AN: Another longer hiatus than planned, but glad to finally get the next chapter up! As always, thanks to all for your patience and understanding as I attempt to balance writing with other life priorities.

An extra special acknowledgement to those who have continued to follow this story and have offered encouragement along the way. While some may have differing opinions on the direction the tale should take, your trust in my decisions means so much. You all are the best!

IMPORTANT – Chapter 10 was uploaded during the outage several months ago, and update notifications were not sent. You may want to confirm that you have read the previous chapter before proceeding.

As a reminder, this story is a divergence of Race to the Edge at the conclusion of Season 2. The plot was outlined before Season 3, and was not intended to follow the canon established by future episodes. Some will seem OOC at times, either because they are experiencing something we haven't seen them face in the franchise or because their character development differs in this story. With that said, some of what has (and will) be written does nicely align with the direction the show has taken, so any minor spoilers are unintended.

Now that that's all out of the way…I am so excited to share this chapter! It is the one I have worked on the longest, and is the result of months worth of tweaking and editing. And it's a long one – angst and awkwardness galore! But hopefully there are also some pleasant surprises as well. The end is in sight, with only one (maybe two) chapters to go. When the last chapter is posted, I will immediately follow with the collection of short stories that continue this timeline.

…and here we go!

The passage of time was nearly impossible for Hiccup to gauge. Between a lack of sunlight and his own exhaustion, his senses had dulled, leading him to distrust his own perception.

There were several times where he caught himself forgetting to open his eyes after blinking - almost drifting off to sleep before he would realize and jolt awake. There was never any danger when he shocked himself back to consciousness, but his anxious thoughts refused to accept that rest was an option.

Still, there was nothing to preoccupy himself with in the cramped little space. He was uncomfortably warm, which only compounded his worsening fatigue.

And the familiar, steady rhythm of Astrid's breath wasn't helping at all.

Casting a careful glance towards the young woman, he was relieved to see that she had finally fallen asleep after restless bouts of tossing and turning.

It wasn't the first time that Hiccup found himself looking over at the messy head of blonde hair; the golden color only visible through the occasional lick of firelight. Her usually immaculate braid had largely unraveled, with wide sections hanging loosely to cascade upon the ground. Several strands stuck to her sweaty face and neck, clinging to flushed cheeks and tickling at her wrinkling nose.

Without thinking, Hiccup gingerly reached across to brush the hair off her skin and tuck it behind her ear.

Even before completing the motion, he admonished himself for his own sentimentality. He was, after all, furious. As he was supposed to be.

He was hurt, and wronged. After months of struggling to justify the suspicion he carried for one of the people he depended on the most, he had been vindicated.

He had been right, and yet also so very, very wrong.

Lips pursed, Hiccup released a deep breath through his nostrils. His irritated stomach churned with stress, and he swallowed back the acid that threatened to escape. Overwhelmed, he shifted his gaze away from her, and tried to settle his gut as well as his troubled mind.

Despite the fact that he had spoken to Astrid more in a few hours than he had in months, there was little to no resolution from Hiccup's perspective. Both had been talking almost exclusively AT each other; dredging up thick layers of resentment and fear that had steadily accumulated over time. The result left him feeling lighter in some respects, but painfully raw and exposed.

He wondered if Astrid felt the same way: depleted from an emotionally exhausting marathon yet still somehow feeling more hurt than when they started. Everything was out in the open and avoidance was no longer an option for anyone.

But that was the real issue...despite everything, neither was being completely transparent. Whatever it was that she still stubbornly hid, it was difficult to imagine what could be more shameful than everything else that had transpired. Hiccup didn't know whether to be angry or terrified by what he didn't know.

And all the while, he chastised himself for his own hypocrisy. He had been somewhat honest when he admitted to having "ideas" about how to deal with the Hunters, but those plans were far more fleshed out than he let on.

For years Astrid had been his closest confidant – the one he looked to for perfecting any strategy. But she couldn't know this time. It took him five agonizing months to develop a terrible plan that had even the slightest hope of overtaking Viggo.

There was too much at stake – especially knowing what Hiccup knew then – and he couldn't deviate.


No matter how disappointed she would undoubtedly be in him when all was said and done.

Daring to look back again at Astrid, Hiccup desperately wanted to see someone he didn't recognize anymore. As though it would somehow help him…make it easier to enforce a necessary distance between them. Enough so that the threat of her disapproval no longer stung. It should have been possible – in many ways she had been acting like an entirely different person.

But as he watched her hand loosely grip the fabric of her hangerok, and the apple of her cheek rise as she sleepily tucked her chin to her chest, he only saw the same girl he had always known.

With so many thoughts and emotions battling for dominance, the one that still won out time and time again was the relief of knowing that, at least for that moment, she was safe.

Though the light was slowly dying, the prevailing shadows emphasized the curve of Astrid's stomach as her fingers sluggishly threaded at the panel of her dress. The sight made Hiccup swallow heavily - a painful feat when his throat was so parched. Trying to align the visible lump under her clothes with a living, growing child was beyond comprehension.

He had never watched a mother or an aunt carry a baby; had no siblings to serve as a reference for what it meant to even be around an infant, let alone be near one for any period of time. There was only the vague idea that he would one day, after many, many years, be a father.

And yet, there he was.

How was he supposed to feel?

The terror was obvious.

After nearly two years of gradually adjusting into young adulthood, he had only recently begun to relish the independence that came with this new identity. It was empowering, though admittedly intimidating at times, to realize that his decisions were truly his own. Before the weight of this epiphany bore down on him thanks to Viggo's disruptive arrival, Hiccup was starting to feel like he was coming into his own self. That he could take on anything, especially with Toothless and his friends at his side.

And then, in an instant, he suddenly didn't feel very grown up at all.

Adults had children. Responsible, established, actual grown-ups were capable of raising families. Not scrawny and awkward sort-of-adults who were still bumbling aimlessly through their own lives. Especially those who would rather live on the back of a dragon than in their own homeland.

Adults somehow knew how to take care of kids. They had the basic building blocks – some kind of intangible magic - that suddenly imbibed them with the awesome power of shaping a small and barely formed creature into their final being. Of handling that incredible responsibility without having a nervous breakdown or irreparably damaging their unfortunate offspring. Not that it always happened that way; but the opportunity was there.

Hiccup was…lacking. In what, he wasn't sure, but he felt in the pit of his gut that whatever it was that this poor child would need in its life, it was almost certainly just out of his reach.

He felt shame – suddenly fully aware of the consequences beyond the inherent risks that he had only briefly allowed himself to acknowledge. It was hard to remember how those fleeting yet vivid moments of fear were so carelessly swept aside. Not why, of course. He clearly remembered that. But while the constant threat never disappeared entirely from his mind, it just seemed…distant. Unlikely. Perhaps years of repeatedly facing terrible odds and always managing to make it through (relatively) unscathed had made him complacent.

Hel, it made him downright cocky.

Muffling a reflexive huff as he mentally smacked himself, Hiccup's anxious fingers wove tightly together.

For years he had ricocheted back and forth – between knowing everything and understanding nothing. He logically accepted that that the truth was nestled somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. But as he sat helplessly deep underground in enemy territory, he was overcome by how his inability to find that balance had ultimately ruined him. And all of them.

His shaking hand swiped over his forehead, pulling away droplets of sweat. Hiccup's heart pounded. All thought honed on the fear of what it all meant - for him, and Astrid. Toothless. All of the dragons, their team, and Berk.

Seconds away from being pulled down too deep – an unpleasant state that he had become far too accustomed to – a murmur interrupted Hiccup's descent.

Gaze shooting up from his clinched hands to Astrid's shifting form, Hiccup froze. The sounds of a heavy exhale hit his ear, and it took a full second to realize that the labored breath was his own.

His lips clamping shut, and he forced himself to draw in air quietly through his nose. The thrum of his pulse slowed, and soon the only noise was Astrid's soft mumbling before she stilled once more.

Back in the present moment, and more aware of how much sound he was capable of making when teetering on the edge of panic, Hiccup felt a pang of guilt for disrupting her sleep again.

When he had initially encouraged Astrid to take the first rest shift, it had admittedly been for his own selfish needs. He had to be alone – to process everything and privately grieve.

But seeing her so fitful – and noticing the unusual blotchiness of her complexion and darkening around her eyes – he was suddenly much more concerned for her health. Despite knowing how strong and capable she was, he had always needlessly worried about her. For the first time, his worry felt fully warranted. And that scared him.

All this time, she had been trying to manage the pressures their entire team faced, while also discreetly caring for herself and a growing child. Hiccup still didn't understand why she decided to take that on completely alone, but nonetheless, he recognized how much responsibility she silently bore.

And to Astrid's credit: she had been eating when she could, and rested when able. Until this most recent act of defiance, she had begrudgingly abided by his orders and stayed out of combat. A part of him had been, admittedly, shocked that she hadn't elbowed her way back into a fight before then – she was, after all, Astrid. This atypical restraint suddenly made more sense in Hiccup's mind, and his simmering resentment was somewhat cooled in appreciation of her protection of their child.

"Their child". Gods, no matter how many times he thought about it the words still sounded strange…

Eyes unfocused as he stole another glance at Astrid's swollen stomach, Hiccup's tight features slowly released.

With all of the emotions swirling around his head – some well-known and others new – there was one that was especially hard for Hiccup to define. Something entirely unexpected.

It didn't carry the same overbearing heaviness as the other feelings, and didn't instill a sense of dread.

It wasn't quite happiness, but certainly somewhat closer. An odd and senseless pride despite everything in him that warred against the notion that any good could come from their situation. They had made a life. A life. Unwittingly, perhaps, but still…it was a humbling thought to be certain.

They were, for better or worse, parents now. And it was normal for parents to feel…something, right?

This, in turn, birthed a new feeling - a remorse that there was a need to put so much emphasis on the harm that came with it all. It felt wrong. Unnatural.

Hiccup had never considered how he would want to one day, in a very theoretical sense, discover that they were having a child. But this certainly wasn't it.


He flinched, realizing that even in his subconscious, despite everything, he had somehow solidified the fact that any children he had would have to come from Astrid. That was sobering, to say the least.

Scratching at his jaw awkwardly, Hiccup accepted that the vague wisps of his future that he purposely ignored was more defied than he ever imagined.

He must have assumed that when this moment came there would be no shame or secrecy surrounding it. They would be married, or at the very least betrothed. The idea that they wouldn't even be a couple seemed absurd. They would be together with a family, or separate without. There was no middle ground there.

And yet, there they were.

As he allowed himself to check the underlying assumptions that he unknowingly held, Hiccup realized he intrinsically anticipated that such news would be…good. Even positive.

Honestly, more than that - a genuinely happy occasion. Not only for them and their families, but for the entire tribe. An heir wasn't born every day, after all, and it would no doubt bring a certain amount of fanfare. Their townsmen would wish them well; likely help out the new family as they witnessed their future Chief grow once more.

Of course, no one would be more proud and boisterous than…


Oh, damn.

His dad.

His very large, extremely loud, and, at times, vindictive dad.

Attempting to quash the vivid image of Stoick's reddening face returning a soul-rending glare, Hiccup shuddered. That was not a conversation that he was looking forward to – in this world or the next.

Mouth tugging into a frown, he felt ill as he began to see all of the implications of their choices and how far off course they were from anything resembling his expectations. This was not what should have been.

Yes, they would still have been terrified, because they were young, and stupid, and had no clue what they were doing. Not because they were freefalling through chaos with no foundation under their feet.

Hiccup thought about what Astrid had said: that acknowledging the child meant the end of many things. And while it was difficult to even consider the possibility that they would all make it off of Dragon Hunter Island, if they somehow did, he had no doubt she was right.

They would return to Berk immediately, and marry. It wouldn't be long before he had to take on the mantle as Chief. There would be no more adventuring for days or weeks, or especially months. The maps he had started to draft, still covered with expansive blank spaces that promised discoveries in every direction, would be folded up and put away - eventually forgotten. The only dragons he would know would be those that resided on their island or occasionally migrated over its waters.

Hiccup would be lying if he didn't admit how suffocating that all seemed – an inevitable future he had resigned himself to but far more quickly than he had ever feared.

But looking over at Astrid, a dull ache radiated from Hiccup's chest. What was the alternative? He had no idea what options she may have considered over the weeks; where that would take her and the child she carried.

Even as he briefly, for less than a full second, entertained the possibility of continuing to indulge in his wanderlust and forsaking responsibility for unrealized dreams that may exist...any momentary spark of excitement was immediately smothered by the oppressive loss that came with her hypothetical absence.

Whether they ever got back to where they used to be or not, he couldn't imagine living a life without Astrid in it.

And knowing now that he would not only be missing her, but also a living piece of them? No.


Hiccup swallowed heavily, feeling it painfully catch midway down his throat. Tapping his fingertips together anxiously, his exhausted gaze locked on Astrid as he tried yet again to grapple with how very real it all was.

He had spent week after week obsessing over every possible scenario they could face. His greatest fears had replayed over and over in his mind – a futile effort to prepare himself to act when all he would want to do was fall apart.

After living through theories and hypotheticals for so long…immersed in countless emotions that were tied to speculation over reality…it was easy to forget that the weight he felt wasn't the result of fixating on what could happen anymore. It had happened.

And as weary eyes began to blur, unfixed with fatigue and the subtle sting of frustrated tears, Hiccup released a trembling sigh.

Oh, dear merciful Frigg. He wasn't ready.

Hiccup wasn't sure when his heavy eyelids drifted down and how much time had passed since, but he found himself yet again startled awake.

This time, however, there was a reason.

Blinking rapidly, his pupils contracted against harsh light. He forced himself to be more alert, suddenly aware of what sounded like the soft padding of footsteps.

That was enough to clear his head.

His eyes darted to where Astrid slept, confirming that she hadn't moved. Other than turning at some point so that her back was to him, she was in the exact same spot.

Hiccup listened closely for the sound, starting to second-guess that he heard anything at all. Considering the amount of sleep deprivation he faced, it seemed unlikely that it wouldn't take a toll on his senses. Though as he squinted into the firelight that flowed in from the cavern, he did wonder why it seemed so much brighter than before.

Sitting quietly for several more minutes, Hiccup listened intently for any sign of movement outside of their enclosure. For the briefest second, he could have sworn he heard someone taking in a breath. But glancing back at Astrid, he realized that it was far most likely just her making noises in her sleep.

Growing embarrassed by his jittery behavior, Hiccup forced his muscles to relax as he slumped back against the cavern wall at his back.

Reassured by the continued calm, he fought the temptation to close his eyes again.

But before he even had an opportunity to risk drifting off, a distinct rustle from above caused his eyes to snap open wide, and he looked up at the gap in the rocks. Now he was certain - the light was much brighter.

Startled, Hiccup hurried to his feet, glancing at Astrid's prone form. He was about to shout for her, when something moving caught his attention.

Eyes darting back to the light, he saw the flame of a torch come into view – along with Heather's curious face.

Mouth open as he gulped down air, Hiccup's tensed shoulders collapsed as he met the woman's gaze. Still, his fingers flexed as they hovered near the hilt of his sword.

