Prodigal Son 40

Cold air swirled around Astrid, but wrapped snugly in her travel cloak, she barely felt it. The ocean was endless, a distant seething surface far below, glimmering in the waning hours of moonlight. The clouds and sky above her head were painted in hues of black and faint, dark blue. a distant glow could be seen from the southeastern horizon. The world seemed ethereal. As if she had flown from Midgard into the space between realms; endless black ocean and endless black sky, unchanging in all directions.

Exhaustion crept up on her yet again and she shut her eyes - just to rest them for a moment. They stung from the cold and the sheer effort of staying alert. Below her she could feel Stormfly's steady heartbeat against her thighs. The dragon's scales felt warm and soft beneath her, heating her little conical cocoon. Her mind began to wander, reliving the events of the day in a hazy, half-formed recollection.

Hiccup's confused and awkward start to his first dragon lesson.

Jerrick's challenge.

Astrid's talk with Sirnir.

Drawing the Valknut.

Evading the Jorgensons.

Meeting Fishlegs and Hiccup.

Hiccup's flight and the argument which followed.

Opening up to her mother.

Opening the cage and letting Stormfly out into the arena. That breathless moment when Astrid had feared her mother wouldn't be able to handle the sight of her dragon. She was glad Hiccup was there to help. He had been there right? She remembered him being there. Or was she dreaming? When she turned around Brunhilda was gone and it was her and Hiccup alone in the arena –

A heavy impact shook her as Stormfly's tail smacked into the back of her shield. Astrid's eyes snapped open and she let out a little shriek of terror as her brain registered on an immediate and primal level just how far above the waves she was sitting. Then she remembered that she was riding Stormfly, and that she had strapped herself to her saddle.

Even so, she had been sliding sideways, and pulling the dragon off-balance.

Astrid took several deep breaths, trying to calm her pounding heart. Her hands were white-knuckled against the saddle's grips and her thighs were clenched against Stormfly's flanks. She stared down at the straps she had fastened around herself, thankful for her foresight.

"I did it again, didn't I, Stormfly?"

The dragon warbled an answer and flapped her wings a couple of times to gain some height. Astrid sighed and shook her head. She leaned forward carefully and patted her dragon's neck. "Thanks, girl."

Well… at least the adrenaline rush would keep her aware for another little while. She said, "do you need to smell the mask again?"

Again the dragon let out a warble. Astrid had no idea if it was positive or negative, or if the dragon had even understood the question. But she pulled Hiccup's mask from her belt and held it out for Stormfly. The dragon sniffed, but did not change course, so that at least was a good sign.

It was another hour before Astrid spotted the distant speck of land, only visible against the faint dawn glow. She felt a rush of excitement and apprehension as it slowly, imperceptibly grew in size.

Hiccup had set himself up a good four-and-a-half hour ride from Berk, by dragonback. She wondered how much time it would take a Night Fury to fly the distance. How long had he been there? Did he have a home of some sort?

The only thing Astrid knew for sure was that the young man's technical skills and knowledge so far outstripped every other human being she had ever met that predicting anything when it came to him was practically impossible.

She wondered for a moment if he had set himself up in some kind of dragon nest, and felt a familiar stab of fear; she was not equipped to handle a monstrous nightmare, or a hostile changewing.

Well… she was: She had her shield and her axe, but that wasn't how Hiccup would want the problem handled. Gods above… she needed training. She needed him to share his knowledge so that she wouldn't have to use the old ways anymore. The whole point of carrying the axe was so that someday it wouldn't be necessary. Perhaps she would not live to see that day, but if she didn't work towards it, it wouldn't happen at all.

The island grew in size. It was a hostile place – at least to sailors. A natural fortress with sheer cliffs on all sides and violent, thrashing, roiling ocean waves which crashed mercilessly upon black, saw-toothed rocks. There was nowhere to anchor, no sand to beach upon. Simply a wide pillar, rising from the ocean. One more unremarkable hostile island in an archipelago full of them. It was entirely possible that Hiccup's island was not even on any of Berks' old maps. No Viking could set foot upon it, and so there would be nothing to gain from its record, after all... which made it perfect for a wayward dragon rider.

The black treetops of the thick pine forest rustled as Stormfly passed over them. The island was Berk in miniature, with cliffs, waterfalls, a deep valley, and an ice-capped mountain in the centre. Its peak vanished into the clouds. Stormfly circled the steep grey slopes of the mountain twice, finally settling on a wide rocky outcropping just as the sun burst over the horizon, showering the island in a golden glow.

The mountain slope behind her was nearly vertical, with a massive scree pile at the bottom. Astrid could see enormous boulders as tall as the trees scattered through the forest; evidence of a rockslide from ages past, but she was far more interested in the wide, cylindrical black tunnel which had been bored right into the cold granite.

There was no sign of Hiccup or Toothless anywhere.

