Summary: [A "Nightfall" prequel] A change in the weather leaves Toothless and dragon-boy Hiccup out in the cold, but the refuge they find is not unoccupied…
Author's Note: My Nightfall universe is a take on the "Cloudjumper took Hiccup too" scenario; what you need to know (SPOILERS!) is that baby Toothless and baby Hiccup met in the sanctuary nest, that Valka died when her son was very young, and that Hiccup grew up believing himself a dragon. Nightfall will tell you what happened when he and Toothless came to Berk; "Firewalk" is set immediately previous.
ON WITH THE SHOW!
On the edge of the marshes, the fox stalks her prey.
She does not think of herself by a name, only by an awareness of who she is and what she is. When the grass was newest she was Wanting, the heat under her skin matching the warmth of the sun outside turning her winter-grey fur back to burning reddish brown, and she yowled with the joy of it until another of her kind found her. She drove that one away, and others after him, until one who smelled best of all followed her howls in the deep of the night and cornered her in her burrow, and that was good.
When the grass grew long she was Mother, which is fullness and movement both inside. She was the nips of her kits at her belly and at her tail when they grew bigger, the taste of prey-fur in her jaws and its helpless struggling as she carried it half-dead back to the den that smelled of milk and kits and safety rather than dry dirt and musk as it does when she is Fox alone. Then she was the sharp quick sound of her voice as she called to her kits as they played in the long grass, and her snarls as the hawk dove to catch the littlest one, and the howls of grief when its claws were too quick and its beak too sharp, driving her away from the scent of her kit's blood. When she was Mother she was the contentment of her kits sleeping all around her, a full den and a full belly and a full day of teaching and hunting and playing and guarding her family and her home and her territory – when she was Mother all these things were hers and she was them.
Now she is Hungry, and Hunting, but always she is Fox. That there are others who are also Fox does not concern her – of course there are many who are Fox. Her kits whose new territories are near her own are all Fox, although each has its own scent marking them as Mother-and-Mate-and-New-One; her Mate was Fox. When the grass is new again there will be a New-Mate who will be Fox. The male who would not be driven off by snaps and snarls as he should have been, and who tore her ear so that it scarred long ago was Fox-enemy. The aging female who trespassed across her scent-lines was Fox-rival at first, and then when they hunted together to protect the kits became Fox-friend.
It is right that there are others who are Fox, but this is her territory, and she is herself, so she is the most important Fox of all.
She hears the movements of a small scuttling thing, and her ears prick and turn to follow it. Her paws follow it too, treading lightly so the prey will not hear her pawsteps, moving across soft damp mud like a shadow of a reddening leaf.
Her attention is on her prey, but always she is aware of her surroundings. She sees the shadows of birds above her and hears the movements of the ones that step through the reeds and splash through the shallow water. If she comes close enough to one she will pounce. When she is hungry she does not care what she eats. The scuttling thing would be good to eat, but so would the hot quick blood of an unwary bird. If the leaping of the cold frogs, dropping into the water like stones and with salty water in their flesh, brings them within reach of her claws and her jaws, she will eat them too. She plans for the distant future only dimly, but within her small world possibilities unroll like raindrops.
The movements she is following stop suddenly, and she listens for the smallest shift that will betray its hiding place. When nothing moves she remembers other hunts, and puts her muzzle to the edge of a stone, levering it upwards with her sensitive nose and darting a quick paw underneath, batting at the exposed ground.
She pins down an escaping beetle and crunches through its hard shell with satisfaction, tail lashing once before she stills it, hoping to remain undetected from prey and predator both.
Still Hungry, the fox hunts on, scavenging. A mess of watery frog eggs, clinging to the underside of a low-hanging leaf, vanishes into her, and she licks away their remnants from it, quenching hunger and thirst all at once.
Something else splashes, further away. It is a bigger sound than Fox likes, and her ears go down cautiously rather than up. When she scents the air she smells the rich musk of the swamp: moving, bustling life underpinned by creeping, rotting death. She tracks the movements of the small lizards that dart across the stone and vanish into the moss, knowing that they are smaller than her and thus good to eat. Their defense is their speed, and they do not bite.
A shift in the wind sends Fox bolting for shelter, but she is far from her den and there are no good hollows here to hide in. Everything is wetter than she likes, and too shallow. But the scent in the air is like the small lizards only much stronger, and like fire.
Fox knows dragons when she smells them. There are many dragons on Fox's island, living in a cave that smells of sharp metal and of smoke and of many dragons. She avoids dragons because she does not know if they will eat her or not, and because they snap at her and snarl when they cross paths.
In her world there are only herself, and other Foxes, and things that can be eaten, and things that can eat her. There are unliving things, too, things that are not dead but were never alive at all, but because they do not move they do not matter. Dragons are not small enough to eat, so Fox is afraid of them.
She huddles in her rudimentary shelter until she is Hungry again, and only then ventures out to hunt, treading cautiously.
When she peeks out from a thick cluster of reeds she looks for the dragon that frightened her, and sees it easily. It is not like the dragons a bit bigger than even Fox-enemy, that run together and fill the air with smoke.
