach Hiccup that you could, in fact, right a wrong. Perhaps he would make mistakes just as his father had, but he had the best example in the world on how to fix it. Anger, fear, harsh words and other mistakes might be made on all sides, but there was no need for anyone to continue suffering.

He'd always assumed peace meant the absence of conflict, but he was starting to wonder if there was more to it than that. After all, he and Stoick had technically been "at peace" with each other for years, but the real tension only dispelled after engaging in conflict. Maybe peace required more than passively not attacking, and maybe the result had tears along with the joy.

It was something to consider, now that it was his job to consider these things. But for now, he was just happy to hold Toothless.

Which only lasted for about five seconds, when the deafening noise of arguing Thunderdrums rippled through the air. Hiccup couldn't be sure, but it sounded suspiciously like Bing, Bang and Lloyd. "Well, let's go break them up..." But Toothless just sighed and nudged Hiccup back with a look that seemed to say, "It's not worth the trouble, you just relax." Hiccup protested a little, but eventually Toothless won the silent argument with a few kind licks and went springing into the night air alone.

Hiccup worried for a moment that Toothless would have trouble rounding them up without Hiccup there to fly, but then he remembered the respect Toothless commanded now. Toothless had to avert his eyes when meeting the white Bewilderbeast, and now he was the one in the position of power. Hiccup imagined a few rebukes from their leader would bring even the most mischievous dragons in line.

He hoped Toothless never had to use any sort of control like Drago or the Red Death had, though. Even if it were necessary, and Toothless' motives were pure, the idea of it sent chills down his spine. Hiccup shook off the unwelcome memories just in time to hear a soft knock against the counter.

"Hey, chief. How was the first day on the job?" Astrid leaned over the counter and grinned at him and Hiccup smiled back as he stood. Astrid Hofferson, an oasis in a sea of chaos. He beckoned for her to come inside, but just as he was about to take her in his arms, his false leg gave out and he collapsed into hers with a frustrated groan.

"Hiccup? You okay?" She tried to set him back on his feet, but it was the legs themselves that were the problem, one sliding out of place while the good one had slipped in the dirt and barely had a toe to balance on. Almost all of his weight was on Astrid, and he was getting fed up pretending.

"No, just set me down, my leg's broken," he told his girlfriend, who did so in a panic.

"Broken? How bad do-" she broke off once she helped him sit and Hiccup began removing his prosthetic, the revolving pegs swinging uselessly. "Oh. Your leg's broken..." Hiccup winked at her.

"Yeah, it took some abuse today." He gave his stump an absent rub, happy to finally be off it. "But I'm not the only one. I saw Thundercry earlier, his leg looks like the twins used it for target practice." He gestured the the wheelbarrow of broken and mangled things Gobber had dropped off and sighed. There was so much work to be done still...

But Astrid was ecstatic at the news of their old friend. "Thundercry? I haven't seen him in ages!" She grinned to herself. "There's so many familiar faces flying around. I thought I saw Torch earlier, and Ruff and I ran into Scauldy! I bet Thornado's even around here somewhere-" And suddenly, she stopped. Hiccup could only swallow.

"It's a shame we couldn't all reunite under better circumstances," he finally choked out, and Astrid silently nodded. Their friends had only assembled because Drago had been capturing them as slaves, and gods, he didn't want to be around when Thornado found out about his former rider. He really hoped Toothless wasn't around either, because Alpha or no, when dragons decided something was worth investing emotion into it, every attack on it became personal. It was why they held grudge matches to the death; they could be so callous about most things, shrug off killing and violence with little regrets, but the things that mattered to them went above life itself.

Toothless didn't just risk his life for Hiccup, his life was Hiccup, and today he'd challenged an Alpha solely to defend him. If Thornado didn't throw a raging tantrum once he heard the whole story, Hiccup would be shocked.

"I don't see Grump around. Do you want me to light the forge?"