She unhooked her feet from the stirrups and tried to slide off of Stormfly, but her stiff legs and cold feet protested vigorously and she collapsed in an exhausted heap beside her dragon, who let out an alarmed screech and leaned down to poke and peck at her.

"I'm fine. I'm fine!" Astrid snarled, fighting to her knees and trying to regain her shattered dignity. She pushed Stormfly's beak away and the dragon cawed indignantly. Astrid grabbed her dragon's saddle and pulled herself to her feet. She eyed the tunnel warily; she had seen its like before.

Long ago… five years, now? Stoick had ordered that a listening post be set up on an island between Berk and Helheim's Gate. The idea had been a tactical disaster; there was no way for any Vikings stationed there to get to Berk before the dragons in any case. But it was a proactive measure which she had been too young and inexperienced to speak out against in a room full of veterans.

Eager to prove herself, Astrid had volunteered for the duty, along with a few other young warriors. No sooner had the ramshackle huts been erected than a pack of whispering deaths had emerged from the ground below their feet and swallowed almost the entire expedition.

Astrid frowned sadly as she recalled seeing a fellow Berkian vanish into a massive pit, sinking feet first into row upon row, ring upon ring, of flesh-ripping, serrated, oscillating teeth. Astrid had only escaped by flinging herself off of a low cliff into the roaring ocean where the subterranean monsters couldn't follow, and swimming back to the boats. Her fellow Berkian's screams had echoed in her mind for years afterwards, and made her fear the very ground she walked on.

If any single dragon in the world justified Berk's attitudes, it was the Whispering Deaths. The tunnels they left were unmistakable.

"Are you sure he's here?" she asked plaintively, pulling Hiccup's mask from her belt and holding it up to Stormfly, "I mean… tell me we just stopped here for a rest."

The dragon obediently sniffed the cloth again and then chirped and took a few eager steps into the mouth of the cavern.

"Oooookay…" Astrid breathed, shrugging her shield from her shoulder. She pulled a few pieces of wood from the travel pack which Hiccup had attached behind Stormfly's saddle, and held them up in the air, "can I get a light?"

The nadder stared at her.

"Fire!" Astrid tried.

Stormfly cocked her enormous head to the side and simply watched her rider with excited attentiveness. Astrid growled in frustration and pretended to blow on the thick branch a few times, trying to imitate dragonsbreath. Stormfly simply watched, stamping her feet And fluffing her wings a few times.

"Ahhh… forget it." Astrid murmured, tossing the wood aside and hefting her axe, "let's just go."

Stormfly crowed smugly at the stick and stomped after her into the tunnel.

"Stay behind me." The warrior ordered, squinting into the darkness over the top of her shield. With tired, heavy feet she inched into the depths.

The shadows quickly swallowed them, and she found herself navigating forwards by sound and feel more than the faint light. The tunnel led downwards through several twists and turns before it evened out again. Yet very quickly a faint light could be seen; a bar of yellow light thrown across the tunnel floor by a shining crack beneath a distant door.

"Hiccup?" Astrid called out as loud as she dared.

There was no response.

She reached the door and took a moment to examine the solidly built wall which blocked the tunnel. It was wattle and daub, reinforced with stone. She gave the door a gentle push, and it swung open almost silently to reveal a well-lit chamber with a high ceiling. Massive timber columns supported the distant cave roof. A series of shining mirrors threw light across the chamber from narrow holes bored through the solid mountain stone. There were other caves or rooms – offshoot chambers, blocked by strung-up curtains. The central chamber was not nearly as large as Berk's Great Hall, but it was certainly the next largest interior space Astrid had ever set foot in. Larger than any clan hall in Berk. She could easily imagine fitting all of Stoick's home inside it.

The chamber floor was nearly flat, its pits and gaps smoothed out by gronkle slag. Astrid was startled to discover that the floor was warm enough she could feel it through her boots. But there was no sign of any fire or mechanism to supply the heat.

A soft, lush bed was positioned against one wall. There was a large chest at its foot, and a bedside cabinet with a snuffed candle and a few odds and ends.

Freestanding cross-braced wooden shelves held dozens of scrolls, as well as blank parchment, charcoal, paint and brushes, feathers and bottles of ink.

Another section of the floor had been partitioned off by tables, shelves and roughly hewn cabinets all encircling a clay cooking stove. The pipe extended up into the ceiling and, Astrid assumed, out another shaft to the open air. The cabinets and shelves were full of heavy-lidded clay pots, sealed with wax and tree sap.

Worktables were everywhere, scattered with tools of all kinds – Astrid recognized many of them as similar to those used by Gobber in Berk's smithy, but there were others as well – strange constructions of wood and metal the uses of which she could only guess at. Bits of leather, studs, measuring devices and all manner of raw materials was carefully organized on the shelves, or strewn across the work surfaces. Half-built alien projects lay forgotten or disassembled across the benches.

Outside the chamber, Stormfly let out an indignant squawk. Astrid spun around and realized that the door was too narrow for the dragon to fit through. "Sorry girl, give me some time here…" she called out.

