Summary: [A "Nightfall" story in two parts.] After the death of one of the flock's hatchlings, a young feral-Hiccup and Toothless fly away to grieve on their own, but end up having to escape from a ship's worth of Vikings.
ON WITH THE SHOW!
Smallest is dead.
There is no sound to say so, but the flock knows. For many days now Mother-of-Smallest has been curled around the hatchling who has stayed small when her brothers and sisters grew bigger, and gotten weaker as they grew stronger. Mother-of-Smallest has kept her warm and fed and comforted, and the flock has brought her food for the little one and curled up with them in the nest and talked and sung to them to tell Smallest to live and be strong, but now the silence of careful is a different silence, of sad sad.
Hiccup has been perched on a ledge in the sun with Toothless who is half himself and they are dozing and waiting and warm together, but now Toothless lifts his head and smells a different smell of sadness. The dragon-boy resting against his shoulder hears his breath change and his body tense, and he knows that the fear and the waiting are over but it is a bad over.
Still, he whimpers softly, asking worried scared sad curious doubtful pleading?
Toothless sighs regret and sad, and his heart-beloved companion crouches in on himself, small and grieving for Smallest, sharing the sorrow of the dragon-flock.
To human eyes, he would be an incongruous presence, a human boy in a nest full of dragons, but this is where he belongs. He knows no other life. The caverns of this dragon nest in the far north are his home; the dragons that live here ruled over by the great king are his family. Hiccup has no understanding that he is human; he has been raised among dragons and by dragons from infancy, accepted as one of them. He is entirely feral, an intelligent wild creature with clever paws, who speaks and mostly thinks as dragons do, obedient to the customs of the nest and subordinate to the flock's Alpha.
He has buried the trauma of his mother's death almost four years ago at human hands deep within himself, and forgotten.
Hiccup thinks of himself as half of a whole, inseparable from Toothless, who is more than a brother and more than a twin; the young dragon and the little boy are a single person, never apart for long. They feel each other's joy and frustration and playfulness, and now they hurt together, crooning sadness and regret for the death of one of their own. Hiccup presses his nose against his companion's scales and hunches his shoulders, hiding, humming a low sad sound, a complex tangle of regret sad loss grief sad frustration regret sad that means tears although dragons do not cry.
Death is a thing that happens but usually there is a reason. Death comes when there are wounds or hunger or age or sickness, but the flock had tried to care for her. Hiccup is not that much bigger than Smallest had been, but he has survived even though he is small and must be cared for by those who love him. He had slept beside Smallest to keep her warm and hidden against the cold that eats at the heart-fire inside. They are family: family keeps you warm in the cold.
But now she is dead, and they grieve, dragon and dragon-boy and all the flock around them as the understanding that does not need sound spreads like the little waves that are born in the rain.
From their perch the feral boy looks down at the cavern full of subdued dragons, crouched quietly on ledges and outcroppings and smooth stones that soak up sunlight, and the heat from the waters deep below, and that are good to lie on. It is strange for even part of the nest to be so still, but Mother-of-Smallest is curled around her weakest hatchling and it is like there is a predator waiting to lunge and claw and bite so dragons must be small and quiet to not draw the hunting eye and hungry jaws.
The dragon-boy tips his head to one side, caught by the idea and briefly distracted. Is the death that puts out heart-fires in Mother-of-Smallest now? Will she bite? Is that why no one will go near her and the hatchlings too young and silly to be quiet and stay away have been taken away to other nests in other caves?
Toothless senses the anxiety running through him and breathes gently at his fur and throat, offering reassurance and comfort even as he asks for it in return.
Hiccup has no good sharp claws like his dragon-kin do, but his soft claws and clever paws are good for petting dragons, so he leans against Toothless and they assure each other through touch and purring that the death has not caught them. Before long Shining Eyes lands on the rock with them and pushes smaller Toothless aside for space. The black dragon growls but there is too much sad to want to fight, and Hiccup climbs onto his partner's back so they can make room for Shining Eyes, who tips his head to look down at the pair and then lowers his nose to be petted too.
For all that he has lived in the nest for many years and is grown by the way dragons consider such things – he can hear the commands of the great Alpha without sound inside his skull – Hiccup is still a child, and in the silence and tension and grief of the nest he pets Shining Eyes for only a moment before he cannot bear it anymore, twisting away and whimpering frustration sadness fury fly fly us fly go us now now! to Toothless, begging to be anywhere else.
The two-who-are-one discovered long ago that it is easier for them to fly together if the dragon-boy has something to hold on to, and together they have invented a harness from leather strips and cords scavenged and stolen from human nests. So when Toothless scrambles to his paws and bounds across the stone and away, out of the nest, his companion stays safely on his shoulders. They fly more swiftly than any others in their nest, more recklessly, and while Hiccup is not afraid of falling they prefer to fly together.
