A/N: Sorry this one is a couple weeks late. I spent the last weeks working a lot and then being too exhausted to do anything when I got home, and then got sick, and one weekend was mine and my boyfriend's one year anniversary so there's been a lot going on, and I had to revamp this chapter a bit so it wasn't as simple as just pushing publish.
So Merry Christmas, to those who celebrate it, Happy Everything else to everyone, Happy New Year, yada yada, for Christmas this year you all get some stubborn Vikings and some bad decisions!
Chapter 36: Fault Lines
"So," Gobber drawled, sitting down next to him in the mostly empty Hall. "I hear things with Hiccup went about as well as they always do."
Stoick continued to stare into his mug of ale. He didn't much care for the taste and could barely drink enough to even dull his senses but he hoped it would at least help him sleep that night. "Hiccup thinks I never loved him."
Gobber winced. "Now, I'm sure Hiccup couldn't feel that extremely about-"
"He told me so."
"I'm sure he didn't mean it like that."
"He used those exact words."
Gobber was silent for a moment. "He's…he's had a rough few years from the sound of it. I think he's had time to twist things in his own mind."
"Gobber, was I a bad father?"
Gobber choked on his mead. "Thor, going right for the guts, aren't you? Eh…" He scratched his mustache. "How honest of an answer do you want here?"
Stoick gave him a hard look and Gobber nodded and sighed. "Look, my ole Mum always used to say that all parents screwed their kids up in some way or another."
"Heh," Stoick managed a humorless chuckle. "And how badly did I screw up my son?"
Gobber heaved a sigh again. "Stoick, you had a difficult time with that boy, there's no denying. He was always different and gods know you two could never understand each other enough to hold a conversation. And as someone who helped you raise Hiccup I know better than anyone that he wasn't the easiest kid to raise. I tried to act as a buffer when I could but both of you were good at talking but not as good at listening, especially to each other." He rolled his eyes. "That's one thing that definitely hasn't changed." Stoick narrowed his eyes and Gobber moved on. "You two couldn't seem to talk to each other without yelling, if you could talk at all."
Stoick nodded at the tabletop. "You're right. I was too hard on him."
There was a bark of laughter that drew Stoick's attention back to his friend. "Too hard on him?" Gobber laughed again. "If anything, you weren't hard enough!"
Stoick frowned. "But you just said—"
"I said you two did a lot of yelling, and you did. There was a lot of talk but not a lot of action or progress or backing any of it up."
"I don't follow."
Gobber sighed. "How many times did Hiccup disobey you in some way that led to a catastrophic mess or mass destruction of the village?"
"More times than I can count."
Gobber nodded. "And how many of those times did you make him clean up the mess?"
Stoick paused. "Him clean up the mess? As in Hiccup?"
"Yes. If Hiccup made a mess, who cleaned it up?"
Stoick leaned back in his seat. "I suppose it usually fell to me, since I'm the chief, or you, occasionally, although with bigger things we had to bring on more help, so—"
"So not Hiccup, basically." Stoick stopped talking and stared at Gobber. He stumbled over his words for a moment.
"Well, I suppose usually, yes, not Hiccup."
"Not usually? Never, you mean. You never made that boy clean up after himself." Gobber shook his head and took a swig from his mug. "You were overprotective of Hiccup, understandable since you lost his mother, but you coddled him. Tried to keep him out of trouble, but did nothing to punish him when he got into trouble. He was the most irresponsible, undisciplined child I ever saw." He pointed a mug-hand at Stoick's nose. "And when you finally did lose your patience and punish him for something, it's no wonder he saw that as an overreaction, whether you were too heavy-handed or not. And you've got to remember," he fixed Stoick with a kind but serious stare, "Hiccup has had nearly five years of what sounds like mostly isolation to twist his memories of his childhood. Parenting aside, he didn't have it easy. Everyone saw him as a nuisance and treated him as such, but I think he's downplayed in his own mind how much of his own fault it was that he ever was such a nuisance." He frowned. "What was it Astrid said one time, 'He's never where he should be.' That's it. Never could do as he was told and stay out of trouble." Gobber contemplated his mug for a moment. "Actually if anything has changed for the better I'd say Hiccup's learned some discipline and responsibility over the years."