At the far end of the chamber, directly across from her was an enormous wooden wall with a variety of sketches. An enormous, slanted sketching bench stretched the length of the wall, with charcoal, paint and ink scattered across it. The whole setup was reminiscent of Hiccup's room, except much, much larger.

She strode forward, slinging her shield and axe back over her shoulder as she approached the wall. The sketches were enormous; the size of the larger paintings which hung in Berk's great hall. One sketch depicted a village in extreme detail. The settlement was nothing like Berk. Astrid saw blocks full of buildings, three or even four stories tall, with clay roof tiles stretching into the distance. Wide streets full of carts and animals and sales stalls and horses and more people than Astrid had ever seen. The village – if it could even becalled that - all curled towards the horizon, encircling an enormous harbor full of hundreds of ships of all different shapes and sizes. A fleet of fleets.

In the distance was a man-made bridge, leading to island upon which sat a tower as tall as a mountain, with a furnace at the top. That same tower appeared in other sketches, along with a low-walled building large enough to fit all of Berk Village inside it. It was hewn from beautiful pale stone, looking solid enough to withstand millennia, or the Gods themselves.

There were sketches of the building interior as well. Crossbeam shelves of the same sort as surrounded her, row upon row, piled high with scrolls uncountable.

Yet there was more still; people. Massive figures locked in moments of strife. One man, chained to a rock with a massive predatory bird pecking at his side. Another with a mighty club, wrestling a lion. A third bearded figure, Thor perhaps, throwing lightning down from on high. A boatload of armoured figures confronting a enormous one-eyed giant. A curly-haired man playing a strange musical instrument to a beautiful young woman. A narrow canyon guarded by three-hundred well-armoured soldiers with round shields. They stood shoulder to shoulder, holding off an endless horde. Their shields were round, like Astrid's own, yet much larger, and their helms bore strange plumes.

Some of the smaller sketches were just of faces, and they had been put in places of honor above the rest; a thin, older, regal woman with wise, comforting eyes. Her hair was pulled up in an elegant, beautiful knot. Another sketch showed a balding, scarred man in unfamiliar armor with a black eagle crest. Captured in his expression was a cold practicality which Astrid knew intimately well; he had been a warrior. A Guardian.

A third sketch was of a beautiful, olive-skinned maiden with full lips, high cheeks and cascading waves of flowing black hair. Astrid stared at the woman's playful smile and felt an uncomfortable cold knot form in her chest. Who was she? Was she real? How close had she been to Hiccup? Where was she now? What had he left behind? What had happened to him in the intervening years?

Yet another sketch showed an ugly blacksmith who reminded Astrid of Gobber. But there was something sinister in the man's gaze. He was standing beside a taller, handsome man with a weathered face, his hair tied back with a bandana.

At the far end of the work bench was a pile of scrolls. Two lay open, side by side. One was covered in symbols Astrid couldn't read at all and the other was filled halfway with Hiccup's neat, blocky lettering. He had already filled several pages and Astrid picked up the first.

At the top was the title of the work: Lysistrata "Warbreaker"

Astrid flipped a few pages forward and read a few lines the various characters were speaking to eachother.

MYRRHINE: Come on, dear lady, tell us what's going on, what's so important to you.

LYSISTRATA: In a minute. Before I say it, I'm going to ask you one small question.

CALONICE: Ask whatever you want.

LYSISTRATA: Don't you miss the fathers of your children when they go off to war? I understand you all have husbands far away from home.

CALONICE: My dear, it's five full months my man's been gone— off in Thrace taking care of Eucrates.

MYRRHINE: And mine's been off in Pylos seven whole months…

A strange clicking noise attracted Astrid's attention away from Hiccup's work benches and towards a far corner. She set the parchment down carefully where she had found it and crossed the chamber to investigate. An enormous coil of metal was visible, mounted on the wall and attached to a variety of pulleys and cables. Closer examination revealed that the central coil was actually two strips of metal, welded together with dragonbreath. As Astrid watched, the coil loosened visibly, pressing on a mechanism of some sort. Weights dropped, cables went taught, and suddenly the entire cold chamber was filled with drafts of warm air from open ducts around the floor and along the walls. The coil instantly began to slowly curl and tighten as the warm air rushed past it.

Again Stormfly let out an irritated chirp from beyond the small door. "One second, girl!" Astrid called out.

She began to explore a little faster, poking her head into the side rooms. One was a supply closet, full of pots, jars and crates. The largest offshoot was a complete workshop, with a wall of tools and a mechanical forge. The bellows were driven by a stream of water, probably routed melt from the glacier dozens of feet above her head. Astrid recognized a mechanical hammer, floating a good three feet over Hiccup's anvil. It looked to be connected to the same system and Astrid had no doubt that on a whim the lanky youth could switch both the bellows and the hammer into the small water stream and allow the mechanical device to do the work of hammering while the bellows fed his furnace for him, leaving him free to position and shape his project as he saw fit. Several small and filthy wax nubs revealed that he was protecting his ears from the constant ringing.

