In the Bleak Midwinter
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan.
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow.
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
– Christina Rosetti
When the dragon-boy wakes the air is thick and heavy, the dozing flock kept close inside, away from the fierce breath of the wind. Without stirring from the warmth of their nesting place, he knows that outside beyond the safety of the caves is all snow.
To someone else the deep and smothering darkness, the surrounding smoky breath of dragons, the sibilant rustle of scales across stone as those dragons shift in their sleep, might be the stuff of nightmares. To Hiccup, they are safety and home.
Hiccup has lived among the flock of the hidden sanctuary all the uncounted ten years of his life, and with a child's faith, he believes himself to be a dragon. He is a feral creature, all angles and stubbornness, ragged and battered and scarred, and there is a wiry strength within him defiant of his scrawny form.
Shuddering with the remembered cold, he makes a small aggrieved noise, and burrows more deeply into the tangle of dragons wrapped around him and all across each other, huddled together and dreaming. Hiding his face against Toothless' side, he presses his delicate, different-but-clever paws against the warm scales of his dearest friend and twin brother and other self, essential and beloved.
They have been together since infancy; they never sleep apart. To the wild boy raised in a dragon nest, knowing no other life, there is no difference between the two of them, except perhaps that Toothless is so much bigger than him now.
He settles himself more comfortably, curling up beneath Toothless' jaw so that he cannot be leaned on too heavily or smothered by his much larger dragon-cousins. Keeping his eyes closed tight, the wild boy tries to go back to sleep, muttering dissatisfied sounds to his drowsing companion. Beyond the nest there is winter, and the unending night, and the howls of the raging snowstorm that has trapped his flock in their caves for a long time now, sleeping to wait out the darkness and the hunger.
A sharp nose nudges at him, blowing inquisitively at his face and throat and matted, much-licked at, auburn mane. The feral boy twitches away from it, squawking in protest as a dragon's tongue licks out to taste him. Food? his flock-mate's sounds ask, sleepily.
Hiccup croaks the disappointed sound of no-food at him, and an irritated go-away! amidst the tired listless grumblings of let me sleep, and the intruding nose pulls away.
Left in peace, the dragon-boy finds one of Toothless' claws to hold as he retreats into a shallow doze.
When he opens his eyes again on the darkness, hunger bites inside and the dragon-boy curls himself around it.
Before the raging snowfall, he had ventured out into the meadows at the heart of the nest. The blasting-defending ice of their king closes them in like a cave-roof; in spring the Alpha will smash it away and the nest will be open to the bright and warming sky. Far above, the wind howled like a hunter turned from its pounce, and only trickles of faint starlight melted through the enfolding shell of ice.
Winter is a dark time, and Hiccup is lonely for the sun.
Scavenging, he had edged carefully around the deep lake, wary of treacherous ice and hidden lurking dangers, to dig at the grasses and plants that grow there. Some of them are fine to eat, but now they are frozen and dead. Even the nuts, stolen from prey-beasts' caches when the sun still flew burning bright, and hidden away in imitation, are not enough to not be hungry.
They were something at least to chew on as the dragon-boy retreated from the empty, darkened meadows, intimidated and resentful. There were no dragons perched there, sunning themselves or flying for the joy of it, chasing and playing. Within the caves is warmer, and safer, and the relentless night whispers sleep.
Even the edges of the deep lake that is their Alpha's nest were freezing into ice spikes and sharp peaks and dark valleys, all shadows and edges. He was not there to break it, and Hiccup had whined unsettled at the ice despite knowing that the king is not always there. He swims in the deep waters beyond the nest, and Hiccup understands that there are tunnels for great kings beneath the water just as there are tunnels for small dragons beneath the stone. But with winter howling very fiercely and none of his flock-mates near, the dragon-boy had cringed and whimpered to be alone.
He remembers padding across the stones of the caves, fleeing the sounds of more snow coming, navigating by memory more than sight. Searching for the huddled tangle of dragon-cousins where Toothless still slept, he pushed in among their warmth, slipping through small spaces and burrowing beneath drowsily lifted paws to rejoin his best-beloved-one.
Beneath him, scaled sides heave with the deep slow breaths of sleep, and Hiccup stretches out one paw, reaching for the reassurance of familiar scales.
Cloudjumper he recognizes by touch; it is Cloudjumper's back that he and Toothless are curled up upon, and that is good.
