Runt of the Litter


Summary: [a "Nightfall" prequel] Hiccup and Toothless are a pair of inseparable dragon-children. But they are not children alone, and when hunters become hunted, they need all the friends they can get.

"Nightfall" in brief:Cloudjumper takes Hiccup along with Valka, who dies when her son is quite young. Hiccup grows up in the Sanctuary Nest with Toothless. He really believes that he's a dragon, and that he and Toothless are the same self in two bodies.

…they'll fight you over this.

Continuity: Set after "Night Terrors" but before "Fragile Things", about two years after Valka's death.

Loudest-Always shoves her head deeper into his chest, nearly dislodging the dragon-boy from his perch, and grins in the manner of dragons when he squawks stop-that! Paws dripping anew, Hiccup flicks a droplet at her eye and she recoils, blinking and shaking her head.

Child of all the dragon flock, knowing no other life, a dragon in his mind and his heart, the little boy yips laughter at her as she sneezes, fearless of the wisp of flame that spills from her jaws. To Hiccup, fire is as much a part of his life as stone and ocean, ever-present, but commonplace and unremarkable. His friend's sneezes crack like broken branches, every one of them bouncing her further away in tiny leaps.

With his flock-mates around him and the edges of his hunger sated, the sky above like outspread wings and Toothless close beside him, and shapes to make, the wild creature that only vaguely remembers that its name is something like Hiccup is perfectly happy.

He settles himself again and stretches out a tacky paw, beckoning come here you to his friend, and she trots back to him. Steps Away, wrestling with and chewing on a torn-away strip of fresh meat, tumbles under her feet, nearly tripping her, but she swats him aside dismissively. Through the scrap firmly clenched in his jaws, Steps Away whines at her as he slinks back to his usual place at Bossy's flank.

With a huff that suggests not-important him-again resigned, Loudest-Always rears to her hind legs and offers her broad nose to Hiccup again, eyes narrowed amusement.

Happy me happy you stay patient yes yes good see? see? Hiccup chirrs to her, returning his attention to the lines spreading out across her muzzle. A glance to one side, as reflexive as balance, reassures him that Toothless is not far, only a leap and a scamper away. His best-beloved other self is trying to pull a half-stripped bone from the jaws of Smell of Dry Scales, who sets her paws into the new mud and tries to shake him away from her meal. The black dragon growls at her stubbornly, without anger – there are other bones, but Toothless wants this one.

If he and Toothless can see each other, all is right with Hiccup's world. But his paws have dried again, so he dabbles them in the gaping wound at his side before painting them across Loudest-Always' grey scales. He makes lines and splotches like the branches of the trees waving on the horizon, like the grasping antlers of the heavy running prey-beast that lies still and torn-into, like the claws of their flock-mates that brought it down for the littler dragons to devour.

Hiccup growls as he works, retelling the story of their flock-mates' hunt even as he draws it. He vocalizes the memories in excited yips and dragon cries and imitations of the bugling call of the prey-beast, desperate as it fled from hunters diving on it from above, this one chosen from all of them for the young dragons to play with as their older, bigger flock-mates chase down the rest.

The dragon-boy has lost almost all he once knew of human speech. Only a few sounds linger in the depths of buried memories, for he does not need them. All his world is dragons. His life is the flock that has raised him and welcomed him and embraced him as one of their own, no different. And so his words have been lost.

When he speaks aloud, he does so in dragon sounds, and a tongue that learned to speak his mother's language only reluctantly has instead coiled willingly around a vast range of inhuman yips and yowls, hisses and screams, shrieks and cries, croons and purrs, growls and snarls, the chattering, warbling melody of a dragon's voice. Like all dragons, he speaks as much in gesture and posture and with his eyes as he does in sound, and to Hiccup, every movement, every stillness, every breath carries a rich array of meaning.

He is innocent of the past that lies behind him, unseen, hidden in the shape of his shadow and the eyes of his beloved-companion Toothless, who is half-himself, inseparable and essential. He does not remember the island of his birth or the father left behind there, only the caverns and heights of the ice-shrouded nest. He does not remember being brought to the hidden sanctuary in Cloudjumper's claws and his human mother's arms, only that to fly is in his nature.

He does not remember witnessing his mother's death at human hands, only the deep-rooted conviction that humans are the enemy. He does not remember the grief that tore through the nest beneath Cloudjumper's echoing, broken wails of loss and pain, only that Cloudjumper loves and protects Toothless and his dragon-boy even as he fears for them and scolds them for their recklessness. There have been other deaths since, of other guardians, for all the flock is his family. He mourned each of them, but he cannot remember them all.

Hiccup is only a very small dragon, and very young, and the sky is a very wide shade of blue to lose such things in.

He has always been a dragon of the king's flock, and Toothless has always been with him, and these things are true and forever.

And if he perches on the shoulder of a slain elk as his dragon-cousins tear into its belly and grunt hungry hungry good this-mine! mine! want good good back-away! hungry me hungry want, pushing and pawing at each other, wrestling for choice morsels to fill their jaws and ever-hungry stomachs; if he listens for the sound of cracking bones with marrow within to be stolen and devoured, painting with the blood that spills out into the dust of the trampled meadow –

What of it?

This is his world. He knows no other.

And he is happy. Wild thing that he is, he has known hunger and cold, but also love, and never true rejection or isolation. An undersized, entirely feral creature, wild beyond telling, the intelligence in his clear green eyes strikes a fierce contrast with his matted and overlong auburn mane, which straggles beyond his narrow shoulders, and the patchwork of leather and fur and fabric, sewn together clumsily, less a garment than a pelt of his own. At almost seven years old, scars already knit their way across his body, and a missing canine tooth has done nothing to discourage his tendency to bare his teeth and snarl back when rebuked, as he and Toothless are often. They are a mischievous, irrepressible, clever pair, and unstoppable together, quick to fly and quick to poke their noses into everything they find, and as quick to dash away again.

He has yet to make himself wings to glide through the sky at his dragon-self's side, or fins to guide his flight, or to build the clawed gloves that will become as much a part of him as his own skin. His hands and summer-bare feet, which he thinks of as only as paws, as his flock-mates have, are calloused and chapped hard, built up against the abuse he puts them through against the caves and cliffs he and his flock-family call home.

Flinch scrabbles at the prey's side, hauling himself over it and kicking at the shoulders of a bigger fledgling who has eaten a tunnel into the kill. Can't Be Bothered grumbles through his full jaws, tail lashing once. Setting his claws into the hide, Flinch nudges his chest against Hiccup's back as he peers over the dragon-boy, tilting his head curious what this what wondering interested to one side to look down at Loudest-Always.