As she stepped back into the main chamber, another device caught her eye. A small, spider-like construction with a wind-up key. Astrid twisted it and watched the coil mechanism inside tighten. She could feel the device struggling against her fingers and she let go, mostly out of shock. She stared in wonderment as the object immediately burst into life, all four little wire legs marched it unsteadily across the table.

She lowered to her knees and watch the metal spider crawl across the desk. Magic? Witchcraft? Some unholy science? How could life be granted to such a creation? How powerful was Hiccup Haddock? Surely the genius to grant life to metal belonged to the Sons of Ivaldi and they alone! Had Hiccup consorted with the dwarves of Nidavellir? Was that the city he had drawn?

"It's just spring power."

Astrid shot to her feet, whipping around clumsily. Hiccup had emerged from a curtained doorway, Toothless at his heels. The dragon moved slowly and carefully in the space, slinking past Astrid to slip through the door and greet Stormfly. She barely heard the dragons crooning at each other; Hiccup's big green eyes seemed to hold her in place as he walked over to her with long, easy strides.

Hiccup gave her a half-smile and picked up the device, holding it upside down so she could watch the springs and cogs within twitch and spin, "it's not magic, Astrid. The key winds up a spring inside. The spring turns the gears. It's not alive."

The young man reached past her to set it down on the table. He smelled clean, and there was a slight hint of spice to the soap. She took a long breath.

She swallowed, staring up at him, "still sounds like magic to me."

He sighed and stepped away, slipping onto a nearby stool, "what are you doing here?"

"You ran."

He watched her from across the workbench. There was a… a distance in his gaze.

"I told you I wasn't going to let you run away," Astrid murmured, blinking slowly. She took a seat on the bed opposite him. It felt as soft as it looked. Her entire body ached to curl up in it and drift away.

"When did you build all of this?" she gestured around the chamber, "you've been here for what, a month?"

"I've been back for a long time. Did a lot of thinking and… and planning. For the future."

"Planning for your return to Berk?"

He pressed his lips together and looked away.

Astrid scowled, her patience running very thin. She could feel her mind failing her; tendrils of sleep were wrapping around her thoughts, dragging her under and gods above, she wanted so desperately to surrender.

She pointed at the wall of sketches and murmured, "what is all of that? What is that village? Who are all the people? What is the 'Warbreaker' story? What is all of this?"

The young man glanced sadly at the sketches, his eyes lingered on the older, regal woman. He looked back at Astrid and said, "nadders aren't as fast as Toothless. You flew all night to get here. You need sleep."

She glared at him, "If I fall asleep, you'll run again."

He laughed, and it was the most forlorn sound she had ever heard, "run to where, Astrid?"

"You have the realms. All nine of them. You've been… everywhere… you've talked to the Gods at Valhalla and the dwarves of Nidavellir. Explain how you can just carve Odin's Valknut! Explain that thing!" She jabbed an unsteady finger at the mechanical spider.

Hiccup was shaking his head. He let out a low, sad chuckle, "I've never left Midgard, Astrid, I promise. That spider crawls because the spring inside of it is a special metal which… it saves and stores motion like Berk stores food for the winter. You wind it up and then it slowly returns to the way it was before, and it makes the mechanism turn with it. It's all just cogs and gears. I made it for fun. It's not alive."

Astrid stared blearily at the spider. "Still… you probably have a thousand hiding places like this."

He laughed again, and this time it was full of black mournfulness, "I really don't. There is nowhere left for Toothless and I to run to. I feel like we're… we're bugs, hiding under a rock. We just want peace, but inevitably someone always lifts the rock and sees me and Toothless and then it's nothing but shrieks of horror and stomping feet while we find a new rock to hide under." He leaned back and rubbed his eyes, looking even more exhausted than she felt.

"There've been a lot of rocks, Astrid. And now – now I found a new place at the very edge of the world even further from civilization than Berk, and yet here you are again, lifting the rock…" He raised his open hands in the air and gave them a little sarcastic celebratory shake, "surprise."

Astrid stared, blinking back her exhaustion.

He stared back, his expression unyielding. His voice full of ugly bitterness: "I wish I could go to Valhalla or Nidavellir because believe me when I say there is nowhere left in Midgard for us."

"Berk."

He scoffed, "Where the Jorgensons just tried to follow you out into the forest last night? They punched Fishlegs, and tried to challenge me to a fight to the death. All I've done is cause problems for you. Berk is not interested, Astrid."

"Berk doesn't have a fucking choice!" she fired back angrily, her voice shrill.

Stormfly shrieked in response and burst through the wall, causing Toothless to leap out from behind her and land protectively in front of Hiccup, hissing furiously, wings spread. As the Night Fury moved, he toppled several workbenches. Projects crashed to the floor, and Hiccup's cries of dismay were lost in the sudden growls and chatter between the two beasts. Astrid's adrenaline gave her one last burst of energy and she put herself between the two dragons, trying to calm Stormfly. Just as quickly, Hiccup stepped between her and Toothless.

