The unimaginable sound of the enormous beast hitting the ground was one that would explode in the ears of every Viking that had witnessed it until the day they perished.
It was difficult not to feel a quiet nuance of pity, watching it plummet so helplessly to earth, hearing its roars of agony and rage as it realized it was going to die… it was the sort of thing that they knew they shouldn't have felt, but did anyway. The feeling briefly festered within them, but was quickly eradicated at the realization that Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and his Night Fury had gone down with the creature. Ash and smoke and chilled winds choked the air around them as they stumbled helplessly after their chieftain Stoick, and not a breath was heard when the crumpled form of a sleek black dragon came into view through the obscurity. Stoick the Vast had fallen to his knees, all of his vastness swept from him in a single blow. There was a lurching grip of regret around the stomach of every Viking who remembered calling Hiccup a useless, irksome nuisance; who had blamed him and scolded him and chortled at him whenever he was out of earshot. There was a ripple that passed through all of them in turn, a ripple that seemed to force all their insides into painful positions of guilt. It was a brief cluster of moments that stretched over an infinite sea of time, during which nothing seemed to exist but the slowly drifting ash around them. The tears began to fall.
Astrid Hofferson had a habit of crying much more frequently than she would ever dare admit, and even more than everyone seemed to think she did. Over the years, she had developed a formidable skill at hiding it – so well, in fact, that rumors spread through the village that she was incapable of crying at all. These theories had been disproved, however, when she had pushed her way desperately through the crowd gathered around the fallen Night Fury and the kneeling Stoick – when her eyes had widened at the sight and her stormy irises had been muddled by a certain wrenching consternation – when she had choked silently on her own breath, which she suddenly realized she detested beyond comprehension – when she, in all her strength and glory, had allowed her shoulders to go limp and her heart to twinge inexplicably, and had, more than anyone there could ever understand, loathed herself and Hiccup more furiously and more sorrowfully than she would ever loathe anything again.
But then – slowly, mercifully, the twilit wings had parted, and a flash of ginger hair caught the gray sun, and Hiccup's unmoving form fell into the arms of his father. Astrid glimpsed his eyes, closed gently and peacefully, and his mouth, ever-so slightly agape… Stoick pressed his ear to the boy's scrawny chest and for a moment the only thing that existed to anyone was the heartbeat they were all waiting to hear still existed, and Astrid, blonde hair almost white in the fog and ashes, clenched her fists, bit her lip, and blinked back the tears she prayed she would not have to shed.
"He… he's alive! You've brought him back alive!"
Astrid's ecstasy was confined to the silence of her fortitude, but her fingers fluttered to her lips, and the tears fled out anyway, spinning around her bewildered, joyous smile, and to only herself and to Hiccup's sleeping form she whispered, "glory to Sjöfn for sparing you."
But those moments had been simple, blotting monochrome blurs, lost to her own disbelief and the ache of her bones and the solemn expression on Gobber's face as he had carried Hiccup below deck, muttering with Stoick and glancing forlornly at Hiccup's grotesquely broken, charred leg… the ship had been quiet enough, later, for Astrid to hear beneath the main deck the muffled finality of a single, deliberate chop.
She had flinched.
But she hardly remembered any of it, for the only thing on which she was able to focus – the only solace she was able to find among the shattering and scrambling that had occurred over the course of the past two days – was the rhythmic, ever-present lurch of the sea, and the glorious quietude of the world beneath the ship's deck.
Stoick had needed to direct the fleet back home. It wasn't surprising, and Astrid couldn't help but feel a slight pang of guilt at her pleasure that she was below deck instead of him, diligently focusing on the job she'd volunteered for: the job of looking after Hiccup.
He hadn't opened his eyes. That was the worst part. She could see his chest shakily rising and falling, could hear the sound of his soft breathing haunting the cabin, could see the occasional twitch pass through his pale, loosened fingers. She knew that he was alive, that he would be all right. But every ounce of her soul was begging to be able to see the forests growing in his eyes, for him to look over and see her and grace her with a bashful, freckly smile, to make some odd joke about his current state of well-being and to, maybe, hold her hand.
But he didn't.
Astrid shivered – it was cold. Fog crept into the cabin from the desolate seas outside. She felt foolish for even noticing it, for she had lived among fog and storms for sixteen years, and should be impermeable by now. The cabin was bare and drafty – the bed on which Hiccup lay jutted out from the wall, and if he had not been atop it, it would look precisely like a coffin; she was settled against the opposite wall, sitting on the floor, hands gripping her knees, staring unblinkingly at the sleeping being across from her.