Hiccup no longer connects Cloudjumper with his long-forgotten mother, but he retains a true fondness for the many-winged dragon. All the dragons of the nest have cared for and protected the strange little pair of night-black dragon and soft small dragon-boy as their own, but Cloudjumper is the closest thing to a parent he remembers. He and Toothless know the affection that lurks beneath Cloudjumper's brusque objections to so many of their small wounds and misadventures, brought to him stumbling and whimpering and yowling.
Still, he does not whine hungry and paw at Cloudjumper to wake him. He knows Cloudjumper-guardian has no food for them, has not hunted in a long time, has only waited and slept, because for much of that time the dragon-boy and his Toothless-self have rested beside him. Food does not just happen. It must be hunted for.
Instead he rests his jaw on Toothless' foreleg and fidgets in small movements, drawing unseen shapes across his other half's scales and tracing the patterns and textures of them. Sleepy, he vocalizes, thinking aloud through long habit, talking to Toothless-heart even though the black dragon is not awake to hear him. Hungry us me love-you here safe warm good hungry-though.
It is strange to hear his sounds echo back from the stone. In the bright summer and even in the early days of winter when it is dark but not night always and the snow has not yet grown very tiresome, then his sounds are drowned out by the cries of their flock-mates. The dragons of their family make very much noise calling to each other and quarreling and playing, and then Hiccup's voice is only one of many.
It is lonely, to be the only voice, and Hiccup's thoughts become worry uneasy snow-snow-snow resentment you love-you c'mon restless me here yes begging!
Toothless' chest heaves in a sigh, recognizing his dragon-boy's touch and his sounds, and his body tenses as he wakes.
Hiccup-beloved? Toothless asks, lifting his head to rub their faces together. He whistles you sad worried hurt why? even as he yawns.
The dragon-boy croons regret and reassurance, wrapping himself around Toothless' head in an embrace. He knows at once that Toothless does not want to wake up and play right now. The movements of his body say sleepy even as his voice wonders concern.
Hiccup moves away only to settle at Toothless' shoulder and pet at him, soothing and calming, humming tangled, lilting sounds he does not consciously remember. To them both the sounds mean only be still, be at peace, go back to sleep, their origins forgotten.
The sounds make Hiccup very sleepy too as Toothless wraps his tail around them both and dozes. But a twinge of hunger inside wakes him, and the dragon-boy lifts his head to look out over the cave.
He is accustomed to darkness, but even the distant starlight is hidden by the snowstorm that howls around the rock of the mountain and the ice the king set there to guard his flock. Beneath that sound he tracks the quiet noises of the few dragons still awake, pacing sullenly around their sleeping flock-mates or returning very hurriedly and sneezing sparks from putting their noses out into the biting snow. A brief burst of such fire shows him two dragons growling at each other over a sleeping place, but many briefly-woken voices scold them, and there is no more fire.
Elsewhere in the labyrinth of tunnels and caverns that Hiccup and his Toothless think of as home, there are other movements, and the dragon-boy turns back to the black dragon sleeping at his side.
Toothless' breaths are deep and steady, and his tail and his paws twitch with dream-hunting, and when Hiccup sets one paw on his chest to track the familiar heartbeat, Toothless hums content at his touch.
For a moment, he rests against Toothless' pulse before sidling away. He moves unerringly across Cloudjumper's back, padding across his guardian's flank to clamber over the tail of another of his cousins, and from there to the shoulders of another, setting his paws briefly against the warmth of a flame-filled throat. But his passage goes unremarked, and the tangled cluster of dragons stirs only briefly at his movement and his scent as he makes his way out of the huddle and sets off deeper into the caves.
The stone is rough beneath his paws as he moves, but its touch is familiar and tells him where he is and where to go. These caves are his home, and he knows them pawstep by pawstep. By touch and memory, he knows when there are deep falling-away pits and slopes nearby, or sharp sheer cliffs, or the unsteady crumbled new stones.
They were bigger and good to climb on when there was sun glancing around the corners of the cavern. But then Jagged Claws and Argues Always tired of snapping at each other in small quarrels, and instead leapt screaming and tumbling, tearing at each other, smashing through rock and clawing each other's noses very deeply.
Hiccup shakes himself all over at the memory, and turns aside from the touch of the broken-apart stones beneath his paws. He loses his way only when there are dragons sleeping across familiar landmarks, and his warm-again paws find limbs and tails and scarred flanks and lose the trail. Because all the flock is sleeping within the caves away from the snowstorm, it takes him many false starts and much wandering, clambering fearlessly over the bodies of dragons, before he knows where he is again.