It is a much bigger dragon, dark as the inside of her safe den. Fox has nothing to compare it to in terms of size, and she struggles to judge how far away it is and how close she can get because of it. Finally she recognizes the pond it is fishing in, front paws underwater and sharp teeth bared as it snaps at the sullen fish that lurk in the deeper waters.
Fox feels a bite of hunger in her stomach as she thinks about the big fish. They swim too deeply for Fox to hunt them, but once there was a dead fish on the shore. There was a hawk, too, that had caught the fish and was tearing at it. But Fox was hungry then, and her kits were small and blind and squeaking, and Fox who was Mother then had leapt at the hawk and taken its fish for herself and her kits.
Fox is very Hungry now, so she creeps along the edge of the pond, edging towards the dark dragon. Perhaps if she is clever and small there will be scraps of big fish that she can snatch and run away with as quick as the flick of a tail away from pouncing kits.
When she gets closer her courage fails her. The dragon is too big, and its teeth as it grabs a fish from the water are like the beaks of many hawks all diving together.
She wonders why it is alone, and then is afraid that it is not. The dragons she knows are always many of them together, running and leaping and flying in the dark with snatching claws. Fox looks all around, curling her tail in tight so that a pouncing paw cannot trap it, and listens carefully for the movement and for the quick breathing of a hunter.
Terrified now, Fox hears rustling in the reeds and scents another dragon, and instinctively she leaps away. Prey instead of predator, she puts all her fear and all her strength into her escape, and scrambles for footing when the wet mud of the water's edge, hidden and deceptive under moss and algae and mats of leaf-mold and dead grass, betrays her.
Fox finds herself at bay with the water behind her and a dragon chasing her, but still she is quick enough to turn and bare her teeth, snarling at the reaching paw that bats at her.
The dragon recoils, pulling away with a whistle before Fox can close her jaws on it, and she growls her most threatening growl. She growls as she did at the hawk that took her kit, or at Fox-enemy who scarred her ear, or at the smoke-dragons she hears racing across the roof of her deep burrow at night, and she chatters a hunting-song that shows her teeth and announces that she is a predator too.
Her foe smells of dragon, like fire and musk and a bit of fish, and its splayed claws are as sharp as a hawk's talons. It chirps as if it were friendly, and mimics her chatter curiously, but Fox does not question her recognition of it. That it is smaller than the fishing dragon does not matter to her; perhaps it is the other dragon's kit or a young one of its flock like the smoky dragons have. There are many sizes of dragons, and Fox fears all of them. Her nip drew no blood, so she does not know the taste of it, but then Fox has never tasted a dragon. Sound and scent and the movement of it, as it sits back on its haunches and regards her as she bristles and snarls, tell Fox all she needs to know – dragon, and danger.
It sets the threatening paw down on the ground again, carving claw-marks through the marshy ground, and Fox's frantic search for way to escape finds a hummock of dirt in the water that might be enough to bear her slight weight, as empty as she is and without kits in her belly.
Once more for good measure, Fox hisses her defiance, and bolts.
The young dragon whistles disappointment, watching the fox flee. Its waving tail invites him to chase it as he would a flock-mate or a friendly cousin, but he knows the small creature is too quick for him to catch. And he had empathized with its fear, as it hissed at him, and has no wish to hurt it further.
Still, he croons regret as he turns away and pads back to Toothless' side.
Why-sad? his beloved-companion asks with the expression in his green eyes and an affectionate nudge with a wet nose. Not important, Toothless huffs, dismissing the fox as something too small to eat or to threaten them.
Hiccup wrinkles his much smaller nose at the dragon, still indicating disappointment. Soft, he gestures, petting at the air and smoothing imaginary fur. Soft good yes good soft like.
Hiccup lives among dragons, creatures of scale and claw, and there are few enough soft things in his life. He is fascinated by the pelts of furry water prey that some of his cousins hunt, and by the fluffy frightened beasts that humans, pfikingr, keep near their nests and do not like dragons to eat. Pfikingr have ways to make furs that do not rot and fall apart, and such things are good to steal.
Their nest at home, shared equally between black dragon and the boy raised as one of the flock, has several that have not yet been stolen and shredded and played with all to pieces by others of their flock. Or at least there were several, when the dragon-pair left. They have been away a while now, and nothing is truly theirs unless it is with them. What the dragons of the flock do not share they steal from each other; it is the way of things.
Many things that pfikingr do are magic, to Hiccup, who knows no other life than that of a dragon and has no memory of being anything else. He does not know that he was born near here, in a place he would think of as a human nest, or that he is twenty years old, and he does not know that he is human. He believes himself a dragon, and no one has ever told him otherwise.
He had only wanted to pet the fox, with its soft red fur like dragon-fire or the last bright leaf with touches of grey. But he too has been hunted, and chasing after it is much less interesting than being with Toothless, who he loves above even his own life.
They have never been apart for very long, not since they were too small for either of them to remember. The two of them are part of each other, one self in two bodies, however mismatched, and their love for each other is more a part of themselves than their heartbeats.
Toothless purrs reassurance and amusement to his dragon-boy, who laughs in the way of dragons and returns to Toothless' side. He is fishing too, but not for fish to eat.