Falling-and-catching is a good game, but now they want only to flee.
A child of dragons, Hiccup spends as much time in the air as he does on the ground, and flight is his lifeblood. The breath of the wind against them as they fly blows tangles of grief and fear from their souls as they tear through the sky, going nowhere in particular, just away, and the rising sun that slashes at them as it chases the stars burns at the hurting inside.
Dragons cannot outrun death, but perhaps they can outrun grief and leave it behind in their wake to snap at a tail that is far out of its reach. Grief is a predator, stalking them; they fly to escape.
Hiccup does not remember how to weep; he lost that reflex after his mother died and he forgot her to protect himself from the pain of that loss. Instead he cries as dragons do, screaming and wailing and yowling to the uncaring waves that hide a strange and different world and the faraway clouds that vanish when the dragon-pair chases them. Beneath his paws and his chest where he crouches astride Toothless' shoulders he can feel as much as hear his partner-companion crying counterpoint, deeper wails and matching howls.
How long they fly, the dragon-boy does not know. Time is meaningless to him – there are days and nights, there is the tide, there are winters. As much a hunter as his dragon-cousins, he notes the passage of whales which sing like water-cousins so are not hunted, and the great migrations of prey-beasts which are. The sun moves in its long flight far above, and in time its brightness shows them the flash of water that means waves breaking on a shore.
It suits Toothless well enough that this should be their destination – they cannot fly forever, at least not yet. He back-wings for a moment above the rocks of the shore, wary and watchful in case there are other dragons here who will object to their presence, or snapping biting traps, or other dangers. When nothing attacks them immediately the black dragon alights in an open space where they cannot be easily ambushed – the trees close by are still too far for an easy pounce.
His companion leaps from Toothless' shoulders to crouch on the ground beside him and snarl, angry a bit now and burning through the hurting inside. The dragon-boy snatches at the closest thing he can find, a small stone, and tosses it away. The over-arm throw that comes so naturally to human children is alien to this feral child, and the stone does not go far.
Still, it is a good distraction – the action displaces a not-to-eat! bug that darts across the reaching paw and startles Hiccup into a leap backwards and an outraged shriek. He lands in the alert and ready stance that comes most naturally to him, with his weight on his back paws and his clever front paws low almost on the ground for balance, ready to leap away or recoil if need be, yowling surprise and disgust – bugs like these are not-to-eat because they bite, and they move like eels!
In the rough terrain of caves and cliffs and forest that make up much of the feral boy's environment, he moves as much on all his paws as two, whichever is more convenient from moment to moment. But he likes to have his clever paws free to do things with, and his movements are much like those of his cousins who do not have separate claws and paws from their wings.
The not-to-eat! bug disappears into the ground again, and the little boy snarls after it as it goes, snub nose wrinkling with his distaste, setting his paws down and lifting his head as if he has been victorious over a great enemy.
He is almost quick enough to dodge a swat from Toothless' tailfins as his beloved-companion uses it to knock him over, mocking his triumph.
Hiccup wants a tail. He will have one someday just like he will have wings when they are ready to grow (he knows this for sure), but if he had one now he could use it to retaliate and knock Toothless over too! Instead he picks himself up from his tumble unharmed and leaps at the offending tail, batting at it and snarling pretend threats. Toothless waves it at him, a tempting target, as he stalks, hiding among the grass as he would from small prey and leaping out in ambush as Toothless snatches the tail away and pounces at the much littler dragon-boy.
Black dragon and feral dragon-boy tussle and wrestle, chasing each other through the field back and forth and all around, yowling and screaming and shrieking. Hiccup scratches his soft-claws down his beloved-companion's nose and Toothless snaps at the offending paw, catching it in a mouth with no teeth and refusing to let go, tugging the dragon-boy off balance to sprawl and scramble in the grass until he can reclaim his paw and smear wet all over one of Toothless' ear-flaps in revenge. He dodges away before Toothless can pin him down and lick him until he is wet all over, forgetting his grief for the moment in the amusement and exertion of playing a chasing game with a partner much bigger and faster than he is.
Whipping a wing around to catch his beloved other-half and trap him, Toothless rumbles and yelps and chatters amusement as Hiccup escapes and dives beneath the black dragon's chest where it is hard to see, trusting Toothless, who is so much bigger and heavier, unconditionally. They play rough and they play fiercely but they have never truly hurt each other. So the black dragon drops onto his side and rolls, snatching the feral little boy and pulling him along so that they end up in a tangled heap near the edge of the forest, laughing breathlessly together in the manner of dragons, in chirps and purrs and thrumming deep in the chest, and the open-mouthed gaping dragon grin that flashes a tongue but does not bare teeth.