He would not mind that, if he was not so empty inside. It would be a good game, for the nest to be strange and mysterious like a new place to explore.
Making his way down a coiling tunnel, the dragon-boy taps at the surrounding stone and prowls around it, scenting for the sharp-reeking almost-burnt smell of the deep cave lakes. When he finds a dragon-cousin sleeping in his path, he hums a soft greeting before climbing over them. He is small still, and most dragons do not mind.
Look! Hiccup chirrups as if Toothless were awake and beside him to see the faintly flickering light pulsing from one of the caves with a lake in. Treading more quickly, he ducks beneath a low stone, scrambling to follow the light even as he squints against it.
After the buried darkness of the snowed-in caves, even the soft glow of the bright-striped dragon crouched at the edge of the water seems blinding. Her tail lashes in frustration and sends the shadows chasing each other all over.
Sitting back on his haunches, the dragon-boy yips a tentative greeting, chirping hello you pleased yes hello me here look fine? fine? hunting you hunting good good fish? Fish here? small me no-threat hungry hungry very-much-so please?
He recognizes her by her stripes that glow even in deep caves and against the stars, as if she and the others like her carry their own sunlight with them, because all their stripes are different. All dragons have fires inside even if they cannot all breathe those fires out like Toothless-dearest and Tattletale and Burnt Own Nose and many others, but only some shine with it always. Her stripes all her own shine like the bright cracks in seething embers.
You, Coalburst acknowledges him with a glance, blinking unconcern. He is too small to steal her prey from her, but her jaws are empty. Water drips from her blunt nose and her narrow chest and her paws where she has pounced splashing into the lake. She turns her shoulder to the water in a gesture of distaste, hissing giving-up.
Hiccup croons goodwill to her as he edges towards the water, wary until he knows if she will snarl or sigh.
She does neither, lowering her head to the damp stone and wrapping her front paws over her nose, pretending to sleep as if determined never to snap at the empty water. All the lines of her body say sulking.
The dragon-boy pads closer to her and reaches out to trace one of her stripes. It pulses very slowly, slower than a heart and slower than breathing. Only with patience and stillness and watching can he see her glow brighten and fade away. He would like to draw her, but the half-burned sticks he uses to make the magic that is shapes do not glow.
Fireflies! he signs to her, picking at the air as if trying to catch the small blinking bugs in his soft-claws, whistling excitement and realization. Fireflies glow, and bugs squash when he can sneak up on them very carefully and pounce.
What? Coalburst stirs from her sulking to ask, clicking confusion and rolling one eye to look around for the fireflies. Her stripes flare briefly in alarm.
Hiccup whuffs laughter, miming the fireflies of the dreamlike summer, and squashing them, and drawing with them, and pointing to her bright stripes.
Coalburst does not understand, shrugging, but the strangeness of it pulls her from her sulk. Resignedly, she purrs affection at him, stretching out one of her stubby wings to nudge the small boy crouched at her side.
You stay? he asks, chirping please? He taps the nearest stripe, and squints his eyes closed, but happily. This good bright yes like good here bright.
Under Coalburst's idle gaze, he scampers away to paw at the water, which is warmer than seawater always even when the sky is very cold and unfriendly outside. This lake tastes strange, though, so it is not for drinking, because water that smells strange is sick-making. But the cave lake is fine to swim in, and while Hiccup is a dragon, a dragon like Toothless, a dragon of fire and air and flight, swimming is a goodness.
The dragon-boy sheds most of his layers of tattered furs and stolen ragged fabric and much-worn leathers, bedecked with dragon scales. He wears it like a second skin, one tied together with a child's clumsy stitches and little concept of design. Sliding into the lake slow and careful, he steps softly in case there might be fish that have not fled Coalburst's hunting, drawn instead to her light. Fish like light.
Treading water, he gulps in a breath and dives, and is free.
Swimming is like flying, and underwater the wild boy can soar and hover and tumble and dive as easily as any dragon in the sky. With Coalburst's bright stripes casting a little light over and into the water, he twists away from the maze of drowned stones that fall away below like mountains, pretending himself hovering over the icebound nest on his own wings and flying away to many islands. As he plays, he imagines being able to race with Toothless and play chasing games in the air, the two of them spinning matching flights around their bigger, slower flock-mates and dodging away.