The dragon-boy has an inquisitive mind and a creative spirit, and he knows that places like this – marshes where things can be hidden beneath the water or buried in the mud – are good places to find new and interesting things. Along with a late clutch of eggs, quickly devoured and the shells discarded as too fragile to play with, he unearths a stone that promises much more entertainment than the eggs.
Its surface is smooth and cool when he rubs it against one cheek, a bit like ice, and Hiccup is intrigued by the color of it, which reminds him of Toothless. Look! he whistles cheerfully, holding it up next to the dragon's shoulder for Toothless to see too. It does not melt when he breathes on it, wishing absently once more for his own fire to breathe. This is an old dream, though, and one forgotten as quickly as the next distraction. Nor does it taste like ice, only of swamp and of stone, and of brackish water that is not good to drink, but it reminds him of ice nonetheless.
Ice shatters, Hiccup knows. Their home-nest far to the north of here is surrounded by ice, a whole world of ice, it feels like, especially in winter. His family understands ice as well as they know their caves and the open sky; ice is of their king. He wonders if this dark-ice stone shatters, and casts around for a rock to test it against.
A second rock, scavenged from under the water, at first makes no impact. When he strikes it again, though, it cracks and shudders, and smaller pieces fall off it just like ice from the side of a glacier.
Maybe it is a special kind of ice, he concludes, especially when he picks up one of the fragments to examine it. The edge looks as sharp as a dragon's claw, and it cuts through the nearest blade of long sedge grass as easily.
It never occurs to Hiccup to strike a flame from the shattered flint, nor would he be able to even by chance. The only pieces of metal he possesses are too precious for him to risk damaging them by beating them against a stone. The clasps he wears as part of an improvised riding harness allow him to fly with Toothless as wildly as they please, and his knife is the most useful tool he owns, although he is more likely to resort to his claws and his wits than the blade to defend himself.
Besides, he has never needed to start a fire, not with Toothless as his shadow and a family composed entirely of dragons.
Losing interest in the stone, he drops it back into the water and dips his paws in after it. Toothless' lunges and chases have kicked up the silt on the bottom and the water is almost pure mud, but he is not repulsed by the dirt or the prospect of finding something unpleasant. Things simply are – the marsh is muddy, that is the way of marshes – and his paws are protected by the gloves he made one long cold winter when there was nothing else to do but sleep and be hungry.
He has made others since, as he grew and as the claws embedded in them that he wields as lethal weapons blunted and were cast aside. He feels better with them on. More himself. More like Toothless, and like Cloudjumper, and the many other dragons he considers his family – Temper and Moss on Paws and Changing Colors and Spits Sparks and Sleeper and She Who Is That One and Chase-and-Catch and more than he could ever name.
Part of him knows that he is different, but there are so many different shapes of dragons in the nest alone, and more still encountered as he and Toothless wander, that his faith has never been shaken. His paws are unusual, but it matters more that they are clever and can do things that the paws of his cousins cannot.
A length of leather cord wrapped around each gauntlet and tied off keeps them from flooding with murky water, for now, although his paws still get wet.
By the time Toothless has chased the remaining fish into hiding, Hiccup has scavenged a collection of debris from the swamp he considers worth playing with. It somewhat makes up for being chased away from the wonderful hoard of metal – a treasure trove unlike anything else Hiccup has ever seen – by the smoke-dragon cousins earlier.
He understands that the smoke-cousins did not want strangers to come into the deeps of their nest – nests are to be defended above all. A flock's nest is its safe place, where eggs and hatchlings are protected, and where winters can be endured; where the injured can rest and dragons can sleep deeply and without fear. The rebuke still stings, though, and the memory of the enraged screams of the smoke-cousins lingers, even if the dragon-boy and the black dragon had gotten in some good insults of their own as they paced and jeered back at the angry smoke-cousins.
It had been such a wonderful stash of metal, pouring out from the cave like a squirrel's cache. Hiccup had been tempted to wait for darkness and try to sneak up to the nest to steal some of it, just from the edges, but Toothless had refused and threatened to pick him up and carry him away if he tried. There were too many of the smoke-cousins, and they were too alert now, ready to bite. Their smoke blinded him, Toothless had complained, and made Hiccup cough. So the sneaking or the fight had not been worth it, and they had flown away to hunt instead.
The shapeless lumps he has found in the mud, covered as they are with the death-of-metal that bleeds from metal that has gotten wet or old, does not compare. One piece reminds the dragon-boy of his own knife, but it stinks and bleeds onto the grass. When he wedges it between a heavy rock and the ground and twists, it cracks and threatens to break.
Watching over his shoulder, Toothless makes a sneezing sound that means disgust. Hiccup agrees ugh don't-like bad dislike bad danger careful danger bad, but does not throw it back into the swamp. He remembers only too well the flock-mate who had been bitten by a trap bleeding with the death-of-metal, and how much pain Bitten had been in before he had died.
Things with the death-of-metal on them need to be watched carefully. They are like eels that hide and bite, treacherous and deceptive.
Like almost all dragons, Hiccup hates eels. Eels bite, and they are not good to bite back. They are like snakes, but they swim. Eels are, he feels, not fair.
If there had been any eels in this swamp they would have gone away and not fished here.
