Author's note: I can't even begin to tell you how sorry I am that I haven't been able to complete this story until today. I hope you guys can forgive me. I'm really, really, really sorry. Between writer's block, a period when I was feeling completely down, the huge amount of work I have to do, some serious personal problems and other things that have had an influence on my writing, or the my lack of writing, I didn't have either the time or the motivation to write. But Here is the final part of Footprints, and I hope you will enjoy it. I want to tell each and everyone of you who faved and/or review this story that you totally rock and that I'm beyond grateful for your patience and comments.
Now I really have to finish my Atlantis story - that hasn't been updated for even longer than this one- and finish the layout of my next HTTYD story, that is already entitled Beyond the Realms, and then, well, write it of course! I'll also try to write a private message to all people who left a review to which I haven't replied yet.
Oh and the allusion to the rabbit at the end is inspired by a fanart (entitled "How To Catch a Rabbit") that you can find on Deviantart on Simi94's gallery. Thanks to the artist for allowing to use it in this story! ^^
My deepest apologies again, and my deepest thanks. :-)
The moment Toothless understood what Astrid had at the back of her mind, he decided he liked her almost as much as Hiccup himself and began to nuzzle her to prove it, although the sudden move nearly made her loose her balance. But she laughed, and scratched the sensitive spot on the dragon's neck, earning an appreciative purr in return. Her fingers, although not as nimble as Hiccup's, moved in a confident way, showing no sign of either hesitation or fear, and when they eventually stopped dancing across his black scales and she asked him if he was ready to play his part, he stamped his front paws on the wooden floor in anticipation, his tail happily whipping the air.
She nodded, smiled, and made her way to the door when Stoick suddenly called her name.
"Is there anything I can do for you in return?"
Astrid hesitated for a moment, unsure of what she should say. It was pretty obvious that Stoick actually wanted to do something, but she couldn't think of anything special…at least until she remembered the walls of Hiccup's bedroom. But what she was about to say was not something one could tell the chieftain without suffering its consequences. And yet, Stoick needed to know.
"Well, I can't think of anything you could do for me, chief Stoick, but there definitely is something you can do for your son. I really have no right to say this, but if I were you, I'd never say that Hiccup's responsible for his mother's death ever again."
Stoick immediately squared his shoulders, and she could see his whole body becoming incredibly tense. For a second, she feared she'd just said the one thing she never should have. The man's hands had curled into tight fists, and she briefly wondered if he was going to beat her until no one would recognize her. And then, finally:
"I was furious and nearly drunk when I told Gobber about that. Hiccup wasn't supposed to hear it."
Astrid didn't really know why he had just confessed this to her, out of all people. But she was still standing in front of him, and she was still unharmed, so she supposed it was now or never.
"Well, he did, and I can guarantee you he hasn't forgotten about it. You should try to talk to him and tell him you didn't mean it."
"Aye, I'll do that."
Astrid smiled a sad smile and the look in her eyes softened. Oh, how wrong they had all been.
"If it's any consolation, Chief," the fair-haired Viking added as an afterthought, "you're certainly not the only one who has a certain amount of making up to do. And it begins now."
As soon as she pulled the door open, Toothless hot on her heels, Astrid couldn't help but stare at the sight before her. Not only had the snowstorm come to an end, but four dragons and their respective riders stood there, seemingly waiting for her. Starkad, who looked particularly proud of herself, squawked loudly to greet her and came hastily at her side, motioning for her to look at the group that was gathered in front of the chieftain's house. The spiked beast could not speak, but the message was clear nonetheless, and Astrid grinned as she lifted her hand to pat the blue dragon's head.
"Good job, Starkad. That will save some precious time…"
"Hey, Astrid! You look like you feel cold with those clothes. Wanna share some of my furs?"
"I hate to burst your bubble, 'Lout, but she's with Hiccup, remember?"
"Shut up, Tuff!"
"She's with Hiccup, she's with Hiccup, she's with Hiccup, she's with- OW!"
"He's right, though. Hiccup's got, like, charisma level 15."
"What the heck is 'charisma'?"
"Shut up 'Legs! Astrid's waiting, in case you haven't noticed."
"Thanks Ruff. Okay guys, if you're done acting like the idiots you are, maybe you can listen to what I have to say. Toothless, Starkad, you know what you have to do if they don't."
Immediately, the two reptiles readied themselves to pounce on whoever deserved it, their pupils narrowed to slits. Miraculously, Astrid got everyone's undivided attention.
"Alright, you all know we've not exactly been nice to Hiccup for…well, for as long as I can remember. So I think it's time for us to do something for him."