"What do you want?" he quietly hissed, eyes narrowing.

Carefully testing the strength of the rocks around her, Heather then leaned forward to brace her elbow against a stone. Her lips twisted into a tight smirk.

"Nice to see you too", she quipped flatly, unbothered by Hiccup's glare.

When the young man scowled at her response, she glanced down at Astrid, allowing her expression to soften.

"How is she?" Heather asked, her tone more gentle.

Hiccup's brow creased, lip curling. "Are we really going to go through all this again? So you can act like you care?"

Heather's lips stuck out into a pout. A flash of offense quickly eroded, and she anxiously ran her fingers over her braid as she looked down sheepishly.

"I do care", she insisted, daring to meet his stare only for a moment before retreating. She then offered a weak shrug. "…but", she conceded, "I get that that's hard to believe..."

Though Hiccup's frown loosened, his glare didn't waver. Looking down at Astrid, making sure she was still deep asleep, a pulse of fresh anger hardened his features.

"Hmm. Well, let's see…" he hummed sardonically, quietly stepping closer so Heather could hear as he fought to keep his voice down. "In less than a day she's, what? Been back-stabbed, tied up, almost gutted, nearly crushed…oh, and now she's trapped in here..."

In an instant his glare shot back up, holding Heather in a judgmental stare. "Yeah", he sassed, "I'd wager she's been better."

The acid in Hiccup's tone had little visible effect on Heather. She only shifted her stance to allow her head to rest in the palm of her upturned hand, then quirked an eyebrow.

"Wow…" she mused, almost in awe. "…you really can be a sarcastic ass when you want to be."

Rolling his eyes, Hiccup's grimace then deepened. "Yeah, who said that?" he challenged, suddenly struck with familiar insecurity.

Before the woman could answer, his gaze dropped back to Astrid, the sharpness of his offense dulled by a distressing thought. "Did…she didn't say-?"

Head pulling back in surprise, Heather frowned. "Of course not", she chided quietly, disappointed that he even considered the idea. "She'd bust someone's jaw if she heard them say that, let alone say it herself. You should know that."

Humbled by the immediate reaction to his fear-driven assumptions, Hiccup's shoulders dropped as he exhaled in relief. He hadn't anticipated how much the thought of Astrid speaking ill of him, especially behind his back, shook him. Despite how strained things had been, her opinion of him as a person had somehow remained intact - even when she opposed his behavior. He couldn't imagine losing her respect; on some level he knew it would crush him.

But while Heather's words seemed to bring some solace to his frayed ego, Hiccup tilted his head, shifting one shoulder uncomfortably. "Yeah, well..." he sighed.

Intrigued, the dark-haired woman watched him keenly. When his voice faded, she waved her hand, prompting him to continue.

Wary of why Heather was there in the first place – all the more so that she was actively probing for details - Hiccup shut his mouth as he glared.

"…I'm sorry", he retorted, thick with sarcasm, "did you just come down here to gossip or is there an actual reason?"

Heather showed little concern with his clear irritation, replying with an easy shrug of one shoulder.

"You got somewhere else to be?" she teased, the corner of her mouth twitching to fight a smile.

Narrowing his eyes, Hiccup huffed as he looked away indignantly. He said nothing more, hoping she would take the hint and leave.

But Heather did no such thing; only made herself comfortable as she tapped a finger to her chin.

"So…" she continued casually, breaking the tense silence, "is this still about the little secret she kept for me…?"

She let the question drift to an end, watching his reaction closely. Though he stayed silent, all the while making a point to avert his gaze, she noted his posture tighten.

Heather chuckled. "Because, no offense…you seem to be holding grudges a lot more these days."

This warranted an irritated glare tossed over his shoulder before he again turned back.

The easy smile on Heather's face spread. "Hmm…" she hummed, "…I must be on the right track..."

Muttering to himself as he shook his head, Hiccup looked at her wearily.

Seeing him start to wear down, Heather cocked a single eyebrow. "Am I?"

Pursing his lips, Hiccup cautiously considered her. It was apparent that she wasn't going to go until she got whatever she came for. And being a captive audience, his options were limited.

He didn't trust her. At all. But perhaps if he started talking, she would follow in kind. Maybe then he would get some idea of what Viggo had in store.

"If it was just that", he finally grumbled, crossing his arms defensively, "no, I'd probably be over it by now..."

"Probably?" Heather echoed skeptically.

Hiccup fired a quick glare, then looked down at the ground. "But there's other...things."

Humming quietly, Heather nodded slowly. "So, the baby?" she guessed.

Hearing the word said outloud again caused Hiccup to flinch, a response that didn't go unnoticed.

"I'll take that as a yes", she chuckled lowly.

Casting his gaze downward, Hiccup sighed, loud enough that he knew she'd hear.

"I'm just, not used to her keeping things from me", he mumbled. With a scratch to the back of his neck, he released a huff. "...especially things I really need to know."

Heather's smile lessened. Her face no longer impish, it instead portrayed the faintest hint of sympathy. Even genuine concern.

Hiccup saw this from the corner of his eye, encouraged that he was lowering her guard.

Still, as he turned to check on Astrid, who still lay fast asleep, he felt ill at the reminder that while his delivery was intentionally exaggerated as part of his ploy – his words were not.

Shaking his head sadly, Hiccup finally glanced back up Heather.

"W-why would she hide this?" His hushed voice shook with the authentic pain that plagued him.

Pulling her lips to the side in thought, Heather looked down at the blonde thoughtful.

"I…I don't know", she admitted. "Never had a chance to talk to her about it." Her green eyes shone with remorse. "Wish I had..."

Releasing a wistful sigh, the woman returned her gaze to Hiccup. Her neck straightened, taking on an air of confidence. "But, whatever her reasons…I'd trust she did what she thought was right. Knowing her? She probably thought she was protecting you."

Hiccup's face twisted, displeased with her answer.

"Why does this excuse keep coming up?" he asked, trying and failing to hide his offense. "I-I'm a grown man; why does everyone think I need someone to save me when I ultimately screw up?"

Without missing a beat, Heather bobbed one shoulder casually. "Because someone does."

Narrowed eyes widening, Hiccup was thrown by her bluntness.

"And", Heather continued, "someone always will as long as you keep running off into every dangerous situation on your own."

Recovering from his initial surprise – trying to orient to suddenly being on the receiving end of a lecture - Hiccup blew a soft puff of air past his lips dismissively.

"I'm not that bad", he defended, albeit more weakly than intended.

Heather stared blankly, unmoved. "You are so predictable that Viggo's plan revolved around it."

This, admittedly, gave Hiccup pause.

"Of course it did", he finally muttered, rolling his eyes before dragging a hand down his face. "He knew I would go to Dark Deep alone..."

Heather nodded. "…thus separating you from Astrid", she confirmed. "Likewise, knowing that she would drop everything if she even had a hint that you were in danger. So, we gave her one."

Hiccup's expression soured, glancing up to send Heather a heated glare.

"As disturbing as it is that you can so easily describe your betrayal..." He shrugged in concession, cheeks reddening. "I…I get your point."

Heather gave a satisfied smile.

Looking down at Astrid, Hiccup sighed.

"I'm just..." he groaned softly, raking a hand through his hair. "I know I'm going to make a misstep. I didn't want anyone else to pay for that."

Realizing the irony, Hiccup huffed humorlessly. "Like now", he muttered, motioning to their cramped space.

Nodding in thought, Heather's mouth pulled to the side. "So…you can't handle the guilt of someone being hurt by a bad call you made…so you purposely create scenarios where you're the only one who could possibly suffer for it?"

Though her tone was entirely casual, Hiccup had not expected to hear his concerns, which he himself struggled to define, so eloquently packaged.

"That is...concise", he commented, impressed despite himself.

Heather's brow pulled together as she frowned. "…even though", she continued, "having you suffer, then, as a result, also hurts them?"

Blinking, momentarily dumbfounded, Hiccup's lips parted. "…uuuugh…yes. Well, no. No", he backtracked.

Seeing Heather's doubtful expression, Hiccup muttered to himself.

"Okay…um…yes, they would be sad", he acknowledged. "Yes, I'm sure some would, probably, really miss me."

Several people came to mind as he spoke. Thinking about those he stood to leave behind, especially Toothless and Astrid, Hiccup stifled a sigh.

"But, you know, with time", he reasoned with a halfhearted shrug, "…they'd be fine."

Unimpressed, Heather tilted her head ever so slightly. "If your dad "fine"?"

The slight topic shift was enough for Hiccup's depleted brain to second-guess what he heard. "…what?"

Her lips tugged into a teasing smirk. "Stoick. Your dad. Berk's Chief…"

Hiccup frowned, unamused. "Yeah, I know who Dad is", he retorted dryly.

Suppressing a snort, Heather stare grew more intent. "Well, is he "fine"", she prodded, "after losing your mom?"

Pursing his mouth, Hiccup thought quickly, admittedly becoming more wrapped up in winning the impromptu debate than he should have been.

"…uh…yeah", he replied airily with a shrug. "Yeah, he's…great."

Memories of his father drifted to the forefront of his mind – where the hardened warrior would become unusually emotional speaking of his departed wife. Sometimes he would recall their years with pride and nostalgic happiness. But other times…

Hiccup swallowed thickly. "I mean, sure, he misses her", he admitted, dropping his gaze, "…a lot." His arms began to swing slightly at his sides with anxious energy. "Especially during Snoggletog, and festivals…weddings, and all…that…"

Feeling himself begin to be pulled down too deep into his ruminations, Hiccup shook his head, bringing himself back to the present moment.

"But, um, yeah", he maintained, trying to recover his assurance. "He's surviving. That's my point. If anything happened to me, well…they would all survive too."

Though Heather hummed in acknowledgment, she appeared unswayed. She then looked Hiccup up and down, almost calculating. "And what about you?"

Confounded, Hiccup wrinkled his brow. "…I think it's fairly obvious I would be dead in that scenario", he quipped.

Heather sighed impatiently. "No, Hiccup…"

Leaning carefully into the cavern wall, ignoring the ache in his neck from craning his head, the young man's eyes widened as realization dawned. "Y-you mean, because of my…uh, mother?"

A simple nod was Heather's response.

Hiccup frowned. "I-I don't think it really…I-I never met her", he stammered, before quietly clearing his throat. "So, um, no real difference for me. I guess."

If his stumbling words weren't enough to betray his façade, the way his gaze wandered uncomfortably to the side was. Heather smiled knowingly.

"I mean, sure", he confessed, his voice dropping, "I wish I had. Her. Um, had met her."

Tracing his thumb over the stubble of his jaw, Hiccup looked down in thought.

"But", he continued, regaining a pragmatic tone, "I'm here, and it's never stopped me from doing anything, so…" He sniffed as he met her gaze, rolling a shoulder with false confidence. "I'd say I'm surviving, thanks."

Heather relaxed into her braced hand. "Surviving is good", she acknowledged. "But would you say you're completely "fine" after losing a parent?"

To Hiccup's surprise, he forced back a reflexive "no" before it left his mouth. Despite what he wanted to think, on some level, he questioned the true impact of losing something he never really had. The part of him that still felt weird and out-of-place in the world.

Feeling very uncomfortable and exposed, he shifted awkwardly, opting to stay silent.

Heather nodded in understanding. "I know I'm not fine after losing mine", she admitted.

Her eyes grew doleful as she looked down at her hand as it anxiously picked at one of the rocks. "Any of them…"

A pang of genuine pity struck Hiccup, as it often did when Heather's unfortunate past was raised. How the absence of a parent could have a lasting effect on one's life and how they viewed the world. It was something that made him want to believe in the wayward girl when they first met - despite his better judgement, he still hoped that she would somehow come out the other end a better person. While their stories were different, there had always been a natural bind between them…an understanding through lived experiences that his Berkian peers couldn't fully relate to.

But as he gazed up at her, reminded that she stood outside of a prison that they were only in because of her deception, Hiccup's compassion swiftly rebounded into resentment.

"…so what are you getting at?" he asked suspiciously, eyes beginning to narrow.

Put-off by his tone, Heather frowned. "The point is", she retorted, "I don't think you've given any thought to what it would be like for everyone who had to mourn you. Not really."

Hiccup's mouth opened to argue.

"And", she added firmly, lifting a finger to silence him, "not that you had any reason to before, but now, you have to consider your kid. What that would do to them. To their future."

Lips still parted, his jaw hung loose as he considered her words. He then snapped his mouth shut.

Content that she had been heard, Heather relaxed, exhaling slowly.

"For what it's worth…you're not wrong", she conceded warmly. "They'd figure out how to be okay."

Her gaze then dropped, almost shamefully. "Or at least as "okay" as they can be", she sighed.

Hiccup watched Heather intently, and met her gaze as she returned a solemn stare.

"But what happened to my parents", she murmured, "…my…father…your mother…I-I don't think there was anything they could have done to stop that. Not really."

Grasping where she was going, Hiccup glanced away uncomfortably, rubbing at the back of his neck.

That didn't stop Heather from keeping her gaze on him.

"When you're running off and being reckless", she huffed, "...when you could take steps to protect yourself and just don't…"

Heather shook her head sadly, watching Hiccup's stare fall to Astrid.

"You're not saving her, Hiccup. You mean well, but you're risking ruining a lot of lives – including this brand new one - for something that could be avoided."

Both fell silent, and Hiccup found himself starting to nod.

Looking at Astrid, thinking back about their dynamic over the years, he began to re-examine the root of Astrid's compulsion to protect him. Long convinced it was evidence of a lack of faith in his abilities, he then questioned those beliefs, and felt guilty for doubting her intentions in the first place.

After all, everything Heather said rang true for his own drive to keep Astrid safe. He had no idea what he would do if anything happened to her (nor did he want to), but he knew he wouldn't ever be whole again. It would change him at a fundamental level, and while he would likely survive the experience, he couldn't imagine how he would ever be "fine" again.

And now, with a child? Hiccup logically knew that being a parent meant enormous responsibility – something he had been obsessively ruminating about as Astrid slept. But realizing that he now had an obligation to them to do everything in his power to be there …

And as he thought about this new duty, and his basic need to protect them both, he reflected on their current situation. That the peril they found themselves in put him in a position of failing on both accounts. While his revelations helped to begin the process of repairing his fractured self-worth, it only raised the stakes in his mind of what they all sought to lose.

And as he returned his gaze to Heather, who smiled kindly despite the part she played in it all, he completely and wholly resented it.

"You do know how ridiculous this is, right?" Hiccup shook his head in distaste. "That you're judging me while at the same time helping the man who wants to kill us?"

Though Heather's lips pulled down, dulling her expression, she retained the sincerity in her eyes. "He doesn't want to kill you."

As Hiccup opened his mouth to object, she raised her hand to pacify him.

"At least, I don't think that's his endgame", she added quickly. "And yes, I know I've put you all in a bad spot..." Heather's hand drifted down to lay over her heart. "I really am sorry. This…this isn't how I thought everything would play out. But I want to fix things - that's why I'm here."

Holding his stare, Hiccup looked at her with clear doubt. "Well, unless you can tell me exactly what Viggo is planning, there really isn't a point to you being here."