She hugged herself, her hands cold and clammy against her milky skin, and sighed, feeling goosebumps prickle cruelly up over her forearms. She watched Hiccup with tired eyes like a whispering winter sea, trying to ignore the thick, bloodstained reams of cloth wrapped tightly around the spindly stump that had once been his left leg. She winced at the sight of it, nauseated, and closed her eyes tightly, attempting to keep back the stinging pricks in her eyes that she knew were tears. One slipped out, however, and was caught between her eyelashes. She blinked once, and it was gone. But it was enough.
Unable to uphold her resilience any longer, she let out a quiet, racking sob and doubled over, still clutching her shoulders, deeply ashamed of her tears, and of her behavior toward Hiccup for the past three years.
She remembered the summer when they were both thirteen and Hiccup's voice had just been beginning to change like trees in the autumn; she remembered the sunlight and the crashing of the waves. On a warm June afternoon as she and Hiccup lay among the barley fields and had spoken of marriage and slaying dragons, he had kissed her nervously, innocently, nothing more than a peck, and she had felt convinced that they would be together until the end of their lives, which had seemed so very far away then. She had later come to chastise herself for her gullible, laughable naïveté, for such thoughts were not only amusing but incredibly, bitterly stupid. And when she had begun dragon training, she realized that the end of their lives could come any day and at any time – it was forever imminent, unpredictable and cold.
She could still remember his cracking voice stammering in her ear: "Astrid, do you think I'm useless, like Dad and Snotlout and Ruffnut and everyone else say?"
"No," Astrid replied with a shake of her head. "I just think you're different. You're not like everyone else. You're special. And even if nobody else knows it, I do, and I always will."
The memory of the overjoyed smile that had split across his flushed face suddenly bled into the one of the day her father set out in the ships on another voyage to find the dragons' nest, and, like all but eleven on that journey, never came back.
She recalled the development of a sort of gradual resentment toward Hiccup after that, for he had a father and she did not, and he did not know her pain. He had lost his mother on the same voyage, but he never discussed it. Many times, she had expressed her hatred for him directly to his face, unsure as to whether to take pleasure or to feel remorse at the sight of his downcast eyes and the feeling of her memories with him being painfully gnawed upon by her own bitterness. Not once, however, had he cried, or argued with her, or become angry, or even come to remind her of the fact that she had once called him special.
She also gained an overwhelming detestation for the creatures that had taken her father, endeavoring almost beyond sanity to master the art of killing them as brutally and as efficiently as possible. It eventually turned to obsession, but she was never one to admit it. Obsession distracted from ability, and that was what mattered. For three years, it had been all that mattered.
But now something else mattered more.
The tears were writhing freely down her face now, but she made no effort to quell them – she couldn't. She felt completely mortified at the fact that she was shedding them in the first place, but at least no one was around to see.
"Hammer of Thor, Astrid. Are you… are you crying?"
The voice, though strained with effort, still managed to echo weakly through the room, and Astrid's head jerked sharply up to find the source. Her eyes fell fluidly upon the verdant light resting in Hiccup's barely-opened ones, and, as though sullied by a Zippleback's venom, her heart creaked to a halt.
In disbelief, and through the tautness of her voice brought on by the droplets slipping plentifully down her cheeks, she answered, "of course not."
A faint flicker of a smile fell across Hiccup's face and her heart began to move again, resurrected by the sight of him and his glorious, uneven teeth, which seemed to glow beneath his parted lips. The bare wheeze that emitted from his grin could not be considered a laugh by anyone's standards, but Astrid recognized it as one, and appreciated the sound of it more than she would express.
"Don't laugh," she grumbled, violently rubbing her cheeks and nose with the back of her hand, flushing at the sound of her sniffling and the disgusting slurping of phlegm moving through her nasal cavity. "I wasn't crying. Why would I be crying?"
"Good question." Hiccup's smile grew a little stronger and he closed his eyes, his expression almost equal to one of gratitude. "I was about to ask you the… same thing."
He winced, letting out a whimper of pain, and clenched his fists weakly. "Ow. My leg."
Astrid's stomach lurched. Hadn't he noticed that it was…?
"Did I break it?" he mumbled, starting to raise his head to look down the wooden bed.
"No!" Astrid leapt to her feet and traversed the length of the floor in a single bound, involuntarily smashing his head back down onto the pillow Gobber had crafted from various cloths. Hiccup let out a loud "oww!" – so loud, in fact, that Astrid had to clap a hand over his mouth to hush him, so as not to alert the Vikings on deck.
"Quiet!" she hissed. The feel of his rough lips beneath her palm sent chills up her arm.
He moaned indignantly, struggling feebly beneath her touch. Realizing what she was doing, Astrid swiftly withdrew her hand, resisting the urge to drop her head in it.
"Your, um, sorry. Your leg is…" Could she tell him it was fine? For some reason the word wasn't coming out of her. She was a terrible liar. "Well, it should be all right."