"Yeah, that would be good. I think he's staying at Gobber's tonight." Hiccup turned his false leg over in his hands and opened up the mechanism. As he'd suspected, the insides were clogged with mud and dirt, no wonder they weren't working properly. He looked across the shop to the table with rags and bristled brushes and grumbled to himself. He should have grabbed those before he sat down.

Without thinking, he got on his knees and crawled across the shop to the table. He poked through the lower drawers for an oil can before pulling himself to his foot to grab a rag and a bottle brush, and it was only as he was about the make the trek back that he realized what he'd just done.

Astrid was staring, her mouth slightly open. And why not? Hiccup wondered. It wasn't every day you saw your boyfriend -let alone your chief- crawling through the dirt like an animal.

He turned his head away, hoping his red face of shame wouldn't be noticed in the dim light. As embarrassed as he was, he also wanted to snap that girl's jaw shut and force her eyes back into her head, because if they got married, there was going to be so much leg-specific weirdness going on in their house and Hiccup didn't want to have to hide it. Sometimes he hopped, sometimes he crawled, and sometimes he needed a crutch around the house. Things hurt when the weather changed and sometimes he felt toes moving when he didn't have them anymore and going out to relieve himself in the middle of a freezing winter night was on par with facing Dagur and his armada.

This was how he lived now. He never had to hide in front of his dad or Toothless, but now his mother was going to be a part of his life, and Astrid soon after. Just when he was starting to feel normal, he was reminded of how different he was.

But Astrid said nothing, and Hiccup hopped back to his leg and flopped onto a bench to start cleaning it out. When she finished her task, Astrid came over to sit by him. "Hiccup, there's something I need to tell you."

He was almost afraid to ask, but looked up from his work and nodded. "Okay. Shoot."

Never once had he seen Astrid so nervous. "...I'm the reason Drago attacked Berk." When Hiccup just raised an eyebrow in confusion, she rushed on, "Stoick told me to lead everyone back home, but when you didn't come back, I went looking for you and we all got captured by Drago! If I hadn't told him about you and the Dragon Riders, he'd have stayed out on his boat and this wouldn't have happened."

That actually explained a few things, though Hiccup had heard patches of the story throughout the day from his other friends. "He wouldn't have stayed there forever," Hiccup pointed out kindly. "He'd have taken over all the islands in time."

"Yeah, but if I hadn't opened my big mouth, maybe we could have been ready for him!" Astrid argued. "Built our own army! He wouldn't have challenged the white Bewilderbeast, he wouldn't have got Toothless, and your dad..." A lot of things could have been different. "I'm so sorry, Hiccup. This is all my fault."

"No, it's Drago's fault," Hiccup said, and tried to sound authoritative instead of broken. "And if we're going to start asking about maybes and what ifs, don't forget who wanted to find Drago in the first place." There was a whole lot of blame with Hiccup's name on it if they decided to go there.

"I thought I could intimidate him. I mean, if he had to tie up dragons with chains and traps, how powerful could he be?" They'd all underestimated him, Astrid underestimated his strength and Hiccup underestimated the depths of his hate. Stoick had been right all along, but Hiccup wrote him off as being bull-headed, just like when he tried to tame a dragon in the Kill Ring.

But Stoick hadn't dismissed or belittled his son this time. He rode out and tried to save him, he explained the reasons behind his actions and tried to convince Hiccup with logic and words. And he backed Hiccup up when there was no going back and even admitted that Hiccup's mutiny had led to some good results.

Hiccup had been the wrong one, this time. He'd set out to make peace with something that was as bloodthirsty as the dragons were once thought to be, and he'd been completely incorrect. He'd gone against his tribe leader, endangered himself and everyone who followed him, and if there was ever a time when Hiccup deserved to be disowned, banished and left to die, it was now.

But Stoick hadn't done any of that. Hiccup wouldn't do that to Astrid. "I'm sorry, Hiccup. None of this would have happened if I hadn't messed up." He put his arms around Astrid and pulled her closer to him.

"You didn't mess up," he said sternly. It felt so wrong for Astrid to be questioning herself, almost as if he were the one who needed to be rebuked for letting her doubt. "Your chief and his heir were missing, and you were the only one with enough opportunity to do anything about it. Rescuing people is part of what we do in Dragon Academy, so don't blame yourself for doing your job."