There are many bones, some of which Hiccup has set aside to play with. Bones – animal or human – disturb the two of them not at all, since none of them are dragon bones, and they care nothing for human bones except that human bones are not for chewing on.
Neither of them could explain why this was so, if asked. It is an unspeakable thing for a dragon to eat another dragon, and that is something they know as deeply as they know warmth from cold, but humans and dragons are enemies, while all dragons are kin.
Still, it is not a good thing to do, and instead the dragon-boy plays at stacking bones on top of each other like eggs in a nest, retrieving the dark-ice stone to hide inside them like a cave, until they all fall over on their own. He tries again, mixing them with sticks and pieces of wood with strange carvings on them and capturing an aggrieved turtle to put underneath them in place of the dark-ice stone, until Toothless tires of this game and pounces, scattering all of it back into the swamp.
Shrieking in pretend outrage, the feral boy plays at indignation, showing his teeth and hunching his shoulders as if flaring out wings. You! he accuses, snarling even as he bites back laughter. You no no no bad upset angry mine mine mine bad you how-dare-you, he says in roars and clicks and gesture and in the movements of his body, even as subtler signs – all of which Toothless can read as clearly as spoken sounds – say laughter delight playful ready happy affection laughter laughter ready-to-play.
He stalks towards Toothless, shifting from two feet to four back to two again in an easy and entirely unconscious movement, and the bigger dragon retreats teasingly in small steps with his tail lashing and jaw lolling in amusement.
Gathering himself, Hiccup leaps in a well-practiced pounce, landing across Toothless' shoulders and growling. Toothless shakes him off easily before he can tangle all his limbs into the netlike riding harness, dropping his partner into a pool of brackish water with a splash.
A moment later the dragon springs after him, landing heavily only a breath away and kicking up water everywhere.
The resulting splash fight all but turns the marsh upside down. Frogs flee in leaping outrage, quickly outrun by the marsh's population of small lizards, croaking their displeasure. No birds swoop in for the easy pickings, not with two dragons racing in circles snarling and roaring, splashing and pouncing, kicking up mud and water and uprooting anything that gets in their way.
(Fox, venturing back in obedience to the demands of her stomach, snaps up a fish beached on a thick mat of algae. She puts it out of its flopping confusion with a single sharp bite through its spine, and carries it away, brush waving in pride at her own bravery and cleverness.)
The unseasonable cold takes them by surprise, a blast of the breath of ice like an attack from a hunting enemy outraged at their trespass, although at first they do not notice it, kept warm by play.
Enough, Hiccup admits finally, baring his throat to the dragon pinning him into the mud with one paw. Up?
Toothless doesn't believe him. No no no you ready-to-play laughing me big me win yes yes yes you small down stay you down laughing laughing.
The dragon-boy snorts at him crossly and waits for Toothless to give up. Of course he would have pretended to give up. That is a perfectly good way to win.
Neither of them care that Toothless is so much bigger, or that he can fly on his own, or that his teeth are sharper, or that he can spit blasting-fire. They have no concept of Hiccup being outmatched. In the treacherous ground of the marshes that he is lighter is an advantage; it makes him quicker and more able to move across the ever-shifting surface where Toothless is forced to splash through the pools, up to his belly in water.
Lemme up! Hiccup pleads. Cold.
Sorry sorry, whimpers Toothless, letting the feral boy climb to his feet and nuzzling against him, licking at his bare face and fur in apology. Hiccup slips past to press his smaller body against the point where Toothless' throat meets his shoulders, and where the warmth of his heart-fire and the beat of his heart burn through most strongly.
C'mon, the black dragon urges him, shuffling forward until his beloved-companion is forced to move or fall.
Hiccup does so ungracefully: out of the habit of walking on two feet for most of his life, he is uncomfortable walking backwards, especially in the uneven surface of the swamp. In a cave or across high cliffs, he would be fine, but then he is completely unafraid of heights, and he would not attempt to walk on two feet there. He is accustomed to using his front paws for balance or for a more solid grip on stone.
On dry land once more, the dragon-boy climbs to Toothless' back and curls up there, hiding himself against dark scales and the warmth beneath them. Cold, he repeats, chattering as he does in winter-cold, and Toothless can feel him shiver.
Hiccup is no stranger to cold, and he knows how to bear it. In a realm where cold can kill and does, he is unmarked by the cold kiss of frostbite. He has lived most of his life in a realm of ice, under the rule of an ice-breathing Alpha dragon, but the nest is a haven in the midst of great cold. Deep below in the darkness there are warm waters to swim in and to fish, and the collective body heat of an uncountable flock of dragons makes the cave system, where the flock makes its home, much warmer than outside. He and Toothless have never been forced to spend their winters away from their home nest, wander though they will. Even in the worst winters, hunger is more dangerous than the cold of the frozen sky and the fleeting sun.
He wishes that they had played chasing games somewhere that was not so wet, or that the sky had not chosen now to turn cold, but he does not curse the quickly changing weather for being unpredictable, even now when winter-cold is a distant memory and not yet a threat. The sky is tricky; that is the way things are.