Heather held in a laugh, letting it escape as a snort.

"I'm flattered that you think Viggo shares everything with me, but, no, I'm in the dark as well. And whatever his initial plan was, he's changed it entirely." Any amusement in her face suddenly drained. "Which, in hindsight," she muttered, "was likely his plan all along."

Hiccup's brow raised. "You think?"

Deflated, Heather frowned. "Hiccup, I'm doing the best I can."

His lips tugged back into a thin smirk. "I'm sure you are", he agreed mockingly, "but for who? Us or Viggo?"

Heather's eyes narrowed defensively. "Hey, I put my neck out back there", she reminded him, jabbing a thumb over her shoulder. "You don't get everything I'm having to consider right now."

Unmoved, Hiccup returned a stern glare. "You let Viggo take Toothless", he returned coldly.

In an instant, Heather's eyes darkened. "I don't let him do anything, Hiccup!" she seethed.

A soft groan caused both Hiccup and Heather to freeze in place, each snapping their heads to look down at Astrid's sleeping form.

Drawing one leg closer into her body, the blonde rustled for a moment, mumbling unintelligibly.

Staying perfectly still, not daring to breathe, Hiccup and Heather's eyes met for a moment before returning to Astrid.

With his mouth ajar, Hiccup almost cleared his throat – a subtle but clear sign to his teammate of their unwanted guest. With tempers already flaring, it was tempting to recruit someone else to help wrestle important details from their former friend.

Then again…he knew Astrid well-enough to know that her knee-jerk response would likely be a well-aimed rock to the other woman's face. If Heather's worried expression was any indicator, she was prepared for the same. And he had no doubt that she would immediately take her leave – along with any information that could aid them.

Hiccup frowned, and pressed his lips together. Diplomacy, and a little manipulation, was a more promising path.

So the pair stayed silent, and waited as Astrid's murmurs waned.

Finally, the sleeping Viking settled back down, resuming a steady breathing pattern.

Heather slowly released her own breath, relieved.

Several more minutes of quiet passed, until they were satisfied that Astrid was deeply asleep.

After seeing the other woman's arms go limp, Heather huffed an irritated sigh, lowering her voice as she looked back down at Hiccup.

"What I was trying to say", she continued, less irate but just as stern, "is that you're not the only one who has to play Viggo's games whether you want to or not. I have a lot to lose too and I'm still trying to do the right thing here."

Hiccup said nothing, thinking. Admittedly, he hadn't expected Heather to go so far as to attack Ryker in Astrid's defense.

"I'm a bit surprised they let you live", he remarked dryly, his skepticism evident. "Viggo doesn't seem the forgiving type."

Allowing her head to rest in her hand, Heather's lips quirked into a smile that didn't reach her eyes.

"I'm not in a great position at the moment, but as long as I'm useful, I'll be okay." The assured smirk then dropped, forming a grimace. "For now."

With a shake of his head, Hiccup's heavy brow knit in thought.

"I'll never understand why you chose this over any other option", he muttered, bewildered. Giving a quiet laugh, he tilted his head back wearily until it rested against the stones at his back.

"With Windshear you could have traveled wherever you please. Seen the world. No obligations; no expectations. You're free to do whatever you want", he breathed, in wonder and with a shot of envy. "And this is the life you settled on?"

Heather scoffed quietly, looking down at her fingers absently as she gave an enigmatic smile.

"You're right - you could never understand. You have a home. A tribe, and a family." Her green eyes flicked to Astrid's sleeping form. "And people who will die to protect you."

She then met Hiccup's gaze again. "It might sound exciting to you", Heather noted with a roll of her eyes, "not having to care what anyone else thinks." Her stare grew distant and pensive. "But that's only possible because nobody else really cares."

The hint of a canted smile formed on the woman's face, meeting Hiccup's eyes earnestly. "I'd give up this 'freedom' in a heartbeat for what you have."

At this Hiccup turned his head to look at Astrid, one end of his mouth pulling up softly as he gave a shallow nod in acknowledgement. But his lips then dropped to a frown as brows creased in concern.

His gaze raised to Heather.

"Be honest…for once", he added lowly. "Are you telling me everything that you know about Viggo?"

Heather's face stilled; the only movement was her eyelashes fluttering as she carefully observed him.

With a quiet exhale, she gave a slow shake of her head.

Hiccup's chest expanded while he pursed his lips to hold back an exasperated sigh.

He glanced down at Astrid again before holding Heather in a firm stare. "Is anything going to happen to her?"

The look he received didn't inspire immediate confidence. If anything, Heather appeared worryingly apprehensive. But she then shifted to a resolute gaze. "Not if you let me help, and listen to what I say."

The dubious assurance deeply troubled Hiccup, but after some consideration, it seemed that even a little hope was better than nothing.

"Fine", he agreed flatly. "Just remember: we risked our lives to supposedly save yours. You owe us."

Heather sighed. "Okay", she agreed, more hastily that he preferred. "But Hiccup-"

He interrupted with a brisk shake of his head. "Then promise to find a way to get her out of here", he demanded.

Frowning, Heather's patience began to wear thin. "…I'll do my best."

Unfortunately, Hiccup's had completely run dry. "Promise. Me", he demanded sternly, tiring of her vague commitment.

Irritated, Heather's head tipped back. "Okay", she bit back quietly.

Seeing the distrusting look Hiccup gave her, Heather released a steady breath, letting her features soften.

"Okay…" she repeated, her voice more calm and assuring. "I promise."

Still doubtful of her word, Hiccup's skeptical gaze remained. Slowly – reluctantly - he nodded in silent agreement to her terms.

Heather did the same, and her posture loosened considerably. But her eyes suddenly widened as her head whipped to look over her shoulder.

"Great" she sneered under her breath. "Patrol."

Brows cinched in annoyance, she briskly looked back down at Hiccup. "I'll find you as soon as I know more."

Hiccup had no time to respond; only watched as Heather swiftly moved away from the gap.

Then, to his surprise, she immediately popped back into view. "Oh, and Hiccup?"

He turned back around, an eyebrow raised.

Without warning, Heather tossed down two small items. Hiccup barely caught one before it hit the ground. The other fell at his feet but was so light if barely made any sound at all.

Hiccup looked at the water horn in his hand, then at the small satchel on the ground. Confused, he glanced back up at Heather.

The dark-haired woman returned a sober gaze. "Be ready for anything", she warned cryptically before again darting out of sight.

Listening to the sound of her boots scuffing against the rocks, Hiccup tracked the pattering until it faded into the distance - leaving only silence in the surrounding cavern.

Warily, Hiccup eyed the satchel. He reaching down to retrieve it and pressed its contents between the tips of his fingers. Feeling something slightly pliable and non-uniform, he carefully pulled the drawstring and peered inside to find thin strips of dried meat.

He then took the water horn in hand, removing the cork to sniff its contents. When he didn't detect any unusual scent he took a very small sip, letting it spill over his tongue.

There was no bitterness, or any flavor for that matter. Slowly, Hiccup swallowed, frowning as he sought any possible sign of poisoning.

So far so good.

Returning his attention to the jerky, Hiccup grimaced. Despite a growing hunger, his raw stomach churned at the sickening scent of food. Of all the times Tuffnut had to take his culinary experimentation too far…

Still, he pulled a small corner off one of the strips - placing it in his mouth and gently gnawing on the dried flesh.

Satisfied that all he could taste was the flavor of overly salted chicken, he forced himself to swallow the morsel, trying to ignore the acidic burn in his throat.

Letting his exhausted gaze drift to Astrid, Hiccup stooped down to set the water and jerky aside.

Though his paranoia ebbed somewhat after their (eventually) amiable exchange, he still distrusted Heather's sudden change of heart, and the "gifts" she left them.

But, he thought as he lowered himself down to the floor, if they were clean, it could buy them some much needed time.

And if they weren't…

Pursing his lips, Hiccup gulped at the grim thought. The only modest comfort he had was that he'd have them in his system for a while before Astrid could consume any. If they were laced with anything…well…

It should be evident long before then.

Astrid didn't recall dreaming for once – her mind and body overwhelmed by exhaustion.

There were moments of distorted sound; too deep to be voices and distant enough that it didn't cause her any alarm. It wasn't until a subtle vibration carried through her entire body, growing more vigorous with each moment, that she began to question whether or not she was still asleep.

But the sound of pebbles rattling near her ears sparked a recent memory, and Astrid's eyes flew open in a panic as she clearly felt the floor beneath her move.

"Are you kidding me?!" she groaned, quickly moving to a defensive crouch. Eyes wide but still bleary from sleep, she looked around for Hiccup.

Astrid found him kneeling several feet behind her, groggily staring up at the stones surrounding them.

Following his gaze, she saw clouds of dust hanging in the beam of firelight. As the ground shifted violently, small bits of rubble began to fall.

Astrid scooted back steadily, her eyes locked on the unstable wall of rock. As the shaking worsened, she blanched, and hurried her pace while gingerly stepping towards the opposite side.

But she still wasn't moving quickly enough for Hiccup, who anxiously glanced between her and the precarious stones. He reached out to grab her shoulders, relieved to feel her reaching for him as well.

"It's coming down!" Astrid gasped near his ear, as they heard more rocks tumble.

When a sizeable chunk of stone crashed to the ground beside them, Astrid's reflexes kicked in. She dropped down as she pulled Hiccup with her, tossing one arm over her head and the other over his.

After reaching the floor, Hiccup grit his teeth as another stone smashed inches away from them. He pulled her in tighter with trembling hands.

They both flinched every time they heard and felt a rock plummet to the ground and fracture.

Astrid suddenly shouted through clenched teeth as something struck her ankle. Her cry became a furious growl as she pulled the throbbing leg into her body.

Next thing she knew she was moving. Suddenly rolled on to her back, she opened her eyes to see Hiccup's face hovering over hers.

Mouth ajar, Astrid gaped up at him. "W-what are you-?"

But he couldn't respond. Hiccup's face crumpled as he choked back a shout, nearly dropping entirely as he took a harsh hit to his lower back.

"Hiccup!?" Astrid shouted, trying to push him back but meeting resistance.

"…'m fine…" he wheezed, still unable to open his eyes.

Astrid panted through parted lips, readjusted her grip to gain better leverage. But before she made another attempt to shove him to his side, she realized the only sounds she heard was heavy breathing and the pounding of her own pulse. No low rumble or clattering stones.

Freezing her limbs in place, she pressed her spine into the ground – the moving earth had stilled.

"I…think it's over?" she noted uncertainly, looking up to Hiccup. She couldn't see his eyes – only russet bangs as his head fell forward.

The young man groaned quietly, still braced over her. He moved slowly as he flexed his hands against the stone. "Y-yeah", he shuddered in agreement, eyelids rising to reveal a pained and unfocused gaze.

Though he tried to play tough, his stiff movements as he attempted to maneuver to his knees were a dead giveaway. Also, the nearly-formed tears coating his eyes.

Rolling her own eyes, Astrid carefully pushed him so that he shifted to his hip, this time without him fighting her along the way.

"Oh, you idiot…" she breathed, admonishing but affectionate as she looked over his back with concern. "Why did you do that?"

Clamping his eyes shut as he pressed himself up to sit, Hiccup still managed to express his disbelief in his facial features. "As opposed to you getting hit? Are you serious?"

Astrid snorted, shaking her head with a faint smirk. "No, but you left your head and spine exposed. Small wonder you're in agony right now."

Slowly opening his eyes and blinking a few times, Hiccup tried to hide a wince as he adjusted the position of his legs.

"I'm fine", he insisted through shallow breaths. "Just…surprised me."

Astrid tried to hide an amused smile. "Hmm. If you say so…"

When Hiccup only nodded, she sighed, taking a moment to lightly massage her wounded ankle. A quick glance assured her that the hide of her boot was intact, and there was no blood soaking through.

A succession of quick pops drew her attention, and she turned her head to see Hiccup arching his back. Whatever shifted along his spine apparently brought some relief, and he released a grateful sigh.

Exhaling herself, glad that his pain was subsiding, Astrid reached her arms up for a much needed stretch. Content, Astrid then curled one hand to form a loose fist, and delivered a light punch to Hiccup's bicep.

Surprised, Hiccup jumped. Wide eyes soon dropped into a weary gaze. "Hey…" he groaned in exasperation, feeling too tired and sore.

But when Astrid chuckled teasingly, a sound he immensely missed, Hiccup's foul mood quickly dissipated. Realizing her attempt at being playful, his lips quirked in response.

"Gods, what did I do now?" he muttered, sounding more annoyed than he truly was as he rubbed the offended arm. "Because I didn't let you get crushed?"

"No, because you didn't wake me", she replied casually. "I was supposed to take a shift."

Hiccup shook the arm out and used his other shoulder to shrug. "Yeah, well, I was fine."

Rubbing the dust from her eyes, Astrid hummed, still feeling the extent of her sleep debt. Casting a glance at her weary teammate, she frowned when she saw him settle into a seated position rather than stretch out on the floor.

"Don't you want to try to get some sleep?" she prompted.

Hiccup simply shook his head. "Nah", he insisted lazily. "I rested a bit."

Astrid pulled her lips to one side, clearly not buying his claim. But she didn't push the subject any further, and instead stretched out her leg to better examine her ankle.

Reaching into her boot, she rubbed at the tender muscles and tendons that tensed beneath her fingers. As she flexed her foot, slowly rotating her ankle, she was pleased to find that she still had full-range of motion.

Meanwhile Hiccup looked down at his other side, pushing aside fallen pebbles and stones to retrieve the water horn and satchel.

Blue eyes widened as she noticed the items in his hands, and Astrid stilled her fingers while staring intently at the water horn.

"I didn't know you had water", she murmured, confusion shrouded with swelling hope.

Removing the cap, Hiccup looked down at the vessel to conceal his expression.

"Uh, yeah, um, sorry..." he stumbled, his awkwardness coming off as embarrassment. "Heh. Guess I forgot."

Offering Astrid the water, he was thankful to see her smile, too focused on her relief to question it further.

She brought the horn to her mouth, making herself take small sips rather than chugging it. The water gathered before she dared to swallow, moistening her tongue and lips then slowly trickling down her parched throat.

Hiccup accepted the horn as she passed it back, taking in barely enough to qualify as a gulp before replacing the cap.

As Astrid released a content sigh, Hiccup set down the water horn and untied the little pouch. He carefully dug his index finger inside to retrieve two small strips of the dehydrated meat. "Hungry?"

The question pulled Astrid's attention, and she glanced at the food with clear interest. "Always", she muttered, irritated by her own insatiable hunger.

Reaching to pluck the food from Hiccup's hand, Astrid brought the strip to her face to examine it.

Unsettled by her scrutiny, Hiccup ripped at another piece as he slowly chewed.

"Uh, dried chicken", he noted, glad that he had a chance to taste it beforehand to identify what he supposedly brought.

Her expression unyielding, Astrid's analyzing gaze drifted to Hiccup, who paled under her stare.

She then raised a brow in mock suspicion. "Better not have stolen this from Stormfly's supplies…" she warned, the corner of her mouth tugging upward.