"Well, what do you suggest? It's not like we can invite him to brawl or something, he's still not used to that stump of his!"
"'Lout, if you keep interrupting me," Astrid spat venomously, "I swear I'll flatten your balls with a war hammer! And stop calling Hiccup's leg a stump!"
"But that's what it is! You can't- okay, okay, I'll shut up."
"You'd better. So, as I was saying, I think it's time for us to do something for Hiccup. Apparently, he doesn't like being outside because of his footprints. No comments, thank you very much. What I want you to do is pretty simple: gather all the riders and their dragons and lead them to the cove, except the Terrible Terrors. Toothless and Starkad will show you what needs to be done once you're all there."
"What about you?"
"I'm going to give instructions to the owners of Terrors, and convince my father to stay inside…for now. I'll meet you at the cove as soon as I can. Any questions? No? Good, 'cause I wouldn't have answered them. Now go!"
They all sprinted away, heading for their respective destinations.
Hiccup spent the day drawing sketches of all sorts, trying to sort out his latest ideas and see which ones he could keep and which ones he could immediately drop, either because they were not good enough or because he himself foresaw how dangerous for his own sake they could turn out to be. It was only when he felt his stomach grumble in protest that he resolved to leave his bedroom. And it was only then that he noticed how abnormally quiet the house was. Frowning, he climbed down the stairs –something he had had to learn all over again because of his prosthetic leg- and made his way through the main room, only to find that the fire in the hearth was almost dead.
"Okay, Dad, Toothless, that's very funny, but I'm not in the mood to play hide and seek."
His sarcasm was only met by silence. That's how Hiccup knew that something was terribly out of place: put Toothless and Stoick in the same place, and silence is the last thing you'd ever get. The teenage Viking felt a single drop of sweat travelling down his forehead as he put on a fur coat and pulled the door open. It was the end of the afternoon, and the sun –or what little one could still see of it- was beginning to set. Hiccup grimaced. The ambient cold made him feel like the metal of his prosthesis was biting into his leg, and he knew it was only a matter of time before he started to limp. More than usual, that is.
But what made Hiccup feel really, really nervous was the very sight that met his eyes. The village was completely deserted. No Vikings, no dragons, nothing but the houses and whatever stuff Vikings needed. Hiccup whistled in order to call Toothless, to no avail. Panic rising up in his throat, he tried to run, calling for anyone, his one boot and his metal foot being buried under a thick layer of snow, and almost fell over. Not able to resist the urge to look behind himself, he scowled at his footprints, his green eyes immediately darkening. And then saw the last person he expected to see: Arvarodd Hofferson, his axe strapped onto his broad back, and the way the blade glistened was a warning in itself.
"Oh, great. Just what I needed."
It seemed like Astrid's father thought exactly the same. And somehow, the idea of being left alone with Arvarodd the Bold was almost as fearsome for Hiccup than battling the Green Death. Oh, yes, Astrid definitely took after her father. But the teenage boy did not have the time to dwell on the thought as the blonde man came to a stop in front of him, looking him up and down before he spoke in a very cold voice.
"What exactly did you do?"
"Nothing!", Hiccup retorted instantly, feeling angered by such an unfair implication.
"Don't lie to me, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock!"
"I'm not lying! Why would you say that?"
"Because that kind of thing always happen when you are around!"
"Well, I'm so sorry for disappointing you, but I've got nothing to do with this. Regardless of the latest turn of events that resulted in the end of the war between Vikings and dragons and in this," Hiccup added as he gestured to his prosthesis, "I haven't yet earned the power to make every living beings vanish in thin air just like that!"
Arvarodd blinked as the boy snapped his fingers to emphasize his point. Now when exactly had Stoick's son got the guts to stand up to him? Somewhere at the back of his mind, a little voice told Arvarodd that maybe, maybe the boy had really changed. But that didn't solve their current problem.
"So you don't know what happened?"
Hiccup let out a sigh, relieved to perceive that Astrid's father's voice had returned to normal.
"No, sir. I just found out about that myself."
"Astrid came back home this morning with Stoick, and they both told me that I had to stay inside today. I thought it was odd, but your father's our chieftain, so I didn't bother asking him why he said so. I figured he had his reasons. I probably should have asked."
"They told you to stay inside? Now that's strange. What about- Hey! Where on earth," Hiccup asked out loud whilst pointing behind Arvarodd, "Do you guys come from?"
"What are you talking about?"