As Toothless searches for an open space from which to smell the wind and see the sky, padding away from the rich smell of the swamp, which fills his nose and blocks out most other scents, Hiccup picks at the soaked-closed knots around his dragon-claw gloves. When they come free, he tucks them into a loop of the flying-with harness, and licks gingerly at the soft skin of his clever paws, tasting the swamp that lingers in wrinkles on his pads. It yields only a little warmth, but it is better than nothing.
Beneath him, he feels Toothless rumble worry uncertainty alert worry worry caution danger, and raises his head to follow the dragon's gaze.
Toothless has brought them to a headland overlooking the ocean, which has turned the same color as the dark-ice stone and is restless. There are no great waves, nor plumes of spray like burning spittle, but the sight makes the dragon-boy as uneasy as the black dragon.
There is a cold storm on the horizon, they know, reading the sky as easily as they would the telltale signs that suggest a trap has been laid for unwary dragons.
Hiccup vocalizes a low alarm sound, and his movements say uneasy and afraid. It is not good to be out in such a storm. If they stay here they will be very wet and very cold, and the winds will tear at them like dragon claws or the weapons of hunting pfikingr. It could tear down the tall trees that sway so uncertainly in the sea breezes.
Unconsciously, the dragon-boy settles into the riding-harness, looping the straps that bind rider to dragon into place and twining his limbs into the net-like tangle of leather. He never planned the flying-with, only assembled it a bit at a time as they needed it and as he thought of things: the result is deceptively simplistic and highly adaptable for all it looks like a net thrown across Toothless' shoulders and tied across his chest.
Let's go! Hiccup cries, unwilling to face the storm.
Toothless shrugs. Where? he asks, a questioning whistle and a glance around before rolling an eye back to glare at his companion.
The dragon-boy snarls frustration, cold paws and the mud still coating his borrowed dragon-scales forgotten as he thinks.
Natural-born wanderers, they came to this island by chance, and have been exploring it idly as they hunt and play. With the weather calm and warm enough for comfort, they slept in the open, taking it in turns to keep watch for danger and to doze.
But they have been here long enough to know that the safest shelter they could find here is the cave the smoke-cousins have made their nest in, and the dragon-pair is unwelcome there.
Irritated, Hiccup mimics the calls that the smoke-cousins make and accompanies them with an aggrieved shriek, expressing his feelings about them. (He overlooks the very real possibility that he might have started the fight by trying to steal from them: he'd wanted the metal. It makes no difference now.)
Fly! he cries instead, tugging on the flying-with to urge Toothless upward as the first strong winds approach, tearing at the waves that crash against the shore and spilling white foam-blood from their crests. On the shore below the gnarled trees that bear the brunt of the sea wind quiver, shivering in cold or fear, and the wind roars its satisfaction.
There are many islands; surely they can reach another one and find a safe haven before the storm strikes.
Toothless looks again at the clouds coming closer and turns and runs, racing along the clifftops so as not to launch into the wind. On his shoulders, Hiccup can feel the way he moves, every tiny movement and twitch as he learns the new winds and makes them part of him, and the dragon-boy shares it with him.
They fly together; they think together, almost, knowing each other as well as they do. They are part of each other, and as Toothless spreads his wings to fly the muscles in Hiccup's back flex too, spreading his own wings – imaginary as they are – in sympathy. He too feels the tension of the first crucial downbeat that propels them into the sky. They share a fierce sharp joy, like a fang of sunlight embedded in chest and spine, as they leave the ground behind. When an unexpected gust catches Toothless' tailfins and nudges him off balance Hiccup's head spins too at the change in direction.
His sense of self goes so far beyond his own small body that it encompasses every scale on the black dragon, from blunt nose to the long tail that keeps them balanced and lets them ride the spinning wind and dance with it. He could not reach from wingtip to wingtip but he does not need to – they are his wings too.
When they fly they melt into each other; when they fly they are truly the two-who-are-one they believe themselves to be. And when Toothless turns away from the storm and tenses to fly as quickly as he can Hiccup laughs, pure delight in speed tearing through him in a shriek no different from a dragon's cry.
They have no idea where they are or where to find shelter, and his paws are still cold inside his gloves and with his claws ready, and the storm is nipping at their tail, but this, racing the wind, chasing the horizon – this is what they were meant for. As long as they have the freedom of the skies and each other, they are fearless, even in the face of the storm.
The clouds stalk the sun and the sky grows dark, and this is what leads them to the cave.
The sharp bare stone of the island beneath them cut at Toothless' paws when he landed wrong, bruising the scales and provoking a hiss of irritation. But there is little enough to see from the ground – it is an island of rock and of shadows rather than green things and soft hollows. Instead they search for shelter in leaps and short flights and wind-buffeted hovering, struggling to pick out caves large enough for both of them to wait out the storm.
The taste of cold in the air and the froth on the peaks of the waves tells them that they can go no further, not safely. If they knew where a safe place was and flew as quickly as possible they could flee to it, but they are strangers here, wanderers always seeking a new horizon, and they must settle for the safest place they can find, however unsatisfactory.
It is the light flickering on the shore that catches Hiccup's eye as Toothless backwings to bring them down from another brief hop.
Look! he gestures, tugging on the flying-with and shifting so that his dragon-companion can see him out of the corner of his eye. Suspended over the rocks far below as he is, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with Toothless, he points at the light.