She rolls an eye up at him and hisses careful warning don't-you-dare!

The dragonet considers, head rolling on a neck too long for his body, sizing up the fledglings scattered around the meadow, and the disappearing kill, and Hiccup's soft whuff of resignation, and the yipping cries of two little dragons who have caught hold of the ends of a scrap of hide, Late running and Cries-Wolf being hauled behind, stones and clods of dirt and torn grass spraying out from scrabbling paws until it tears and both race off in search of tastier mouthfuls.

Hiccup knows his friends well – he has grown up with these dragons as he has with many others – and he pulls away and tumbles backwards a moment before Flinch leaps. The gangling dragonet tackles Loudest-Always over her tail and sends her rolling, his head darting downwards to lick at the blood striped across her muzzle.

She writhes and screams and swats at him, claws screaming across thick, spit-slicked scales, and his strikes lick up dirt as often as prey-blood.

Sheltering behind the carcass, Hiccup walks his paws up its side, using it for balance as he peers over it to watch their mock fight. He is steady enough, standing only on his back paws, but he is happier with all his paws against the rough and erratic ground of his wild world.

The dragon-boy shakes his head, overlong fur flying, baring his fangs in a grimace at the shriek of claws against scales, and licks halfheartedly at the blood still clotting one paw.

Drawing – with whatever will leave a mark – is a magic all his own and a delight, to make shapes where none had been before. But he is accustomed to his work being destroyed under careless paws and errant flames and rough scales, and he thinks no more of it.

Instead he scavenges around the remains of the elk for the bits of it he has learned that he can eat. It is good that he is a small dragon, even among the young dragons who swarm around him, pushing and squabbling as careless paws fly and shoulders slam together and tails lash. He can dance between the blows, alert and light-pawed, dropping to the earth beneath Plays-Pretend and scrambling aside as the heavy-jawed fledgling butts his unmarked horns against the elk's weathered ones. And he can manage, on the little that is not sick-making and that will not turn his little body against him, even as his cousins devour all within their reach.

Hunger is as much a part of his world as snow, and as constant, and as unremarkable.

He scrapes a pawful of rich fat away for his own as his former perch vanishes into Late's throat, and ducks fluidly beneath Small Friend's chest to claim a portion of dark, thick meat from the ravaged insides, growling back at her when she snaps thief! at him. She turns to follow him as he retreats, pawstep by pawstep, meeting her gaze and posturing mine!

The wild boy was bigger than her once, and he and Toothless shared their catches with her when she was too small to catch her own or take the prey from them, and the dragon-boy will not let her forget this. Hiccup bares his fangs just slightly and raises his jaw. He dares the muddily golden dragonet to challenge him, rearing to his back paws to put his head above hers.

He cannot quite. Small Friend is bigger already. It is not fair. But he remembers, and believes, and holds his ground.

Grumbling you you you small you not-interested resigned you like-you fine fine, Small Friend lets him take it. She is bigger than Hiccup now, but the way he thinks of her persists. Once she had been shy and reluctant to emerge from beneath her mother's wing and the shards of her egg, just a pair of eyes peeping out from shadows, and Hiccup and Toothless had crouched at the edge of her mother's nest, whistling curious and inviting and pawing at the air c'mon c'mon!

A crack! startles him, and he springs to attention, head coming up as alertly in an almost birdlike manner. Orienting on the sound immediately, Hiccup gulps down the last of his prize and scampers out of the elk's dwindling shadow. Moving from two paws to all of them and back again thoughtlessly, he dodges around Bask-and-Bite as they tangle their necks together trying to lick shreds of meat from the backs of their own heads.

The dragon-boy pounces over their happily wagging tails, and pulls his headlong run up short as Loudest-Always and Flinch – gangly body and quick claws wrapped around stocky frame and thick chest, heavy form stomping on every limb that comes between her and the ground – charge past, screaming insults at each other.

Shares falls out of the sky nearby, pouncing at Cries-Wolf as she tries to hoard an entire torn-off foreleg for herself, much harassed by the All of Them, who all look alike and all fly together and who are too many for Hiccup to track, much less count.

But the All of Them are his friends. The All of Them are their friends, for the All of Them like Hiccup and his Toothless-self very much, and black dragon and dragon-boy have spent many exhausted naps in a pile with the twitching, purring, warm-hearted All of Them. So Hiccup laughs around at the All of Them as they swarm past him in pursuit of Cries-Wolf, tails whipping almost close enough to touch but never striking home, as if he were an All of Them himself, to know always where the others are.

He does always know where the other one of him is, after all, and in a moment he is by Toothless' side once more, chirruping Toothless-mine you here me me look-at-me love-you love love very-much-so happy together us together here yes!

The black dragon turns to him immediately, reaching out to paw at him and pull him close against his beloved-companion's chest. A purr of delight bursts from Toothless' throat and brings his ear-flaps up to signal joy. It tears through the brief sulking that had pinned him down beneath it at losing the bone that Smell of Dry Scales has succeeded in taking away from him.

She mantles over it and gloats, posturing and chirping mine mine yes mine this mine smug pleased see? you see? hungry mine this good yes mine!

Toothless snorts at her, drawing back amazed – but the rest of him says mocking. He nudges his face against Hiccup's, licking at his dragon-boy's face and gurgling, wings rustling and tail waving with the strength of it.

Mine mine mine love-love-love mine mine very-much-so yes good good proud happy mine mine! Toothless signals, the movements of his body and the expression in his eyes and the warmth of his breath enfolding his dragon-boy in their shared selfness once more.

Hiccup shrieks laughter even as he purrs you you you mine yes love-you! in reply. It is a good joke, and already Smell of Dry Scales is sighing resignation, her tail drawn in closer to her body like she is not so happy to have won the squabble anymore. The dragon-boy sinks to all his paws and drops his shoulder to roll over in the scrubby grass, baring his stomach and his throat to Toothless' gaping jaws and lolling tongue in ecstatic submission, every breath and movement signaling trust and joy and yours.

He could melt in the adoration in Toothless' eyes as the black dragon carefully, lovingly licks at his open, vulnerable throat, breath against his bare skin warm, and a purr of his own thrums through Hiccup's small body as the dragon who is his heart and half of his own soul nuzzles against him.

To fight over a bone is silly – they have each other, and everything else is only play.

Reaching up, Hiccup wraps his paws around the muzzle lowered over him and clings tightly, signaling love-you Toothless you mine! His dragon-heart's name is one of the few spoken words he retains, but the sound has almost completed its long slide to the rattled tt-th-ss where it will settle as easiest on a dragon's tongue.

Toothless shuffles his paws under him carefully, settling by his companion's side and curling up beside and over him, and they breathe at each other and are content.