They know together that the game is over, relaxing and shifting so that they are curled up comfortably. Toothless coils himself around to make a nest for his beloved-companion to hide in under a wing, but folds it back a moment later so that Hiccup can lean against his side and look all around them. It is always safer to have one of them watching and careful.
Hiccup stares interestedly at the forest as his Toothless-self rests from the flight and the game and the sadness before that, looking for anything that might be fun to play with or amusing to investigate or good to hunt, or that might hunt them. He is as much a predator as any wild animal, but buried beneath his dragonish upbringing there is a human intelligence that thrives on making things and manipulating the world around him, and he is observant of his environment and all it has to offer him.
He knows already that there are not-to-eat! bugs here; he can see one bird's nest that might have very late eggs in it, so there might be more deeper into the woods. There is a burrow for some small creature in the earth beneath a tree; there are plants that look like that and are good-to-eat. The feral boy eats mostly the same diet as a dragon, but his human body needs other nutrients, and instinct encourages him to experiment. He has been ill from such experiments in the past, but he has learned many things from his adoptive family, including how to throw back up something that is not good-to-eat.
His whistle of look you look beloved interest alert amusement interest mixed with the chattering want want want makes one of Toothless' ear-flaps lift and turn towards him. Hiccup slides an amused look at him and makes a humming buzzing noise that the bigger dragon recognizes as his companion's mimicry of bees!
They readily associate bees with hives and hives with honey, and both like the sweet sticky taste of it. But while Toothless is not bothered by bees as long as they do not get in his eyes or mouth, he knows his dragon-boy is vulnerable to them.
No! Toothless snorts at him.
Hiccup whines a please? but the black dragon merely glares another refusal. He is not in the mood to spend the rest of the day out-flying bees or hearing his beloved-companion whimper over the pain of stings.
Hiccup grumbles, but does not pursue the possibility for now. Instead he darts away to the rocks at the shore, climbing across them to investigate just as he had scanned the forest's edge. Toothless half-closes his eyes, watching protectively and taking joy in his beloved-companion's enjoyment in exploration. They have never doubted that they are two halves of a soul, for in so many ways they are the same. Toothless dreams of traveling, chasing the horizon and wandering to new places, and he knows one day they will go together. They will do and see wonderful things.
Perched atop a crag, Hiccup freezes for a moment, and then flattens himself to the stone. His body reflects interest and a bit of fear and uncertainty, and Toothless' head comes up in response to his partner's signals. He whistles soft questioning sounds, you you worry you threat? concern you?
His dragon-boy glances back at him, and gestures you come-here-you hurry interest anxious look look you come-here.
Staying low to the ground as if hunting, in response to Hiccup's anxiety, Toothless slinks cautiously to his beloved's side, seeing what he sees.
At once the black dragon bristles, growling. There is a ship!
They understand ships. Ships are things of humans, because humans cannot fly, so they float on the ocean in ships of wood.
And humans are the enemy. Humans are trappers and killers of dragons, hunters of their flock and their family and their kin.
Ships and humans go together, Toothless reasons, so if there is a ship there are humans, and if there are humans they are in danger here.
He sees absolutely no contradiction between his fear of humans and the presence of the feral dragon-boy at his paws. To Toothless, and to the flock, Hiccup is a dragon, not a human. That his body is human is not important.
Toothless is well aware that of the two of them, the black dragon is more cautious – Hiccup is always putting his nose into something he should not, and it is good that they are a pair together, because who else would rescue him if his dragon-companion was not there? So he is not very surprised that Hiccup is now looking at the ship with interest rather than worry and humming a soft and thoughtful want maybe curious want us maybe me you together us want want.
Threat! Toothless whistles a warning.
His dragon-boy chirps back maybe maybe look you look.
Toothless looks. It is still a ship.
But, he realizes after he has looked some more, there are no humans. The ship is perched on the land like a water-cousin, ungainly and off-balance, with the waves pulling at it to bring it back where it belongs. But it has claws of its own made of binding rope clinging to trees and stones that hold it in place, so that its chest is on land and its tail in the sea. He cannot hear any human noises – and humans are loud – and when he lifts his head to smell the wind he cannot smell humans close by, only ocean and the strange sharp smell of the ship, wet metal and fire-ash and old water.
C'mon, Hiccup whistles an invitation, clambering across the rocks towards the distant ship before Toothless can catch him and stop him. When he knows he is a safe distance away out of reach he peeks back over his shoulder and yelps a teasing challenge that means can't-catch-me! before dropping out of sight behind a stone and reemerging a moment later, sneaking towards the ship as if stalking prey that may look over and see him and flee.