Stoick let all this sink in. "So your point is that I was a bad father."
Gobber rolled his eyes. "You were an imperfect man raising an imperfect child. You were both stubborn as all hell and like I said, neither of you ever knew how to talk to each other. You never knew what to do with that boy. You just let him keep getting in trouble without consequences. The boy actually responds to those. Still does. But you tried. That's all any parent can do. And you were on your own for most of it."
"That's what I really don't understand," Stoick said quietly. "Dragons killed his mother. He grew up without a mother because of those creatures. And yet he still defends them." He gave his friend a pleading look. "What kind of man defends creatures that killed his mother?"
To his surprise, Gobber didn't react to this. He merely shrugged. "Well that's exactly it, isn't it?"
"I don't follow."
"Stoick, he never knew his mother. He never knew what it was like to have a mother. He had you and he had me, but he never really even had a maternal presence in his life. I know Hertha nursed him for a while after we lost Valka, and she helped look after him as much as she could, but she had Snotlout to take care of too. And besides that, you and she were never close, even as children, I guess because you were so much older. And like everyone else she assumed you would remarry at some point and give Hiccup a new mother, so she didn't want to bond too much with him."
Stoick shook his head. "How is this any argument against what I was saying?"
"Hiccup never knew his mother," Gobber repeated. "He has no idea what it is like to even have a mother. He has no concept of that whatsoever. He grew up knowing he didn't have a mother but with nothing personal to compare it to that loss was always abstract. You and I knew Valka. We lost a person. Hiccup lost an idea."
"The loss wasn't personal to him," Stoick began, putting it together in his head. Gobber nodded.
"He doesn't have that personal grief coloring his judgment; probably made it a lot easier to see past the dragons as murderous beasties and look for other qualities in them."
"So what do I do, make the loss personal for him?"
Gobber shook his head. "No, no, no; there's no point in that. Getting hung up on the past is half the problem. Negotiating things now is the priority. And that can't happen if you two keep doing that thing where you wind up shouting and then refuse to talk to each other anymore."
"That still doesn't tell me what I should do, Gobber," Stoick groaned, rubbing his eyes. "What do I do? How do I get through to him?"
"How does he get through to you?"
Stoick rolled his eyes. "Gobber can you just help me?"
"You want me to come mediate?"
"I can handle my own son."
"Doesn't sound like it."
Gobber sighed. Stoick noted that Gobber looked about as tired as he felt. "You know I've heard that only diamonds can cut other diamonds. I've heard the yelling. You and Hiccup talking is like watching two diamonds slamming into each other. Neither one of you wants to give in. The way I figure it, you two keep talking, keep slamming two diamonds into each other for long enough, one of them is going to crack. Maybe both of them are." He shrugged and stood. "Especially if one of you hits a fault line."
"That doesn't sound like a very optimistic outcome."
Gobber gave him a wry smile. "Maybe not. But what do you expect from me? I'm not that much older or wiser than you."
Astrid stared at her feet and hoped her nerves weren't as obvious as they felt. She'd never been more conflicted over results in her life. On the one hand, she wasn't ready for a child yet. She'd be bringing it into multiple fronts of pure chaos. On the other hand, if she wasn't pregnant, there was a strong chance she could die, especially since things between Hiccup and his father continued to end badly.