"I'm still the reason they went straight to Berk," Astrid said heavily, and Hiccup just held her tighter.

"You didn't know what he was capable of. Your plan would have worked with any other rival tribe. But you protected the people around you and you crippled his army as he was attacking the Dragon Sanctuary. You did what you thought was best, so don't beat yourself up because this time there was more going on than you knew." Maybe his father would still be alive if Astrid made different choices, but the same could be said of Hiccup, and he didn't want to live in a world where Astrid second-guessed herself and didn't protect everyone under her care.

But Astrid couldn't accept his optimistic take on the situation. "Hiccup, people are dead!" And there was nothing Hiccup could say to that. "People died because of me!" She sobbed into Hiccup's chest and he pretended he wasn't crying into her hair, because he understood all too well. They grew up in war, but it was their parents who faced the consequences. Hiccup and Astrid never had to worry about the effects of their decisions on others to such a degree, had never been responsible for ordering people into battle and having lives upon their conscience.

Until now. The weight was difficult to bear. "It's not your fault, Astrid," Hiccup told the distraught girl in his arms, because that was all he could think of to say, even as she wailed that she didn't want to be a soldier anymore and how could Hiccup stand to look at her now?

He'd already pushed away Toothless, and regretted every second of it. He wasn't about to push Astrid away, too. So he told her over and over how it wasn't her fault, that he didn't hate her, that she did everything she could and Hiccup was so proud of her. None of that was a lie. He was hurt, Astrid had made the wrong choice, but only because she lacked information to make the right one, and the result they ended up at might have ultimately been the best case scenario. Who was to say running back to Berk and fortifying wouldn't have just resulted in more slaughter, with several islands joining the fate of their home?

No, Astrid had flown out to protect him and hadn't let a single person or dragon in her party down, she defended her people with or without her axe, and Hiccup couldn't imagine any improvements to that. Even while he was miles away, Astrid had been backing him up and supporting him, and he was grateful for everything she'd done.

It took awhile to drive home the message that he didn't blame her for anything, so Hiccup and Astrid sat for quite some time with their arms around each other, just whispering out prayers of gratitude that neither of them had been killed over the past two days. When they finally pulled apart, they both had tear tracks on their faces. "I love you," Hiccup said, earnestly, almost begging Astrid to accept it as truth.

Her smile was hopeful, but still marred by the recent tears. "Really?"

"Of course." As if one mistake would ever turn him away from her. He kissed her then, knowing actions meant far more to Astrid than words. In her mind, physical contact was the purest form of communication, the most direct way to send one's feelings. Hiccup wasn't so sure he agreed, but he put his heart and soul into kissing Astrid until he saw some of the pain leave her eyes. "Please don't ever change."

"If you insist." She seemed to be getting some of her confidence back, and tried to kiss him on the nose, but Hiccup moved at the last second and retaliated. It turned into a game, both of them ducking and weaving their heads to try and plant their lips on the other, until Hiccup finally won the lead by diving for Astrid's neck. "Hey! Not fair!"

"Mmm, blame it on my evil sexy powers," he murmured between kisses. He suddenly realized how close he could have come to losing her, how easily one of them could have been mourning over the other's still body, and he needed to be close to her. He planted kisses from her neck to her jawline until finally devouring her lips with a hunger he never showed in public.

Sometimes it felt like Astrid was burning him alive. Like a piece of scrap metal in the forge, Hiccup could feel himself melting under the heat, and only Astrid knew what he would be after he was thrown onto the anvil. Even now, her fingers unbuckled and stripped away his armor like a flame burning away impurities. Perhaps there was something to Astrid's communication theory, for all his walls were burning away and nothing could stop her from touching and shaping his soul.

He had to admit, the intimacy frightened him a little, as his head slowly caught up to the bliss and reminded him of all ways he could potentially mess this up. The doubts in his mind were hard to silence, and there were still hidden pitfalls that could trap Hiccup and send him into a dark and lonely place.