The black dragon is less reckless than the dragon-boy who is his other half, but only barely. He takes up the dare and the game willingly, keeping his body low to the ground and his wings folded in tight, careful of the long tail that makes him so maneuverable in the air, and finding hiding places of his own.
Sliding carefully and quietly into the water at the edge of the too-steep shore, he advances step by step, wading through the shallows and prowling towards the ship. Off to his side he catches a glimpse of his Hiccup-beloved-self shadowing him. They have hunted together before and this is a game they know how to play, moving in staggered advances and careful glances, keeping each other and their prey in view but staying where it cannot see them.
They have never hunted a ship before, though.
Close to the ship there is nowhere for dragon or dragon-boy to hide; the beach is open and empty except for the ship. It goes against Toothless' instincts to approach the ship-prey, motionless and dead-thing that it is, but Hiccup has no such hesitations. As he advanced on their target he had climbed momentarily into a tree to watch it from higher up, and there are still no humans nearby.
Hiccup is not afraid of dead ships, only live humans. He knows only one good thing of humans – they make clever things that dragons cannot, and they are good to steal from. The dragon-boy is a proper little thief, and he is eager to see what new-and-different things the ship might have for him to play with. Sometimes his kin attack ships that have intruded into their territory just as they would fight off stranger-dragons; sometimes they raid human nests for food when winters are bad, or because it is fun sometimes to tempt danger and fly quickly in and away before humans can attack them, or when there might be interesting toys to steal.
In this way the feral boy has acquired many things he could not otherwise make. He cannot tan leather or preserve furs from the hides of the animals his dragon-family hunt, when they are easier to catch than fish. He retains the ability to sew, although he does not remember being taught, but cannot make either needle or thread. He loves to draw, and considers the rough paper that humans can make a wondrous thing. It preserves his sketches longer than the stone of the nest, as it can be hidden safely: dragons are less likely to walk across it.
He treasures the knife he picked up during a raid – he cannot forge metal, although he can keep the blade sharp and clean, free from the rust that is the death of metal. Metal bleeds, and its blood is poison. Dragons bitten deeply by traps with the death of metal on them die even when freed, and therefore Hiccup despises the smell of it, understanding that the death of metal is also the death of his kin.
Eager and curious, he pads out of hiding and into the open without hesitation, approaching the ship as he would a dragon-cousin much bigger than him who is one of his flock-mates but who might be reluctant to be climbed on. He knows with perfect confidence that Toothless will watch over him, and directs all his attention towards the beached ship. It takes him only a moment to realize that its flanks are too high for him to leap to – he is a small dragon-child, and there are no good rocks for him to climb.
Turning back to where he knows his other half is waiting, he whines, pleading and inviting. He does not try to hide that he is eager to explore the ship, but the open beach all around him with the unfamiliar presence of the ship and its promise of humans is a threat that make him feel very alone.
Alone is alien to him, more so than the ship.
Reluctantly, but preferring to be with his partner-companion – they are better together, they know – Toothless emerges from his hiding place and joins him in the shadow of the human ship. It reassures both of them to be in contact again, and in a leap the black dragon takes off and hovers over the ship, looking for a good landing place – or a potential ambush.
Ships are strange to land on, and the dead wood feels odd beneath Toothless' paws. He shifts them uncomfortably, looking around. This is a smaller ship than some they have seen on the great northern ocean, but he knows he cannot see all of it – when he landed he felt that there was a cave below.
Fascinated, his dragon-boy companion leaps to the ship-ground to feel the cave below for himself, vocalizing his excitement at the adventure in lilts and cries and chattering sounds, yelping and purring and humming. He wonders how to get into the cave, but a moment later turns away, reluctant to be caught in a place that might be like a trap. It is his role in the flock to help his kin – and even dragon-cousins not of the flock – escape from traps set by humans, freeing them with his clever paws that can do things other paws cannot. He has developed a deep aversion to such things, and hates them with all the fire in his heart.
Instead he darts around the unfamiliar environment, leaping from surface to surface, coiling around the trees with huge leaves with strange patterns planted in the ship, and tapping at things that are metal but cannot be removed. In the tail of the ship there are many things hidden under a covering like a wing, too many to look at all at once, and there are so many other things on the ship to see and encounter that he cannot pause to look at those under the not-a-wing, although he marks them in his memory as he had marked the bees, as something to come back to.
There are many sharp metal things that are like his precious knife but are too big to use, so he ignores them, sniffing at bits of fabric and fur that smell strongly of humans. Lessons so strongly taught that they have become instinct make him recoil from these – in the nest hatchlings are taught the smell of humans from such things, and the scent evokes the memory of many repetitions of snarls and cries of danger avoid threat danger fear warning-of-enemy.
