Hiccup knew he was being ridiculous. He certainly hoped to avoid taking drastic measures, but if he couldn't will his hands to stop their incessant fidgeting he was going to have to sit on them. Honestly, he had faced down terrifying dragons and deranged madmen without batting an eye. The bowl of stew in front of him shouldn't be instilling a terror he hadn't yet known in the face of either.
Relenting, he wedged his hands under his thighs. He would stow them there until he could keep his composure long enough to lift his spoon to his mouth without dribbling it down his front. That just wouldn't do in his present company.
It wasn't every evening the Hoffersons dined at the Haddock household. It was even rarer that Valka prepared their meal. Yet there they were, gathered around the table, each with their own hearty serving of Valka's stew of questionable contents. Glancing across the table, Hiccup saw that Astrid and her parents were doing a far superior job feigning satisfaction with the meal than he. He tried to catch Astrid's eye, but she steadily avoided his gaze. She wouldn't be able to keep up the act if she made eye contact.
He briefly considered swiping his bowl from the table and persuading Toothless to down the rest of his stew for him, but the dragon wouldn't be stealthily roused from his station curled on the floor with his head nestled next to Hiccup's chair. Casting his eyes down to his bowl, Hiccup attempted again to identify individual ingredients suspended in the opaque liquid. If he squinted, the lumps on the surface could pass for lamb. Under this pretense, he could smell it floating somewhere in the stew's thick scent. Surely the morsels of lamb would be tempting enough to Toothless if Hiccup could just nudge him awake…
His attention was drawn across the table when Astrid conspicuously cleared her throat. Hiccup met her eyes and tracked them as she looked pointedly down at his bowl and back to him. Surveying the table, he saw that she, as well as her parents and his mother, were all nearly finished with their meal while Hiccup's bowl still sat over half full.
Wincing, he pulled his hands out from under his thighs and dipped his spoon into the bowl. He'd subtly hinted that he was more than willing to cook for that evening, but his mother had brushed off his offer, already elbows-deep in preparations. Downing a mouthful, Hiccup fought to control his expression. He wanted to smack himself. He'd swallowed regurgitated raw fish, but could not, for the love of Freyja, get a spoonful of his mother's cooking down without wincing.
Thankfully, the cook and their guests, aside from Astrid, appeared not to notice. Hiccup steeled himself for another spoonful.
"So," Valka began, pressing her palms to the table and addressing the Hoffersons, who appeared to have been startled out of a mild stupor. "Repairs to your house are going smoothly?"
Agnarr abruptly nodded. Berk was slowly but surely reemerging from its layer of ice in the days following Drago's invasion. They had labored quickly, and by the end of the first week, nearly every family had a semblance of their home back. The speed at which they were rebuilding astounded those of the older generation who were accustomed to laboring for weeks after a particularly brutal raid. Hiccup was less so; it didn't hurt to have dragons helping out who were willing to tow three times as much lumber as any Viking to and fro, provided they were compensated with equal weight in fish.
"Yes, the roof was just finished today," Ashildr answered, filling in her husband's nonverbal reply.
"Good. Very good," Valka replied. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see she absently dug her fingers into the table.
"The sheep's pen will be finished by the end of the week," Ashildr continued after a lengthy pause punctuated only by Hiccup's unintentionally audible slurping. Astrid lowered her eyelids at him.
"That's good," Valka said again. Hiccup seriously considered momentarily placing his hand over hers if only to spare the edge of the table from her clawing grip.
"We'll be needing it pretty soon, too," Agnarr chuckled, "we may need room for an ox soon. Maybe even a new horse, eh Hiccup?"
The boy nearly spat a mouthful of stew across the table. Spluttering, he choked down his current mouthful before coughing and beating a fist to his chest. If their eyes weren't on him before, they certainly were now. Laughing weakly, he dropped his hand to the table, doing his best to casually reclaim his spoon, which had clattered to the middle of the table.