Gothi had kicked everyone else out of the hut and now plodded around the room, tending to various cooking herbal remedies and checking on her different tests. She'd asked Astrid how late she was, and not knowing what exactly to say Astrid had said approximately six weeks. That sounded reasonable to her; late enough for there not to be much question as to why she was so late, but early enough she could claim that it was too early to show obvious signs. Astrid had no idea how early pregnancy could be detected by Gothi's methods. In hindsight she should have asked Ruffnut; it would have been a far better usage of their time together than gossiping about Hiccup's abilities in bed. But Astrid still wasn't certain how much she could trust her former friend. Everything was so uncertain now; she couldn't risk placing her loyalty in anyone other than Hiccup just yet.
Gothi's tests were fairly simple. They had included a physical examination, a number of questions, and urinating on a small number of plants. Now all Astrid had to do was wait in agonizing silence and indecision.
Gothi stilled, staring at a small pot of barley oats. She sighed, and banged her staff twice on the floor. Astrid's heart started pounding as Stoick and Gobber filed in. She tried not to look at either of them. Gothi joined them in the center of the room.
"So?" Stoick asked gruffly.
For a long moment Gothi just stared at Astrid with an intensity she could feel as tangibly as the manacles chafing her wrists. Then, she scribbled her answer in the dust on the floor. Astrid's heart sank. She could understand the old crone's scribbles well enough to get the gist of it.
"Well," Gobber hedged, "She says she can't prove Astrid pregnant, but it's too soon to rule it out entirely. It may well just be too early to tell. If Astrid is as late as she claims then it's very likely."
Stoick was frowning. "I see."
Gothi frowned, and then smacked Stoick's shoulder with her staff before pointing it at her message again. She tapped the end of it next to one phrase in particular, glaring the chief down all the while.
If her stomach wasn't twisting into knots out of fear, Astrid would have been impressed at how much Gothi's station allowed her to do to the chief without fear of retaliation.
Stoick's frown only deepened. "I said, I see." Gothi tapped more insistently at her message, but Stoick's expression did not change. "Have her taken back to her cell, and keep her health monitored. We'll know if she's lying soon enough." And he turned and stomped out of the hut. Gobber glanced at Astrid.
"I'll see what I can do, lass." Then he hurried after his chief.
The door closed behind them before Astrid could say a word in her own defense. In the ensuing quiet, Astrid heard Gothi sigh. She tapped again at her message on the floor.
"I'm not lying," Astrid tried, wondering if it was even worth it anymore.
Gothi stared at her for a moment, then bent down and smoothed the dirt over her message and began a new one. When she finished, she tapped at that one to get Astrid's attention.
I'm trying. I won't let them hurt you again.
Astrid did not feel reassured. Tears filled her eyes and she glared at the old woman. It seemed like everyone kept telling her they wanted to help, but never in any way that meant anything.
"Then you should have just lied."
Stoick stormed into the small chamber, his fist clenched at his sides. Hiccup sat up straighter in the chair he'd been waiting in, looking at his father in anticipation. Stoick slammed the map down in front of his son and the charcoal pencil with it.
"Uh…" Hiccup looked from the map to his father. "So, what did Gothi say?"
Stoick glared at him. "What do you think she said?"
Hiccup visibly gulped. "Well, I'd say I know but the way you're acting-"
"She's not definitely pregnant but it also could just be too soon to tell," Stoick recited, far too lightly, as he circled the table. He scoffed. "Too soon to tell. I know what that means. Do you want to make this easier on all of us and just tell me the truth now?"
"Dad, I don't know what you mean. I mean, as late as Astrid is-"
"As late as she says she is," Stoick interrupted, still stomping round and round the table. He paused in his pacing to glare at his son. "I'm no fool, Hiccup. Pleading the belly is one of the oldest defenses there is. Of course you'd try to use it."
"How many lies have there been, Hiccup? Why should I believe this? I don't know what I can trust from you anymore." Stoick kept pacing. The spinning room matched the spinning in his head; in a way it was almost therapeutic. "So just tell me.
"Dad, can you just, slow down? Listen to me, please?"
Stoick stopped. "Listen to you. Listen to you?" He fixed Hiccup with a fierce stare. "Why, are you finally going to start telling me the truth?"