He pulls on a big fur hanging from the flank of the ship to see if it will move and is taken by surprise when it does, collapsing onto him and smothering the little boy in thick fur and suffocating human-stink.
Hiccup shrieks in surprise more than pain, flailing. In fear he uses his clever paws as his cousins do, to slash and strike and tear, rather than thinking to grab hold of the fur and pull it away; it is in fear that Hiccup is most a dragon. His thrashing and clawing succeeds only in entangling him further, small body lost in the unfamiliar darkness of the fur.
Toothless comes to his rescue, roaring at the fur as if it were a living thing that might retreat when threatened, but only for a moment. Snapping out his fangs, he grabs an edge of the fur and backs away, shaking his head to make the fur thrash and snarling deep in his throat.
Struggling free, Hiccup screams his own fury and leaps to the attack. He thinks this time, filling his paws with the fur and hanging on tight so that Toothless can rip and tear it, shredding through it like prey. As his companion pounces on the fur and wrestles with it, the black dragon summons up fire that is not blasting-fire and scorches holes through it. When the edges of the new holes have cooled, Hiccup snatches at them and tries to tear it into smaller pieces.
When they have properly defeated it, Toothless catches the shredded wreckage up in his jaws and prances triumphantly across the broad flat back of the ship towards its flanks, crowing his pride in their victory. Hiccup hides under a piece of the ship near the covering wing, huffing in indignation and wrinkling his nose at the stink of human furs still on him. There is nothing here to brush against to rasp the stink away – everything smells of humans or of the ship.
He tries anyway, dipping his shoulder to the wood of the ship and rolling. Half-upside down, he watches Toothless shaking the defeated fur into smaller scraps, and Hiccup purrs at the sight.
From the ground of the ship he can see more of the hidden things, and one of them catches his attention. The little boy sits up, slipping out from under the piece of the ship and ducking under the wing.
Amidst the many other wonderful things that he does not recognize or does not understand, there is something he does.
It is a piece of paper, which is good to draw on, sticking out from another thing that holds it like paws on small prey. It flutters slightly in the sea wind when Hiccup lifts the covering wing away, tempting him from its hiding place on top of a round wooden thing that echoes when he taps it curiously. When he reaches up to grab hold of the paper and pull it down to the ground of the ship, it resists him. The thing like capturing paws pulls back and tries to keep it.
Hiccup wants the paper. He has found it and he wants it, so now it is his if he can take it. Retreating for a moment, he thinks, planning a new attack, and attack he does, leaping at the thing that is keeping the paper from him. His pounce knocks it to the ground of the ship, revealing that it is not a solid thing, but many papers all together.
It falls open and there is magic.
Magic, because Hiccup is the only one in his world who draws, but here are many drawings, and in such bright colors even in the shadow of the wing that he turns away momentarily, looking at it from the side of his eyes in case it falls into his blind spot and disappears. It strikes him silent and still, all his signals and all his sounds lost, at a loss for even how to call to his Toothless-beloved. What of it, the death of the fur that so pleases Toothless? What of it, next to this?
When he reaches out to touch it, he does so as if it might sting like bees when he reaches for the honey in the hive. There have never been bees in paper before, but this is so much paper it is something else entirely, and there has never been magic in paper before.
The colors coil like eels and cut like claws, as bright and real as dragon-scales. And in his wonder he realizes that there are many papers all together, like dragons in a nest, and perhaps – all different, just like dragons? All so colorful, so wonderful?
Hiccup needs this thing. He turns to tell Toothless of his discovery, to share the magic with the one he loves best.
But it is while they are so separated that a human climbs over the side of the ship.
Toothless freezes with the fur in his jaws, shocked. With the stink of the fur in his nose and the distraction of it he has not smelled or heard the human approach, and it carries a dead thing that smells of prey-blood to mask its scent. Dropping the fur, the dragon tries to back away, but the flank of the ship is behind him, blocking his retreat.
His instinct is to leap and fly, but his dragon-boy is half-hidden beneath the wide wing in the tail of the ship. Shock is fading from Hiccup's body, replaced with fear, and he is staring now at the intruder, still and silent in the presence of a predator that has not yet seen him. Toothless will not, he cannot, leave Hiccup in danger.
Instead he growls, threatening, and flares his wings to seem bigger. The human makes noises and moves in ways that are angry and surprised and scared but angry is stronger, and he drops the dead prey and points a thing at Toothless that the dragon recognizes as a weapon that flies.