There wonder what? what? curious tentative maybe-possible there look look go us go yes maybe? maybe? he chirrs.
He knows fire-light when he sees it, but it could be a human fire. Given the choice, he would rather face the cold and the storm than a ship or a nest of pfikingr – storms, at least, do not hunt dragons. Storms do not throw weapons tipped with sharp metal, they do not swing heavy-hitting things, and they do not set traps. When storms howl it is only with the voice of the wind, and the anger of storms is at all things, not at dragons hunting to eat or to find clever interesting things or in play.
It could be a flame chance-set by lightning, and meaningless. Or it could be dragon-fire.
Toothless makes no sound, but Hiccup can feel the interest in his movements and the way his ear-flaps flick forward and turn to focus on the fire-light instead of being pinned down to his skull against the wind. At once he turns his wings just so to shift them into an easy glide, sneaking up on the fire.
When they land on a shore so low to the water that waves are lapping across it, they see that the light is from inside a cave that goes deep into the rock. It is warm on their faces, and Hiccup coos with delight. The fire does not smell of pfikingr – pfikingr like to burn their food, which is strange to him, and they reek all of metal and furs – and the cave is welcoming.
Careful, Toothless, the more cautious of the two, warns him. But already the black dragon is taking small steps towards the cave-mouth, curious in his own right.
It is a deep cave like their home far away from here, with many twists and turns, and the dragon-boy crouches close to Toothless' back as they venture deeper, following the warmth and the distant light. They squeeze through narrow passages and wind around the rock-teeth that caves have sometimes. When he reaches out to touch the stone it is warm as if it had been in the sun for all a lazy summer's day, or as if many dragons had been sleeping on it, even through the leather of his dragon-claw gloves.
Hiccup may think like a dragon, but he is capable of leaps of logic and intuition that most dragons are not. He makes a comparison and draws a conclusion he does not like.
Wait, he cries softly, knowing that his dragon's voice will echo across the rocks of the cave and betray their presence. Good maybe worry worry don't-like uncertain maybe frustration caution wait wait us stop.
They have been following tunnels at random, picking their path on a whim, and this has led them to a hollow in the rock where Toothless can put his side against a wall and know that nothing is sneaking up on them. He whistles concern worry you worry what? what? threat where threat?
The dragon-boy taps his paws on Toothless' shoulders impatiently. The cave has reminded him of a dragon, with teeth bared and a heart-fire deep inside, and he cannot shake the feeling that they are walking down its throat.
Here safe, he gestures instead, slipping from the dragon's back and retreating into a corner. Tired, he purrs, settling down as if to sleep.
Toothless is surprised that his dragon-boy is reluctant to go any further. Usually it is Hiccup who insists on going just a little further or swiping at an ants' nest one more time or venturing closer to the edge of a cliff or staying hidden just a little longer in the face of an approaching pfikingr that will be unhappy if it finds dragons sneaking around near its nest. Reckless in his own right as he is, Toothless has rescued his dragon-boy from even greater foolishness so many times he cannot remember them all. He is amused now that Hiccup is not more interested in the source of the light deep underground, but worried as well. He concludes that his dragon-boy must be very cold and very tired, and lies down beside the feral boy.
Safe between dragon and stone and with a dragon wing for a blanket, Hiccup purrs contentment. Love-you us good us together good warm safe happy, he thrums, and love-you love-you yes yes yes true.
In the distance he can hear the wind howling around the mouth of the cave, shrieking like a predator that has missed its pounce, and laughs to himself that it is far away and they are here and safe.
Toothless hears him anyway, and snorts silly, but the sound becomes a matching purr of love-you you mine.
This is a true thing; it is the truest thing of all.
Out of the storm, they sleep.
Hiccup does not sleep for long before a strange noise creeps into his dreams.
At first the sound is part of them, the peeping of hatchlings in the nest back home, and then it is the chirping of the tiny birds that hide in thick forests and are so difficult to catch. But then the dream becomes the bright heat of burnt skin, and he wakes whimpering and pawing at his eyes, imagining in his confusion that the sun is blinding him.
But the light is a streak of fire that darts away across the stone, taking the heat away with it.
What? the dragon-boy whistles. He blinks the echo of fire away and looks for it again.
When he creeps out from beneath Toothless' wing and looks all around there is the reflection of light behind a rock-fang and another scuttling away deeper into the cave, and one on the roof of the cave, walking upside down as lizards do. It could almost be a lizard, he thinks, a small-silent-not-cousin, but that it has fire inside – it is fire! – convinces Hiccup it is a dragon and therefore his kin.
Putting his paws on Toothless' shoulder to wake him, the dragon-boy chirps a greeting, keeping his shoulders low and his body language unthreatening. It makes perfect sense to him that a cave with fire inside should be home to dragons that glow with their fire inside, and if this is their nest then he and Toothless are trespassers and in the wrong.
No-threat, he says in movements, hello us friendly no-fight no-threat small still peace friendly hello.