Hiccup comes back up gasping, reluctant to abandon his game. He yips faintly to Coalburst when she raises her head to look for him, signaling happy even if it is leavened a bit to be more happy-enough.
Happy would be Toothless here with him. Toothless does not much like to be underwater, although he will dive to chase and snap at fish, but they can paddle and swim and splash together.
Submerging himself, he swims a tight spiral down-and-down to the drowned stones, twining among them slowly and carefully as if they were canyons and using his paws to find their edges more than his eyes. He remembers where they are through long practice, learning the shape of things anew.
Movement startles him, and he kicks off the stone to leap back to the safety of the air. But the flicker is not repeated, and the dragon-boy paddles back to the shallows leadenly, shaking with the brief burst of surprise.
The stones at the water's edge have dried from Coalburst's splashing, but Hiccup dips his shoulder and rolls to scrape water from skin and thin tied-close cloth, returning to a crouch to paw disgruntledly at his sodden mane. Fish! he whistles to Coalburst, gesturing to the lake and dipping his paw like diving, showing deep. Fish there look look excited hungry yes hunting c'mon us hunt c'mon hungry-very-much-so!
Coalburst huffs at him, laughing, but not happy. Her sounds are mocking and heavy with disbelief.
You, she contradicts, nudging one claw against his soft skin – he does not know why he does not have scales of his own; it is part of the kind of dragon he is, perhaps. You fish. She snorts. Laughing laughing fish you fish look here fish you fish.
Hiccup bares his teeth in a laugh more aggression than amusement, snarling although it is a little funny. He understands the joke, and it is a good joke maybe, but he is not a fish even if his skin is soft and the water clings to it as it does to fish scales. Fish are prey, and fish are prey there, and he is hungry!
There! Hiccup insists, turning away from his discarded patchwork skins and crouching ready-to-pounce at the water. Fish there us chase!
Coalburst snorts disbelief at him still, but she flicks her tail willing to stay and hunt with him.
When he signals to her, she wades a little way out into the water so that it laps over her paws, and Hiccup paddles back out to above the drowned stones. He and Toothless hunt together, and they have flown hunting with their flock many times. Before the sun went away to sleep below the horizon, a swarming flight of them flew far away to chase after running-together prey-beasts with horns, swooping down upon the river of them flaming and clawing, and they had prey to carry home in triumph to share even after the hunters had eaten very well.
That feast feels very long ago now, and not quite real, but Hiccup understands hunting as a team.
He does not dive splashing and pawing at the water, but careful-slow and quiet, sneaking up in a single deep breath on the labyrinth of drowned stones and the many dark shadows beneath where fish are hiding.
Bracing himself against a green-slime slippery stone, Hiccup pounces blindly at the hidden hollow. The flutter of movement like birds explodes all around him – being underwater is like flying, it is! – as his prey flee scattering. One brushes close enough to snap at, cool smooth scales tickling against his skin, but it swerves away before the dragon-boy can bite it.
Fish are very much faster than him, but he chases them towards the flicker-fast bright flashes of Coalburst's paws as she strikes the startled fish from the water. Even before he comes up for air, he can hear her trills of surprise and delight. He finds his paws beneath him, and scuttles to pounce at the prey where they flop and gulp at the air.
In the water fish are hard to snatch at; their scales are slippery. But on stone they are helpless and slow enough even for very small dragons to catch.
He cares not at all that the fish was alive a moment before and is still twitching a bit, or that its scales taste of the sharp-reeking water – it is food, and the wild boy tears at it ravenously, trembling with the bone-deep relief of any wild animal that knows it will not starve today.
There are not very many fish, and they are small, but he and Coalburst purr and yelp with pride anyway, ripping into their meager, winter-thin feast.
Mine! Hiccup claims when very few remain, snatching one up in each paw and holding them close. He hisses at Coalburst when she objects, eyeing him up and down greedily in a way that says you small and disgruntled and doubting.
Toothless! he insists, clicking the sounds tt-th-ss that dragons recognize; he has long since lost the ability to clearly speak the few human words he remembers. That does not matter – those who matter understand, and there is no one to tell him otherwise. Need mine this Toothless-beloved mine hunt I hunt hunt mine you back-away this mine!
She grumbles a bit, but when she licks her jaws for the last scattered scales and leaves what he has claimed to him, Hiccup knows that he has won. He keeps a careful eye on the fish as he pads over to his skins and shrugs them back on, absentmindedly retying what must be tied to stay secure and warm.