"Stormfly, stop! Calm down!" Astrid barked, grabbing her nadder by the horn and forcing the dragon to look at her.

"Toothless! Hey, bud, everything's okay! Everything's fine. Astrid's okay. I'm okay. Everyone's okay." Hiccup stretched his palm out and caressed the night fury's snout. Toothless calmed first, sitting back on his haunches and glaring across the space at Stormfly. Astrid was panicking, barking at her dragon as nightmares of nadder spines and cones of fire danced across her vision. She couldn't let anything happen to Hiccup! She just couldn't. Everything depending on him! After all this work her plans were NOT going to be foiled by own damned dragon! "just calm down! We didn't fly all the way here just to have you spike him so Stand! Down! Now!"

"Gentler." Hiccup said quietly, stepping up to stand at her side. He reached out with a little bundle of long grass – only the gods knew where he had pulled it from. Stormfly let out a hostile screech, but her eyes widened when she smelled the herb. She leaned forward to take a tentative sniff.

"There you go," Hiccup said smoothly, rubbing it on the dragon's snout. Stormfly's eyes rolled up and she let out a happy little chitter. The floor shook slightly as the dragon flopped down to its haunches. "good girl," Hiccup said, patting her on the snout, and smoothing her scales. "good girl… we're all calm here. Everything's okay. Everyone's fine. Astrid is in no danger. I would never hurt her." He didn't shout the words, but the conviction in his voice was absolute.

Within a few seconds the nadder was curled up on the floor, practically asleep as Hiccup whispered to her.

Silence fell over the chamber. Toothless let out a huff of righteous indignation, turning his nose up at the nadder. He slithered away and vanished under one of the curtains.

Astrid stared down at Stormfly, her exhausted mind filled with visions of fallen Berkian heroes. Men turned to cinders in seconds, spines whipping through the gaps in shield walls, or the windows of homes, children erupting in terrified screams –

"Astrid?"

Snorri Sigurdson's corpse collapsed against a tree, a dozen spines protruding from his pallid flesh. Johann Jorgenson being melted into a puddle of ash and metal, buying a moment for Astrid and her fellow warriors to leap from the tower –

"…Astrid…?" Hiccup brushed her hand with his fingertips and she flinched.

He withdrew his hand slowly and said, "Nadders are sponges. They'll soak up whatever's happening around them; the emotions and the mood, and reflect it right back. And they're super protective, so if there's a lot of yelling and loud voices…" he left the thought unfinished.

Ivar Ingerman the elder, getting skewered through the chest by a nadder's tail as he exited an alleyway to join the fight… Astrid blinked and looked up at Hiccup, a cold dead weight settling in her gut as the memories themselves weighed her down, "m'sorry."

His bright green eyes were full of concern, "are you okay?"

"I'm fine." Astrid said shortly. She let out a huff and smoothed out her clothes, "sorry about your door."

Hiccup was watching her shrewdly. He said, "I've seen that look before."

Astrid raised an eyebrow, "what look?"

"You were thinking about old fights. Death. War scars our minds like it scars our bodies. Sometimes I'm not sure which is worse. Soldiers heal, but we don't forget."

"You've met soldiers?"

Hiccup stared at her and shrugged awkwardly, "I grew up with one."

Astrid nodded solemnly. She frowned as his word choice caught up with her, "our minds? What do you mean our minds?"

He looked away, "I've uh… I've been in a couple battles myself, actually. Took an axe to the chest. Arrow in the shoulder." He tapped the scar on his cheek, "this was from a spear."

She stared, "you can fight?"

Hiccup pouted playfully, "you don't have to say it like that. I can fight. I just … I don't want to. I hate it."

"I didn't mean it like that!"

"You completely did, though."

"Okay fine! Yes! I just…" she grinned at him, the cold knot in her gut softening, "I just… I still remember Hiccup Haddock of the Knobbly Knees."

He had stepped away and was crouching to grab one of the fallen tables, lifting it back onto its feet, "Oh, that part hasn't changed. If anything, they've gotten knobblier." he collected a few half-constructed mechanisms, "and the elbows! Phwoah: lethal weapons." He brandished them, looking a little too much like a plucked chicken, and she smiled.

Astrid crossed her arms and smirked, "Uh huh. Glad to see the sarcasm's still there, too."

"It is!" he grinned evilly, rising to his feet and planting his collection on the table, "I have to admit, you know, I missed matching wits with Berkians; I forgot how basically everyone here is unarmed. Easy prey."

Astrid scoffed in mock indignation as she stared up at him, "you know what, Haddock…"

He stood before her, green eyes shining, eyebrow raised and his thin lips curled into a challenging smirk, "what, Hofferson?"