A whine breaks into their reverie, Smell of Dry Scales whimpering want tinged with jealous. Their display was not for her – it is a true thing, the only and most important true thing – but when Hiccup casts a lazy eye over his shoulder and the black paw cradling him, he sees her crouching low to the ground wistful as she nudges the broken-open bone towards them.

You, she gestures, meeting his gaze, and her eyes and the small movements of her nose offer please?

Hiccup crooks his paws into claws and chirrups str-e-e-e-tch as he twists to put his paws beneath him again, butting his head against Toothless' jaw love-you as he does. Twitching away the dead grass that catches on his skins, he pads across the space between black dragon-self and all-purples cousin, purring gratitude. But the bone and the marrow within go ignored as Hiccup sits back on his haunches and wraps his paws around her muzzle too.

You you like-you you good you ours happy happy you good trust you happy-with-you, he chirps and croons, gesturing against her scales where she can feel the touch of his paws, breathing in the distinct scent of them, and her own purr rumbles in reply.

Toothless is himself, but Smell of Dry Scales is their friend, and Hiccup does not want her to be sad. No dragon of their flock need ever be alone – there are very many of them, many and many and endless.

He would have stolen the food from her if he could, without remorse or shame or hesitation. As the littlest dragon of them all, except for the newest hatchlings who grow bigger than him so fast – it is the way of things, but not fair – Hiccup must eat what he can when he can, and face down fearlessly rivals big enough to tread on him by mistake and never notice.

But it is better to share, and Hiccup nestles between his friend and his dragon-self as he widens the cracks their fighting put in the gnawed-clean bone, clawing out the sweetness inside.

Both Toothless and Smell of Dry Scales hiss at Bossy when she tries to steal it from him. She stalks off looking very aggrieved despite Steps Away's attempts to placate her. He adores her regardless, but she will show off for him and anyone else who will look.

In the distance, the cries of dragons drift faintly on the wind, and across the meadow, heads come up and turn. They listen for their hunting flock-mates more out of curiosity than concern. The fledglings now licking their scales clean and leaping at temptingly waving grass stalks are young, and not yet grown, and far from the safely hidden sanctuary of their icebound nest. But they are as fearless in the open as any pack of predators, reeking of blood and sun-touched meat as they are.

A dragon alone might tread cautiously, gulp its kill quickly with an eye always on its surroundings, wary of wolf packs or a wandering white bear. But of all the creatures of the far north, few will challenge a flock of dragons, with heart-fires burning ready to flame, and wings to carry them high where hunters cannot reach, and teeth and claws sharp and quick to strike.

The only predator the fledglings might fear would be strange dragons, not of the flock, or humans, who trap and tear and kill. They have been taught to flee even the scent of humans, but with no trace of it in the air, they are fearless.

The little boy in their midst, tracing invisible lines across Toothless' flank and vocalizing idle contentment, is a dragon, and none of the fledglings have ever thought of Hiccup as anything else. How would they know otherwise? Hiccup's voice is a dragon's voice, his scent that of the flock, his behavior no different from their own. He steps softly and cringes away from nesting mothers who are always right, and climbs fearlessly alongside his flock-mates as they scramble across the ledges and small passageways of their caverns. He answers growls with snarls and thrumming with purrs, and crouches submission and obedience beneath the distant thunder of the mind of their great king. And he sleeps where he falls at Toothless' side as often as the inseparable pair retreat to the hollow they have claimed as their own with scent and snarls and persistence.

They are a flock. They are dragons together. Other dragons of their flock are nearby.

That is safety.

The fight between Loudest-Always and Flinch ends abruptly as the stocky fledgling throws herself over a low hummock, trying to shake him from her back, and a loud splash and two outraged screams tell the small flock clearly that Loudest-Always has found the stream that runs back down to the sea. Chattering, whistling laughter springs across the meadow like catching flames, smoldering in one throat and blazing from another and flaring out unexpectedly from the All of Them in echoes and outbursts like a popping tree.

Plays-Pretend forgets his game of wrestling dragon horns against prey horns, and joins the others as they all dash off to perch on the small hill and yip funny funny laughing you silly down you wet silly us here amusement laughing! at Loudest-Always sulking in the midst of the stream like a rock herself, and Flinch waving his wings wildly as he climbs out onto the opposite bank, squawking disgruntled at the cold water.

Hiccup rests his paws on the back of Toothless' head from where he rides on his dragon-self's shoulders, perfectly comfortable there as Toothless hovers above the small stream. He distantly remembers a time when they could not fly together, and thinks they must have been very sad then, because to fly together is everything. When they fly they are a single soul in a single body, complete within themselves, and they would spend forever in the sky if they could.

They cannot yet.

When they flew to this island with their cousins all around them, one of the bigger, full-grown dragons had snatched Hiccup from Toothless' shoulders, cradling the dragon-boy in a careful paw, and snorted down easy calm easy at Toothless when the black dragon, wailing and bereft, had tried to take him back.

Hiccup is happy enough to be carried in dragon claws – he has been often, since before he can remember, and he has no fear of claws or the long fall beneath to hungry, endless ocean. But he had cried to be with Toothless, where he belongs. They had been flying together! They had been right! And his Toothless-beloved had not rested at all. Instead he had fluttered around Catching Claws and cried most piteously, black dragon and dragon-boy working each other into greater fits of aloneness that is cold and gaping, until Catching Claws had returned them to each other with much rolling of eyes.

But one day…

Shares is the only dragonet surprised when, a heartbeat later, Bossy pushes Shares into the water too. Loudest-Always yowls protest for her, and rears up to slam her front paws down, drenching Bossy and Steps Away both and catching one of the All of Them as well.

The All of Them leap at everyone the same, even up into the sky to tackle Toothless – the black dragon dodges and rolls, and Hiccup clings tight to his scales as they soar towards the opposite bank and a high, mossy stone to watch from – and at the water to punish it, and at a clump of reeds. That one shrieks surprise as the reeds give way to mud that goes gloop and buries all its colors beneath dark greenish slime. Bask dips her head to catch it by one waving wing, and as soon as it is safe, spits it out again. The Bask-half of them drags the Bite-half along as she plunges her mouth into the stream to wash the taste of mud away, shuddering ugh bad taste bad that ugh regret annoyed bad bad taste not-to-eat ugh!

Cries-Wolf misses a stone and is swept backwards down a tiny waterfall, yelping outrage as her claws do not catch and she slides flailing into the pool at its base. At once she leaps out again screaming and snapping at her tail as if there is an eel biting it, but the fledglings only startle and turn to flee for a moment before she settles again and licks at her paws, shoulders and eyes saying me? me? who me? fine fine fine never-mind not-important.