"Dad, I've never told you anything but the truth—"
"Hiccup, don't even," Stoick cut in. "How many times did you lie to me over the years? How many times did you say that you'd shot down a dragon? Hm?" Hiccup faltered at that. "How many search parties did I put together and send off hunting through the woods in search of a dragon you never hit while you sat there claiming you really actually hit something? 'Oh, maybe it just fell into the ocean!' or 'Oh, surely over the next ridge!' You say I never listen but Hiccup, how many resources did I waste on your lies before I stopped listening?" Hiccup's eyes had dropped to his lap. "If I didn't believe you when you claimed to have shot down a Night Fury, it was only because I knew better than to fall for another one of your lies. You'd cried wolf so many times is it any wonder I didn't believe you? And Thor, Hiccup, did you ever bring up that dragon ever again?"
Hiccup's brow furrowed. "How could I? The one time I tried you told me I had to start learning to fight dragons."
"Had to?" Stoick asked incredulously. "You mean I let you learn to fight dragons. You told me you couldn't fight dragons and I thought, Odin above, he's finally learning. Of course you couldn't fight dragons. Everyone knew that. I knew that. I wouldn't let you out because I didn't want you to get yourself killed. And because every time you disobeyed me and tried to fight dragons, you'd wind up destroying half the village! And still, you begged me to let you fight dragons. You begged Gobber to let you fight dragons. And when I finally let you fight dragons, what did you say to me? 'I don't want to fight dragons.' Gods." Stoick dropped his face into his hands and rubbed and his eyes. "Odin's beard, I hope Astrid really is pregnant, if for no other reason than to one day see you deal with an ungrateful child who changes their mind out of the Thordamned blue the second you give them what they've been begging after for years."
He looked at his son again. "You had ample opportunity to tell the truth. If not to me, then to Gobber, or even Astrid. But did you ever tell me the truth?"
Hiccup squirmed in his seat, glaring at the tabletop. Gods, it was like dealing with a surly teenager all over again. "Would you have listened to me if I did?"
"Maybe. Who can say since you never even tried."
"I never felt like I could. I never felt like you'd listen or believe me if I did."
"Well I'm listening now."
Hiccup looked up sharply. "Are you? Because it sure feels like I'm arguing with a wall."
Stoick collapsed into his chair, trying to rub the growing headache out from behind his eyes. "The feeling is fairly mutual, Hiccup." He sighed and looked at his son. "This isn't how I want things to go. If you and Astrid aren't traitors, if you still care about this village, then cooperate."
Hiccup rolled his eyes. "Dad, you cannot go up against what is in that nest and live."
Not this again. Stoick closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "No dragon is a match for an army. And maybe if the mighty Dragon Master might lend us his expertise we'd stand a better chance once we reach the nest. But first you have to tell me where it is!"
"I am not telling you where the nest is, not without a plan, not until you listen to-"
"Hiccup if you tell me where the damn nest is, then I'll spare Astrid's life."
The single, strangled word caught Stoick's attention. Hiccup was sitting up now, staring at him wide eyed.
"What do you mean spare her life? She could be pregnant, you wouldn't—"
"She might be pregnant, maybe," Stoick growled, firmly planting his hands on the table. "If you've—if you've…been with her like a man with his wife then of course she might be." Stoick felt his heart rate picking up again. Why couldn't Hiccup make this simple? Why couldn't he just cooperate? Just tell the truth? "But we all know the truth will come out soon enough if she isn't."
"So you'll kill her for the paltry sin of lying about being pregnant? What the hell kind of—"
"I sacrificed a girl's life to save this village before, Hiccup," Stoick boomed. He didn't want to kill Astrid. Whether she was pregnant or not, he saw no true reason to put her to death. There had been enough bloodshed. But their one hope of ending the war was finding the nest and killing the queen, and Hiccup stood between them and that goal. Consequences, like Gobber said. Hiccup responded to consequences. Perhaps with anger or desperation, but he responded to consequences. "If threatening her life is what it takes to get you to tell me where the nest is so I can save my people, then so be it!"