She opened and closed her mouth, realizing she had no repartee. He was standing so close to her. She could see every faint freckle across his cheeks. Astrid felt warmth flood her core, and heat creep into her cheeks. She prodded him in the chest and said, "you keep insulting our home and I'll make you put those fighting skills to the test."

"What, trashing my shop wasn't punishment enough?" he asked dryly.

"Uhhh that was Toothless and Stormfly?" Astrid grinned at him.

"Suuuure. Blame the dragons."

"I will and do. It's all her fault." Astrid pointed at Stormfly and put on a look of cherubic innocence.

Hiccup buried his smile and said, "I'm just trying to think of an appropriate consequence." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, "make her write lines…?"

"if you can teach her to write, feel free."

"Maybe I should just get her rider to do that for her, then."

Astrid laughed, "I can't remember the last time I wrote anything down."

He leaned back against his table, grinning, "you were always an expert on non-verbal communication. It's a simple language which Berk has spent generations mastering: Charge! Smash! Maim! Kill! Die! Flee!" he waved his hands in the air like claws "…Raawr!"

"Shut up!" Astrid punched him, but very lightly. Her grin felt fixed upon her face, as immoveable as a carved stone statue. Gods above, it felt so good to smile. She glanced at Stormfly, but her dragon was sound asleep, hot breath passing gently across their shins.

"Astrid," Hiccup said.

She looked up at him. She could feel herself withering away; the spectre of sleep creeping upon her once more.

He said, "go to bed."

"You called yourself a bug."

"Yeah…" Hiccup's hand jumped to his scalp, running through his hair and somehow making his windswept mane even more tangled.

"That's messed up."

He stared down at his feet, cheeks flushed, his hand running repeatedly through his hair.

"You aren't a bug." she said shortly, "and – and I'm not going to sleep until you promise to stay."

"I already said I'm not leaving."

"But you don't seem to want to stay and help! Or change things!" Astrid stared at him, frustration bubbling within her chest; she did not have the patience for this kind of evasiveness, but his early comment was ringing in her ears; did he really see himself as some kind of insect, scurrying around outside of the world, apart from the rest of them? What kind of life was that?

At last he gave her a dry look, "The village – Dad – dad never liked what I was. He thought I wasn't a proper Viking. Learning – actually thinking about things? It's all a little beyond us, Astrid. We're Vikings. We all just grab our clubs and swords and axes and… smash things. It's only fun if you get a scar out of it, right?"

An old memory hit her with a grudge; her first class of dragon training. Not in the backwoods with Uncle Finn, but in the Arena with Gobber and the rest of the Vikings.

…including a short, knobbly little Hiccup Haddock.

She scowled, "Not this time! Berk needs to learn."

"Berk doesn't learn."

"Bullshit!"

"I already know what the Village is going to say, Astrid!" his voice was ragged, "I lived in Berk long enough; I already know how this ends. I've seen it before. Again and again and again."

"Then keep hiding! You're never going to find a place with that kind of attitude!" she snapped.

A sudden, wild anger filled his eyes, "I had a place!" he fired back, jabbing an angry finger at the sketches on his wall, "I found a city full of people who wanted to learn and grow! Who were willing to look at the world in new ways, consider new ideas! People who thought change was good! They even accepted Toothless!"

Astrid stared at him.

"And you know what happened?" he asked bitterly, "Their king abandoned them, and the city got sacked. Burned to the ground by savages. I know which side of that fight Berk would be on!"

His words scorched her, deeply wounding her pride in her clan and tribe. She itched to snarl at him, to start shouting. And yet… She could see the pain in his expression. She knew it intimately, had felt it every day when she thought of her uncle Finn. She knew his anger, too. A wild thing, with a white-hot, painful core. She had tamed hers only with the slow march of many, many years. She had seen enough homes and families destroyed that avenging Uncle Finn's death had grown less important than the priority of protecting those who were still alive.

All the same, in her younger days, her rage had been all-consuming. Soul-blackening. Hot enough to warp reality itself. Dragons weren't evil, but in her rage, she had looked at them and seen demons! Gods, how she had hated them.

Hiccup, for all his calm exterior, was beyond himself. Warped and broken, just as she had been when she knelt before Thor and Odin and swore to kill every single fucking dragon she could fucking find!

Except… people had done that to him, not Dragons. The cruelty of human beings had caused him that pain. She found herself desperately curious about his travels, but this was not the time. Hiccup was too angry, and she did not have the energy.

She could not call him a liar, either; Astrid had seen his words play out firsthand; Hela's breath had been warmer than the parents who had tried to ban her from teaching in the kill ring.

Hiccup had spotted a fatal flaw in Berkian society. Their distrust of anything new was like a notch in a sword, or a crack in a shield; a structural weakness, yet one so deep and abstract that Astrid was barely beginning to understand it herself.

Living with it – living in Berk – and trying to see that deeper social problem was like trying to comprehend a whole storm-filled ocean when each massive, vicious wave was such an immediate concern that grasping the scale of the storm was simply beyond the capacity of the average sailor. Berkians were so caught up in their day-to-day lives – the act of survival – that they couldn't see the larger picture. They even couldn't see how they had cursed themselves.