Surprised and relieved, Hiccup huffed, looking away to hide his fluster.

"I think I know better than to get between a Nadder and food", he weakly joked.

With a brisk snort, Astrid hummed and hungrily bit into her strip of jerky.

The pair sat in, what at least appeared, to be comfortable silence as she ate.

But Astrid soon noticed that Hiccup hadn't moved in several minutes. She peered from the corner of her eye.

Seeing him staring idly at the dried chicken in his hand, she wondered what held his full attention. The fact that his face was tightly drawn as his fingers tapped with nervous energy was enough to pique her curiosity.

Swallowing, Astrid put on a light smile.

"So..." she began casually, hoping to re-break the ice. "Did anything happen last…night?" She paused. "Or was it earlier today?"

Realizing she had no sense of the time since going underground, she rolled her eyes with a flippant shrug. "Whatever time it actually is…"

Hiccup's features froze, his eyes flicking up to meet hers. "…what?" he asked, his voice ticking up anxiously.

Her smile slacked, forming the beginnings of a frown. "The quakes?" she reminded him. "Were there anymore?"

Releasing a breath, Hiccup coughed to clear his throat. "Oh, right. Um, yeah", he off-handedly affirmed, trying to sound more at-ease.

But Astrid's brow knit, causing Hiccup to replay his response.

"Oh, um, no. I meant no", he amended, shaking his head as he looked down at his jerky with sudden interest. "Nothing else."

Still frowning, Astrid took in his unusual body language. It was clear that something had set him on edge.

But other than briefly holding him in a thoughtful stare, she said nothing, dropping her gaze as she took another bite of chicken.

With Astrid's eyes off him, Hiccup's posture finally relaxed. He forced himself to gnaw on his jerky, though his gut still spasmed uncomfortably.

Finishing off her ration with a final swallow, Astrid dusting her hands together before pushing herself up to her knees. "Here, let me check on this", she suggested, pointing to Hiccup's bandaged head.

Hiccup only nodded as he pretended to chew. He sat still as she shifted towards him, tilting his head to give her better access to the wound.

Pulling back the fabric, nearly half stained, Astrid was encouraged to see the gash had clotted.

"Looks pretty good", she announced, using her fingers to pinch the material and turn it so that the clean(er) side sat against the lesion. "Just another day and I think it can come off."

Resisting the habit of nodding his head as she finished straightening the fabric, Hiccup's gaze fell to her kneeling legs. "How's yours?"

Astrid hummed in thought. She then sat down, extending the wounded leg and carefully pulling the skirt up to the top of her thigh to expose the makeshift bandage.

Her hands moved more boldly than she had with him - swiftly grasping what remained of her leggings and yanking it back to reveal the cut.

Hiccup reflexively cringed at the sight. While the bleeding stilled some time ago, the gash was far wider than he had expected.

"Good as new", Astrid concluded nonchalantly, pulling the strip of bloodied fabric completely off her leg.

His face didn't reflect the same ease. "That's...a really big cut."

Astrid's mouth curled into a smile. "Yeah, will probably scar up real nice", she replied with a satisfaction that made Hiccup shudder from his head to his feet.

Chuckling, Astrid glanced at him reassuringly. "Actually doesn't hurt that much. Really."

She then reached her arm over to her left side, lightly dragging a hand down her ribcage. "Side feels a lot worse", she admitted, eye twitching as she grazed the area. "Probably bruised something awful."

Hiccup's stare shifted to her side. He took on a pensive expression; his eyes unfocused with lips pressed together.

Sensing a sudden change in his demeanor, Astrid raised an eyebrow. "What's wrong?"

He responded with the slightest shake of his head. "He…knew..." Hiccup murmured, his voice hollow as he continued to stare at her side, his gaze drifting to her belly.

Cocking her head ever so slightly, Astrid's brow furrowed in confusion.

"He knew and he was still going to..."

Hiccup couldn't finish the sentence, too ill at even the thought of what Viggo could have done. He shook his head with fervor, face wrinkling with disgust.

Glancing back down at her injured rib, understanding set in, and Astrid gave a small nod. "Well, we knew he was a sadistic, amoral creep..." she muttered. "Just more proof, I guess."

"He's dead."

Taken aback by the dark quality of his voice as much as the wording, Astrid looked up at the young man, eyes wide in surprise. "Hiccup..."

"No, I mean it", Hiccup replied, his tone conclusive. "Not posturing, or making empty threats. I'm not leaving here as long as he's alive."

Settling back to sit upon her folded legs, Astrid frowned. "Look...I understand the sentiment. Really, I'd like to take an axe to his throat myself..."

Yanked from his brooding, Hiccup's features relaxed, looking at Astrid expectantly. "There's a 'but' coming..."

"But", she emphasized, hiding a smirk, "that's who I am. I prefer to settle things with weapons over words, and if it means a little bloodshed..." She shrugged dismissively.

Her expression then tightened; eyes grayed with worry. "But this? Hiccup, this isn't you."

Mouth turning downward, Hiccup shifted to look right at her.

"Viggo has tormented us for almost a year", he reminded. "Injured almost everyone on the team. C-captured and sold every dragon he can get his hands on."

A crease formed between Astrid's eyebrows. "Hiccup..."

"He took Toothless," he continued as he looked away, his acidic voice straining while his hands balled into fists.

Astrid's eyes flicked to his hands, concerned. "I know", she assured, "but-"

"AND was going to disembowel you." Hiccup's teeth grit, eyes brimming with rage as though glaring at the man in question. "And he knew."

As silence set in, he looked back at Astrid. His expression quickly fell as he saw the disturbed look she returned.

Embarrassed, Hiccup sighed, letting his rigid shoulders loosely drop. "I mean, what am I…"

He shook his head before meeting her stare. He looked exhausted. Confused. "I-I'm just supposed to walk away? Forgive and forget?"

With a moment's pause, Astrid considered him. She slowly shook her head.

"No", she replied. "You're not. But you've always been able to handle threats without resorting to violence; especially just for the sake of violence."

Hiccup looked down, grinding the heel of his boot into the ground. "Yeah, but those threats were never against..."

Watching him intently, Astrid's brow relaxed – her eyes widening slightly as his voice faded.

Hair rustling as he shook his head, Hiccup huffed. "Things are just very different now", he muttered.

Astrid hummed quietly, tilting her head to the side.

"You know", she mused, "I hate Viggo."

The unnecessary declaration hung in the air for a moment. Though Hiccup's face remained downcast, she had his full attention.

Astrid huffed. "I hate him, for a lot of things", she continued. "But, I think what I hate him for the most, is what he's done to you."

Hiccup's shoulders bounced in surprise. Raising his head, his forehead creased. "To me?" he echoed incrediously.

She nodded, rubbing a thumb along the hem of her dress. "And, well, I've been thinking…"

Arching his brow, Hiccup watched as Astrid shifted in her seat to sit cross-legged, leaning in to watch him keenly.

"So, to beat Viggo you need to be a step ahead, right?" she posed, looking to him for affirmation. "Not have him control the next move but to constantly keep him guessing?"

Pausing, she waited for Hiccup to bob his head.

Astrid then frowned. "But that's the thing; he's already controlling you."

Uncertain where exactly she was going, Hiccup mirrored her unease but said nothing.

Noting his skepticism, Astrid braced her elbows at her knees, looking him directly in the eye.

"You are so fixated on getting him back", she explained, "that it's changing the way you think. And don't you think that, maybe, he knows that by now? Why else would he go so far out of his way to pick at every single thing that he knows will make you angry?"

Watching Hiccup closely, waiting for a hint of acknowledgement but finding none, Astrid sighed. "Why give him exactly what he wants?"

When Hiccup didn't immediately react, instead continued to stare at her blankly, Astrid steeled herself for another argument.

She wasn't surprised when he released a huff of air. But rather than scoff, he did something that she didn't expect – he laughed.

It was a flat and lazy chuckle; more ironic than amused.

"That's…heh. Yeah. Yeah, you're probably right …" he agreed, though the light smile on his face failed to reach his eyes.

Astrid watched him carefully, trying to decipher his reaction.

Shaking his head, Hiccup sighed. "I can't win", he replied, halfheartedly tossing a hand up in resignation. "If I overdo it, I risk losing myself. If I don't push enough, I could lose everything else. Everyone else."

Hiccup looked at Astrid with earnest eyes. "Given the two options, you can understand why I've erred on the side I have. Can't you?"

Seeing his sincerity – and a desperation to be validated - she forced a small smile. "I can", she admitted. "I don't like it...but I get it."

His thin smile spread slightly in appreciation. Looking up to stare at their only possible portal to relative freedom, Hiccup sighed. "We shouldn't be here right now."

Astrid's smile faded to a neutral expression. "Hmm? Like, here here?" she asked, glancing around, "or…?"

"On this island", he clarified. "In these waters…even knowing Viggo Grimborn existed…"

Readjusting her skirt, shifting to sit a bit closer, Astrid held his gaze, urging him to continue.

Hiccup said nothing at first; just stared back at her. Rather than looking through her as he recently had, he instead seemed to peer into her – as if searching for something.

Despite the intensity neither felt uncomfortable; if anything, the opposite.

Drawing a breath as he pursed his lips, Hiccup expelled the air through his mouth a brisk huff. "Everything…it's just so different then when we first left Berk, y'know?"

Breaking their stare, one of his hands grasped at the small stone at his feet, using it to fidget and giving him something to look at as he spoke.

"Being out here, visiting new lands, discovering new first it was everything I hoped for", he recalled wistfully. "I figured we would just find Dagur, drag him back to Outcast Island, and be able to keep exploring as a team."

His expression then darkened, and he firmly pinched the stone between two fingers. "I-I never imagined it would spiral into this…disaster. Gods, I was supposed to be leading an expedition, not wind up in the middle of a war waiting to happen!"

Dropping the stone and letting it fall to the ground, Hiccup looked back at Astrid. His eyes held a sudden heaviness that took her aback.

"You're always telling me that I can do anything. T-that I have nothing to be afraid of."

He then dropped his gaze in shame. "But…I…I-I can't do this, Astrid."

His choice of words caused Astrid to pale, and she sucked in her lips anxiously.

"And what's "this", Hiccup?" she prompted. Her fingernails dug into her palms, terrified of what all he could mean. Her? Them? Berk?

The strands of hair that hung forward swayed as he bounced his shoulders. "Leading", he mumbled, keeping his face downcast. "Being responsible for everything and everyone."

Releasing her grip - only somewhat relieved to know that he was only speaking of the same, familiar demons he had always faced - Astrid was still saddened by what he had to say.

Hiccup rubbed his hands together. "I-I used to think I wasn't good at anything. Over time, with your help", he added, looking up enough to give a small but appreciative smile, "I learned that wasn't true. I'm good at some things. Blacksmithing. Understanding and training dragons. I can come up with crazy ideas and then, sometimes, build those crazy things…"

Astrid gave an amused huff, causing Hiccup's lips to pull upward. He then raised his head to meet her gaze.

"This isn't some, I don't know…"woe is me, I suck at everything"…thing", he assured. "It really isn't. But, some people are just really good leaders. They can manage the personalities, and the in-fighting, and, gods, the endless competition…" Hiccup's nose wrinkled. "And I am not one of those people."

Pressing her lips together to restrain her objections, Astrid made a point to keep quiet and let him say his piece.

The guilt in Hiccup's expression resurged. "I mean, I wanted to be. Mostly because people I, just, really respect thought I could do it." He then looked at her sadly. "And I really didn't want to prove you all wrong."

Bringing his hand to his face, Hiccup sighed deeply, letting a groan escape. "But I need to face facts, Astrid. This isn't me. I've tried to be someone else, and, I can't."

Angling his head to look down into his lap, Hiccup sat shamefaced. "Not for Dad." He peered at her from the corner of his eye. "Not even for you."

Astrid's lips parted, too absorbed in his words to say anything. She could only give the tiniest shake of her head.

He tried to smile again, but couldn't. "I'm sorry I let you down", he murmured.

Overwhelmed, Astrid lightly clenched at the hem of her hangerock. She felt so much: sympathy, heartbreak, relief, and truthfully, a tinge of disappointment.

But as she took in Hiccup's body language - the way his back curved and he kept his gaze low – she couldn't ignore a gnawing guilt. In her enthusiasm for him…her well-meaning support and endless faith in his capabilities…she had unknowingly given him a higher pedestal to inevitably fall from. When she spoke of everything he could achieve, he instead heard what he had to. The same way he interpreted his father's words.

"Hiccup…" she breathed.

As the young man looked away, linking his fingers around one of his knees as he drew it protectively into his body, Astrid leaned to settle onto one hip.

She wasn't sure what to say. She wanted to help him; to ensure him that he hadn't failed in her eyes.

Then, she had a thought.

Although Hiccup kept his stare away, she still smiled softly at him. "When we were kids, in dragon training…do you know why I was so rough on you?"

The question seemed to intrigue Hiccup, whose brow raised momentarily before settling back into a neutral position. He then huffed. "You have an innate revulsion to weakness?"

Smirking, Astrid gave his shoulder a light swat as penance for his self-deprecation.

"Because", she continued, "when I saw you, knowing that the Chiefdom was your birthright, I could see small glimpses of what I feared Berk would one day be."

This caused Hiccup to finally look towards her, sending a peculiar look that teetered on offense. "…um, thanks?"

Astrid shrugged shamelessly. "Life was so difficult then", she reminded him. "Between the dragons and the Outcasts, it was hard to imagine Berk having a future at all! You were…"

"Weird?" Hiccup offered dryly.

"…different", she concluded, ignoring the roll of his eyes. "Everything we were taught said that a chief had to be big and intimidating. Strong enough to take down any dragon. That…well, wasn't you."

Hiccup scoffed, returning his stare to the ground. "Understatement", he grumbled.

Leaning closer, Astrid stared at him intently. "I was scared, Hiccup."

This made Hiccup's eyes widen, and he slowly turned his face to meet her gaze.

Seeing the heat rise to her cheeks, he tried to quash her embarrassment with a polite laugh. "What, you? C'mon, you're never scared", he huffed blithely.

Biting her lip, Astrid sighed as she pushed the bangs out of her face. "Yeah, that's...not true", she admitted. "I was scared then."

She shrugged a single shoulder, looking at her lap as she picked at the fibers of her dress. "Like I'm scared every time you run off without any armor or back-up, or even a plan", she confessed. "Or when I see how much Viggo's been affecting you; what it's done to your confidence..."

With a dry huff, Astrid gestured down at her stomach. "Or this. I mean…I've been so freaked out about what you would think, and what it would do to you. I just kept…I don't know, freezing up…"

Mulling over her own words, she scoffed, nose scrunched in disdain. "I kept putting things off because…I…I was…" She growled under her breath. "…terrified of what would happen."

Feeling her companion's stare on her, Astrid peered at him bashfully. "I-It's one of the reasons I never want to be afraid...I don't make the best decisions when I am."

All the while Hiccup's gaze never wavered, though his features relaxed until the last hint of a smile dropped entirely. He watched her closely, unsure of what to possibly say.

Tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear, Astrid smiled shyly at the return of a distant memory.

"But, after you showed me Toothless, and the dragons...I realized that there wasn't only one possible outcome for our tribe aft all. That there were possibilities, and that, maybe, by being different, we could even be better."

Sensing Hiccup's head raise in interest, she smiled brightly, and turned to fully meet his gaze.

"I say that you would be a great chief because I mean it. Now, when I think of Berk's future, and about everything you have already done for our tribe..." Astrid shrugged. "I'm not afraid. I want that for Berk. And I just wish you saw yourself the way I do. That we all do."

Hiccup was speechless.

It took time to absorbing everything – her words, the sincerity behind them, and the warmth in her beautiful eyes. After months of distance…after everything that had been said…it was beyond his imagining that she could still hold him in as high-esteem as she used to. Especially when he certainly couldn't say the same for himself.

"Um, t-thank you", he finally offered, unable to completely stop the faint smile on his face that threatened to grow. "That…means a lot. Really."

The hopeful smile she returned caused his heart to skip a beat. But it also reminded him that, while her faith in him had somehow sustained – he still couldn't meet those expectations.

"But…" he sighed, tugging his mouth to the side. "Even still…even though I want to…" His voice faded, embarrassed. "I'm…sorry."

Seeing the brightness in her eyes dim was hard, and Hiccup looked down to the ground.

With a quiet sigh, Astrid also cast her gaze downward. But after a moment's pause, she bobbed her head in thought and gave a casual shrug.

"Well…then don't."

Hiccup peered at her under his furrowed brow, perplexed. "But, you just said-"

"That I wish one day you knew you have what it takes be Chief", Astrid explained matter-of-factly, with no hint of disapproval in her voice. "But maybe that doesn't mean it has to be today, tomorrow, or several years from now."

Astrid absorbed her own words as she said them, slowly nodding in approval. "And even if you never get there…"

She then smirked cheekily. "It would be an enormous loss for Berk..." she added with a dramatic sigh.

Hiccup huffed, a smile breaking through. "Subtle…"

Chuckling, Astrid retained her warmth as she spoke. "But we would survive. As long as you keep building crazy new things to keep us safe and stop the dragons from burning all the crops…we'll be okay no matter what you decide."

Rubbing at his chin, Hiccup seriously considered her. That he could, potentially, stall his succession as Chief for years, if not indefinitely. It sounded impossible even as he thought of it, yet the idea alone left him feeling somewhat…lighter. Hopeful.

Raising his head and straightening his shoulders, he appeared for a moment less burdened; encouraged that maybe he didn't have to seal his entire fate at the age of nineteen.

But his frown returned. "I'm…not so sure Dad will see it that way."

Astrid's smile didn't falter. "He won't", she agreed. "At first."

Hearing his worries validated, Hiccup started to dip his head back down in shame.

But Astrid reached to place her hand to his cheek, stopping his descent. Angling his face up as she bent forward, she offered an encouraging smile when their eyes connected.

"He'll be disappointed, Hiccup. But not in you. For Berk."

Blinking, Hiccup returned her stare. He held her gaze intently as he looked from one blue eye to the other.

Astrid was never one to sugar-coat things; even for his benefit. He knew she truly believed everything she said.

Still… that didn't mean she couldn't be wrong. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't bring himself to fully believe her words.

But he really wanted to.

Finally, slowly, his cheek pressed into her palm as he softly smiled. "Thanks, Astrid."

Astrid's face brightened - relieved to see the shy but appreciative gaze he held her in. From the lopsided pull of his lips to the youthful shine that returned to tired eyes, she was momentarily pulled back to brighter days. Days that seemed so long ago but truly weren't; something she realized when the excited patter of her heart felt far more familiar than foreign.

It took effort to pull her hand away; too engrossed in absorbing the affection she had craved. But her logical mind won over, fighting the urge to indulge in her greedy wants as she reluctantly tugged her hand back. She imagined that doing otherwise would only be pushing her fragile luck.

That made her all the more surprised when Hiccup suddenly reached forward to lightly grip her hand in his own.

Her wide eyes met his, which were heavy with remorse.

"Did..." Hiccup's voice faded as he frowned. "Did I really scare you?"

Though his tone almost sounded disbelieving – as if the idea that he could somehow instill a sense of terror in her was impossible – the penitent expression he gave reflected the guilt he carried.

Seeing him look so ashamed tempted Astrid to lie, or to at least downplay the impact. But seeing his full transparency made it feel cheap to return anything less – though she hoped it didn't further erode his shaky confidence.

Sucking in her lower lip, Astrid finally looked down sheepishly before looking back up, giving a small nod in admission.

"Everything has just been so...heavy, you know?" Shrugging, she looked at their clasped hands. "You take on everything, and after some..." She groaned, embarrassed. "…very stupid mistakes on my part..."

Hiccup's head tilted as he listened, and Astrid looked into his eyes apologetically.

"I made it so that I couldn't even help you anymore", she explained, giving her head a slow shake. "Seeing you dealing with everything on your own...I…guess I worried I'd lose you."

She then swallowed thickly. "One way or another."

Hiccup's silence worried her, but the fact that his thumb absently rubbed against the backs of her fingers was a comfort. Glancing up at him, curious to what he was thinking, she saw him pursing his lips in thought.

"I'm…sorry", he finally breathed. "I-I didn't want you to worry about me." He then huffed a half-hearted chuckle. "That was kind of the point, actually", he muttered in embarrassment.

Confused, Astrid's brows knit.

Peering at her long enough to notice, Hiccup then dropped his gaze.

"I…I hate that you always have to come to my rescue", he admitted, training his gaze to the ground. "You're already stronger than me...faster...a much better fighter. I should be able to handle my own battles - figurative or literal."

His words had little effect on her puzzled expression. "Why?"

Baffled, Hiccup's head reared back.

"Why?" he repeated. "Because…I'm not a child anymore. Because, how can I expect anyone to listen to my directions when I have no idea if I can even handle everything myself?"

Uncertainty became firm dissent as Astrid shook her head.

"But that's why leaders have teams", she countered, squeezing his grip before releasing to use both hands to gesture as she spoke. "So you don't have to handle it all. You make a plan, and put your soldiers into the right positions. But then? They have to take it from there."

When Hiccup's stare grew pensive, Astrid smiled. "And, if you picked the right people, they'll be able to back you up."

Leaning forward as he braced against his bent knees, Hiccup nodded thoughtfully.

"And as for me..." she mused, raking her fingers through her loosened strands, "you help me all the time."

This made Hiccup's brow furrowed, unconvinced.

Astrid shrugged. "I needed help today, didn't I?"

"Well, yeah," he acknowledged, albeit dismissively, "but…"

"And even everyday stuff", she admitted, forcing herself through her embarrassment. "Without you, I get…angry. Stay angry. I can tell people what to do all day but, I don't know, it's...hard."

Intrigued though still confused, Hiccup arched one eyebrow. "What is?"

"I don't know…" she sighed. Despite the fact that she shrugged, Astrid's continuous brushing of her hair betrayed her – revealing her discomfort. "I guess, maybe, it's because it sometimes seems like no one else really…'gets' me", she confessed.

Though her bangs were still hanging in her eyes, she peeked at Hiccup through the strands. "Not like you do, anyway. You always make me feel like I'm more than just…bossy. And mean." Thinking back on some of the words her teammates had used in moments of anger and frustration, her expression grew blank. "Cold."

Mouth slightly ajar, Hiccup frowned, aghast. "Those aren't – you aren't any of those things", he insisted.

Without hesitation, Astrid gave a quick shake of her head. "No, I am", she concluded, matter-of-factly. "Or at least I can be."

Taking a moment's pause, Hiccup mulled over her word. "Yeah, well…so can everyone else. We've all been like that, at one time or another."

Touched by his defense of her, Astrid's small smile returned. "True. Though some of us more than others. But it means a lot to have someone who I can just, well, be with. When I have my bad moments you don't hold it against me."

Astrid grimaced, reminded that that hadn't been true in sometime. That she had taken his tolerant nature for granted, and crossed an invisible line.

"I think – I hope – you know that's not who I am. Not entirely," she murmured. "I've...I've missed that."

Sitting in stunned silence, Hiccup drew in a breath without warning.

He hadn't expected her to say what she did – to allow herself to be so vulnerable. And it was becoming increasingly more difficult to police a surging optimism that he consciously contained.

Taking in Hiccup's surprise, Astrid smiled sadly as she considered why he was still keeping a safe distance between them. Why she was doing the same.

"I know it wasn't the right decision", she acknowledged, "- not telling you. But when everything feels like the wrong choice...I-I've never had that happen before. I just pick one and whatever happens, happens."

Tugging her mouth back into a faint frown, Astrid's fingers ran against the panel of her hangerok that hugged her belly. "But this one doesn't just affect me. Someone was going to get hurt, no matter what I did."

When Hiccup still didn't respond she looked up, finding herself in his unflinching gaze. He didn't appear upset, or sad. Or really anything that she could discern.

Feeling herself flush even more, Astrid wrinkled her nose. "Sorry", she muttered. "I'm not making sense."

But Hiccup quickly shook his head. "No, no", he insisted, his tone reassuring. "I…actually follow completely."

Tensed shoulders relaxed as Astrid's lips pulled upward. "You usually do", she chuckled lowly.

Her smile diminished somewhat, looking down at her hands as she flexed them in her lap awkwardly.

"That's the part that killed me: telling you was going to drag you into this, and I didn't want to do that you." She sighed, running a finger over an old scar on her palm. "But you were the one I really needed to talk to. So I could try to figure this all out."

Hiccup didn't react right away. Instead, he watched her thoughtfully; absently rubbing at his jaw. He wore the same enigmatic expression, giving Astrid no insight into what he would say or do.

Pressing her lips together, Astrid managed to hold her gaze – fighting the urge to break the awkward stand-off.

Finally, Hiccup hummed to himself. "Well…", he breathed with a soft exhale, "there's nothing we can do about what's already happened…"

A wrinkle formed between Astrid's brows as they pulled together, relieved but off-balance in the face of his abruptly amicable tone.

Though he saw her confusion, Hiccup continued, giving a loose shrug. "But I know now, so…I guess, all we can do is keep going forward."

His voice wavered only for a moment as he looked at Astrid with uncertainty. "Um, r-right?"

Astrid's lips parted before they stilled in place. Seeing the insecure gaze she was receiving – realizing that he was looking to her for assurance when she had been looking to him for the same – she quickly collected herself.

Pressing her mouth into a weary smile, she nodded in agreement.

When Hiccup's features released, Astrid's stare rose to the small opening in the rocks above.

"Though", she grumbled, "I wish I knew what we were going towards."

Following her line of sight, Hiccup nodded. "Yeah, you and me both."

Picking at the fraying fibers of her skirt, Astrid's thoughts drifted to their present situation, and how they could possibly escape. She barely noticed that Hiccup's gaze had dropped back to her, only realizing when he shifted a mere inch closer.

With wide, curious eyes, Astrid watched the man before her clasp his hands together, anxiously twiddling his thumbs. Despite his obvious discomfort, his eyes remained clear and earnest.

"Astrid…you've been on my case about taking everything on myself", he noted bluntly, seemingly out of the blue.

Astrid frowned, almost offended, as she opened her mouth to rebut.

But Hiccup raised a hand. "...and rightfully so", he quickly added.

Closing the gap between her lips, Astrid expression loosened. She was calm again, but only grew more confused.

Releasing a heavy breath, Hiccup looked down to her abdomen for a brief second before retreating back to her face. "Well, you didn't do this on your own", he continued, the uneasiness beginning to overtake his tone.

Slow realization began to sink in, causing Astrid's features to slack.

Hiccup's mouth pulled upward into a weak smirk. "You're obviously not going to let me handle Viggo on my own."

"Nope", Astrid immediately chirped, leaving no room for debate.

Though he rolled his eyes momentarily, Hiccup's small smile never faltered. "Well," he informed her, "I'm not letting you take this on by yourself either."

When Astrid didn't respond, he leaned forward slightly, raising one eyebrow. "Fair?"

Despite the enormous wave of relief that threatened to overtake her – leaving her disoriented and unsure of how to express it - Astrid fought back the urge to do…something. Anything. Her usual reactions felt like too much; anything else seemed too little. A hug, a kiss…Hel, a handshake felt inappropriate in the moment.

So instead, when she became aware that he was still waiting for her reaction, she pulled her lips to one side, acting as though she was deeply considering him. "…yeah…", she sighed in mock resignation. "I mean, I guess…"

Her heart thrummed when Hiccup showed no offense at her reaction; if anything he appeared grateful for the familiar teasing and the levity it brought.

Scoffing lightheartedly, he shook his head.

"Oh, well", he muttered, attempting to hide his smirk by angling his head down, "by all means, don't let me strong-arm you into submission…"

Astrid snorted. "Like that could ever happen", she ribbed dryly, flashing a wry smile.

Raising his face to look square at her, his eyebrows lifted in surprise. Hiccup then narrowed his eyes as though offended. "Ah..ha…a strength joke! That's…very original…"

As Astrid's hand rose to rub at her chin (and certainly not to conceal a smile), Hiccup shook his head.

"You know, I expect more from you", he chided in feigned disappointment. "You're better than that."

At this she let her hand drop, revealing a cheeky grin. "No I'm not."

A sputtered laugh almost escaped Hiccup's mouth, forcing him to choke it back. "Alright, fine", he conceded with a sigh, no longer hiding his lazy smile. "Do I at least get credit for trying to be nice?"

Tapping a finger to her chin in consideration, Astrid hummed thoughtfully. "I'll give you a point for that; but you lose half of it for begging."

Hiccup shrugged. "All I'm hearing is that I won half a point", he smiled, enough to show the slight gap in his teeth. "And for the record: asking is not begging!"

"Sure, sure", Astrid dismissively teased, smirking while absently popping her knuckles.

First looking up in a halfhearted attempt at rolling his eyes for show, Hiccup smiled to himself as he glanced down at his own hands. He flexed his fingers in and away from his palm as he sleepily immersed himself in the return of the comfortable silence between them. At the edge of that comfort was an electric tingling; an old excitement that made every molecule in his body feel like it was buzzing with energy.

It was difficult to ignore the sensation. And it wasn't for lack of trying: his ingrained drive for self-preservation gave him more than enough motivation to do so. But the combination of their forced physical closeness and the stark candor of their words formed a tempting intimacy that he was reluctant to push away. Even if it was something that he couldn't keep forever.

Friendliness fringing on flirtation had been a constant theme through their teenage years. Something so wonderful and familiar was now strangely surreal. He was no longer dancing around an attraction for his best human friend but with a former lover – one that carried his child.

He wasn't sure if that made him more or less entitled to enjoy those pleasant moments; whether it was kind or cruel to allow more to happen.

Peeking up through his hair to look at Astrid, his pulse skipped when he saw she was watching him as well. She looked away first, but only after giving a shy smile.

Seemed he wasn't the only one feeling flustered and conflicted.

Despite his exhaustion, Hiccup was overcome with an anxious need to move. Shifting to plant his hands behind him and lean back, Hiccup took the opportunity to stretch his neck. As his head rolled to the side, trying to work out a crick, he again glanced up at the opening in the rubble.