A threat to one is a threat to both, and Hiccup emerges from his hiding place, shrieking threats of his own. He too recognizes the weapon as dangerous, knows that Toothless will not fly away without him, and is willing to put himself in danger to be a distraction so they can reunite and escape together. The magic is forgotten – there is a human, there is a weapon-that-flies, and it is threatening Toothless!
When the human looks over his shoulder at the dragon-boy, its movements and body language change; it moves angry and confused and tense but then there is shock and more confusion.
Hiccup has not been this close to a human in three years and more, and he sees nothing familiar in this one; he recognizes the man only as a threat, an enormous thick-furred predator-beast that is hunting them, and is terrified.
The death that has taken Smallest has followed them; death is a predator that is tracking them! He will not let it have them; they will fight!
The colossus reaches out a paw towards him, making loud sounds. And it stares. Its jaw opens and it shows teeth.
To the dragon-boy all of this means attack. The staring is hostile – dragons stare when they are trying to intimidate a rival – the voice is threatening; when the man moves towards him the dragon-boy scrambles away, careful to avoid being tangled in the wing, trying to keep his eyes on the approaching human danger and Toothless beyond him.
But the human cannot easily watch both of them, so Hiccup yowls, competing with the human sounds, baring his teeth and raising a paw to swipe, curling his soft-claws as if they were dangerous and sharp, ready to bite and claw if the human comes too close.
He holds the man's attention long enough for Toothless to leap into the air, bounding across the ship and bowling the human over. But Hiccup was watching for that and at once he is on his dragon-companion's back and they are over the side of the ship and away.
Almost as soon as he begins his dive to the shore the black dragon tries to stop in midair, hovering for only a moment before he beats his wings to take them into the air and higher instead of down to the ground where they could hide. Other humans have emerged from the forest and are approaching, shouting. A flock is always more dangerous than a single dragon alone; humans must be much the same. A sharp turn takes them into clear air over the ocean and out of range of an easy shot, with Hiccup settled into the harness and panting with fear.
They know that humans do not fly, so they put all their strength and speed into flight, leaving the roars and snarls of angry humans far below them as Toothless flips his tail under him and races up and up and up, soaring almost straight up into the air where they are safe.
Only when the island is a distant small thing like a pebble on the ground below them do they stop, hovering high above many clouds. Both dragon and dragon-boy are gasping for breath in the thinner air of distant sky, with exertion, and with the rush of battle and fear.
Tangling his paws in the flying-with and lowering his face to the back of Toothless' skull, Hiccup sighs the huffing sound of a dragon's sigh, a shallow sound in the thin air, crooning fly fear surprise fly danger threat fear anger fly and the chirp of up up up up. Beneath him, Toothless rumbles in agreement and irritation at being ambushed.
Hurt? Hiccup whistles, low and worried. He relaxes only when his dragon-companion purrs and rolls an eye back at him, questioning silently.
The dragon-boy considers for only a moment. Back in the air, he is fearless, and it irks him to have been so easily chased away from an adventure he had been enjoying. Away from the human, and with both of them unharmed, the threat seems much less.
When Toothless turns his head to look homeward, Hiccup yelps no! and gestures down back towards the island.
The bigger dragon sets his wings into a steady glide, bringing the pair back down into air that is easier to breathe. He considers it, as they fly. Toothless is not ready to go home yet either.
It is dangerous, to return to a place where humans are, but they have already once turned their tail to an enemy and fled. They fled from the nest, fearing the death of Smallest, escaping from grief, and they flew so quickly and so well that grief could not hunt them down and pounce on them. In the nest now there will be hurting; sadness has made a nest in the minds of the flock. It has taken the shape of Smallest and the flock will hold it gently in their jaws because it has her shape and Smallest was beloved.
Toothless would rather prowl alert for humans than for grief that hunts dragons and hurts them. They can see humans coming; humans are loud. Grief is quiet, and it sneaks.
Perhaps it is foolish, but they will be foolish together.
From his shoulders the black dragon can sense his partner's delight when he sets a course back down towards the island instead of back home, catching an easy wind that sends them in a long spiral around and away from the beach where the ship is with its humans.
There are humans hunting in the deeper woods, concealed from quick-running prey-beasts but obvious from above when they fly over silent and careful, watching. The humans do not see them even when the dragons dive between the trees and land quietly, following them and tracking them as they track prey. The pair pretends briefly that they are hunting humans, which is not a good thing to do. Humans are enemies, but not prey; dragons do not eat humans. It is a stalking game without a pounce at the end, not even on a waving tail or a sleeping nose, and the chase is not as good without the leap.
When the dragon-pair returns to the field they had landed in before, Toothless is puzzled by his companion's behavior – as they fish in the shallows off the shore and scavenge in the edge of the woods, Hiccup continues to climb to the rocks to watch the ship.