Any of them could fly over the stream in a moment, but splashing through it – and splashing each other, shrieking at the cold of the summer snowmelt – is much more fun.

Later, lying on his belly and flipping one paw in and out of the stream, Hiccup watches the clouds of dirt kicked up by his flock-mates' playing settle again. They float like clouds in the sky, and they disappear to the touch when he paws at them.

Water is not so much different from air, then, and to swim is a little bit like flying, he concludes.

He would struggle to share this insight with his cousins, but he has no need to. The thought settles in the back of his skull and deep within his chest, nesting there and blending into the landscape of his mind like a bird folding its wings and falling still, like a broken branch itself.

He sees no reflection in the water's surface, for he looks within the stream, not at the top of it. The water is flowing too quickly to hold an image, and Hiccup cares more for the dry thirst in his throat than anything else, lowering his face to the water when it runs clear again and lapping at it like a dragon.

Wet more from Toothless licking at his fur than the river, Hiccup shakes himself dry and leaps back to his Toothless-self's shoulders as they tumble along behind their little flock into the waving grass of the low hills.

You! Bossy insists, flipping her nose at the brambles. Her shoulders say challenge c'mon you you you doubt teasing c'mon you!

Hiccup glares back at her, narrowing his eyes not-afraid, meeting her dare.

Me, Steps Away says, raising his jaw proud with grass stains still on it. Hiccup licks at his own jaws, remembering. The grass did not taste bad but it was not interesting, either.

Toothless tips his head to one side curious wary unsure, eying the brambles. He does not know them, and he bristles, snapping out his fangs as if the brambles might leap at him and Hiccup and bite, or the dark soft fruits burst into flame. His shoulder, pressed close against Hiccup's, twitches uncertain and a bit reluctant, ready to snatch his dragon-boy away from the new strange thing.

Crouched on his haunches, Hiccup leans against him and nudges reassurance and not-afraid back, a gesture too small for others to see, talking just for them. Toothless is the much bigger of the two of them, but the pair are as aware of even the smallest gesture and touch as they are of their own thoughts.

Me! Hiccup challenges back, growling, and stalks the brambles, turning his shoulder to them defensively as he approaches pawstep by pawstep. As his friends watch, clustered around, he stretches out one small paw – he would like to have claws like his flock-mates, but that his paws are clever and good for holding things and making things and taking things apart is a goodness too – and snatches past the thorns.

Hooting triumphantly, as low of a sound as his young voice can make, deep in his throat and chest, the dragon-boy turns his clenched paw up and opens it to show the other little dragons a dark and pebbly little berry, slightly squashed and dripping.

Small Friend howls you good you proud me proud confident sure yes yes laughter proud, paws up on Toothless' back where the black dragon crouches nervously, trembling frustration that they cannot both meet Bossy's dare. Hiccup can sense his dragon-self thinking brave and concern and faith towards him, in the cadence of his breath and the tiny sounds he makes without thought. He grounds himself on that just as Toothless pushes back against Small Friend, to know that she is there and believing in them.

Eyes narrowed, Bossy yawns bored wide and obvious, and she looks off into the sky and away.

You eat! she challenges, whipping her head back around and snapping her jaws a breath from Hiccup's own.

The dragon-boy does not flinch. His cousins play rough, and some of the scars across his body are from careless dragons who did not pull their blows in time, but Bossy is only playing – there is no fight here, and she knows Hiccup well. She cannot, will not bite him as she would Can't Be Bothered, who lurks on the edge of the cluster as if bored, despite the gleam in his eyes saying interested clear and bright.

Instead, he examines the berry, sniffing at it and thinking, stitching together memories of other berries and other new things as he watches the others from the sides of his eyes. The little flock is crowded around close and fascinated, noses wavering like leaves in a high wind between Bossy and Steps Away, and Hiccup and Toothless. Bask-and-Bite tangle their necks together, and come untangled again to bounce up and down, chittering eager yes yes yes you yes c'mon yes!

He does not have a tail – and he does not know why – but sometimes Hiccup imagines that he does. It is almost there; it should be there, and he can almost feel the tip of it twitch with swallowed-down tension.

Glancing back over his shoulder to meet Toothless' eyes, he signals reassurance and love-you true true yes confident sure and trust, tiny and hidden. And warmth blooms inside his chest, heart-fires blazing, when amusement and recognition pulls at the corners of Toothless' green eyes.

Hiccup raises his jaw and glares back at Bossy, baring one side of his fangs in a snarl. He remembers too late that there is a gap there – he forgets, still annoyed and frightened a bit by the loss – and instead spits determination before nipping the berry from his paw.

All the tiny drops of it burst between his fangs, bright and sweet and tangy, and Hiccup fights the temptation to lick at his skin for the last of the juice. Instead he meets Bossy's eyes again as she settles back disappointed

…and rolls them back, and staggers, and falters, patting at the ground as if it has gone missing, and collapses in a loose and abandoned sprawl, eyes closed.

Bossy screams horrorfear no no no sorry no bad me bad sorry no no fear fear! and leaps into the air, flapping wildly as she spins all around herself, no longer the little queen of the fledglings but a young dragon in more trouble than she knows what to do with. Steps Away races along the ground trying to follow her, and Late takes off just behind him, catching the scent of panic and fleeing.

The All of Them explode into the air, nearly colliding with each other and yowling, their indistinguishable voices shrilling over Loudest-Always' shattering bellow as she recoils and tries to fly through them. Flinch and Cries-Wolf break and run, and all the others follow their flockmates in a mad rush of panicfearguiltfear! Running from shame and fear, flying for help, the fledglings vanish into the air and the thick grass and the hollows of the low hills.

Dragons look out for each other – that is the why of a flock – but they have let the littlest one of their flock get hurt!

In heartbeats, only Toothless is left, hovering over his beloved dragon-boy where he lies still and silent in the shadow of the brambles with the dark berries hidden within, whimpering soft sounds.

The black dragon reaches out a paw and bats at his partner's little form, nudging against him gently.

Up? Toothless whines. Up you up Hiccup-beloved-mine up please now?

And then he sits back, and looks around at the hissing grass and the clear sky, and snorts.

You! he scolds, tongue lolling in a laugh. You bad you love-you!

At his feet, Hiccup opens his eyes, glittering with held-in laughter, and wriggles delight. He rolls to all his paws and leaps at Toothless, ramming his smaller shoulder against dark scales with a hough hough hough of a mischievous, triumphant laugh.

This good, the dragon-boy signs, gesturing to the berry bush and purring. Taste good good me like you? you want? He crouches back on his haunches and carefully pries aside a catching vine, tongue nipped between his fangs with anticipation.