Beneath his paws he feels Toothless wake, and sees his beloved-companion's ear-flaps twitch to follow the tiny sounds that the fire-lizards make as they dart across the cave all over. There are many of them now, more than Hiccup could count and – more importantly – more than he can watch all at once. When the fire-lizards shriek their voices are so small and sharp that they hurt his ears a bit, and Toothless' ears too – he pins them back to his head in protest and sits up, turning so as not to expose the soft scales of his belly to a possible threat and keeping low against the stone. He bares his teeth and snarls at the nearest fire-lizard, which startles and sprints for the safety of its flock-mates.
They make no other sound, but instead turn all together and retreat into the cave, pouring over the stone like a waterfall of dragon-fire. Toothless growls at them as they go.
Soon though the fire-lizards return, many and more of them. The small dragons flame at them, tiny spits of fire too small to harm Toothless or reach the dragon-boy mounted on his shoulders again. They leap at the pair in quick pounces, and shriek in frustration when Toothless does not move except to show his fangs to the nearest one and snarl it into retreat.
Hiccup watches them curiously, trying to figure out what they are doing. He understands that the dragon-pair has trespassed near their nest, but the fire-lizards are not trying to chase them away. Instead the fire-lizards are between them and the way out.
C'mon, he indicates, resting a paw on Toothless' shoulder and looking deeper into the cave. The dragons of their flock chase their prey from the air, and sometimes many dragons will work together to corner fleeing animals or herd them towards a waiting hunter.
He does not know where such tiny dragons could be herding them, but he does not feel threatened by them. There are many of them, but they are small. They are fire all over, but Hiccup has faith in Toothless' blasting fire to let them fight or escape if need be.
Toothless snorts reluctance to obey the little fire-lizards, but the unease of being a trespasser and a stranger in the nest of another flock is affecting him too. It is wrong to trespass in another flock's nest, even if they were only seeking shelter and they have done no harm.
Escorted by a swarm of fire-lizards, dragon and dragon-boy journey deeper into the cave. They follow the little dragons down passages and down slopes, until the air of the cave is warmer even than summer or the dark waters of their flock's nest, and bright like dragon flames.
That is strangest of all, Hiccup thinks. He is used to the darkness of caves, and knows how to find his way when he cannot see, placing his paws carefully and moving gingerly, building up an imaginary picture to hold in his mind like a drawing that he has not made yet, for drawing is a magic that no other dragon in his nest can do. Other flock-mates can make lines in snow or carved through lichen, but he is the only one who can make lines that look like things.
He has tried to teach others, but only Toothless seems to understand a bit.
It is peculiar to have a strange cave that he does not need to imagine so carefully. He can see it, and he thinks it strange that there should be light so deep underground.
And then they come to the source of the light, and that source is more amazing still.
Fire-lizards buzz through the heart of the nest, alighting on the walls and licking at the glowing liquid that drips down them and solidifies into shapes like the insides of a beehive, like honeycomb. They run across the surface of it, many legs scuttling all together, and tangle together in knots that burst into sudden flames, scorching the bare rock and melting scars into the honeycombs. Far above they cling to the honeycombs that slowly drip burning honey that cools and freezes into glistening crystal.
All around Toothless' paws, their escorts chitter and shriek in high-pitched delight, and some of them race away to vanish among the fire-honeycombs.
Fire-light glints off movement, and the mother of fire stirs from her rest.
Every dragon-nest has an Alpha, a leader. The two-who-are-one live under the rule of a great and ancient king of dragons who has gathered many different kinds of dragons to live under his rule, drawn to the protection of a hidden nest and the might of the Alpha, at peace under his gaze.
The mother of fire rules over her children, and this is her realm.
She strikes in close like a snake, all coils and speed, and catches them in her eyes, holding the dragon-pair in place with the force of her will. Her fangs are bared, dripping venom that hisses and burns where it strikes the rock, but they cannot retreat even when her tail coils around and brushes across them, threatening to snatch them from the stone and break them against it.
She is an Alpha, and they are subject to her will.
Trespassers, she roars inside their heads. Thieves.
They answer together, a single soul. No harm, Toothless signals, crouching, humble. No threat.
She burns through them like the venom in her fangs, searching, tasting their minds. They are unfamiliar to her, and the eyes of her children do not tell her enough. They see for her, bringing back memories: the scents and sights and tastes and sounds of the outside world beyond the safety of her hive. She has no desire to leave it, and only a crisis would drive her away from the warmth and the pleasure of the company of her many tiny children. Their eyes are sharper than hers, can see far where she cannot, but they are so small.
But she does not need her eyes to see inside them, only to hold them and force them to submit, and she does not need to see them clearly for that.
Toothless is dark to her eyes, a sliver of night in the familiar brightness of the hive, but inside he burns brightly. She tastes his desire for distant horizons, so alien to her, and the memories of the way he so loves to fly, and those memories are stranger still. Heavy as she is, his joy in sharp dives and tight turns, in breathtaking speed and in flight more delicate and agile than any other dragon in the sky, is outside her experience. Through him she learns of ice – bright and burning like deepcold fire, turning the light to crystal and flames, scattering across the dark water and glowing with the light beneath the waiting ocean.
In him she finds daring, and intelligence, and wonder, and exhilaration. She finds protectiveness, but no deception. The secret he protected once has long since ceased to be a secret and has been forgotten, trodden underfoot and disregarded like an old bone. In him she finds love brighter than fire, stronger than stone, deeper than the sea, sure as a heartbeat, and it is that love she follows to the mind entwined with his like hatchlings curled up secure against the cold.