When he whistles a question the dragon-boy shakes it away like flies and turns instead to the problem of the beehive, still temptingly nested in and around the trunk of a tree but betrayed by its humming, a purr that will so easily become a snarl.
Toothless is not fooled, but he will let his beloved-companion keep his secret for now.
Only once do humans come too close, as the pair splashes in the water, pouncing at fish. They are so loud, shouting to each other as they stumble through the rocks and trample across the sandy gravel of the shore, that dragon and dragon-boy are concealed in the trees long before they can see the humans.
There are two of them, walking together but clumsy under the weight of holding-things on their backs; when one pushes the other, water splashes from a holding-thing and makes the fur on its shoulders wet. The wet one shouts; its voice is angry but its body is not, which is confusing, especially in a probable enemy. The dragon-pair would be alert to a dragon that spoke that way until they knew more and could tell which message was the true one and which the deception.
The holding-things that are holding water are heavy on them, and they walk like they are about to fall, staggering on back legs that do not look balanced enough to support them. It makes them slow.
Hiccup is much less interested in the humans on the shore – they are leaving, Toothless is watching them, and surely nothing so heavy-laden and awkward could catch him and his beloved-companion – than he is in the still-buzzing beehive. He cannot see it all, much of it is hidden in the tree, but he can hear it, and the memory of the pain of stings is far away.
Besides, there is a good trick to stealing from bees. Dragons like honey and the crunch of honeycomb, and a flock-mate had taught them the trick after Hiccup had come home on the back of his Toothless-self, licking at many stings that made his paws hot inside and nipping the thorns of them from skin tight around that fire. Hiccup thinks of her as Patience, because that is how she hunts. She does not stalk or chase but waits for the right time to strike.
The feral boy still cannot breathe fire however he tries, so he will need Toothless' help to make the trick work. The trick is in the chill of the autumn and of the sun retreating from the sky, and in smoke from dragon-fire; it is a trick of cleverness and speed and watching the bees.
Bees! Hiccup pesters, buzzing as they do and rolling to bat at Toothless' nose, chirping please please and purring in anticipation of the honey the hive will yield.
When Toothless rolls his eyes but agrees the dragon-child scavenges among the forest floor for damp leaves that will smolder but not flame, creating a nest of them on the ground beneath the hive, moving carefully and offering them no threat. Bees are sleepy and slow in the cold; they have no fires inside and fire is strange to them. Fire will kill them, but smoke will make them sleepier still.
The bigger dragon breathes a soft huff of fire that is not battle-fire at the nest of debris, and his companion tosses dirt at it to muffle the flame until it releases only smoke from the half-buried seed of fire.
The trick begins as a waiting trick, waiting for smoke, but soon it will become a flying-quickly trick. Hiccup leaps to his place on Toothless' shoulders, winding his paws into the flying-with, and they tense to pounce. The black dragon's tail waves in anticipation however hard he tries to keep it still and Hiccup can feel the twitch of muscles; he too trembles, ready to leap and strike and fly.
They would not have thought of this trick – they are too reckless too often, but Patience is a good hunter of bees because she knows how to watch and wait.
When the smoke is fading away and the bees that crawl on the outside of the hive are slow and not flying away when they emerge, the two-who-are-one prepare to pounce.
Toothless plans their escape, holding the path upwards and away in his mind, and closes his eyes and his jaw so that bees will not hide in his mouth and sting his soft tongue. He instinctively seals his nostrils closed as he would when diving for fish, and on his back he feels Hiccup press his nose against the scales of the dragon's neck, hiding his face and his body beneath his own head-fur and the furs that he wears to stay warm and protect himself.
Now! Toothless chirps, a quick sound of immediacy and the lightning-strike of a pounce, and leaps.
His claws knock the part of the hive that is outside the tree, tearing it from the branch, but he does not snatch the broken honeycomb or wait for the bees to be angry – he takes off up into the sky to outrun them, as fast as his wings can go, knocking away the first wave of angry nest-defenders with his broad-finned tail. The scales of it are too strong for bees to sting, and the few that chase him find no soft skin exposed.
It is a waiting trick again when they are far away from the angry bees. Hiccup peeks out from his makeshift hiding place when he feels his dragon-companion slow into a hover, the pulsing of fanning wings a familiar signal. He chuckles a dragon's laugh when he realizes that they have escaped without stings, purring good happy us good good and flicking open and closed his paws in satisfaction, comparing his memories of painful stings to the unmarked skin. They were not good at this trick when Patience taught it to them, because they did not like to wait for smoke to make bees tired, but they learned because stings hurt.
While they wait for the bees to tire and give up and forget, they survey the island from above again, marking the activities of the humans in their hunting. Many of them have returned to the ship, so Toothless is surprised that Hiccup is still so interested in it. Unless there are many flock-mates all around them in a raid, the pair avoids humans even more carefully than they avoid angry bees.