Toothless swats him roughly even as a thunderous purr rumbles through the black dragon, as appreciative of a good joke as his dragon-boy.

The berries are sweet and new and interesting, tiny on Toothless' tongue but keen and bright. Hiccup's clever paws can reach deeper past the brambles than any dragon nose, and the new treat is all for them.

The little boy is a dragon in all but body, but that body demands more than meat, and his instincts drive him to seek out scavenged nuts, and dug-up roots, and wild berries. More than once a dragon's paw has slapped him away from the mushrooms that spring up from dark, wet forest floors.

He knows to watch other wild creatures to see what they will eat and what they avoid as dangerous, and many small birds had darted away from the berry-brambles when Flinch had stumbled into them. The marks of their beaks and claws in the berries were clear, when Hiccup looked closely, playing at reluctance to nudge Bossy towards an edge to startle her over. Berries that are good to eat are a precious find, and he bears Bossy no resentment for pushing him into finding them, although he knows that she will not be happy at being frightened so.

That is later.

Berries are now, and the dragon-pair share them joyfully.

They make Hiccup's paws dark purple as he gluts himself on them, which he likes very much, because then they are almost Toothless-colored, and while they are two-who-are-one always, Hiccup often wants to be more like his Toothless-self, because Toothless is the best and most beautiful and most-beloved of dragons.

Between them, they have almost stripped the berry bush bare by the time Cries-Wolf realizes that she has had her own trick turned against her. She stalks out of the high grass and back into the hollow with every step screaming exasperation, and the mischievous pair freeze, bodies howling their guilt. Hiccup's face and paws are stained purple, his eyes wide and bright, and Toothless' tongue is outstretched to lick another berry from his dragon-boy's open paw, his tail waving freely.

Her yowl – me scared me furious frightened relief angry bad bad mean you mean not-like very-much-so bad scared outrage worry relief – is the first of many scoldings as their friends discover that they have been tricked and slink back.

But the laughter at their trick and the absolute, eternal love humming between black dragon and dragon-boy is worth more than many scoldings, and Small Friend and Plays-Pretend and the All of Them decide that it was a great joke too.

That is the end of the eating-things game.

Toothless narrows his eyes, sealing his nostrils closed against the breath that trembles in his throat. It is eager to spring out again, but no winds rustle the grasses, and he must be very sneaky. One paw hovers with nowhere yet to land, and he leans forward carefully, nose questing.

The tips of his wings tremble with the urge to leap and snap at it, and at the movement, the little slip of color takes fright and flutters away.

The black dragon struggles to find it again as it flies. It is so very small! But his instincts tell him to leap, and he pounces, snapping blindly at the air all over.

When he skids to a halt at the base of a jagged stone, with a wild splash of trodden-down grasses at his tail, still waving wildly and crushing more of them, he pins his ear-flaps back frustration and rolls his tongue out, trying to see under his own nose.

Hiccup chitters laughter, and points with his snub nose over Toothless' shoulder, eyes glittering with the languid sun of the long afternoon and the tension of Toothless' pounce that twitches through his dragon-boy too. There see there too-slow! Hiccup chirps, the sounds sliding into teasing silly not-to-eat patience-amusement you happy me here sun sun good you you you me proud.

Toothless snorts at him, seeing both the faint mockery to go with the butterfly hovering away into the sky, as if it does not know that a dragon is hunting it, and the fascination that catches his beloved-companion at the sight of bright colors.

He knows the butterfly is too small and not-to-eat. It is smaller than a pine needle even, and those are very sour with nothing in them even to chew on.

The black dragon would not eat it. He would catch it very carefully in his mouth and bring it to Hiccup to hold and coo over.

But it will not stay still!

With a sigh, Toothless rests his jaw on the stone and rolls one eye up, pleading for sympathy he knows he does not have to ask for. And at once his Hiccup-self rests a paw on his nose, scratching at it gently, and the little boy sets his belly against the stone so that their skulls are close enough to knock together gently.

He is much easier to catch like that, and Toothless snaps at Hiccup, wrapping his jaws around his beloved-one's chest and stomach and pulling him from the stone in a single quick pounce. Grunting a triumphant hough hough hough, he rears up and spins around, shaking Hiccup gently even as his dragon-boy shrieks pretend outrage and waves all his paws, clawing and kicking at Toothless' earflaps and chest, all he can reach as he hangs from the bigger dragon's jaws.

Down me down no no no! Hiccup yelps, even as he pummels ready muscles and not the soft spots above Toothless' throat and in the hollow of his mouth.

Mine mine mine I catch yes me catch me proud look-at-me proud brave me yes smug, Toothless praises himself, prancing shamelessly, tail lashing and wings waving.

Hiccup wriggles all over and squeaks as Toothless' tongue laps at his patchwork skins. He tastes of old skins and thick-caked prey-blood and dragon-scales, stream water and grasses and berries, the salt-tang of running-and-chasing, and Hiccup, the body-taste that Toothless knows as well as he does his own scales, and loves more dearly.

For all his little partner's squirming, like a flailing fish, he feels no instinct to bite. Unfathomably stronger instincts, ones that would allow him to carry a hatchling of some unimagined and unimaginably distant mate, or a flock-mate's hatchling, speak more strongly, and his bond with Hiccup roars louder still.

Up! Hiccup's cries change tone mid-protest, becoming instead a wondering, delighted yowl. Us go us fly yes up up up c'mon!

Flying is always worth doing, and Toothless' hindquarters are already coiling beneath him, wings outspread, when a blur of movement springs up out of the untrodden grass and tackles him. Weight slams into his stomach, knocking all his breath from him in a convulsive huff, and Toothless drops his dragon-boy at once so that he can bring his jaws around, fangs snapping out, to tear into –

Plays-Pretend whistles gotcha! and thumps him with one paw, tongue lolling.

Snorting, Toothless glares at him before relaxing, just a little, and turning away to stare at nothing in particular. There might be another butterfly to chase.

The pouncing game is one all little hunters play, and dragons are no different, practicing their skills on each other as they learn to stalk prey and bring it down in a leap, to strike and kill from ambush, because chasing prey is tiring, and many prey-beasts can run very fast, or dodge away and hide, or dive into the water and disappear.

Unlike all other hunters, most dragons can hunt with fire, from a distance, but the impulse to pounce is powerful.

And fun.

As Plays-Pretend raises his head to roar victory, Hiccup leaps at his shoulder, snarling a playful challenge of his own without hesitation. The dragon-boy is too small to tackle him and knock him over in a blow, and he has no sharp claws or fierce teeth to tear or threaten with, and he does not breathe fire – none of which matters, Toothless will be heavy and sharp-clawed and breathe fire for him, always.