Hiccup stared at him, his mouth agape, completely at a loss. "You wouldn't," was all he seemed able to manage. Stoick stood. It made his chest ache to see Hiccup hurting, but this was about more than his son. This was about all of Berk. For the sake of his people, he had to find that nest. Even if they couldn't kill the beast, as Hiccup claimed, (and was that the truth or did Hiccup just not want a dragon hurt? Who could say for sure anymore where his loyalties lay?) surely they could drive it away from its nest. Away from Berk. And they'd stand a better chance if Hiccup could help in the battle, but Stoick wasn't sure if he could trust Hiccup to help or not. He didn't know for sure what he could trust from Hiccup. Hiccup didn't trust him. His own son…
Stoick squared his shoulders. He had to be strong. Had to get this information at any cost. Hard to come up with a plan without knowing where they were going. He could mend his relationship with his son once there was peace.
Gods, he just wished he didn't have to break his son's heart to do it.
"And if she really is pregnant, then fine. I'll move on to that dragon you cared more about than your own people, than your own father!"
"Dad, no!" Hiccup was on his feet now, the chains on his wrists and ankles clanging together. "You can't do this! Astrid has done nothing wrong; she hasn't committed treason, she hasn't hurt anyone or anything except your pride! And neither has Toothless! You can't hurt them, either one of them!"
Stoick narrowed his eyes. "You seem awfully concerned about Astrid's safety." He straightened up and shrugged. "If she really is pregnant than there's no reason to be worried, is there?"
Hiccup's moment of panicked hesitation was all the confirmation Stoick needed. He pounded his fist on the map. "If you want to save the girl, or the dragon, then prove to me whose side you're on. Tell me where to find the nest."
Hiccup's lower lip trembled. "Dad," he began, but Stoick only pounded on the map again.
"No. I don't know how much of what you've told me is truth and how much is lies anymore, Hiccup. So prove it. If there really is a dragon queen, then show me where she is. Prove that the dragons are peaceful without her."
He glared intently at his son, and watched as the young man's face began to twist in pain. "Dad," he tried again, his voice cracking and tears coming to his eyes, "Please, you don't know what you're asking me to do. I can't tell you where the nest is."
"Then unless she's truly not lying, Astrid dies. Or that dragon."
The look of desperation on Hiccup's face morphed into something else. There were still tears spilling onto his cheeks, but his glare brought something like anger or betrayal into his face as well. His whole body was trembling now. "Dad, please. How could you even…you keep saying you loved me once. You keep saying you missed me, that you mourned me. You keep trying to claim that I am or was your son and you loved me." His voice cracked and he choked back a sob that almost eroded Stoick's resolve. He steeled himself. He could not be swayed by tears. "Astrid is everything to me. Toothless and I share a bond I can't even begin to explain. Please, if you still see me as anything close to your son, if you love me, if you have ever loved me, if you ever loved my mother," Hiccup pleaded, "then please, please, don't hurt them." His voice shook. "Dad, please."
Stoick gripped the table to keep from shaking. He had never seen Hiccup like this. It broke his heart but everything in his head reminded him that this was just proof he had struck the right nerve. The right fault line. Hiccup would tell him what he needed to know.
"If you want to save them, you know what to do." Stoick straightened up and turned his back on Hiccup to avoid watching the young man collapse into his chair, small half-sobs tapering into whimpers, and then into silence. Stoick had never seen Hiccup cry before, not since he was a very small child. Stoick's hands clenched into fists again. He had to do this. If Hiccup was telling the truth, then the one way to save his village and end the war was to take the nest, and only Hiccup could help him find it. Astrid likely knew it as well, but she would not be shaken by threats against her own life, and she knew Stoick would not follow through on threats against Hiccup. Threats against the dragons, maybe, but the weakest link was likely Hiccup. The one with the most knowledge was Hiccup. If this was what it took to save his people, then—
The words came so quietly Stoick was unsure for a moment if he'd heard them. He turned to stare at Hiccup, who was slumped in his chair staring at the map. "What did you say?" he breathed.