And one such trap was triggered when Astrid pulled all but his last layer of clothing over his head, leaving only a green, sleeved undershirt as protection for his chest. He'd already loosed Astrid's fur hood and iron spaulders in order to more conveniently bestow love on her neck and shoulders, but with all the armor stripped away, his brain was catching up to what his hands and mouth were doing, and reminded him of the inevitable conclusion.

Even though his tunic covered him from his collarbone to his wrists, Hiccup felt suddenly naked, more so when Astrid's strong hands ran over his shoulders like the fabric wasn't even there. Memories of that awful day in the woods when he first tried to seduce Astrid began to surface, his chest bare under the moonlight and unable to breathe with the realization that he wasn't good enough for the treasure in front of him.

That day, he'd been so overcome by panic and despair that he accidentally set the town thinking Astrid attacked him. These days, his failure to perform usually just resulted in him crying all over his girlfriend. But Hiccup tried to focus on the present and leave the memories behind, even as the fears and frustrations began to take hold. Hadn't this been his idea? He started it, he wanted it, so why couldn't he ever finish it? Why were they always cutting the night short because of him?

It wasn't fair to Astrid. He wasn't fair to Astrid. Didn't she deserve a strong man who could take her in his arms instead of a toothpick she could crush under her hands? A lover who could actually handle the business of lovemaking? She gave Hiccup so much and he gave so little, he couldn't even give her basic pleasure. What kind of gratitude was that to show, after the gods had pitied the little hiccup and sent a Valkyrie to love him?

By all rights, it shouldn't have been this way. He should have ended up with a weak, wispy girl whose own bitterness made her plain, an angry harpy with no imagination who was only with Hiccup because she couldn't do any better, and would resent him for that all their lives. That was how things worked, Hiccup didn't deserve to be loved, least of all by the strongest, bravest, most admirable warrior Berk had ever known.

But he was. He pushed back from Astrid, about to end the activities before he spiraled down any further, but before he could speak, he saw scarlet fabric rising through the space between them and over Astrid's head.

And then all he saw was skin. Hiccup gave out a squeak he wasn't especially proud of before his voice stopped working altogether. Of course, Astrid still had strips of cloth across her chest, so he wasn't actually seeing anything indecent, but still...

Gods, she was beautiful. Her body was a landscape of curved muscle, her shoulders broader and more defined than his own. Yes, Astrid was a Viking warrior to be praised, a being from the heavens that men wrote songs and legends about. And here she was, apparently waiting for Hiccup to touch her.

When he didn't right away, or have any other positive reaction besides maintaining the art of inhaling air, he saw those magnificent shoulders shrink. He cursed himself a little, of course, this was a vulnerable moment for her, too, and he closed the space between them. "You're so beautiful," he whispered into her ear, almost choked with emotion. "I love you."

He heard those words echoed back to him, and his hands shook as they ran over the soft skin. It almost hurt, how full his heart was for Astrid, and knowing that she was right there under his fingertips. But with every touch, every euphoric sensation, the doubts in his mind whispered that he was doing it all wrong, he would surely make a mess of things, he was going to hurt Astrid or make her reject him. Even if Hiccup could worship that body correctly, it would never be enough to satisfy Astrid, because goddesses deserved more than one-legged failures who sometimes crawled on the floor like the dogs-

Hiccup sat back and sent Astrid a look with his eyes. Just one look was all that was necessary. She gave an understanding smile and pulled away, and Hiccup tried to quell his shaking hands while she slipped her shirt back over her head. In time, his breath and his reason came back to him, and he reached out for Astrid's hand.

"Thank you," he said as he pressed a kiss to her palm, and he left it there because he couldn't think of a romantic way to tell her that this wasn't her fault and he was going to be dreaming about her glorious, naked body every night for the rest of his life. Not that those dreams hadn't come up already, but the real thing was both completely different and infinitely better than anything his imagination would conjure up.

Astrid smiled back at him with her perfect eyes and a knowing smile. "You act like I'm the one doing you the favor."