At last he rears up to his back paws and shakes himself to settle it neatly, and drops back down to scuttle over to his fish. Sprawled more contentedly, Coalburst watches with interest as he bites one deeply, ready to devour whatever he leaves.
Hiccup growls, thinking. His jaws are too small to carry both of them, and it is very hard to move about when his paws are full. But with his own hunger biting not as deep, his thoughts turn most urgently to Toothless, knowing Toothless must be hungrier still.
The tunnels are very dark without Coalburst's light to see by, and once again Hiccup slows to a careful, deliberate crawl, setting all his paws to the stone and finding his way by touch as he retraces his steps upwards.
The darkness enfolds him like a sheltering wing, warm and smelling strongly of dragons. The small sounds of breathing run together to be a steady, hissing flow, and even the stones, worn smooth by dragon-scales, are reassuring. He climbs easily, setting his paws into small notches and wrapping them around outcroppings. Brushing his shoulder against the sides of the tunnel and the edges of the stone, Hiccup orients himself on a biting-up fang that he reared to paw at the tip of many times, stretching and stretching until he could finally reach, and turns towards a familiar passageway.
It is very tempting, the taste of the fish held tightly in his jaws. But the wild boy imagines the grumbling hungry sounds that Toothless' stomach made as he slept pressed close against the black dragon's side, and does not stop.
It will not be good for this half of him to be all full if the other half of him is still empty. That would not be right. Hiccup knows that Toothless would not begrudge him the food, because Toothless hunts to share with him. But he knows that hunting for Toothless is better because Toothless will be very happy; they are both of them together and the dragon-boy cannot be content when his dragon-half is not.
The two of them quarrel sometimes, but can never be at odds for long. It hurts too much, to be fighting. Many small arguments have ended with both dragon and dragon-boy wailing in helpless distress, and whatever has divided them picked up in snarling jaws and dropped over a cliff so that it will not stand between them and keep them from each other.
So Hiccup purrs through the tempting fish, imagining Toothless purring too very soon.
He finds the heavily-spiked muzzle in his path only by walking into it, hindquarters bumping to the stone as he squeaks in surprise. Scales rustle as the dragon turns to sniff at him, and a long foreleg blocks his way when he tries to retreat or dodge away.
Food? his flock-mate rumbles curiously, interested. Short heavy breaths ruffle his fur as the dragon breathes in his scent and ignores the wild boy's muffled snarls of protest.
Mine, the dragon decides, and a rough tongue rasps across his face and tears the fish from his jaws, quick as blinking.
Hiccup wails furiously. Mine! he yowls defiance, stretching up to snatch it back, swiping blindly with his soft-claws at the unseen muzzle raised far out of his reach. But he recognizes the sound of prey gulped down and swallowed, and jaws licked for the last taste.
Burning with the snarls that shake his small frame, Hiccup spits anger, knowing the hard-won fish is gone, and that he is not a hatchling to beg for it to be returned half-eaten and soft.
When he was smaller he was fed just so quite often, his flock-mates returning home with bellies full and willing to share. He is still the littlest dragon of them all, but his family considers him grown, and he is expected to hunt rather than beg.
Thief you thief bad bad fish mine! he spits, stomping and kicking all his paws to make a big noise.
Fish Thief huffs a breath at him in warning, all smoke and hot breath and fish-scent and not yet fire. The blast of warmth is not unwelcome, but Hiccup wails protest against it, snapping his own small fangs at the snatching jaws he knows are just before him, although he cannot see them. Mine! Mine no no no upset angry thief you thief no bad thief you fish mine, he whines, sulking and growling.
Scales rattle as Fish Thief shrugs and turns away, ignoring the upset little dragon clawing uselessly at his shoulder. Hiccup knows his soft-claws will leave no mark on dragon scales, but he rakes them down the rough scales anyway before retreating, fuming.
He cannot pick a fight all on his own if Fish Thief will not fight back. He is not Cloudjumper to loom over smaller dragons and stare most piercingly until the trespasser drops his wings and edges away in shame; he is only Hiccup, who is small, and he is Hiccup alone missing Toothless very greatly now.
So he turns away from Fish Thief and Fish Thief's satisfied fake-sleeping breathing, and stalks off grouching in small disgruntled sounds.