Arvarodd the Bold span around, his blue eyes narrowing until they became almost invisible, and his hand already reaching for the handle of his axe. But what he saw wasn't what he had expected to see: an entire group of dozens of Terrible Terrors flying swift in his and Hiccup's direction. They flew past him, obviously ignoring him for they knew he still had trouble accepting the fact that dragons were no longer a threat to the Hairy Hooligans, and landed together at Hiccup's feet. They were as excited as ever, and began chewing on the boy's only boot. Hiccup bent down to greet them properly, and after a few soothing words, asked them if they knew where all the others were. The tiny dragons squawked happily, and half of them took to the sky again, flying towards the forest and looking behind them every now and then to see if the two humans had understood what they were supposed to do.
"Well, dragon tamer? What do they want?"
"I'm not sure, sir, but I think they want us to follow them."
"What about those?"
Hiccup looked down to see the Terrors that were still gathered at his feet. He gave a shrug.
"Very well. Since there's no other choice…Let us go."
Both Vikings started to make their way to the forest in utter silence. Several times, Hiccup looked over his shoulder to see the remaining Terrors walking excitedly behind him, refusing to take flight for a reason that for the life of him he just couldn't fathom. Son enough, the ever-increasing tension between Arvarodd the Bold and the young man was so thick that it was almost palpable. Hiccup risked a glance at Astrid's father's axe and felt the need to clear his throat. He figured there was no harm in trying to start a conversation.
"You know, sir, you should drop by the forge sometime."
Arvarodd did not even deign to take a look at the boy beside him, but Hiccup did not want to give up that easily.
"I'm saying this because your axe looks like it could use the extra attention and- huh, can you stop grabbing my tunic- which you're pulling rather roughly, by the way- and put me down, please?"
"How dare you say that I'm not capable of taking care of my own weapon?"
Hiccup gulped, and started laughing nervously.
"Why, no sir! That's not what I meant! I'd never say such a thing, not even imply it!"
"Then what did you mean?"
"Well, you see…your axe is not balanced. The blade is keen and sharp, but its weight obviously isn't equally distributed anymore. It happens sometimes. And anyway, it's way too light for a man of your build. All I meant was that if you entrusted your axe in my care, I could probably solve that problem and upgrade your weapon for you."
"Yep. For free."
Arvarodd slowly lowered the teenage Viking onto the ground and then did something rather unexpected: he smiled, and Hiccup understood that he'd just scored at least one point. That was good. Dusting himself off and shivering as the winter wind blew, he followed after Astrid's father as they went deeper into the forest, the naked trees silently watching over them and footprints that were being erased as Terrible Terrors resolutely walked over them. And while they were all moving forward, Hiccup suddenly realized where they were heading for.
"The Terrible Terrors are leading us to the cove where I first met Toothless!"
If Astrid were as good at drawing as Hiccup was, she would immediately have drawn the equally astounded expressions that were plastered on both Hiccup's and her father's faces as they walked past the shield that Hiccup had left there months ago and tried to take in the scene that took place in front of their eyes. She had to admit, it was quite a sight indeed, something no one on the island of Berk had ever witnessed before. Vikings and dragons had worked together to make both ice and snow melt, and for the first time ever, the cove looked more or less like it always looked during Spring, Summer and Autumn. Except that this was Winter. The pond was no longer frozen, and the water was literally steaming because of the heat that radiated from the dragons' breathing. Deadly Nadders, Monstrous Nightmares and Hideous Zipplebacks were busy following their owners' directives to gather huge amounts of snow into massive heaps, while Gronckles were used to make the last blocks of ice. The light of the setting sun made the scene look all the more surreal. Vikings and dragons were everywhere, and Astrid supervised the whole thing with Toothless, who had just shot one of his bluish/purple fireballs to let everyone know that Hiccup was there. His task accomplished, the Night Fury bounced away from Astrid to meet his human, who had still not moved an inch.
Vikings and dragons turned their heads to look at their latest hero and burst out laughing good-heartedly as he hesitantly stepped forward, one hand resting on the nape of Toothless's neck. From the corner of her eye, Astrid saw her mother smile and walking over to where her father stood, his jaw still dropped and his body completely motionless, before she returned her attention to her boyfriend who was now looking at her as if he'd never seen her before. She let a laugh escape her mouth, and strode along towards him. When she stood in front of him, she could practically see the lump that had formed in his throat as he tried to form words, his vivid green eyes glistening a bit, perhaps with tears, though nothing went past his lips but strangled sounds.
She didn't utter a word as she lifted one of his arms to put it around her shoulders, and snaked one of her own around his waist. That seemed to do the trick.