"Ah, you sure will, Mr. Hofferson," he stammered. The man continued to chuckle, his wife tittering and pushing his arm. Astrid appeared ready to slam her head into the table.
"Soon enough, lad, you two have kept us waiting long enough, don' you think?"
Hiccup could not process words quickly enough to form a coherent response, so he continued to force uncomfortable laughter. It was easy enough to poke fun at the two of them – they had indeed been courting for far too long by usual standards – and it was fairly obvious to anyone with eyes where their relationship was headed. He was used to jibes from Gobber and Tuffnut, and the not-so-subtle hints from Astrid that he should talk to her father came like clockwork, but such direct teasing from her parents in front of him and Astrid and his mother over náttmál was unexpected to say the least.
"I guess so…"
"It has been a while, hasn't it?" Valka interjected, playing along. "I don't suppose you were ever quite able to resist this one, Astrid?" she teased, ruffling Hiccup's hair. "Mr. Pride of Berk."
Hiccup cracked a smile at her affectionate teasing, but noted that the tension at the table had spread from just himself and his girlfriend to the entire table save for Valka. When her quip went unanswered, Hiccup understood why. Though the title had grown on him, for the first fifteen years of his life Hiccup was far from the Pride of Berk. Even as he immersed himself in the new life he and Toothless had created for themselves, Berkians, and dragons alike, it was still a period of his life he remembered all too vividly. As for the rest of the village, reminders of how poorly the heir was treated by nearly everyone he crossed paths with could still settle an uncomfortable silence over a room. There was an unspoken agreement that the when the Old Berk died, their resentment of Hiccup the Useless died with it, and there was no need to bring it up outside of the occasional well-aimed dig from those comfortable enough with Hiccup to do so.
From anyone else, the resulting tension might have been less palpable. But Valka hadn't been there. She didn't really know to what extent Hiccup had gotten under Berk's feet. He'd mentioned he hadn't always been so favorable with the people, that he'd certainly been a late bloomer as far as his physical growth, but outside of providing brief snippets of information, they'd never really had any reason to talk about Hiccup's life when Berk was still at war. A life, he realized, that mirrored her own. She had known these people – Astrid's parents, the twins', Snotlout's, Fishlegs' – and they had been her peers. They, too, had branded her with an unfavorable reputation, albeit one that wasn't broadcast as his had been – no one would think to openly criticize the chief's wife. But the stigma was still there.
Suddenly, it wasn't just the stew that made him feel sick to his stomach.
He caught Astrid's stare. She was just as aware of the tension, having made the same connection he had. He only needed to plead with his eyes for a moment before she stepped in.
"Speaking of the Pride of Berk, we ought to leave him to rest. Big day tomorrow, right Hiccup?"
He nodded his agreement, even though the "big day" would most likely consist of hauling lumber and overseeing repairs as he had been for over a week now. Grateful for the white lie, Hiccup moved to retrieve her furs from the entryway as she rose from the table.
"Thank you for the meal, Valka, it was lovely," she said, helping clear the table.
"Of course, dear," Valka replied warmly, taking the bowls that Astrid held out to her. "I can send you home with some more if you'd like."
Astrid's stammering reply was cut short when Hiccup determined an intervention was necessary. Stepping between them, he took the rest of the bowls from Astrid's hands, sweeping around his mother and setting them aside before helping his girlfriend into her furs.
"Nothing beats that stew right off the fire, mom," he insisted, walking Astrid to the door where the other Hoffersons prepared to leave.
"We'll just have to come back soon for a fresh batch," the girl finished. Valka beamed. Hiccup blanched. So much for a clean getaway.
After thanking them again, the Hoffersons headed out the door into the cool night, Hiccup following a few paces behind to bid them farewell. Astrid stopped with him, urging her parents to go on ahead.
"Thanks for the save back there," he said, cracking a smile.