Hiccup she sees only through his own eyes, and knows him as he knows himself.
Hiccup knows he is a dragon, knows it without doubt. He hears her new-strange mother-voice inside his skull just as he can hear the familiar voice of the great king of ice and the north. When she commands inside his mind be still he obeys in respect to her as an Alpha and a nesting mother, but he is claimed already by another Alpha. Although his king is far away his loyalty is strong.
He belongs with his dragon-flock, hunting and living and playing with his family; he has slept in the nests of eggs and the mothers of those eggs have left him alone with them, trusting him to protect them in their absence. He has taught hatchlings to swim and to fish in the dark waters deep underground, splashing and paddling and watching out for them always, and scolded them when they played too rough and endangered their siblings.
The voices of the nest have been his lullaby; the affection of dragons his security; the power of an Alpha dragon a pull as strong as the tide. His home is the open sky and the freedom of flight and freefall, the savage joy of the hunt, and the reckless madness of battles on the wing between rival flocks and play-fights with claws bared and blood drawn. He fears nothing, except for humans who are setters-of-traps and the enemy always, to be avoided whenever possible and fought with claw and flame when cornered or confronted.
He does not fear losing Toothless who is half himself, for that is beyond even his agile imagination. There is no world where Hiccup exists without Toothless. To be cut in half that way would be death, and there is no fear in death, there is only being-gone like smoke that coils and disappears in a breath, for dragons have no concept of ghosts.
When he thinks of himself he sees a dragon, having never seen himself clearly. He has clever paws, and soft-claws, and fur, but the scales Toothless shed and he made his own are like his own skin. His true wings are not yet grown but he believes in them; they are a not-yet rather than a not-true, and the ones he made are enough for now, although they are a small mouthful while he awaits a full belly with anticipation.
A fire-lizard darts through the air and alights on his shoulder, and he does not flinch. He is used to the heat of fire and the pain of small burns just as he is accustomed to the bruises of cuffs from much larger dragon-cousins and the scratches of careless claws. Its touch sears even through his scales, but the command of the mother of fire holds true, and he is still.
He truly believes, and his faith is so strong that she too believes.
Under her half-blind gaze they ask only for shelter from the cold, and this she understands well. Ice is no friend of hers, and the security of her cave and the warmth of her children is her treasure much more than the fire-honey that nourishes them all.
No threat, the mother of salamanders accepts, and turns away.
The children of the fire-mother swarm all around as black dragon and feral boy curl up together, watching them with fascination. They sense their Alpha's acceptance and investigate without fear, their many staring eyes wide and bright.
They do not speak in quite the way that Hiccup is used to; their voices are too small, their bodies unlike most of the dragons he is familiar with. Their gestures are different, but he understands their curiosity and their wariness at the strangers in their hive. He knows very well what it is like to be a small dragon in a world of much larger dragon-cousins, wary of an accidental blow or a too-rough bite.
Soon enough they too have accepted the newcomers, and climb across both dragons, tasting and scenting them. Their high voices become familiar, and Hiccup comes to understand their simple speech of new good strange big big big not-us strange fine smooth strange taste taste taste new strange fine fine fine yes like us like yes good strange good welcome-here.
He is intrigued by the way they belong so perfectly to their nest even as they curl up all around, mimicking the way the dragon-pair make a nest of their own together. He and Toothless are wanderers, and even the place they are most at home is a mixture of many kinds of dragons, of cave and stone and lake and cliff, dark waters within and ice guarding. But the fire-lizards and their hive belong together. They are part of each other the way the two-who-are-one are part of each other; this nest is their home just as Toothless is his home.
It is good to be somewhere warm even if it is still strange to have so much light deep underground, and nestled once more under Toothless' wing Hiccup is perfectly content. A dragon's purr rumbles from him unbidden, and to his delight he hears the fire-lizards join in with breathless purrs of their own as Toothless thrums to him in return.
More than the safety of a cave around them and almost as much as the warmth of Toothless at his back, he savors the acceptance of the mother of fire. It is a joyful thing, knowing that he belongs; that they are welcome here as kin as long as they do not threaten and they acknowledge her as Alpha here. Her affirmation of who he believes himself to be is overlaid on a lifetime of such belief, reinforcing and strengthening the foundation he has built his life upon.
When the summer storm breaks and the sky is clear there will be many more islands to explore in the sunlight and under the light of the clear stars. There will be dragon-kin to meet and play or fight with, and prey to hunt. There will be sea winds to catch and the moon to chase, and somewhere out there is an endless horizon inviting them to chase it down.
There will be dangers, too. They have already found a nest of hiding-hunting-cousins that will make a good story to tell sometime in the long winter, and in the distance they caught the scent of a human nest on the horizon. There might be ships hunting dragons or traps set in the shadows of trees, so they will avoid the places where humans nest, unless there might be something interesting and good to steal from it.
But secure in the depths of a dragon nest, accepted as family even though he and his beloved other-self Toothless are far from home, Hiccup knows that no human could possibly have anything he wants more than this.
thanks for reading – Le'letha