He'd once believed that Astrid would never look at him. Even when that changed, the idea that she would want to touch him was hard to accept. Absolutely incomprehensible was the idea that she would ever want him to touch her.

But gone were the days where he felt like a piece of trash by the side of the road, or a soulless and unloved tool Astrid might use to "get the job done". Those thoughts still lingered in the back of his mind and still tried to claw at him, but Hiccup was so much stronger and they were so much weaker.

"Astrid, thank you," he said again, now referencing so much more than this one moment. "Without you, I..."

"You would be fine, Hiccup." She squeezed his hand. "Have a little more faith in yourself."

But while it was true that Hiccup had befriended dragons, challenged tradition and done a great many things without Astrid's help, he still couldn't deny the effect she'd had on his life. "That first time I told you how I felt about being punched," the first day he'd had the courage to tell her no, and asked her to change how she treated him, "And how I felt when you kissed me, that was the first time I tried to talk to anyone like that." The first time he dared to question the status quo, suggest that maybe, the normal behavior he was accustomed to receiving was wrong. "And you listened."

Every time Hiccup had a concern, Astrid listened. Even when his ideas were wrong, she allowed him to say how he felt, and treated those feelings with respect. "How I felt mattered to you. I didn't have to just accept how people treated me, I could ask them to stop, you taught me I was worth that." It gave him the courage to attempt the same thing with his father, to demand basic respect from the rest of Berk, solely because he was human. "You showed me people could change. Because of you, my life is so much better than I ever thought it could be." He pressed a kiss to her cheek. "Thank you."

"Well, of course, I love you..." Poetic words weren't Astrid's strongest skill, but she always said the things Hiccup needed to hear the most. Sometimes that was harsh and rebuking... "Nothing else in my life means as much as you do."

...and sometimes it was beautiful. "I'm sorry I'm always making you wait," Hiccup apologized. "To get married, and, uh... the stuff married people do..."

"I understand, Hiccup." He was lucky that she did, but he felt bad all the same. He wanted to give her everything, but he couldn't marry Astrid and tie her down if he wasn't willing to be all a husband should.

"I'm doing my best, but I'm sorry," he sighed, letting go of her hand and picking his leg up from where he'd dropped it. He resumed cleaning it, threading the rag through the gears for a distraction. "I still can't get it together, and you're the one who has to wait. So, sorry." Astrid was quiet for a moment, then inched a little closer.

That miniscule space suddenly felt like a great expanse being crossed. "I know you have a lot on your mind now, what with running the village, your mom being back and, um, your dad..." Hiccup stiffened a little, but shook it off, wiping the small parts of metal clean and feeling his mind clear with the process. "But if it's just the sex holding you back, you could just marry me anyway."

Hiccup nearly dropped the leg. "But, that's- you'd be settling for-" he stopped himself before he could say 'less'. "You'd put up with all the housework and boring parts of marriage without getting to do any of the good stuff?"

"I'd be with you every day. That's good enough for me." Hiccup couldn't say he wasn't flattered, but he also wasn't sure he fully believed it. "I've been thinking lately, sex probably isn't the most important part of love. I mean, look at your parents. Your mom came back to Berk because of you and your dad, you talked it out and trusted each other. You and I already do all that when things get hard."

He found himself agreeing, despite himself. Astrid had been a treasured partner for years, and they'd weathered more than a few storms together. "But right now, I can't..."

"It'll happen when it happens, Hiccup," Astrid dismissed the worry. "You can't force it, and I'm not going to. Does it really matter if we do it on our wedding night, or sometime later?"

"What if I can't do it at all?" Hiccup asked quietly, for that was the fear that always haunted him. What if he never got over this last hurdle, and spent his whole life making promises to Astrid that would never be fulfilled?

But while Astrid's face was serious, she didn't seem worried. "Well, I know if something happened to me," she said gently, "If I got wounded or ugly or just didn't want to, you'd talk to me about it. You wouldn't just throw me away or stop loving me." Hiccup was offended by the thought that he might. "So isn't it natural that I'd still want to be with you?"