"I needed to get us home before my father started negotiating my mundr with you right then and there," she teased. He rolled his eyes at her exaggeration, grateful for her deft redirection of the conversation. "I wasn't kidding about you needing to rest though. We're starting on the stable expansion tomorrow." Hiccup released a sigh – he'd nearly forgotten about that. He already felt drained.
"I'll see you then, Chief," she said, and leaned in to peck him on the lips. Hiccup had other plans, however, and cradled one hand against the back of her head, pulling her in for a deeper kiss. She chuckled, eventually drawing back a few inches to smirk at him.
"You don't have to call me that," he said against her cheek.
"You like it."
Hiccup didn't argue – the title fit more and more comfortably with each passing day – and allowed the blonde to strut away (was she actually swinging her hips? The devious temptress). Shaking his head, he turned back to his own home.
"My father is available tomorrow though," she called to him over her shoulder. "Feel free to stop by if you have a moment to spare, yeah?"
"I need to get a horse first." He could faintly hear her laughter as he walked through his front door.
His mother was still where he'd left her, clearing the table from their meal. She swept through the house with an effortlessness that Hiccup honestly hadn't expected from her. While he had seen her leap from dragon to dragon in flight and navigate rocky caverns with impossible grace (Odin knew he didn't inherit that from her), she carried the same poise into her domestic environment as she'd always had. She adapted to life on the island with an ease that was unexpected, but welcomed nonetheless. This Berk wasn't the same war-torn village she'd been carried away from so many years ago. It was the Berk she'd always hoped for, but never believed could be a reality, and she embraced it as readily as Hiccup had. She didn't have to choose between her two families anymore.
"I haven't spoken to Ashildr in ages," Valka mused, dropping the bowls into the water basin and scrubbing at the stew that still clung to the inside. Hiccup crossed the room to stand next to her, drying each dish as she handed it over. "And Astrid. Oh, the last time I saw her she was just a babe. She's grown up so beautifully."
Hiccup nodded his agreement.
"They did hurry out, er…abruptly though," she continued.
She held out another bowl to Hiccup, who gave up on a particularly stubborn spot on the first bowl to take the next one from her.
"Astrid was right, we've got a busy day tomorrow," he said absently. His attempt to brush off the comment failed to unfurrow her brow.
"Was it the teasing? Was it too much?" she worried. Her hands had paused, still submerged in the water basin.
"No, it wasn't that," Hiccup assured her, reaching in the basin to take the bowl she held submerged under the water. "It…ah, might be best to avoid talking about the beginnings of mine and Astrid's relationship. Or my pre-peacetime reputation. At all."
Valka cocked her head at her son with, her knitted eyebrows questioning why he would be so adamant. As the heir to the throne of Berk, he could not have been subjected to that much abuse…
"It was pretty bad. We, uh, try not to talk about it."
She watched Hiccup's profile as he kept his eyes down to the task of drying dishes, her hands hovering over the basin. She couldn't picture the village that heralded the boy as their Pride and Chief treating him as anything but.
"I can't imagine that it could have been…"
She let her hands fall into the water.
She couldn't imagine it because she hadn't been there.
Hiccup raised his eyes at the sound of her hands plopping into the dirty water. "Mom?" he asked, growing worried as her fallen expression became increasingly vacant.
She hadn't been there when he was a babe, taken out of his home to be swaddled by another woman in her absence. She hadn't been there when he had taken his first steps, and then his first over exuberant running ones out their front door that sent him sprawling across the square, earning him his first cuts and scrapes and terrified tears at the sight of blood. She hadn't been there to gather him into her arms and murmur that he would be just fine in no time. She missed the years that seemed to pass in the blink of an eye when he sprouted from a tottering child to a beanpole of a teenager. She missed the disapproving glares and jeers from the villagers who had given up hope that the disaster-waiting-to-happen could ever be a leader, and the openness with which they did so because everyone knew the chief was just as frustrated as they were. Her baby grew up while Valka merely imagined how he might, unable to protect him from a world that discarded him because he didn't fit their mold.
Her eyes began to burn.