But Plays-Pretend startles anyway as Hiccup finds his footing against rough scales and jagged points, yipping and growling as he pounds a tiny paw against the fledgling's shoulder and leaps away to scamper among the spines running down to his tail. Their friend's head wavers as he tries to look down his own back, and Toothless whistles a challenge and a warning and leaps.

Not for a moment does he imagine Hiccup in any danger – Toothless knows with perfect confidence that Hiccup was watching him, knew where he was always, just as he knows always where Hiccup is. They are each other. So he can chase Plays-Pretend back through the grass, the two of them flailing and swatting at each other, biting at noses and wingtips, rolling and tumbling, shoving shoulders into chests and feinting at paws, quite carelessly.

Hiccup dances in and out as they brawl, shrieking with excitement and leaping at Plays-Pretend's tail, distracting him as he swipes at Toothless. The dragon-boy is small, but he is quick. He has been playing among dragons since he could crawl, and those dragons, especially those who have grown up with him, are accustomed to having Hiccup underfoot.

Their calls mix together as they play, a scrambled tangle of daring and surprise and triumph and delight-excitement and gotcha! and can't-catch-me! Their snarls and growls and hisses are all in play, and their bodies scream happy louder than all their voices.

Suddenly Hiccup's chattering whistle of excited ready hunting c'mon here-I-am excited cuts off and becomes a yowl of surprise and disgruntled, and from the edge of his eyes, Toothless is aware of his dragon-boy being snatched away.

Caught up in the mock fight, Toothless leaps back from Plays-Pretend even though he was winning, and turns on the taker with blasting-fire boiling in his throat.

The blaze is not yet as powerful as it will be, one day, but it is a fearsome weapon already.

Shares tries to recoil and crouch protectively over Hiccup at the same time, and her paws slip out from under her as her tail and her head try to go different ways. Her long foreclaws cradle him gently, holding the little boy against her chest, and the playful light in her eyes blows out like a flame smothered beneath ice.

Sorry sorry sorry sorry, she cringes. Her wings, spread out to carry her into the air and away, snap down to guard herself and Hiccup from the fire in Toothless' throat even as she trembles before it.

Toothless swallows his fires again with some reluctance – Shares is a friend, is one of his flock, but he does not like having Hiccup snatched from his side unexpectedly, even by a friend. She relaxes slightly, the terror in her body fading to alarm tinged with relief. He is still snarling at her, fangs bared.

Mine, Toothless gestures quietly, resolutely, eyes fixed to where Hiccup is hidden behind her wings.

Shares whimpers sorry again, her gaze flickering over his shoulder to where Plays-Pretend is pulling away from beneath Toothless' claws, every scale of him bristling with alarm as well.

The black dragon understands what they were trying to do, that Shares meant to distract him just as Hiccup had been distracting Plays-Pretend, that it is all part of the game, but…

He does not like it.

tt-th-ss, Hiccup rattles cheerfully, soothingly, and the last scrap of fire in Toothless' throat sinks back into his chest.

Yours, Shares gestures, folding her wings back and releasing the dragon-boy. She nudges him gently away from her, back towards Toothless, head lowered no-fight.

Hiccup does not have to rear to his hind legs to scratch reassurance beneath her jaw, clicking softly to her, brushing his face against hers, and breathing at her nose so she can scent that there is no fire in his throat, no rage, no fear. As he does so, he glances at Toothless, trying to watch both of them at once, signaling no-fight calm easy down calm safe no-threat to Toothless as well.

There is no rebuke in his eyes, but Toothless turns away and licks at his chest in embarrassment anyway.

Plays-Pretend whuffs amusement and blinks forgiveness at him, clambering to his feet and shoving his shoulder against Toothless, friendly still, and Toothless glances apology sideways at him.

C'mon, the heavy-jawed fledgling whistles to Shares, flashing his tongue in a laugh, and slinks away into the uncrushed grass to sneak up on whoever else might be pounced on.

Shares hums good you good sorry good gratitude at Hiccup, glances exasperation at Toothless, nudges the little dragon towards him, and follows Plays-Pretend.

When they have gone, Toothless crouches to the ground and wraps his forepaws over his eyes, Hiccup's gesture shared between them. Embarrassment cracks through his body and emerges as a low whimper.

Hiccup trots back to his side and settles at his shoulder, stepping carefully into the hollow between foreleg and jaw and nudging his nose against the bigger dragon's soft throat. He purrs amusement love-you gentle no-harm you forgiveness safe us safe good love proud. There is no teasing in his voice, only love.

That is good. Toothless was only protecting him. Hiccup is part of him; they could not be without each other.

Tension uncoils within him, draining from him like blood, and Toothless sighs, suddenly exhausted. He peeks out from beneath his paws and squints at the sun high above, still trudging across the sky, and around at the little he can see of his dragon-boy, nestled as close as they can be. He can feel Hiccup's heart beating, thrumming a melody with his own, child's back pressed against young dragon's chest, and a deep purr rumbles through him.

A sigh follows close on its tail, and a yawn pacing in the tracks of the sigh, and Toothless signals up with a shrug of one shoulder.

With his other half on his back, Toothless pads away towards the shelter of the trees, leaving the others behind.

Curled up among the roots of a tree in a just-for-now nest dug into the fallen needles from the branches waving overhead, Toothless licks haphazardly at his side and his dragon-boy, who yelps a protest and pushes his nose away.

No-more! Hiccup objects, rolling from his crouch to turn his back on Toothless. He yawns widely, tongue rolling out as he stretches, and presses himself closer against the black dragon's flank and the warmth of his fires inside. The sharp scent of crushed pine cuts into the aroma of fresh blood and life-hot meat that still coats his paws and his skins, only a gloss atop the bone-deep scent of dragon, musk and fish and scales and fire,that breathes from him always. Hiccup has long since ceased to smell like a human child.

Toothless thinks nothing of it. Hiccup smells like Hiccup, like us, like right.

Almost instantly, the little boy is asleep, half on his back and his forepaws cradled close to his body, back paws pressed against Toothless, habits acquired against the deep cold of the long winters despite the warmth of dragons all around. His eyes flutter in small dreams, and Toothless whuffs his very softest love-you sound, tongue lapping out for just a moment to touch against the tiny spots across his other self's nose, scattered like droplets.

The forest is full of small sounds, birds calling their agitation at the dragon in their territory, the ssshhh of the wind, the scampering of quick-scuttling prey beneath the rubble of the forest floor. A distant screech, taken up and echoed back by many voices, tells him that one of their flock has ambushed the All of Them. A cricket buzzes from tree to tree and dirt crumbles beneath the steps of an inquisitive raven. Toothless folds a wing over Hiccup and stares flatly at the black bird until it hops away.