Dragons stir as he passes, tracking the faint scent of prey that clings to him, and Hiccup takes comfort in their presence, in their soft hums and truly-sleeping breaths as they dream of warmer, brighter days. Some of them murmur as he clambers across them, and he chirrups small replies, meaning only hello and me-here and safe and stay and calm, the reassurances that are the peace of the snowed-in flock. It is scary, when those sounds die away and instead turn to snarls and impatience and restlessness, when tearing at each other is the only release for such frustrations.
He follows the barely-there light from a dragon whose throat glows as it breathes, slow pulses of the faintest light in the darkness of the caves. The fires within its heart are banked but strong, and as it breathes Hiccup plays at breathing with it. The light goes out, and he breathes in as if ready to swim, and tries to wait until the light comes back to breathe out, but cannot. The dragon breathes too slowly. Still, the glow of its breathing makes moving easier, in glances and brief movements; he makes his way across that cave in stops and starts in time with its light.
At last he finds the huddle where Toothless-love is, and scrambles recklessly across the curled-together dragons, searching for his dearest-best-one. His shoulders pull tight with pleasure as if he had wings to spread and wave, and his jaw opens in an unvoiced cry as he returns to Toothless' side.
Toothless-beloved, Hiccup clicks, petting at the black dragon's nose, scratching around his ear-flaps and under his jaw, urging him wake-up!
Toothless stirs, blinking sleepily, rolling over to sit up and raise his head to nudge at Hiccup's throat. He thrums love-you, truest of all. You where you what smell curious what smell good!
No trace remains of the outrage the dragon-boy had spat and hissed at Fish Thief. Instead Hiccup purrs, shaking and chuckling with laughter, and works one paw into his patchwork second skins.
For you! he whistles, and shoves the hidden-away second fish against Toothless' nose.
He knows his family.
Toothless twitches with excitement, grunting small sounds of amazement as he sniffs at the prey. With a delicate snap, he accepts it from Hiccup's paw and devours it in a gulp. He pushes his dragon-boy over gurgling gratitude and adoration, and the wild boy thrums back to him, echoing in seamless harmony the innocent and unconditional devotion they share.
– and fireflies, Hiccup gestures, plucking at the air as Toothless watches in the light from his fires held shining in his jaw. He chirrups happily and stretches out across the stone of the nest just for them, a hidden place between fangs of stone that have melted together and frozen there.
Toothless does not understand about the fireflies, tilting his head and shifting his paws puzzled but curious. When summer comes, Hiccup will show him.
The bright summeris far away but real, real. It is a not-yet thing. The sun will come back, he believes, and until then they will be the sun for each other. The wild boy holds tight to the memories of other winters, and the knowledge that winters end.
Until then it is restful and soothing and comforting, to nestle close against Toothless as his dragon-beloved eats the fish again, chewing it carefully and tearing it apart to savor the taste of it and pretend that its pieces are many fish. They are safe alone-together within their own nest, and no one will thieve their prey from them in an idle snap.
Until then they must only be patient and wait for the snow to tire of roaring and the sun to return. And it is not all bad, to wait. The winter-sleeping is peaceful, and secure, and Hiccup can endure much, as long as he and Toothless are together. Alone they are off-balance, like moving with one paw wrenched and tender. But together they run sure-footed and fearless.
Fire? Hiccup asks, tempering the sound to softness to mean only a small fire. Humming willingness, Toothless holds his fires in his jaws once more, burning low.
The dragon-boy snatches up a bit of burned stick that had fallen between stones and lain forgotten, setting the tip of it to the ground at Toothless' side. He draws a trailing, aimless line across the stone, the scratching of the stick very loud in the deep still silence.
Toothless-heart paws at it, changing the lines when Hiccup cannot move it away in time, and they chirp and chuckle at each other mock-snarling as they vie for control of the drawing-with stick.
Their marks join other shapes scattered across the nest beneath the overhang, of Hiccup and Toothless together, and the many places they have been. Hiccup has drawn the Nest, and the king, and Cloudjumper, and Follow-Me, and Late-to-Pounce, and Broad Tail, and Naps Upside Down, and many dragons blurred together from being drawn all over each other, and beyond there are more.
Elsewhere he has drawn the prey they hunt, the small scurrying things that hide in burrows, and running-together beasts with many horns, and part of a crab that he never drew all the pieces of. Somewhere there are scratched-out shapes of the rats that showed their noses here in the summer just past. A ship drowned nearby, and then there were rats. The rats had scuttled all over everywhere and bitten at eggs, which was a most bad thing, so everyone had hunted rats very fiercely, lurking to ambush and then shrieking and snarling.