Hiccup allowed the dish he held to clatter to the counter. "Mom, it's fine," he insisted, following her train of thought.
But Valka was already drifting out of the room. Hiccup watched her march up the stairs, unable to force his feet to follow her, all of her customary litheness absent from her stride.
Hiccup stared after her, unable to force any words from his throat or swallow the lump of those he wished he could say back down. No amount of words would bring her gangly, wide-eyed young boy back. No amount of reasoning would release her from the guilt of knowing that if she had been there to protect him, he would have endured less suffering.
Toothless, still stationed in a ball by the table, pulled his head up from where it rested on his forelegs. He warbled gently, sensing his boy's distress and beckoned him over with a shake of his head.
"I'm alright, bud," he told the concerned dragon, dragging himself from the basin of half-cleaned dishes and collapsing on the floor next to Toothless. He threw his legs out in front of him, leaning his weight back on his hands. Balancing on one, he lifted the other to scratch the scales under the dragon's chin. Purring, Toothless lowered his head to Hiccup's lap, sending soothing vibrations through the boy. As his concern abated, Hiccup leaned forward resting his chin on his crossed arms on top of the dragon's head. There had to be something he could do, some way to connect her to the time she'd lost. And show her that that time hadn't been all bad.
He gasped, sitting bolt upright. Much to Toothless' irritation, he scrambled to escape the weight keeping him pinned to the floor, forcing the dragon to rearrange himself yet again. He snorted to ensure the boy was aware of his displeasure. Hiccup responded by playfully tugging on Toothless' ear fins as he pushed himself to his feet. Running to the entryway and throwing his cloak over his shoulders, Hiccup leapt out the door and made a beeline for the Mead Hall.
He had just the thing.
Valka had failed to make much progress since retreating to the loft. She hadn't moved from her seat on the edge of her bed, gripping the edge with restless fingers, nor had she moved her gaze from the wall across from her. The room was sparsely furnished, empty save for a side table, her bed, and a small trunk at its foot. Though Hiccup had moved to the late chief's room on the lower level, the boy's drawings remained, dotting the wall opposite Valka's bed.
She rose, slowly stepping toward them. As she drew closer, she saw that they were not only sketches of dragons, but detailed schematics of his inventions as well. A full three pages tacked side by side were dedicated to the design of his prosthetic. Directly underneath, another five were covered in sketches of Toothless' prosthetic and harness from various angles. A feeding station, washing station, and what appeared to be some automated bucket brigade system all had their own pages of brainstorming plastered to the wall. She ran her fingers over the charcoal lines. The detail infused in each design held her in a trance. They were beyond anything she could have imagined. And Hiccup, her Hiccup, was behind each and every one.
She started when a cough sounded from the top of the stairs. Tearing her eyes away from the wall, she saw that Hiccup hesitated on the top step, clutching a small shield to his chest. She dropped her hand from the wall, stepping back and opening her stance to the boy.
"I thought you might like to see this," he said, climbing the final step and offering the shield to her. She accepted it with outstretched arms, gasping when she saw the painting on its front.
Stoick stood with their son, an arm clasped around the boy's shoulders, glowing with pride. Hiccup, even with his helmet, only reached his father's shoulder, but stood just as confidently as the young man that stood before her now. Smiling, she pressed a hand to her mouth. A tether formed, linking the baby she had held twenty years ago and the chief that he had become.
"I know it's not much, but there's a pretty funny story behind it, actually…"
He stopped short when Valka set the shield against his wall of sketches and flung her arms around his shoulders, pulling him close. After a moment's hesitation, Hiccup lifted his arms to do the same.
She hadn't been there then, but she could fit the pieces that remained from her son's childhood into the image of him now. The piece he had just given her let her know that she hadn't failed him. And she never would.
I needed a moment to mommy son gush.
Many thanks to my lovely, hilarious, incredibly helpful beta, ffnet author Kathryn Elwin. She is such a dear.
How to Train Your Dragon © DreamWorks Animation and Cressida Cowell