Dappled light pours between leaves and branches, caught and glanced away by narrow, tangling vines, hardy against the distant but lurking cold and the long night that Toothless knows will come again just as he knows that there is an island where they must not go. He and Hiccup had flown towards it, drawn by a sense of familiarity that they had chattered back and forth to each other, but Cloudjumper had caught them and turned them away, all his wings outspread, snarling the danger-threat sound that means other dragons, hostile and not of the flock. It and the winter are far, and out of sight, and there is little to remind him of either, but they are real.

And he and Hiccup will go there someday. They will only do it when Cloudjumper is not watching.

Toothless can imagine the future, the one day, but he looks at it without fear. There will be winters, but they will face them, Hiccup-and-Toothless, Toothless-and-Hiccup, both together, always. They will fly together, far and endless, and find new places, and all the sky will be theirs. No ice and no storm will stop them, and no dragon will snarl at them and frighten them away, and they will steal many toys from loud and clumsy humans and fly away laughing.

He, too, has all but forgotten their mother. He remembers her only as a presence, a paw resting on his nose, a scent that meant safety, the warmth of her body. Her death at human hands is a wound he has forced himself not to chew on, resting his muzzle in his dragon-boy's paws and letting Hiccup lead him. And so it has healed over, a dark and fading scar.

It will be years still before he looks at the wild boy at his side, and then at the humans they fear, and truly understands that Hiccup was born human. And even then, he will not understand that there might be anything amiss with that.

The wind carries another, more distant dragon's howl towards him, and one of Toothless' ear-flaps flick in response at the sound of Cries-Wolf screaming some protest. There is no danger there.

Purring to himself as much as the little boy hidden beneath his wing, who thrums an unconscious echo, Toothless lowers his head to his forepaws, wrapping his tail around them both, and follows his Hiccup-self into dreams.

He is woken by a cry of pain that tears through him like lightning, every bit of him immediately struck blind and deaf and burning with rage, and Toothless leaps to his feet from the loose and careless sprawl he has rolled into, belly upturned and paws everywhere. His fangs snap out even before his eyes open, and blasting-fire boils in his throat with a threatening scream as his heart-fires find their voice.

Both dragon and dragon-boy have shifted in their sleep, and only a step away, Hiccup shrieks breathlessly and tries to pull away from a stocky bundle of brown-mottled, matted fur that has sunk its teeth into his ribs, tearing through much-battered skins to the flesh below.

Scavenger and predator both, the glutton holds on tightly, shaking its head and setting its claws into the earth. Even when Hiccup drops to the ground and lashes out at it, slamming one paw into its stomach and trying to claw at the thick fur there, it only bites more deeply and claws at him in turn.

The wolverine is almost as big as the almost-seven-year-old, scrawny as he is, and it is both relentless and insatiable. Climbing through the treetops in search of birds' eggs and across the steep drops and sudden ridges of the forest for the small rodents that scamper and hide there, its nose had drawn it towards the scent of carrion.

The small form lying very still, reeking of blood and death, had been irresistible prey, even guarded as it was by a hunter much bigger than the wolverine. The scavenger had waited downwind, hunger gnawing within it at the tempting scent, until the dragon had moved away carelessly.

But its prey is alive and fighting back, and the dragon is awake and roaring.

Toothless bellows fury, and leaps as the scavenger releases his dragon-boy before those thick claws can tear into his beloved's throat.

He does not expect the glutton to leap for him, and he recoils, head coming up in surprise and one shoulder turning towards the oversized, aggressive weasel defensively. The hesitation costs him, and the hunter scores bloody lines across his side where, only moments ago, Hiccup had nestled.

The wolverine lands heavily, and whips around to meet Toothless' furious, pained snap, baring its teeth and hissing.

Toothless panics. The shock of being attacked by a predator smaller than him, and the scent of Hiccup's blood and his own, and his dragon-boy's whimpers of pain as Hiccup struggles back to his paws and cries out tt-th-ss! more in concern for the black dragon's wounds than his own –

Shaking, Toothless draws away from the spitting creature with his blood on its claws, and feels himself waver as he tries to spread his wings. The gashes in his side pull cruelly, and he whines bafflement and fear.

In that moment, before he can gather himself and burn the wolverine to ashes for hurting them – even drawing in a breath to blaze out again hurts! – it vanishes into the undergrowth.

The black dragon stares at the place where it disappeared, tail pressing in close to his body in shock. The scream of fury thrashing against his chest wants to find voice in fire, and Toothless struggles to hold it back, wavering on his paws. Young as he is, he has seen more than one blaze burn out of control from carelessly flaming dragons.

Dragons do not normally fear fire, but pain pulls at his side and keeps him from spreading that wing, and to be trapped among flames would be terrifying, even more so than he is – than they are – already.

He whimpers in momentary, mindless fearpanicfearfearfear until a new breath sends pain jolting through his side, and he remembers, whipping around to run to Hiccup.

His dragon-boy rises from his crouch amidst the mingled pine needles and dead leaves, dirt ground into his skins along with the blood that stains them. He tries to limp to Toothless, face pale with fear so that he seems all spots, one paw outstretched towards him.

tt-th-ss! he cries. Hurting you hurting no no no sorry hurting frightened small no us no confused where? where? Hiccup cringes, frightened, trying to look all around for their attacker, but unable to take his eyes from Toothless.

If they can only see each other…

Movement in the bracken behind his dragon-boy catches Toothless' eye, and he snarls, wings spreading painfully. There! he signals, eyes narrowing in a glare past Hiccup's small form.

Hiccup yips terror and cringes to the ground, but the lurking wolverine circles to put the little boy between itself and Toothless' fires. It creeps towards him, predator stalking prey, even as it keeps one wary eye on the dragon's flames.

Off balance and terrified, hurting and confused, Toothless cannot bring himself to flame at it. He cannot risk hurting Hiccup by mistake, even as death slinks closer and closer.

But before the black dragon can gather himself to leap, Hiccup casts a quick glance over his shoulder, taking in every message, every meaning, every thought and emotion spoken so clearly by Toothless' signals. He sees Toothless' fear and pain and hesitation – and why – as readily as if they could think inside each other's skulls.

They know each other. They are each other.

And small as he is, soft as his claws are, blunt as his fangs are, Hiccup rises from his frightened crouch, shoulders spreading as if to unfold wings of his own, and snarls. He stands between Toothless and the hunter as if he were the bigger dragon, as if his blood did not stain the leaves beneath his paws.

He trembles with the fear of any small animal before a predator, but he roars.

Mine! Hiccup challenges it. Back-away you us fight us brave yes certain-sure back-down us big fierce yes yes brave! and he bares his teeth to match the fangs stained with his own blood.