Whatever great secret this is that draws his beloved dragon-boy companion back towards the ship, Toothless will not let him keep it for much longer.
It grows dark, as they fly for the waiting trick and for the joy of it, and the brightest and bravest stars are venturing back into the still-lit sky when they return to the broken hive.
The fragment of honeycomb lies on the ground where Toothless struck it down, and the bees have given up on it. Bees are too small to carry broken pieces back to the hive, and they had no enemy to fight, not even the tiny ants that are trying to steal the honey for themselves.
They split the honeycomb, brushed free of ants, between them. Toothless laps his piece up when Hiccup offers it to him and crunches it with enjoyment – it is a bigger piece, because Toothless is a bigger dragon and needs more food. This they know. Hiccup curls up at his side and licks at the comb, slowly and carefully. Toothless smells thinking on him, hears it in the beat of his heart and the rhythm of his breath, sees it in the set of his shoulders, in the shadows over his eyes that are watching invisible things, and in the tension in his jaw.
You-beloved you you love-you what you worried? Toothless trills. Hiccup is quiet when he is thinking; his signals are hidden. While Toothless loves that his beloved-companion is clever it bothers him, sometimes, that it is when Hiccup is thinking that Toothless cannot understand him in a single glance.
Hiccup points with his nose at the honeycomb and croons sad.
Toothless hums, softly, wondering. Honey is a good thing and a favorite of them both. It makes them happy, to hunt it and eat it together; the black dragon purrs involuntarily.
The association between the taste and the feeling is older than either of them can remember; it is as indefinable as air but real as stone. It means each other, it means you and me together, because the taste of it is forever linked with the first time infant and hatchling had met. The nameless hatchling who was me inside and would be called the sound Toothless by his human foster-mother had been drawn to the sweet smell of honey. He had found it attached to a small hatchling who was strange but also warm and soft and…right.
The baby had reached out to him and offered to share, and the hatchling who was only me had realized that this too was me.
Sad why sad you sad? Toothless asks now.
Hiccup gestures small, holding one paw above the ground to suggest a little dragon. He means Smallest. He would have brought this treat back to her, if she still lived.
The little boy misses her now, past the exhaustion of waiting and fear and the first sharp bite of her death. Even when new hatchlings are born they are almost always bigger than he is, or they do not stay smaller for long, and he had enjoyed having someone smaller than himself to care for. A healthy dragon-flock is a good place to be a child, born human or born dragon. No hatchling is ever alone, and the freedom of the nest that is the domain of the great king is theirs. They are safe and protected under the care of their mother and their mother's mate and the dragons who love them best, whoever is closest and willing to play.
Hiccup is small, he is young, but he is an adult of the flock. It is his role too to protect and care for hatchlings, but it is strange sometimes to be smaller than a newborn. For his whole life he has been protected by dragons much bigger than he is, and part of him wants to be big enough to protect others in the same way. He has no wide wings that hatchlings can hide beneath, no tail to coil around them and for them to chase. Toothless does, but while they are a single self it is not the same.
So he had been drawn to Smallest, who almost fit under his jaw the way he hides against the warm purring throats of bigger dragons. He had made her a flying-with of her own like Toothless wears, but smaller like she was smaller, when she had looked at the original with interest and amusement, and when she chewed through one of the cords he had fixed it for her. He had drawn shapes all over her nest, shapes that in his mind told a story, and the dragon-boy and his Toothless-companion had danced those stories for her to watch.
Together they had wandered away to find interesting things, flowers that did not grow in the nest and a prey-beast killed quickly to protect the rich black fur, and they had fetched them back home for Smallest to see. The feral boy had brought to her nest a clever thing he is working on that does not yet work, fitting the shed and broken claws of dragons to his own soft-claws so that they will be sharp instead, and she had watched him wondering and baffled as he experimented, looking at Toothless' paws and trying to recreate them.
And she had died anyway.
She had been his friend, but now he cannot bring her the honeycomb that they hunted away from the bees so cleverly.
When Toothless wraps a front leg around him and breathes into his fur he smells like honey over the deeper scent of dragon and the distinct scent of Toothless; Hiccup knows that Toothless can smell more things than he can, but then Hiccup's nose is very small and it can only smell big smells. It is enough.
They hum together a sound that can only be described as melancholy, a sound of grief that is real but must be survived and conquered. The life they lead does not have the luxury of denying the reality and the power of death. They can only outrun it as long as possible, be wary of its traps and wise to its poisons, and fight back when they can.
The honeycomb is bittersweet, but sweet still.
To be continued.