His drawings hide all over the caves for dragons to find and startle at, puzzling at the lines that, to Hiccup, mean wild storms, and wolves, and the ocean, and the feeling of sadness, and the feeling of exhilaration, and the feeling of running racing-quick, and the feeling of dragon scales, and the feeling of stones piled together. And there are shapes that have been blotted out by scraping paws or burned to ashes: frightening things that he did not wish to think about anymore, or that dragons recognized as pfikingr – human – things and chased away.
Beyond their cave, dragons stir at their playful sounds. Chews on Pinecones opens one eye lazily, acknowledging them and dismissing them in a single glance as less interesting than dreaming more. Leaf Chaser sighs resigned to see them awake and playing when everyone else knows enough to sleep, but does not scold.
They are not running around yowling to hear the echoes of their own voices, or pushing into close-guarded nests where new eggs are kept warmest of all until they are ready to be hatchlings. They are not even flying in the dark with Toothless' looking-sounds – Hiccup thinks those sounds are quiet and hard to hear, but other dragons do not like them.
They are only playing very quietly in their own small puddle of light.
When Toothless-dearest's fires fade away, Hiccup surrenders the drawing-with stick and coils around to lean against Toothless' shoulder.
They are awake and happier now, and they thrum contentment to each other.
The sounds seem very loud in the silence of the cave, and Hiccup rests one paw on his other self's nose, signaling hush! He whistles a very small alert sound that echoes.
A long moment passes, and then Toothless yelps snow! Listen snow there snow no no-more enough stop snow!
It is not a sound they can hear, but a silence – the endless howling of the snowstorm has died away, and they whistle and click excitement, shuddering.
C'mon, Toothless signals, nudging at his partner's smaller body. C'mon c'mon yes good excited hurry yes go us yes go!
Hiccup clambers over him to reach for the hollow where he left the furs that wrap around his back paws and his clever wearing-things that have claws on, pawing at the stone until he pricks one soft-claw against a very sharp point. Yipping in surprise, he pulls it back to lick it briefly, and snatches more carefully. They are fierce claws, but they are warmer than bare skin, and he likes them very much.
Toothless carries him on his shoulders as they pick their way hurriedly through the dragons sleeping all over. There is a tunnel nearby that leads almost straight out over the ocean, but there will be very much snow packed tightly there, and they are too small to dig through it on their own. Instead Toothless bounds upwards, singing quietly at the stone to find perches to land on, and stone teeth to cling to, and places where the roof of the cave sags deeply. As his dragon-boy holds on tightly, bracing his back paws against the black dragon's ribs, his fluttering flight brings them to a smaller tunnel that leads to stone cliffs and the sky above the sea.
When Toothless sings at it, Hiccup can feel the small movements as his tail lashes pleased and he breathes in deep ready to this the wild boy knows that the snowdrift is not deep, that it will burn away beneath dragon-fire.
A single bright blast, and the snowdrift in their path melts away. The sharp air of the long night breathes into the cave, and both dragon and dragon-boy drink it down like clear fresh water.
All the world outside is snow, piled up and left there by the storm, and the restless ocean has been silenced by ice. Crisp snowdrifts hunch on the edge of overhanging cliffs, flowing away to tumble to the ground beneath. The shapes of the wide ledges that look out over the ocean are changed, the familiar places where they have played all their lives remade.
Their world is transformed, made new and mysterious. The snow is not blank white but many colors, twisting and changing and shining, as the swirling colors of sky-fires blaze above against the stars and the bitten-thin moon.
They should cry out, whistling and howling, to tell their snowbound flock-mates that the storm has gone away, but dragon and dragon-boy stare in silence and wonder, speaking to each other only in touch and breathing. They hesitate to break the stillness and the silence as if it were a most precious egg, the sounds of the hatchling within only the softest of hums to be listened for very carefully.
Somewhere the ice cracks in sullen protest, a sharp jarring noise like a branch breaking that they thought was strong to land on. Toothless startles and jumps, and Hiccup yelps in surprise. He tumbles from Toothless' back as his dragon-partner lands, and pounces up to his throat in snow in an outburst of delight.
Toothless dives after him, scolding, and they race each other across the broad ledge and down, slipping and sliding and burying themselves by accident. Some of the snow is thickly packed enough for very small dragons to run across, and some is not. When Hiccup stumbles into a soft spot, it collapses all around him in a brief avalanche, and Toothless hovers after him croaking concern. But the wild boy swims through it easily to the base of the cliff.