Logically, Hiccup could follow her argument, but he still wasn't sure. Astrid sighed and patted his knee. "It's just something to think about."

Hiccup finished cleaning his leg and started fitting the parts back together. "Okay. I'll think about it." He wouldn't guarantee anything else. After all, he wasn't sure it was just the sex issue pressing down on him now, or the only thing keeping him from being marriageable material.

But he was getting there. He wasn't worthless, and even if it killed him to wait, he was determined to be joined with Astrid before the gods and all sundry. It would just take a little effort.

He smiled to himself when he heard the delightful click of his peg leg rotating into place and locking tight. "There. Perfect." All cleaned out and ready to walk again. He strapped it to his leg and let out a contented sigh. "All is right with my world."

"Really? Because I still see an island covered in ice," Astrid teased, but Hiccup just laughed. As long as he could put one foot in front of the other, there was no storm he couldn't walk through. "Well, it's getting late. I better get back before Ruffnutt kicks me out of my bed. We're putting up the Thorston's," she explained, and Hiccup made a face in sympathy.

"You know, you don't have to go," he found himself saying. "You could spend the night here. With me," he added, as Astrid was giving him a calculating look. "I mean, the bed is just going to be a bunch of blankets on the floor, but the forge will keep it plenty warm, and-"

"Okay." He blinked a few times before the elation set in. "Okay. That sounds nice."

"Okay!" He hoped the grin on his face didn't look as stupid as it felt. But Hiccup at least managed to keep himself from cheering or whistling as he gathered fur and blankets and began spreading them out close to the fire. He used to sleep here alone, lonely and hiding from a house that was somehow worse, and now his refuge was going to be shared with the love of his life.

Maybe he couldn't yet connect with Astrid on the most intimate of levels, but this came very, very close. And someday, he would take her into his house and live with her forever...

"You seem really happy."

"M'lady, your eyes do you credit." Happy didn't even begin to describe it, especially when Astrid shifted the configuration of blankets to make one bed to be shared.

Astrid shimmied out of her studded skirt and boots, leaving only her shirt and leggings, and Hiccup similarly slipped under the covers in only his tunic and trousers. His leg, however, he left on, just in case of trouble in the middle of the night. With all the chaos, he had to be prepared.

But still, with Astrid beside him, trouble seemed so far away. "Well, good night..." he offered awkwardly, before Astrid devilishly asked if she was going to get a good night kiss. After that, the awkwardness disappeared, and they eventually settled into comfortable positions just as Toothless returned, shaking his black head and giving tired grumbles.

"Hey, bud. Welcome back." Hiccup yawned, then groaned as Toothless plunked himself down near the couple and let his tail flop onto Hiccup's stomach. But despite his initial protests, the weight and the warmth were comforting, and Hiccup gave up trying to shove it off.

Toothless and Astrid surrounded him, insulating him from the cold outside, and Hiccup felt a peace he'd never felt before. Yes, there was a sorrow, too. His father was gone, and there was so much uncertainty surrounding his mother, but his soul was clean and his heart was open as wide as Toothless' tail fin, ready to ride the changing winds.

Hiccup pressed a kiss to Astrid's hair and snuggled between her and Toothless, a smile on his sleepy face. He was the chief now. A grown man. And though he was a little dented from the journey, he was whole.

Finally, he was shifting into second gear.

The End

There are two things I'm known for around here: Glacially slow updates, and stumbling a little on my endings. I think I averted that first one with this fic, and I hope I was able to go two-for-two and write a fitting conclusion.

Structurally, this was a very strange thing I was trying to pull off. To the people who reviewed so regularly on every chapter, thank you. It seems some of what I was trying to do made it through, and I'm grateful for everybody's interest and insight.

I could have been working on my original novel, or so many other projects, but this fic demanded to be written. And just like I could have been writing other things, you all could have gave up on it and gone to something else. Many of you mentioned it was difficult to get through.

But thank you for making it to the end. I know there were flaws, but this was an important story to me, and I'm proud of it. Thank you for sharing the experience with me.