The wolverine advances, unimpressed, and chattering fear bleeds into Hiccup's roar even as he holds his ground.

Each of them would die for the other, and yet neither of them would let that happen.

They go together, or not at all.

It is a truth as solid as stones and as constant as ice, one that lies along their spines and pulses in the shadows of their hearts.

Toothless gathers himself to leap, as ready and willing to throw himself between Hiccup and death as Hiccup was willing to stand between Toothless and the same threat, and then a low growl joins with his.

Threat, Late snarls, emerging from the trees. Her jowls roll back to reveal sharp fangs dripping poison. No, she refuses, shoulders humping aggressively.

Twitching in surprise, the stocky weasel hesitates, drawing itself a little more deeply into its brown coat. Its stripes ripple as it tenses to flee, outnumbered.

Loudest-Always falls out of the sky behind it, hitting the ground with a great thump and blocking its retreat. You, she growls, shoving her broad muzzle into its face when it turns on her. Even before sharp claws can tear into her scales, she huffs, sending it reeling backwards with the force of her breath alone.

Flinch's tail lashes down from a tree branch, and a moment later the gangling fledgling follows it. There is no laughter in his clumsy descent as he slides backwards, clawing at the tree. Its bark slips away beneath his claws and he falls. The confusion of all his flailing limbs blocks every attempt at escape by the ever more cowed predator, and it whips around, no longer fearsome.

The wolverine can fight off a hunter many times its size, or a single wounded dragonet and a defenseless wild child, but not so many dragon fledglings, united in a flock and angry at the attack on two of their own.

Hurt? Small Friend whines, winding around the broad trunk of the sheltering tree to nose at Toothless' side. Her tongue comes out and laps at the wounds, and she murmurs hush no calm easy hush reassurance concern calm to him.

Toothless cries out the sounds that mean his other self, the (click)-phuh that dragon throats can make and that will be all Hiccup will remember of his name for most of his life, and immediately the wild boy abandons his fierce, frozen posturing and scrambles to him. He leaps at the black dragon not as he had leapt at Plays-Pretend earlier, pulling his pounce and landing deliberately, but something more whole-hearted and thoughtless. Toothless staggers joyfully under the impact, collapsing willingly to the leaf litter, and Hiccup clings to his chest and throat, whimpering relief.

The black dragon closes his eyes briefly and breathes him in, mewling at the scent of his beloved's blood and fear, and the indefinable tang of that blazing stubbornness that had set him against a predator without even claws to defend their shared self.

Beyond them, that predator is fighting to escape, but the little dragons have it cornered, more and more of them arriving with every moment. The All of Them mob Hiccup and Toothless, and then perch in the trees and shriek insults, and one of them joins the hunt at Bossy's free side as she charges in with Steps Away panting at her tail.

Even Can't Be Bothered appears, draping himself over a rock and resting his head on his paws as if he has no particular reason to be here and nothing at all is happening. But when the scavenger lunges towards him, desperate, he breathes heat at its heavy pelt and it turns and runs.

This? Bossy snorts, growling. She dismisses it scornfully, but her spines bristle anger as her nostrils flare, recognizing the scent of her friends' blood on its claws.

Hurt them, Shares hisses, snapping her jaws.

This bad this bad this bad this bad, Bask-and-Bite chatter. Them ours, the Bask-half claims Hiccup and Toothless, and Bite-half mimics her them ours.

Squeaking and chattering, the frightened wolverine spins in increasingly panicked spirals and makes a dive for a gap in the cluster of protective dragonets, claws scuffing up dirt as they tear into the earth.

Bossy slams a paw down on its tail just as she would capture a fleeing All of Them, and roars sharply into one ear when it tries to bite her. As it blinks and reels, she tips her head at Hiccup and Toothless.

You want? she offers, pushing the stunned scavenger towards the wounded pair where they crouch trying to melt into each other, Small Friend and one of the All of Them fussing over them.

Toothless does not care at all what happens to it, no more than he cared about the prey-beast their bigger, older cousins struck down so that they could eat. He is as sweet-natured and true-hearted as his wild boy, but he is a predator, and he feels no remorse about killing to eat.

Or to protect.

Toothless turns away with a dismissive huff, and noses against his dragon-boy, asking for Hiccup's opinion with a silent glance of you?

Hiccup meets his eyes, and the love that spills from them pours into Toothless and warms him all the way out to the tip of his tailfins. The wild boy looks around at the circle of their friends, who heard their cries and raced to protect them, and at the scavenger beneath Bossy's paw, small and harmless now amidst so many dragons.

His nature is to reach out, to listen, to understand.

He stretches out one paw, and touches it to the blood oozing from Toothless' wounds, and raises that paw above his head, showing the damning evidence to all their friends.

And he turns his back.

Hiccup understands mercy.

But it hurt Toothless.

The wolverine dies quickly, at least, and if the dragonets tear it apart out of curiosity at the taste of its dense, rich fat and the feel of its rough, bristly fur, the scavenger never knows anything of it.

Nor do Hiccup and Toothless, who are too preoccupied with licking each other's wounds clean, pushing aside Small Friend and Smell of Dry Scales to do so, to care.

Whistles To Self finds them all basking on a tumbledown scatter of flattish stones that have soaked up the heat of the sun, sprawled out together. Tails drape over backs and paws lie trapped beneath sides, jaws resting on shoulders and flanks.

The full-grown dragon lands delicately and neatly, not a paw or a wingbeat out of place, and both Hiccup and Toothless watch her with shared envy as she picks her way across the stones to the fledglings.

Sniffing at them, she hesitates, attention caught.

Toothless folds his wing a little more tightly over his scratched side, and Hiccup presses even more closely against his chest. Plays-Pretend licks at his jowls. Bossy hides her claws beneath Steps Away. The All of Them disappear into everyone's shadows. Bask-and-Bite look away. Cries-Wolf and Smells of Dry Scales become very interested in grooming each other. Flinch paws at Loudest-Always. She ignores him.

What? Whistles To Self wonders, tipping her head at them curiously. Her eyes slot closed, suspicious, and she sighs, tail-tip flicking. You? you? what you? She snorts disdain, the skepticism of an adult who knows better for children she knows have gotten themselves into trouble somewhere.

The fledglings look at each other. Can't Be Bothered snorts idly. Late starts to yawn, and then swallows her meaty breath back down again. Shares shuffles her paws against the stone, scratching away any stray fur. Small Friend licks her nose to be sure no blood lingers. Toothless and Hiccup glance amusement at each other.

Each and every little dragon looks up at Whistles To Self and shrugs innocently.


thanks for reading – Le'letha