Yowling and shrieking can't-catch-me, Hiccup turns and rears up at bay for a moment, pawing at the air and laughing as dragons do, and Toothless-beloved lands to race after him in great leaps. Toothless is too heavy for much snow, and many deep holes follow him as the black dragon springs after his little companion, jumping and pouncing like a hunting fox.
Chasing each other, they burrow to make their own caves. Hiccup sneaks out from the tunnels and skitters across the top of the snow, tracking Toothless' sounds and his movements as he digs, and then pounces as hard as he can to smash it apart. Half-grown and half-starved as he is, the tunnel still gives way at a blow and swallows them, and Toothless pulls them both out snorting and blowing at snow in his nose.
A bright reflection of sky-fires dances across an unmarked snowdrift, and Hiccup bounds after it, hunting red, imagining wildly that he can pin it down and bite it and drag it home to draw with, or perhaps the green that distracts him almost at once. When he pounces, there is nothing beneath his borrowed claws, but he is not sorry to catch only snow. Snow can be splashed at Toothless, who retaliates by tumbling him over and picking the wild boy up in his jaws and rearing up to hold him away from the snow, the bigger dragon gurgling laughter as Hiccup shrieks indignantly.
The lingering warmth of the caves and their own fires inside burn together with the exhilaration of play, but soon Hiccup collapses onto his back and lays still and panting. His excitement is the pent-up energy of the time spent dreaming, but in winter he does not have the strength to play for very long.
Look, the dragon-boy gestures as Toothless joins him, watching the shimmering sky-fires as they ripple like waves.
Toothless looks, head tipped to one side as he considers the sky-fires and the stars and the dragon-boy at his feet. You up, he urges, nosing at Hiccup. C'mon us flying yes us go.
Hiccup climbs to his shoulders readily, and Toothless takes off in a soaring spiral.
Up up up sky up up flying happy us flying, his rider chirrs unthinkingly as they fly.
They cannot yet fly high enough and fast enough to catch the moon, but they can climb towards it maybe. So Toothless alights on one of the stones of the mountain that bite highest, closest to the blazing fires.
Settled by his beloved's forepaws as Toothless-self crouches to rest, Hiccup looks back toward their sanctuary home. In summer it is open and all colors, filled with growing things and living dragons, but now it is sleeping and still. It is hidden beneath ice like the shell of an egg, and only he and his Toothless-self are awake to watch over it.
He imagines that Hiccup-and-Toothless who are a single self are guarding their nest and their family held safe within, warm and secure and dreaming, that they are watchers and protectors.
Up this high, alone-together, it is as if he and Toothless are the biggest of all.
All the colors of the dreamed-of summer burn above as sky-fires, washing like waves against the bright stars. The sky-fires are strange-wonderful, to be waves in the sky and fire across the ocean, their colors diving from the sky to swim across the waves and leaping back again. All around the air is cold and clear and still, the silence of deepest winter and longest night creeping back to coil around them. The dark winter is indifferent, undisturbed by the small playing of small dragons.
But it is not scary, really, to be small, Hiccup decides, nestling against his Toothless-self as his other half holds him close and purrs love-you you mine yes always and happy pure and unconditional. The feral boy knows that he is small in a big and dangerous world – even together he and Toothless are small beside their flock-mates, and their Alpha, and the wide-open sky, and the endless ocean.
He does not mind so much being small, as long as he is small and loved.
The harshness of his world is nothing next to the soul-deep devotion of his Toothless-heart, and the protection and acceptance of his dragon family; Hiccup has never once doubted that he is loved.
Soon others will stir from their winter-sleeping and come out to play in the new snow, and the king will return from his hunting with enough food for all of his flock to share and eat well.
But for this moment there is only the great-hearted black dragon and his bright-eyed feral boy, and their joy at being together; and far above them, the wild and dancing sky-fires like the breath of dragons, and the silence of the endless distant stars.
"On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs, as if to say: well done.
"Well done, everyone. We're halfway out of the dark."
– from Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol
Author's Note: Yes, I know that you can't make glow-in-the-dark ink by squashing fireflies. But feral kid Hiccup doesn't. And no need to go looking for Coalburst anywhere in canon – I reserve the right to make some stuff up. Thanks for reading; may you find peace and grace and sunlight in your midwinter; see you in the new year!