"You did this?"
"Well, it was my idea. But I wouldn't have been able to do it without everyone's help. Do you like it?"
"Yeah. You see, I thought about what you said in regard to your footprints, and decided that it wasn't good for you to just stay locked indoors because of them. I knew you wouldn't want to get out if you didn't have a good reason to do it, so we all came here in order to make the village look like it was deserted. That way I knew you'd come looking for us."
"But why the cove?"
"I thought it would please you to see this place in a somewhat lively state again, considering that it has a lot of meaning for you, Toothless, and, well, I. We all came to show you we cared about your well-being now. I don't want you to carve any other crosses on your walls. No one wants."
Hiccup couldn't help but smile. This was so simple, yet so touching.
"What about the Terrible Terrors?"
"Oh, they couldn't really help us here, so we gave them something else to do. Some of them had to lead you here, while the others had to walk on your footprints to erase them. You didn't notice?"
Hiccup blinked, and turned around to see that the Terrors, and other dragons in addition, including Toothless, had indeed taken it upon themselves to make sure none of Hiccup's footprints remained visible.
"And," Astrid continued with a mischievous grin, "It seems like that is going to be a rule. I don't think you'll have to worry about seeing your footprints ever again. They consider it a very serious mission."
"I…I don't know what to say."
"Then don't say anything.", Astrid replied as she leaned in to give him a feather-light kiss on his lips. He smiled, and entwined his fingers with hers as he captured her lips again at the very moment she'd started to pull away from him, and the both of them remained lost in the moment until they had to breathe again. By the time they lips parted, all they could hear around them were cheers, whistles, laughter, and happy roars.
At the other end of the cove, Arvarodd the Bold stared at his daughter as she embraced and kissed Stoick's son, not really knowing whether he wanted to kill him for daring courting his little girl or not, when a voice he cherished began to whisper lovingly in his ear.
"Look at her, Arvarodd. When was the last time you saw her like this?"
And honestly, he had no answer to that question. But what made him truly realize that Hiccup really wasn't someone to scowl at anymore was the miracle he brought to Astrid. For as he stood there, staring at his daughter and her boyfriend embracing one another in front of a steaming pond, he heard the sound of laughter. Astrid and Hiccup were laughing. Astrid Hofferson, his headstrong daughter was laughing. Suddenly, Arvarodd the Bold felt simple, pure joy fill his heart. Ever since he had started to train Astrid into becoming the toughest Viking female of her generation, she had been bitter, closed, and even the smallest smile would have to be forced. But now, she had begun laughing as if without a care in the world and Hiccup's laughter mixed in with hers, filling the forest. Astrid had not had a genuine laugh since the first time she was able to hold a weapon, and yet this boy had brought out this lost emotion inside of his daughter. And for that reason Arvarodd realized that he wouldn't really mind taking this dragon tamer into his family if he ever asked for his daughter's hand. And that settled that.
That same evening, once everyone had returned to the village and got some food into their rumbling stomachs, and after Stoick and his son had had a rather long talk together, Astrid had insisted on having a walk with Hiccup before another snowstorm arrived. Because of the cold, the night sky was exceptionally clear, and a wonder to look at. Neither Hiccup nor Astrid had really paid attention to where they were going, and they ended up sitting on the docks, their fingers entwined and their legs dangling gently above the waters of the Norse Sea. Eventually, Astrid unsheathed Dagmar and examined the sword more closely than she had before. Hiccup didn't say anything; he simply waited for the questions he knew would come. And he didn't have to wait for a very long time.
"How many hours did you spend making this sword, Hiccup?"
"No, really! I don't know. I'd say about three hundred hours."
"You're pulling my leg."
"Nope. It takes about two hundred hours to make a good sword. And since I wanted this one to be absolutely perfect, three hundred hours seem appropriate."
"What else can you tell me about it?"
"Well, Dagmar isn't straight because I wanted something that could match the grace I see in the way you move when you're in combat. And, well, the curves made it look like more…feminine."
Astrid smiled as one of her eyebrows shot up, but she kept quiet. Hiccup took his cue to continue.
"The intricate carvings on the fuller –dragons and flames- are representations of your temper. You're fiery, strong, swift, and somewhat intimidating. The other carvings, those on the hilt, look like waves because you're as wild and free as the sea itself."
"You're being corny, you know that?"
He chuckled, and told her he didn't care. She simply shook her head in mock exasperation but he could see the faint blush that had appeared on her cheeks.
"As for the name of the sword itself, Dagmar, well, I thought it suited you just fine."