Hiccup looked up at him with red eyes and a tear-stained face. "Mom's alive," he said again, louder. "The dragon that took her didn't kill her. It just thought she belonged somewhere else. She's spent the last twenty years living among dragons. Saving them, protecting them, taking care of them."
Stoick felt his whole body begin to shake with anger. "How…how dare…"
Hiccup turned the map over and picked up the pencil. He leaned over the parchment and began to sketch something Stoick couldn't quite see. "She never came back because she felt she didn't belong, and she thought we would be better off without her. We've had lots of fights about it. She and I don't see eye to eye on a lot of things."
"How dare you try to bring her into—"
"I didn't know I had her eyes," Hiccup interrupted. "I thought they were a darker, greener version of yours but they're closer to hers. And I guess she's where I get my cheekbones." His arm shifted and for a moment Stoick caught a glimpse of a portrait in progress. "You never told me how warm her voice is, but when she's happy it sounds like, like pouring honey. And when she laughs she puts her hand over her stomach. She still can't cook. I don't know how she's lived this long on half-cooked fish. Or burned fish. Twenty years and she still can't cook. But she'll hum your song sometimes, usually when she's cooking. I don't know if she even knows she does it. And I didn't know she could sing so well." And then, to add to Stoick's shock, Hiccup began to hum a few bars of that old song. That old song that had only been played a handful of times on this island since Valka was taken from it. "I guess I get my clumsiness from her too, although she's really only clumsy when she's nervous. I've never seen anyone that graceful on the back of a dragon." Hiccup leaned closer to his drawing, frowning at a detail he was trying to get just right. "She smells like…spices. Warm and earthy and comforting, but…like spices."
Hiccup leaned back from his drawing and surveyed it. "She wants to stay out of the war between dragons and Vikings. She thinks Vikings won't ever change. She thinks you won't ever change. I can't decide whether or not she's right." He spun the parchment around and pushed it towards Stoick, who nearly fell to his knees.
Rough, gestural, and quickly done, but undeniably Valka. More wrinkles around the eyes than he remembered, more definition to the cheekbones as well. Hair filled in dark but with light wisps where what he guessed was gray had started at her temples. A smile no other portrait of her had ever captured. Hair braided just the same as it had always been, except maybe messier.
There had never been a portrait of Valka done that showed this much detail. No one had ever or could ever have described Valka to Hiccup with enough detail for him to produce such a perfect likeness.
Stoick felt tears building in his own eyes now. He looked from the perfect sketch of his long-lost wife to their child. "How…"
"She found me. Or we found each other. I haven't talked to her in a while; we had kind of a falling out. But I know where she is, and how to find her." Hiccup looked down at the drawing of his mother. "Maybe I can't get through to you, but maybe she can. I didn't want to bring her into this. I thought it was better to respect her wishes, but…I can't tell you how to find the nest, but I can tell you where to find her." Hiccup gave him a hard look. "I don't know if I can protect Astrid and Toothless, but of the two of them Astrid has a better chance. So here's the deal: I tell you how to find the woman you loved, and in return, you promise not to lay a hand on the woman I love."
Stoick fell, still shaking, into the chair behind him. He knew Hiccup wasn't lying about this. There were too many things about Valka he couldn't know without having met her. "Where?"
Hiccup flipped the map over. "Promise not to lay a hand on Astrid, or on Toothless if Astrid really is pregnant, and I'll tell you."
Stoick nodded. "You'll tell me where the nest is one day, but tell me this…and Astrid is safe."
Hiccup held his gaze for a long moment, and then he nodded back, and looked down at the map.
"Do you have one that shows further north?"