Though he gave up on relieving his sore neck after several attempts, his stare remained in place as he thought.

"So...", he mused, finally looking back at Astrid. "What do you say we try to get out of here?"

Without a word, Astrid smiled broadly as she gave an eager bob of her head. She then pushed herself up to stand and brushed her skirt to shake off some of the dust that had settled.

Hiccup rose to his feet as well.

They both turned to look at the precarious pile, scanning for weak points and assessing where best to start.

Arms crossed, Astrid's fingers drummed as her eyes squinted, analyzing the rubble's structure.

"I'm thinking try to move one higher up", she advised, pointing up to a cluster of stones near the gap that appeared small enough to potentially move. "Less above to drop."

Eying the area in question, Hiccup gave a satisfied nod. "Agreed."

His gaze then dropped downward, frowning at the considerable distance between their target and the ground. "Now, how to get up there…"

Pursing her lips in thought, Astrid's eyes suddenly widened. Loose hair swept over her shoulder as her head cocked to face Hiccup. "Give me a boost?"

With a raised eyebrow, Hiccup slowly turned his head to look at her, his eyes dipping to her stomach pointedly. "…you're joking", he challenged, bewildered by the mere suggestion.

Astrid returned a weary stare. "Hiccup, I'm not an invalid."

Though his expression loosened out of respect, he still wasn't the least bit swayed. "Well, what if-?"

"You stand on my shoulders?" she interjected, following his thought process. Astrid held back the urge to briskly shake her head, and instead pursed her lips. "I mean…I guess we can try again", she murmured, though any attempt to appear open-minded was overridden by her doubting tone. "…just, you know, that has proven to be…"

Her voice trailed as she saw Hiccup glance down at his prosthetic, his features hardening as he dug the metal prong that formed his "foot" into the ground.

No more needed to be said – he vividly recalled every unfortunate event where he had to use someone else for leverage in a drill or in battle. Best case, he face-planted to the ground. Worst, the poor soul he stood on had only a nasty bruise on their shoulder or back to show for it.

Frowning at his leg, discouraged, Hiccup groaned deep in his throat. When he looked back up at Astrid, his face portrayed his frustration at his crumbling arguments. "And if you fall?"

The blonde gave an unconcerned shrug. "Well, then I guess you'd have to catch me."

Seeing the young man's face whiten in horror, Astrid grinned in amusement, finally taking pity on him as she placed a comforting hand to his arm.

"You're not going to let me fall", she said with unfailing confidence.

Her infectious faith lessened the growing fear in Hiccup's eyes.

Returning a small smile, though far less assured than hers, he looked back up at the rocks they would need to reach. Seeing no better alternative, he nodded reluctantly as he laced his fingers to form a foothold.

His knees bent slightly before looking at Astrid expectantly.

Without missing a beat, she stepped into Hiccup's hands, quickly moving to his shoulders as his arms shot up.

"Watch the ankle", he warned, noting the awkward angle of her injured leg.

She grunted in response, grasping his raised hands and using them to maintain her balance until she found the proper footing. To her dissatisfaction, she found the whole exercise to be more difficult than it would have been months earlier.

Bracing his legs, Hiccup moved his hands to grasp her calves while angling his neck to peer up. "Any luck?"

Finally at a point where she felt in-control, Astrid frowned as she placed a steadying hand against the rocks in front of her, looking up at the gap that still was out of her reach.

"Not unless you're planning on growing another foot", she reported dryly.

Hiccup couldn't help smirking at her unintended phrasing, glancing down at his prosthetic. "Is it sad I almost wish Snotlout or the twins were here for the obvious punchline?"

With a quick snort, Astrid smiled at the thought. "A little", she quipped, running her hands over the wall. "Though, I'll admit, I kind of miss the muttonheads too."

Holding back a laugh, forcing his shoulders to hold still, Hiccup huffed. "Wow…" he drawled. "Heat must be getting to you."

He then smirked as she rotated her foot to nudge her good heel into his cheek in retaliation.

"Yeah, yeah…" Astrid muttered playfully, all the while gingerly pressing the pads of her fingers against every fault in the rocks.

She worked quietly for a moment, trying to hide her growing discouragement as each attempt yielded zero give. This became more challenging as every stone she examined remained solidly in place.

"Speaking of which", she continued, turning to small talk to distract herself, "what are the odds of them figuring out where we are?"

Repositioning his sweating hands to grasp Astrid's legs more firmly, Hiccup tilted his head in thought.

"Assuming Viggo doesn't bait them too? Not very high", he admitted sheepishly. "I, uh, didn't, really, tell anyone before I left."

Though Hiccup cringed, anticipating an earful for his repeated carelessness, he was surprised when he only heard Astrid hum in acknowledgment.

He looked up at her, brow quirked in interest. "What? No "I told you so"?"

Hearing her chuckle, he pressed a bit more. ""This is why you always leave a note, Hiccup?" Nothing?"

Grinning at his sass, Astrid shook her head.

"I won't lie, it's extremely tempting. But…" She shrugged. "I didn't either, so I can't really talk."

Chastising herself for not leaving any clues behind, her smile fell. "When I realized what had happened…I guess, I just reacted. Didn't really think it through."

Hearing her somber shift, as well as the sincerity in her voice, Hiccup's grin dulled.

"…yeah", he agreed, reliving the wash of panic when he saw Stormfly with no rider. "I-I know what you mean."

The drop in his tone also didn't go unnoticed. Astrid raised an eyebrow, tempted to prod but opting not to.

They continued to work slowly and methodically. After Hiccup took a few careful steps to the side, Astrid was relieved to finally find a rock with some give. It was lower than she had hoped, but the placement seemed promising.

"Alright", Hiccup said, voice strained with anxiety. "At the same time you push, I'm stepping back."

"Got it", Astrid confirmed, placing her palms against the stone.

"And if you feel unsteady", he warned, "try to fall straight down. Not forward or back."

She nodded her head. "Right."

Unsatisfied with her quick response, Hiccup tried again.

"Straight down", he repeated firmly. "I cannot stress how important that part is."

A snort escaped as Astrid laughed.

"Okay!" she assured, craning her neck to look down at him. "Message received."

Hearing him grumble beneath her, she smirked. "I'll try not to hit your head on the way down."

Hiccup's eyes narrowed slightly up at her.

"I can't tell if you're being serious or not", he muttered, suddenly too nervous for teasing. "Anyway, on three, when you're ready."

Astrid nodded, bracing her arms. "Ready", she announced. "One…"

Hiccup tensed as his grip tightened. "Two..."

"Three!" Astrid grunted, giving the rock a firm shove.

At first it felt like her efforts were for not, as the stone barely moved despite how much force she applied. But she finally felt it roll away from her fingertips, and heard the rocks above it scrape against one another as they shifted out of place.

She snapped her hands back, concentrating on staying upright as she felt Hiccup move below her.

The rocks that fell scattered quickly, a few rolling away but most crashing to the floor in front of them.

With one landing closer than expected, Hiccup had to take an uneven step back, throwing off Astrid's balance as her bad ankle gave way.

Her gasp came at the same time Hiccup felt her boot slip off his shoulder. Panicked, he quickly positioned his arms into a tight loop, gasping for air as she fell into him.

Lightheaded, he then took another quick step backwards, placing his back to the opposing wall as they both watched the rubble resettle.

Chest heaving as she drew in breaths, Astrid kept one hand clutched to her belly as the other wiped across her dusty face. She then looked into Hiccup's wide, traumatized eyes.

"S-see?" she offered with a forced smile, waving her hand towards the slightly widened opening in the rocks. "Progress!"

Hiccup followed her gesture, panting as his eyes flicked back to hers. "…and how many more times do we have to do this?"

Sucking in her lower lip, Astrid scanned the rubble as she motioned for Hiccup to put her down.

Her feet barely touched the ground by the time she frowned, realizing how much more work lay ahead.

"I'm going to say: a lot."

After some back-and-forth on whether to continue as planned (which Hiccup grew increasingly opposed to), the pair soldiered on. The rocks that fell offered more options as they used them to reach higher stones. Over the course of an hour they managed to carefully remove several more stones near the open gap and widened the space.

There were some near misses along the way - one of the rocks had been almost entirely removed, until several heavier rocks began to slip too quickly. Astrid shoved the stabilizing stone back in place, causing only two smaller chunks to crash to the ground. These missteps became more frequent as the dying fire light made it difficult to see the fine cracks between each rock.

With both of them back on the ground, looking for their next target, Hiccup groaned as he wiped at his burning eyes.

"I think we should stop", he muttered, stretching his lower back.

Meanwhile, Astrid rubbed at her strained bicep as she eyed a particular stone up above.

"Are you sure? If you give me another lift, I think can I try this one from a different angle."

Watching her stand beneath the rocks that were barely settled in place, Hiccup's desperation to get out of their enclosure was tempered by the fear of making a deadly mistake in the process.

"I'm...just worn out", he claimed, sights still locked on the rocks above her. "Don't you think we've earned a break?"

Astrid pressed her lips in thought, clearly antsy to escape. But she ultimately bobbed her head in concession, brushing her palms together to remove streaks of dust as she shifted to sit down as Hiccup did the same.

Before she reached the floor, the familiar jab of pain shot down to her groin. Pulling air between clenched teeth, Astrid grimaced as she settled on the ground.

With wide, startled eyes, Hiccup's stare darted between Astrid's face and the hand pressed into her hip. "W-what? What's wrong?"

Biting at her lip, Astrid gave a quick shake of her head.

"Nothing", she briskly assured, her pitch too high to be genuine.

Hiccup frowned. "Astrid..."

Hearing the warning in his tone – and knowing he wouldn't back down again without an answer – Astrid released a defeated sigh.

"...fine", she relented with a frown, face still screwed in discomfort. "I don't know."

Hiccup's brow dropped in concern. "Don't know...?"

"What this is", Astrid groaned, rubbing the tender line down the side of her belly.

As his stare grew distressed, she shrugged dismissively. "It happens sometimes, but then it stops."

"Sometimes?" he echoed, disturbed that it had happened before. "How long has it been happening?"

Nose scrunched as she adjusted the way she sat, Astrid bobbed a shoulder. "Couple of weeks I guess."

Mouth ajar, Hiccup looked down at her abdomen.

"A couple of weeks…?" he murmured under his breath.

Hearing how hollow his voice was, Astrid cringed.

"I know" she sighed, feeling the resurgence of guilt. "I should have said something before now."

"Well, yeah, that", Hiccup acknowledged, "but…well, I'm also kicking myself here."

Finally feeling the pain begin to subside, Astrid drew in a full breath in relief. But her face only relaxed for a moment before her brow knit as she replayed his words. "Why?"

Hiccup shook his head, his gaze still locked on her stomach.

"H-how did I not notice that you've been hurting?" With a small huff, he waved his hand towards her figure. "How did I not notice all of this?"

Blue eyes narrowed in light offense, looking down at her belly and her broadening form. "Tread carefully, Haddock", she muttered.

At first confused, realization finally hit, prompting Hiccup to wrinkle his nose at her.

"Not like that", he chastised lightly. "All I'm saying is…" But he paused, groaning.

Astrid watched him in interest as she stretched one leg out.

Hiccup's shoulders rose, only dropping as he released a heavy sigh. "I-I don't even know what I'm saying", he admitted. "I knew I'd been distracted but...I mean, I saw you were having some trouble chopping wood..."

He then froze, looking up at her with wide, guilty eyes. "Wait. Could…could that have-?"

Astrid held out her other hand to stop him, knowing where he was going.

"It's not from chopping wood", she firmly assured him.

Truthfully, she didn't know that for certain. But she didn't want him to go down that path.

Not entirely convinced, Hiccup gave a single nod of his head - though the worry in his features remained. "I everything okay?"

Astrid's expression dropped, putting Hiccup more on edge.

"I...I don't know", she admitted weakly, letting her gaze drift away. "Hopefully."

Hiccup was completely out of his element, with no reference what so ever to determine how concerned he should be.

"It's just…is this normal or...?"

"Hiccup", Astrid interjected softly, reaching out to put a hand on his forearm.

The man paused, head snapping up to meet her stare as she looked him square in the eye.

"I don't know", she repeated. "Never done this before and never paid any attention to anyone who has."

Releasing a puff of air past her lips, Astrid shrugged. "Honestly, I didn't want to know about any of this."

Seeing her discomfort, Hiccup forced a sad smile. "You really didn't want this to ever happen, did you?" he asked bluntly, battling a strange sense of rejection.

"Never even considered it could", she admitted. "Dumb as it sounds, just...seemed like that wasn't in my life's plan."

Head rolling slightly, Hiccup looked at her quizzically.

Astrid scoffed, lazily rolling her eyes halfway. "Like it wasn't destined to happen, so it couldn't. I've had my whole life planned out since I was eight years old, and let's just say," she added with a soft pat to her stomach, "this wasn't part of that."

What she said rung true for Hiccup, who nodded as he recalled the assured and driven little girl who somehow knew she was meant for glory and greatness. Something he envied.

But as he thought about the past four years, he wondered what the small warrior would have thought of the way her life unfolded. How she would have felt knowing that her plans had been derailed – and worse, by the village menace.

"And how'd the rest of that plan work out for you?" he asked carefully.

Astrid snorted. "Let's just say nothing panned out the way it was supposed to", she muttered dryly.

Swallowing uncomfortably, Hiccup shifted in his seat. "Y-yeah…" he laughed weakly. "Um, s-sorry for…you know…my part in all…that."

Arching a brow in confusion, Astrid took in his insecure posture. Her lips tugged into a reassuring smile. "But…that actually hasn't been a bad thing. Berk's safer than ever. The dragons are amazing. I can't imagine not ever knowing Stormfly."

Though her face reddened slightly, she looked back at Hiccup, eyeing him intently. "All in all, I'm honestly glad you ruined my plans", she admitted.

Taken aback, Hiccup's own mouth quirked upward. "…oh. Well…glad I ruined something in a good way – for once."

Giving a quiet chuckle, Astrid's smile weakened as her attention pulled back to her abdomen.

"This has been…hard to wrap my head around. I'm still not completely sure how I feel about it but…I really, really don't want things to not be okay", she mumbled, running her thumb tenderly over her stomach.

Something in that moment shook Hiccup to his core. Seeing the rough warrior sitting, legs folded as she gently stroked her swollen belly was a surreal sight. He could see her suck her lower lip in as she looked down with concern.

It was then that it dawned on him - the amount of fear and anxiety she must had carried all along.

Biting the inside of his cheek, Hiccup awkwardly scratched at the side of his face, eyes locked on the small mound. His hand momentarily jerked forward before he pulled it back, fingers curling into his palm.

Noticing the movement, Astrid looked up from her stomach, eyes falling on his withdrawn hand.

"Oh", she breathed in surprise. "Um, you…you can touch", she invited.

Wide eyes stared back at her.

Suddenly second-guessing her read of his intent, Astrid shrugged, forcing her tone to become more casual. "I mean, if you want to."