But Hiccup Haddock was anything but average. He had seen it all, even so many years ago: Berkians were trapped in their own minds. In their traditions and their culture.

She swallowed her pride and her anger and said, as gently as she could, "I'm not one of them, Hiccup."

"You're Astrid Hofferson. No one's more Viking than you." There it was: that distance in his eyes again, but now she knew the source. He wasn't angry with her. But neither could he fully trust her; despite everything, she was still one of his demons.

"It's Haddock, now." She murmured. Hiccup's eyes widened a little and he smiled at her, as brightly as he could manage, but it was the dim glow of a fading candle.

Even so, she smiled back and said, "I was one of them. Hiccup. I was. And then… and then I read your book. Your diary: How to Train Your Dragon. I got stranded on a desert island. It was me, Stormfly, a fish filet, and your journal."

Hiccup huffed; it was almost a laugh, but she counted it as a victory. Then he said, "so you only listened because you had literally no other options…"

Her stomach dropped out. Astrid took a long, deep breath, stealing a moment to word her response. Gods… she needed sleep. Her body was screaming at her. She spoke slowly, "I listened to you, before you came back, Hiccup. I never thought you were coming back, but I listened anyway. Isn't that the important part? Why does it matter where or when or how?"

"Because we can't strand every single Berkian on a desert island, Astrid." Hiccup told her miserably.

"No, but we can put them in the arena. Like we did yesterday. Some stayed!" she smacked her fist on her knee, "and more will come!"

Hiccup stared at her for a moment, and then his expression changed. An entire journey played across his freckled face; caution, grief, resurgent anger suddenly tempered as he processed her words. She watched his rage drain like water through a sieve.

It was… it was Hiccup Haddock: a mind so quick to grasp and process problems that he could outpace even his own anger. He shook his head and sighed, simply watching her, studying her face. The corner of his mouth curled upwards, "You're right," he said softly. It was practically a whisper.

She smiled, "Thanks."

He kept staring, "how are you so …strong?"

"I…" she stared down at her knees, feeling herself blush crimson.

He sighed and rubbed his eyes, "if only every warrior on Berk was like Astrid Hofferson…"

"Haddock!" she corrected him again, and for the first time, for her, it wasn't a joke, or a commitment. She felt no irony, not a hint of sarcasm, nor the heavy weight of duty to clan and kin. It was something to be proud of; she was further from Jorgenson and closer to – to Hiccup. To his perspective of the world. She was Astrid Haddock. And Hofferson. She was Brunhilda's daughter and Fearless Finn's niece and Berk's Heir, and Hiccup's… well... that was another knot to be untangled. Eventually. For now, though…

She said, "I told my mom about Stormfly," and watched him fight down his anger again.

He smiled, "when?"

"Last night. Literally right before I flew off to find you. My mum is on our side. Fishlegs is on our side. Sirnir… will be. With your help. It's possible, Hiccup we can do this!" Again she felt so full of energy, but it was draining just as quickly. Her mind was sparking and fizzling like a sputtering campfire

He rose to his feet, pacing back and forth across his workshop, light flickering across the sketches behind him as he waved his arms. He said, "I… I can't show my face there, Astrid. The moment I do, the whole thing falls apart. I'll be Hiccup the Useless again, bringing his crazy stupid ideas and breaking the island. Hurting Berk. At least as Prometheus I might be able to sway some of them."

"Who is Prometheus?"

He twirled on his heel to look at her, "What?"

"The Name. Prometheus. You picked it. Was he the soldier?" she pointed up at the balding, scarred man.

Hiccup blinked and took a moment to collect himself. He shook his head, "He's… he was a Titan. A… a Jotun. He stole the fire of civilization from the Gods and gave it to Mankind. He was trying to help us, but the Gods punished him." He pointed up at the sketch of the man chained to the rock, "every day an eagle pecks out his liver and every night it grows back so the bird can eat it again. That's his punishment. Eternal torment for trying to help."

"I've never heard that story."

"You wouldn't have. It's a story from someone else's history. From a different part of the world."

"Is that what you think will happen if you tell us what you know? If you share Dragons with us? If Hiccup Haddock returns to Berk, you'll be punished?"

Hiccup didn't answer. He didn't have to; Astrid could tell by the hopelessness in his eyes.

"So what was your plan?" Astrid asked gently, rising unsteadily to her feet to join him in front of the sketches, "if you've reached the end of the road, like you said, then what were you planning to do? Why did you even come back?"

He stared into her eyes, searching for… something. His gaze flickered down to her mouth and back up. Astrid stared back, so many bells going off in her brain that she couldn't be bothered to cope with any of them; sleep had her in its grasp, wrapping her up. Every muscle in her body was screaming at her to lie down, and her eyes stung, but she kept staring back defiantly.

She said, "why did you help us at the nest?"