"If you tell me that it's because of my hair, I'm going to beat you up."
"Then I won't say anything. But do you accept this sword as yours?"
Astrid knew what Hiccup meant. It wasn't exactly the equivalent of a proposal, but it was a symbolic question nonetheless; if their relationship were to last long enough, the next time he'd give her a sword to protect her life with would be at their wedding ceremony. Astrid leaned closer to the boy beside her, and brushed her lips against the shell of his ears.
"I'll never accept any other sword from anyone else."
Her answer was whispered so he was the only one to hear it, but she might as well have cried it out loud. Deep inside him, Hiccup was dancing as Astrid took his face into her hands and placed her lips, round and firm, against his. When she pulled back, she kept her forehead close to his, blonde bangs mixing with brown ones, her breath softly caressing his skin.
"This morning, you implied that you'd felt lonely too. Why?"
The fair-haired Viking reluctantly opened her eyes to gaze at her boyfriend.
"I told you; every moment of my life until recently was spent training from dawn to dusk. I forgot about the simple things that one can enjoy on a daily basis, like the feeling of the breeze in your face, or being….myself. I was so caught up in becoming a shield maid that I forgot about everything else that should have mattered just as much. I wanted to reach perfection, and as a result I found out that there are many things that I should have paid attention to, many experiences that I should have lived, but which I did not. And that time will never come back. But you, Hiccup, when you took me on that first flight with Toothless, you gave me something that was even more precious than proving me how wrong we all were about dragons. Something that I thought I'd lost forever."
Hiccup choked a little, finding his throat was completely dry.
"What did I give you?"
She smiled her beautiful smile, the one that was pure, genuine, simple, honest, real.
"You gave me Astrid. You gave me myself. You returned to me the little girl that used to be innocent enough to hang around you without immediately pushing you away…," Astrid ran one of her hands over Hiccup's chin, fingertips pausing on the tiny scar that was there, "…even if I gave you this the day you hid that rabbit under your fur coat to prevent me from slaying it."
Hiccup chuckled and smiled sheepishly.
"I thought you'd forgotten about that. But for the record, I've always liked that scar."
"I used to think of it as your mark upon me."
"That would explain why Snotlout still hopes I'm going to end up with him, considering the amount of scars I've given him this far."
They laughed. And suddenly, her fingers reached forwards to gently touch him, to cup his cheek. Despite himself, he leaned into her palm, and she felt the softness of him meld with her.
"You know what, Hiccup? I think I really, really love you."
He jerked in surprise. His eyes snapped wide open, just in time to see her lean forwards and kiss him.
She tasted like berries, like warmth, like the power of the sea and the sky put together. He took three seconds to adjust to reality, to reassure himself that this wasn't a dream, before he leaned forwards and brought her to the ground, settling himself hungrily on her as they deepened the kiss. She shifted underneath him, bringing her hands up to tousle in his hair and stroke it. He kissed her again before pulling back to rest his forehead against hers.
"You... I..." he was smiling, he knew. A wide, idiotic, happy smile that felt so foreign and yet so right on him.
And she... she smirked up at him, gloriously. "You know, if I'd known that a kiss like that would render you monosyllabic, I would have tried it a long time ago."
He shook his head, marvelling at the wonder of it all. Defeating the Green Death wasn't a miracle. This... this has to be. "You little minx," he accused, but there was no fire in it, only the same dazed joy that was still making him smile like an idiot.
He didn't wait for her reply. The suddenly shy, vulnerable look in her eyes could be dealt with later, when he was feeling a little less giddy, when she was feeling more like talking. Now... now was the time to revel in what they had, what they finally, finally had.
"You know what?" he grinned. "I think that deserves some payback."
Her eyes widened. "What do you mean?" she demanded, clinging to him.
"I've been meaning to ask you this for some time…Astrid, I love you, I always have, I always will, and I want to ask you…"
Astrid sucked in her breath, not daring to interrupt him. He wasn't going to ask her that question, was he?
"…Will you train me?"
She could have screamed out of frustration. He kept laughing as she dragged a palm across her eyes to stare accusingly at him. "You... I...!"
He smirked. "You know, if I'd known a simple question under a starry winter night would render you monosyllabic, I would have..."
He didn't have time to finish the sentence before she laughed, and told him that, yes, she would train him and that he would so regret asking her this, and finally silenced him again with another kiss.
When they both left the docks of Berk later on that night and he walked her home, a Deadly Nadder and a Night Fury dutyfully walked into his footsteps, and Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III knew he'd never have to worry about his footprints ever again.