Hiccup blinked owlishly. "Oh. Uh, really?"

When she nodded, he cleared his throat as his gaze fell back down. "…uh, yeah. Sure. O-okay."

He adjusted to sit a little closer, hesitantly reaching forward but stopping mid-air.

His hand hovered over the mound, adjusting slightly but never quite touching. "Where do I-?"

Biting back a laugh, Astrid smirked. "It's just my stomach, Hiccup."

Hiccup's eyes darted to hers. "I think we can agree - this is a little different than just a stomach."

Rolling her eye good-naturedly, she placed her hand over his, guiding it down until his palm pressed firmly against her. "Here. This is where I think they were moving earlier."

At first fixated on the feeling of the taunt swell under his hand, Hiccup's reaction was delayed as his head shot up, gaping at Astrid in disbelief.

"M-moving...?" He squeaked out.


His stare didn't waver. "…there's been moving?"

Astrid looked down at where his hand rested. "I think so. Just today...or I guess yesterday? Technically."

Shocked, Hiccup could only shake his head, struggling to absorb that information.

Turning his attention back to her stomach, he found himself wondering if he would feel anything like she described.

But after several minutes passed, all the while only sensing the slightest shifts that fell in time with her breathing, Hiccup frowned, disappointed.

He couldn't see much detail under the thick garment, but as he timidly glided his hand to the side he clearly felt and saw the definitive curve of her rounded abdomen.

Astrid watched Hiccup's face as a soft smile formed on her own. At first waiting with apprehension, wondering if he would be repulsed by the changes in her once lithe form, it quickly became apparent that that thought never once crossed his mind. If anything he looked mesmerized; taking in the experience with an incomparable fascination.

When his wrist brushed against her hip, Hiccup suddenly remembered the line down her side that she had grasped.

"This where it was hurting?" he asked while motioned to the spot.

Astrid only nodded, watching carefully as he gently pressed his index finger inward and dragged it along the edge of her belly.

Hiccup glanced up to see if the movement caused any pain, but Astrid's face showed no sign of discomfort.

She shrugged. "Like I said - it comes and goes."

Humming in thought, his eyes squinted as he looked back at her abdomen.

Knowing that his attention was entirely off her face, Astrid didn't bother to hide the amused smirk that formed - he was deep in problem solving mode.

For a moment Hiccup gingerly palpitated the area; no longer bashful about their close contact but still mindful of the pressure he applied.

His facial features would occasionally shift, serving as a reflection of his thoughts. One minute his brow may knit if he felt something unexpected, or his lips would part as though preparing to speak. But he never said anything beyond occasionally mumbling to himself or breathing a "huh" in interest.

All the while Astrid watched him closely. After consciously and subconsciously keeping a safe distance between her swelling abdomen and nearly everything else, having such prolonged contact with another person felt…strange.

The fact that it was Hiccup, while comforting and not the least bit unpleasant, made it all the more surreal.

Pursing his lips as his head tilted to the side, Hiccup slowly nodded as he allowed his hand to still. But he didn't pull it away, and lifted his face to offer Astrid a canted smile.

"It'll be okay", he concluded suddenly, said with an unusual confidence.

Surprised by his declaration, Astrid looked at Hiccup curiously. His words had an instant effect, not only on her worried mind, but her tensed body – as though she could suddenly take in a full breath that reached the bottom of her lungs. Still, her uncompromising skepticism didn't allow her to enjoy the feeling.

"You don't know that", she countered quietly. Looking around at their surroundings pointedly, she flicked her eyes back to Hiccup. "Especially with all this."

Although Hiccup nodded in understanding, his assured expression held firm. "No, I do", he insisted, though he was just as baffled by the absence of logic to support it.

As Astrid's lips pulled down into a small frown, he shrugged.

"Don't know how", he admitted. "...but I do."

Jaw loosening, Astrid blinked her tired eyes as doubt melted from her face. Seeing Hiccup look so sure…and knowing him well enough to know he was nearly incapable of offering empty assurances. Certainly not well enough to ever get away with it.

She wanted to believe him. Needed to.

Dropping her gaze to his hand, still limply settled against her stomach, Astrid forced her lips to curve upward. "Well, let's hope you're right", she sighed.

Returning a warm smile - relieved to see some hope underlying her somber expression - Hiccup reluctantly withdrew his hand as he adjusted to sit in a more comfortable position beside her.

The pair soon fell into a lazy but content silence, sitting side by side as their weary minds drifted off. Had they not been in such a precarious position under extraordinary circumstances, it would have felt like any old day. The way their days used to be.

Stifling a yawn, Astrid blinked rapidly, trying to keep her tired eyes open. She was surprised Hiccup wasn't nodding off, and was instead rolling the small stone between his fingers again, his gaze honed on the opening above them. While she had expected the fatigue from yet another night without rest to take its toll, he seemed alert.

Oddly alert.

Daring to turn her head, Astrid took a better look at him. The repetitive motion of his hand was nothing new – simply a nervous tic of his. But paired with a fixed, anticipating stare, his thoughts were unusually transparent.

"So…what are you waiting for?" she prompted, intrigued.

Startled, Hiccup's eyes shot in her direction.

Astrid's own eyes widened before a glint of suspicion hardened her stare.

Realizing his slip, Hiccup angled his face up and away from her gaze. "W-what, uh...what d'you mean?"

Holding back a snort at his poor cover, Astrid shrugged in feigned ignorance. "Oh, just wondering why you've been rolling that rock in your hand non-stop", she noted easily, looking down at the object in question. "You're fidgety. Impatient."

Her gaze flicked to his eyes knowingly. "Waiting for something."

Hiccup looked down at his hand, tugging his mouth back. "…no", he replied calmly.

Astrid huffed.

"You're lying", she challenged, only the slightest hint of surprise in her voice.

His shoulders tensed at the remark, and he cocked an eyebrow.

"Really?" he asked wearily. "You want to be the moral authority right now?"

Though his tone didn't carry the heat of an accusation – just his typical snark - the small jab tested Astrid's fragile patience.

The woman's expression dropped, looking at Hiccup with stark disappointment. Two steps forward and then another step back.

"…alright", she sighed heavily, feeling both wounded and ashamed. "I get it. I hurt you, so you hurt me. Fine."

Hiccup's face slacked, no longer fixated on his own discomfort. Suddenly more bothered by hers.

Shrugging in resignation, Astrid shook her head sadly. "And we can just keep going back and forth until Ragnarok. Gods know we're both stubborn enough…"

Head turned slightly, Astrid bit her lip as she peered up at him. "Problem is, Hiccup…I don't want to do that."

Lips parting to speak, Hiccup's voice caught. He wanted to tell her there was nothing behind the comment – that he wasn't even upset anymore. But at the same time knew that doing so would only be tossing another lie into the mix.

The irony wasn't lost on him.

There was more truth behind his sarcasm than he was comfortable with. He wasn't angry anymore; or at least he didn't feel angry.

"I…I don't either", he assured.

And he was surprised to realize that he meant it.

"I'm…sorry", he mumbled, rubbing at his neck as he looked down in shame. "I don't know why I said…I didn't mean anyth…"

But his excuses fell apart.

Grimacing, Hiccup closed his eyes as he exhaled deeply, letting his shoulders drop weakly. "…I'm not trying to hurt you", he murmured.

Watching Hiccup carefully, the sharp glint in Astrid's stare dulled.

Hiccup took no notice, his gaze fixed away from her as he shook his head. Then slowly, he turned his face towards her to reveal wide penitent eyes. "But…I am really sorry I did."

Any remaining shred of offense quickly melted from Astrid's features, leaving a slacked, neutral expression. Even in the firelight, Hiccup could see the half-circles beneath her tired eyes – appearing not only physically drained but emotionally spent as well.

The pair held their gaze on one another in complete silence.

Finally, Astrid sighed.

"…I know", she muttered, running the back of her hand over closed eyes, fighting a raging headache. "I know."

As Hiccup's furrowed brow relaxed in relief, Astrid's face only tensed.

Crossing her arms tightly over her chest, she huffed bitterly under her breath. "Believe it or not", she grumbled in embarrassment, nose wrinkling as she absently ran a finger over her grazed palm, "…I'm not trying to hurt you either."

Taking in her hunched pose…the way she avoided his gaze and the light wrinkle of her nose as she grit her teeth, Hiccup was disturbed to recognize the body language. He had felt it before (especially in recent months) – that inward anger that threatens to grow, eventually caving in on itself to become self-loathing. It was a terrible place to be, and it was disturbing to see it reflected in her. It was so far from the confident woman he knew.

Considering her for a moment, Hiccup nodded shallowly. "I know."

With her fingers pressing into her stiffened jaw, massaging tight tendons, Astrid looked up at him. "Do you?" she asked, her tone disbelieving.

Hesitating for only a second, Hiccup gave another nod. "Yeah."

Stilling her fingers to rest on her face, Astrid returned to neutral. "How?" she questioned. Her desire to believe and be believed was tainted by months of evidence to the contrary, leaving her off-balance and desperate. "Why…y-you haven't belie-"

"Because…" he interjected, interrupting her ruminations. Cringing for the briefest second – an apology for his interruption – Hiccup still maintained their gaze. "I…I know you."

Astrid's nose scrunched for a mere second in confusion before his words fully hit. Blonde eyebrows then rose as her eyes widened.

Noting he had her full attention once more, the corner of Hiccup's mouth quirked upward. "I did…forget that, for a time," he admitted, with a loose bounce of his shoulder, "but…yeah…"

His lips pulled tighter into a sad smile. "…I still know you, Astrid."

He stared at her blank expression that portrayed little emotion. But it was the minute shifts in her eyes as she looked deeply into his gaze that showed him everything he needed to see. Even in the dimmed light he could see the shine of saline, and the construction of her throat as she swallowed heavily.

Her lips parted to speak, and he watched as the fingers still pressed against her face limply slid down until the tips left her jaw.

And as her slender digits fell away, they revealed long, dark smears of blackened dust across her skin.

Hiccup's eyes widened, taken aback by the unexpected sight. Momentarily pulled from the gravity of the moment, his gaze lifted back to Astrid's eyes as he attempted to ignore the little smudges.

The very dark little smudges.

The very dark and, truthfully, fairly sizeable smudges. That streaked along her mouth and jaw.

That he could still clearly see in his periphery.

Any self-discipline began to break, and despite his efforts, Hiccup's attention kept being pulled.

His distraction became evident, and Astrid's features tightened as she watched him quizzically.

"What?" she asked, unable to ignore the way one corner of his mouth suddenly quirked up. She was confused, and frustrated at the poor timing of his sudden amusement.

"Um…n-nothing", Hiccup choked out before clearing his throat. Even as he tried to recover, his cheeks kept rising as he fought back a smile.

Offense bubbled under the surface, and Astrid's eyes narrowed. "Hiccup…"

Realizing he was caught, and that any build-up between them had entirely dissipated, Hiccup's mouth dropped. But even in a moment of genuine remorse, his eyes still shone. "Um, sorry. You've, eh, got something right..." Not trusting himself to speak, he used his index finger to circle his own mouth.

Astrid's eyes widened. "Seriously?" she asked, glancing downward in disgust.

Squinting his eyes slightly, Hiccup examined her face and then glanced down at the ground. "Looks like ash", he mused.

Astrid looked at her hands, and saw smears of dark residue coating her fingers.

"Must have been a fire here at some point…or something", she grumbled, using the back of her hand to rub around her mouth. After several swipes, she pulled her hand away as she looked to Hiccup. "Better?"

Bringing his fist to his mouth to hide his growing smirk, he shook his head.

"Um, no…way worse", he informed her, his voice muffled by his hand. "It spread and…well, it looks like you've got a beard."

Astrid rolled her eyes. "Great", she groaned, using the clean heel of her hand to rub against her chin.

Hearing several stifled snorts escape beside her, she glanced up to see Hiccup's shoulders shaking, no longer attempting to hide his amusement.

"It's not that funny", she lightly grumbled.

Hiccup smirked. "...I mean, it kind of is."

With her lower lip sticking out to form a pout, Astrid scratched at her sullied face before pulling her fingers away for inspection. Seeing the clumps of oily ash caked beneath her fingernail, she twisted her face in disgust.

Meanwhile, Hiccup casually watched her wrestle with the grime. With a lopsided smile, he purposely laced his fingers together, pulling them tautly over his knee. He had to do something to control his itchy fingers; to combat a growing urge to reach for her. Whether it was the comfort of their familiar banter or the overwhelming temptation to indulge a need for closeness – the day's events had only further complicated his feelings and threatened to blur the boundary lines he had begrudgingly drawn.

He had been truthful when he said that he knew her – despite everything said and done. Even at her worst, she was Astrid. Nothing would change that. Yes, there had been times where he barely recognized her, but it only truly hurt because he knew she was still there. So he took the good moments as he could find them, while begrudgingly lamenting

But, this – this Astrid, he knew better than any human in Midgard. Lively, and animated. Clever.

"I think…I think it's coming off", she murmured as she firmly scrubbed at her face. Casting a look at Hiccup for confirmation, her frown soured as he shook his head.

"Damn it!" she cursed, rubbing her chin more briskly.


Peering at him from the side, she narrowed her eyes. "And wipe that smirk off your face", she muttered, now using both hands without success.

So stubborn.

Her chastising had the opposite effect, causing him to release a loud short.

Though at first she sent a petulant glare, Hiccup then saw her eyes widen for less than a second. He knew that look well – something she did whenever a wily thought arose.

Relaxing her frown into enigmatic smile, Astrid shrugged one shoulder dismissively. "You're just jealous because you're officially the last one on the Edge without facial hair", she teased.

Hiccup sputtered. "What?" he asked incredulously, gesturing to the rough stubble that followed his jaw line. "What do you think this is?"

As she continued in vain to wipe her own chin clean, Astrid squinted her eyes, craning her neck forward as if struggling to see the sparse collection of wispy hair.

"On you?" she mused, letting the words drawl loosely. With a glint in her eye, she gave a cheeky grin. "I'd guess one – no, that's not fair - two weeks without shaving."

Lips parted, prepared for a comeback, Hiccup instead paused. His face screwed in thought, mentally ticking through the days. His mouth pulled slowly spreading into a grimace.

"That's…honestly not too far off…" he admitted under his breath, rubbing at his jaw.

Catching herself from snorting, Astrid smiled slyly. "To the day, isn't it?"

At first too engrossed in his inspection of his stubble, it took a moment for Hiccup's eyes to bounce back up to her face, shooting her a teasing glare.

Flashing a brilliant smile in triumph, Astrid continued rubbing at her lower jaw. "Now?"

Hiccup shook his head, grinning. "Nope."

Astrid's arms dropped to her lap. "Oh, come on!" she moaned.

Though thoroughly entertained, Hiccup decided to cut her some slack. "Wait, wait", he instructed.

Scooting closer to her, he brought his thumb to his mouth, wetting the pad before dragging it over her chin.

Astrid's lip curled as she felt the viscosity of his saliva as he scrubbed away at the ash.

"Gods", she groaned, "Is this really the best we can do?"