"You were in trouble. I couldn't just watch all of you die. You. My dad. Everyone. You guys had no idea about the monster in the mountain. You were in trouble."

"Well now I'm in trouble again." Astrid told him bluntly, "I swore to Sirnir before the Valknut that I would let him see your face. I can't guarantee what he'll do. I can't guarantee anything, but I need you I need your help. I know you've taken chances like this before. It's why you're different!"

"What do you think he'll do when he learns who I am?"

"What did you think Toothless would do the day you cut him loose?"

He gaped like a fish and despite herself, Astrid giggled.

Again, that smile crept back onto his face. She said, "Hiccup, you yourself said that no one's more Viking than me, right? Well you convinced me. Not Prometheus. Not Hiccup Haddock after all of this traveling and learning and everything. The old you did. Fourteen-year-old Hiccup talked Astrid Hofferson into trying to train a dragon. And you weren't even there to do it in person! You did it in a stupid old diary you never expected anyone to ever read! Berk doesn't need Prometheus! We need Hiccup Haddock. I need Hiccup Hadd - mmph!"

His lips were pressing against hers. The world seemed to crystalize, and Astrid felt her heart pounding in her chest. She could feel his too, pressed against him. Her hands crept up his shoulders.

Every hint Fishlegs and everyone had dropped, every emotion she had tried to ignore, all came bursting forth. Astrid's head was spinning. Choices, consequences and futures whirled around her. She could see the Jorgenson's accusations, the judgment of her fellow warriors, Stoick's rage, her mother's exasperation, Iona's joyful gossip, Fishlegs' stupid, smug face, her students' confusion, Berk's distrust... all of it swirled around her. and yet …none of it mattered one iota in that moment.

They broke apart, staring into each other's eyes. He looked as shocked as she felt, but there was also a wildness there underneath it, he had fought a battle with some part of himself and lost. Or won, maybe.

"Why do you have to make everything so damned complicated, Haddock?" she murmured, and – was that even her voice? It was too low, and why was she out of breath?

"Sorry. Bad habits…" Hiccup replied with a toothy smile. She bit her lip, trying ot keep herself form giggling like a madwoman.

His eyes were endless pools of warmth and softness. His skin shone in the torchlight. She couldn't think; everything was suddenly taste and touch and sound and sight. Something erupted in her soul. An edict from the gods themselves; visceral, primal. She wanted more. needed more. To press against him and taste him again.

So she did, nearly losing her footing.

Hiccup gently grabbed her elbows, steadying her.

"Sorry."

"Shut up." She ordered, struggling to put herself back together. Even as she did, reality stitched back together. The worries began to pour in. What would the village say? What would her mother say? She was promised to that disgusting slug, had agreed to marriage. It wasn't like the Jorgensons would just give up! Gods, the village was going to absolutely crucify her! They were –

Hiccup's warm hand brushed her cheek. A spike of childish rebelliousness shot through her and she kissed him again. Just to stick it to the whole bloody, whining lot of them! This one was slow and delicious. Full of every forbidden promise she had given up to be a warrior, and when they parted again, he was the one out of breath.

It felt like victory, and having his arms around her felt even better than that. She settled against him, letting him hold her. She let her eyes close and rested with her cheek against his should and it just felt… right in ways she couldn't even begin to describe to herself. All her life, in those brief moments when she found herself working or training beside Iona and the rest of Berk's womenfolk, she had wondered irritably what the big gods-damned deal was; how could they spend so much time talking about men, and now…?

Gods above… what fresh hell had just been opened?

"Bed," He suggested.

"Mmmmmm…?" she grinned slyly up at him, knowing without a shadow of a doubt that she was playing a dangerous game, but it felt too good to stop. It was his turn to go crimson; this was fun!

He stuttered, "not – no- not – I – I didn't mean you - I mean- oh gods – we - look- you… gahh!"

Eyes closed, moving by feel alone, she ran her slim fingers through his locksof soft, auburn hair and kissed him a third time, just to shut him up. There was nothing more glorious than feeling his lips meld against hers again and again and again.

She said, "tomorrow...?" her body was finally cashing in all of its cheques, and so the word came out garbled, but he understood. For all of her desire to continue, there was truly nothing left.

Hiccup nodded, beaming as if a little sun had just risen, "we'll go see Sirnir tomorrow. And… talk."

Astrid yelped and then giggled as he swept her off her feet and carried her back to the bed. He was surprisingly strong; years of dragon riding and blacksmithing had left him with layers of wiry muscle which she had definitely refused to notice until this moment!

He laid her gently on the covers. Astrid felt as if she were being lowered into a pool of warm water. Astrid was asleep before her head hit the pillow, but her last thought before she threw herself gratefully into the blackness was: why couldn't anything ever get less complicated.


Fucking FINALLY! Jesus, that kiss had nearly a decade of buildup! I don't intend to get too graphic with our nascent lovebirds, but that doesn't mean the two of them aren't going to have any fun ;)