Hiccup huffed, rewetting his thumb as he moved further up her jawline. "It's just spit."

"Hmm…"just spit"", she muttered. "You forget that not all of us are used to bathing in dragon slobber."

Her comment prompted him to meet her challenging gaze with mock offense.

Then, his eyes shone deviously. "Just for that..."

He licked his finger again, this time emphasizing the motion as Astrid squirmed in response.

Her nose wrinkled as he again placed his finger against her jaw, spreading the saliva as he went.

Astrid shuddered.

"C'mon, it's not that bad", he laughed.

"Yes, it is", she argued.

Rolling his eyes, Hiccup's smile widened. "Hey, could be worse", he teased. "…I could be Snotlout."

Even in the dark, he could see Astrid's pallor shift to a sickly green.

"Don't even SAY that!" she admonished, swatting at his chest as her tongue stuck out. "Ever! Ugh!"

Chuckling, Hiccup continued to scrub at her face, finally seeing patches of pink skin emerge from the soot.

"Aha! See…so it could be worse", he smirked.

Tapping the side of her foot into the ground impatiently, Astrid shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

"Fine", she conceded with a dramatic sigh, eyes closed as he rubbed up her cheek. "That is way, way worse. I mean, this is gross enough with someone you love - but Snotlout?" she scoffed, nose scrunched in disgust. ""Like" is too strong of a word most days…"

In an instant, Hiccup's hands stilled.

The sudden stop made Astrid's eyes quickly open, worried that she had offended. But when she met his gaze she saw no irritation. The amusement in his expression was gone, replaced with something akin to shock.

"What?" she prompted, feeling oddly self-conscious under his indecipherable stare. Replaying her words, a frown appeared. "Look, when I say I don't like Snotlout sometimes, it doesn't mean I won't work with him or anythin-"

Eyes still wide, Hiccup's hands slowly dropped from her face. "No", he interjected briskly, shaking his head. "No…not…it's not Snotlout."

This made Astrid's lips pull tighter, and a single blonde brow rose as she eyed the man carefully.

Feeling his lips grow dry, realizing his mouth was still slightly ajar, Hiccup his jaw shut. "You…" he started again, before his voice fell away. "…um, me?"

Astrid returned a slow blink – unsure whether to be frustrated or worried. "…me and you? Aaaare…?"

Holding her in a bewildered gaze, Hiccup used his hand to cautiously motion between them. "Just, ah, now…" he stammered. "I-I…you. And assuming someone is me..."

Seeing the blonde's expression rapidly growing more concerned, Hiccup exhaled sharply before drawing in a steady breath. Feeling a bit less shaky, Hiccup tried one more time. "Did you say…did you mean to say…you love me?"

Astrid's brow lifted as her eyes widened. Suddenly aware of her slip, she resisted the urge to turn away, opting instead to lightly rake her fingers through the split ends of her hair.

"Oh. Um, well…" she drawled awkwardly, cheeks heating up. "I guess I did say that, huh?" She almost released a weary laugh, though it was largely lost beneath her muttering. "Didn't plan to say it…", she admitted with a weak shrug. "But, I mean…it's not wrong."

Cringing at her own words, Astrid's discomfort only worsened under Hiccup's vague stare. Though she certainly hadn't intended to be quite that transparent, and was admittedly embarrassed for it, she didn't understand why he was so taken aback. He left her, after all – not the other way around.

Unsettled, she paused. "And?"

Swallowing heavily, Hiccup's gaze fell before drifting back to her face. "It's just…you've, uh…never said that before."

Rearing her head back in surprise, Astrid huffed in disbelief. "What do you -?"

But she froze, frantically searching through fragments of shuffled memories - certain that he must be mistaken. Yet she couldn't recall a specific event where she had actually said the words aloud.

She remembered many things: laughing, kissing, teasing, and quiet moments just being together. All things that felt like love to her, but not a single instance where the words had ever been said. On either side.

Suddenly aware that she had spaced out, she noted how carefully Hiccup observed her.

"...oh", Astrid finally breathed, her pitch unnaturally high. Wincing from the sound, she cleared her throat. "I thought I…it's just, it's obvious. Isn't it?"

She was disheartened to see his expression remain unchanged, showing no sign of recognition for what she considered to be a simple fact.

Pushing forward to sit up straighter, she looked at Hiccup, shaking her head. "Really?" she breathed in disbelief. "After everything?"

Hiccup's stunned silence made her stomach churn.

"I mean, Hiccup…we wouldn't be here if I didn't", she added with a weak huff as she placed a hand over her belly.

His gaze fell momentarily on her hand before rising back to meet her stare.

She didn't understand. How could this have been some huge revelation for him? And his reaction – it made it impossible to tell whether this "news" was welcomed or not.

Sucking in her lips, Astrid looked away awkwardly as she brushed her bangs to the side with shaking fingers.

"D-does it even matter anymore?" she boldly asked - though in the moment she didn't feel very brave.

As the numb expression he held began to shift, she was horrified to see him grow more uncomfortable rather than relieved.

He looked fearful. Sick.

Astrid's face began to reflect the same ill-feeling, though hers for an entirely different reason.

"I…sorry", she mumbled, glancing away from him. "I shouldn't have said that...apparently..."

Shaking his head, Hiccup quickly jumped in.

"No! No, it's just..."

Lips parted, his eyes tracked her face unevenly, occasionally straying to look to the ground. "'s…"

Feeling the sting of saline coating her wide eyes, Astrid froze as she waited and watched the young man flounder.

Tightening his expression as he kept his stare to the floor, Hiccup circled one wrist, allowing his fingers to flex as he struggled to speak. "It's, um…complicated." He cringed. "I-I guess."

Blinking in rapid succession, Astrid's expression dropped, hurt by the return of her own words. "...ah."

Despite consciously averting her gaze, Hiccup could see the fresh pain emanating from it.

He stammered, trying to backpedal. "But it's not - you aren't the-"

Crossing her arms over her chest, Astrid rolled a shoulder. "No, no, it's…fine", she forced out, trying to regain a neutral tone. "You don''re not required-"

Hiccup shook his head feverishly, panicking. "That's not..."

His voice trailed before he groaned in frustration as he dropped his head. "It's really just…"

When he didn't finish, Astrid peered back at him. With his head in his hands, he appeared shattered by the whole exchange.

As deeply disappointed as she was, she reminded herself that he didn't owe her anything. While she couldn't grasp what he could be grappling with, she was growing increasingly concerned by how lost he seemed.

Whether he couldn't explain or didn't want to…the end result was the same from Astrid's end.

Covertly curling her fingers into her palm, pressing them into the soft flesh to focus her tension, she managed to press her lips into a sad smile.

"...really, really complicated?" she offered weakly, giving him an out.

Hiccup groaned as he ran a hand down his face. Unsure of what else to say, he simply nodded, avoiding her gaze as he viciously berated himself.

Drawing in a sharp breath, subtly grinding the heel of her boot into the ground, Astrid absently swiped her forearm across her jaw. The skin felt tacky as the motion pulled away the cooling remnants of his saliva.

She tried to ignore Hiccup's discomfort as he ran a hand through his hair and blankly stared at the wall. It wasn't that she didn't care – she did. Maybe too much. But despite her best efforts Astrid couldn't quash the hurt that enveloped her.

While not an outright rejection, his reaction was outside of anything she had prepared for. She didn't think she was expecting him to return the sentiment – at least not anymore. Logically, she could see why he wouldn't.

But it was one thing to fall out of love…now she was left questioning whether he had ever been in it to begin with.

Bothered by her sudden doubts, Astrid tried to distract herself with needless acts. Anxious fingers wove into her fallen locks, threading back and forth until she had a poorly done plait held together only by her pinched fingertips grasping the end.

Realizing she had nothing to tie it with, she exhaled as she watched ash-streaked strands unravel yet again.

Seeing the dark smears contrasted against blonde hair brought her attention back to her stained fingertips. Wiggling the digits as she thought, Astrid looked at the pile of ash at her hip.

Could come in handy, perhaps.

Reaching over - awkwardly stretching past the dispirited Viking beside her – Astrid grasped the small satchel at his feet.

Hiccup didn't react, keeping his face downcast to the dirt as he rubbed his temple.

Swallowing in reaction to her thickening throat, Astrid tried to ignore him. She instead concentrated on her task: removing the remaining piece of jerky and opening the little bag as much as she could.

She held the satchel in one hand, using the other to carefully scoop the soot and sprinkle it into the sack. After several attempts, Astrid managed to fill the bag halfway.

Dragging her fingers once more through the thin layer of ash that remained, Astrid then wiped her blackened fingertips roughly against her skirt.

As she did everything she could to avoid thinking about the uncomfortable air between them, Hiccup could do nothing but. His eyes clenched shut; lips silently mouthing curses and insults aimed at his own stupidity.

He had barely noticed the soft scraping of Astrid's fingernails against the stone floor. He tried to shut out the sound of her uneven breaths punctuated with an occasional sniff.

But another sound – something distant – forced his full attention.

At first perfectly still, Hiccup's back grew rigid before raising his head. His eyes scanned the space as his brow raised.

Again, he heard it.

"Do you hear something?" he murmured.

Giving a final tug to the satchel's cords, Astrid frowned.

"Hiccup", she sighed, "if you want to talk about something else, then just say so."

His head shook as he rose to his feet. "No, really."

Thrown by his insistence, Astrid pursed her lips as she stilled.

He was right - she heard the sound of scraping stone.

Scrambling to stand, she looked up at Hiccup as he held his gaze in the direction of the noise. He took a small step back, lightly gripping Astrid's shoulder to pull her back with him.

The pair stared at the wall intently as the noises became louder: the friction of boots stepping over stone and strained grunts.

A hand then emerged in the open gap; grasping the largest stone and pulling it away. They could hear the sound of the rock rolling down away and crack as it hit the tunnel wall. The next stone was then extracted, and then another.

Smaller rocks crashed to the ground, rolling at the Vikings' feet and prompting them to take another half-step backwards until they were flush against the other wall.

Casting a quick glance at Astrid, Hiccup saw her quickly stoop down to grasp a split rock. As she stood she positioned a sharp, jagged edge outward as she gave a slight bend to her knees.

Following her cue, Hiccup drew his blade as well, taking a defensive stance.

Both were overcome with anticipation and apprehension - relieved at the prospect of freedom but distrusting of their savior.

As they carefully approached the widened opening, gingerly climbing over the remaining stones, they realized their caution had been prudent as they gazed at the grinning, disheveled face of Dagur the Deranged.

"Brother!" the Berserker cried gleefully as he took a stride towards the younger man, arms thrown open as if expecting an embrace.

Hiccup reared his head back in surprise, grimacing. "Dagur?"

Stepping forward to stand at Hiccup's side, Astrid grit her teeth and growled menacingly at the Berserker.

The sound attracted Dagur's attention, whose smile remained unchanged.

"And Blondie's here too? Hope I didn't interrupt anything!"

With that he cackled wildly, delivering a hard blow to Hiccup's arm. Naturally, his injured one.

"Gah!" Hiccup shouted, flexing his hand to combat the sharp pain that shot through his arm. "W-what are you-?"

Dagur's jovial expression quickly collapsed, replaced with a grave expression. "Seriously, though, stop dancing around, Hiccup", he lightly scolded. "I mean, it's funny, but we gotta go. Like, right now."

Giving his arm a shake, Hiccup frowned as he considered their unexpected rescuer. While certainly not what he had anticipated, Heather did say to expect anything.

Astrid on the other hand showed no hesitation, brandishing her makeshift weapon menacingly towards Dagur.

"We are not going anywhere with you", she sneered.

Tugging his lips back in thought, Hiccup took a small step forward while placing a soothing hand to Astrid's arm.

"...unless you give us your word that you're here to help us", he amended, holding Dagur in a firm stare.

Without lowering her arm, Astrid's head spun to stare at Hiccup in disbelief. "What?"

Dagur returned an amused smirk while meeting Hiccup's gaze, unflinching as he held up his hand in a mock salute. "Of course. Berserker's honor."

Hiccup's frown remained, seriously doubting the virtue of the crazed tribe, and especially its volatile leader. But despite his better judgment, he offered a nod in agreement.

At his side, Astrid's jaw dropped, lips parted as she stared at Hiccup.

Dagur turned to grin at the flustered blonde.

"Aww, come on, Hofferson", he teased, earning a heated glare from the younger woman. "If I wanted to kill you and your boy I'd just finish the job here! Some may like the chase", he acknowledged with an unnervingly casual shrug, "but me? I don't like to wait."

When Astrid's lip curled in disgust, the Berserker had the nerve to give a cheeky wink.

Awestruck, the woman returned her gaze to Hiccup - begging him to be reasonable. So when he simply motioned to Dagur to lead the way, she looked at him as though he'd lost his mind.

Grinning broadly, Dagur clapped his hands together. "Yes! Brothers: together again!" he cried.

While Hiccup's lip curled in response, Astrid glower only intensified on Dagur.

But the Berserker paid no mind. "And you, warrior princess," he drawled as he glanced derisively at the stone in her hand, "are gonna need a little more firepower than a rock. Don't cha think?"

With that he pulled an elongated dagger from his belt, flinging it at Astrid who reflexively caught it by the hilt.

As Hiccup blanched, only registering that the weapon had been hurled after it was safely in her grip, Astrid stared dumbfounded at the blade. She then looked back at Dagur.

"Onward!" he crowed, thrusting his own sword before beginning his march down the tunnel.

Hiccup and Astrid hesitated, but the former soon followed.

Frowning, Astrid took long strides. "You can't be serious", she breathed as she fell into step beside Hiccup, both keeping several paces behind Dagur.

"Wish I wasn't", he muttered.

Jaw set, Astrid took in the details of Hiccup's expression. "You were expecting him", she plainly stated.

The slightest twitch of Hiccup's mouth gave him away. "Not in so many words..." he replied vaguely.

Releasing a harsh exhale through her nose, Astrid shook her head in disgust. "Hiccup, we can't trust him."

Hiccup sighed. "No, we can't", he agreed. He then tilted his head towards Astrid, looking at her intently. "But I need you to trust me."

Pressing her lips together, Astrid growled under her breath as she cast another distrusting glare towards Dagur.

Hiccup dipped his head slightly to prompt her gaze. When she complied, he gave a weak smile. "Do you?"

Though her nose still scrunched in distaste, her brow softened as she held his stare. "Of course", she said without hesitation.

Hiccup returned a grateful smile that didn't meet his eyes, trying to conceal his own worry.

The party continued on in relative silence, save for Dagur whistling a jaunty tune that echoed down the narrow corridor.

Astrid's eyes narrowed at the Berserker's back. "That being said", she whispered to Hiccup as she leaned shoulder-to-shoulder, "whatever you have planned...are we going with stupid or crazy?"

With a soft snort, Hiccup gave a sheepish grin. "Can't it be both?"

She looked him up and down, mouth pulled tautly to the side. "We're all going to die", Astrid concluded flatly, shaking her head as she returned her gaze to Dagur's back.

Chuckling nervously, Hiccup used his free hand to scratch at his neck as he tried to ignore his own grim doubts. "That's the spirit."