Hiccup glowered at her, but a slight trace of affection was detectable in his gaze. The corner of his mouth curled cynically and he cocked an eyebrow, and he was fairly certain that he was going to say something witty, but another wave of discomfort spread viciously through him and he sighed tensely, clenching the blankets that lay across his chest. They felt peculiarly heavy.
"Toothless," he muttered. "Where's Toothless?"
Astrid glanced around, unsure as to whether or not the Night Fury was present, for it had been wandering in and out of the room several times since their departure from the dragons' nest. It was nowhere to be found, so she assumed that it had returned to helping Stoick navigate the ships back to Berk.
"He's on deck," she answered tentatively. "I can go get him if you—"
"Nah," Hiccup interrupted good-naturedly. "Let him stay up there. I don't want him to… worry."
"Well," Astrid snipped, pursing her lips. "That's taking it a bit far, seeing as you've been worrying everyone since you decided to go after the Green Death." She paused. "Which was stupid, by the way! It's a wonder you weren't killed! Well, then again, everyone thought you were, including me – oh, great Odin's ghost, Hiccup Haddock, I was so scared; I thought I'd lost y…"
Astrid stopped herself, realizing what she had almost said. Her eyes stung, and she chewed her lip tightly, gulping back more tears.
Hiccup frowned at her, an expression which made her oddly uneasy, and she chided herself for the blush she could feel in her cheeks.
"W-well…" She scrambled to think of another thing to yell at him for. "It was… well, it was really, really stupid. You're the biggest, craziest idiot I've ever laid eyes on. Why, if you weren't wounded now I'd punch you."
"You're going to do that anyway," Hiccup grumbled, fondly. "I'm surprised you haven't already, actually." He glanced back up at her, eyebrow raised. "And you were crying. I saw you."
"I do not cry," she snapped, folding her arms defensively. "There's no crying in dragon-training. Eleventh rule."
"Well, this isn't dragon-training." Hiccup smirked. "You know, it's not like crying is a bad thing for girls to do—"
"Yes, it is," Astrid insisted sharply, scowling at him. "It is a sign of weakness, and dragon-slayers must be strong, and courageous, and not held back by their own emotions, and—"
"Oh, well, gee, that's funny, because I could've sworn I saw you riding a Deadly Nadder around like it was your pet, and…" Hiccup's anger was quickly eradicated by another hiss of pain, and he gritted his teeth, only half-aware of the small tears that squeezed through his tightly closed eyelids.
"Are you all right?" Astrid asked, sitting up straight. Involuntarily, she placed her hand on his. "Hiccup?"
The pained expression on his face eased at her touch, much to her surprise, and pinkness tickled her cheeks. She was about to withdraw, but his fingers tightened slightly around hers, and he cracked the barest of smiles, sighing thankfully.
For a little while, neither of them said anything; Astrid simply kneeled there beside the wooden berth, and rested her chin on her arm, which lay across the edge of it. Her hand felt warm in Hiccup's – safe. Reassured. His breathing was even and gentle, like a breeze skirting the poplars in the wintertime. Astrid couldn't help but stare at him with a small amount of tenderness – as she softly stroked his hand with her thumb, she allowed her eyes to rove wearily over every freckle on his cheeks, every curve in the shape of his face, every strand of auburn hair shifting in the even lurching of the boat, every eyelash, every ounce of him. She found herself inexplicably wanting to embrace him as firmly as she could, and for him to wrap her in his arms and reassure her that he had survived his battle with the Green Death, and that she wasn't only dreaming, floundering desperately in her subconscious for a world in which he was not gone.
"Are you real?" she whispered, in a voice that seemed detached from her body.
He rolled his head over to face her and opened his eyes back up again, barely, and squinted at her, frowning. "Huh?"
"I just…" She pushed her fingers through her bangs – Hiccup was fairly certain that it was one of the few times he'd seen both of her eyes. "I just don't know if this is a dream or not."
"Well, hey, if you're having dreams about me already, I must've done something right," Hiccup quipped with a wry, knowing grin. Astrid shot a scowl at him and he faltered, the smile slipping away. "Oh." He blinked. "You're… you're serious."
"Of course I am!" she shouted. Realizing the volume of her words, she hunched down in embarrassment, praying no one was going to come down and disturb them.
"I'm sorry," Hiccup said, sounding more surprised than apologetic.
"Don't apologize," Astrid retorted emphatically, looking down, avoiding his gaze at all costs. "Just… tell me you're real. Even if it's just for now – no, even if you aren't. Just tell me you are. Tell me that you definitely survived all that happened and that you're going to be okay, and that this isn't just some dream I'm having while I'm sleeping through your funeral, or something—"
At the unusually serious tone of his voice, Astrid lifted her head back up, and raised her eyebrows in surprise at Hiccup's face, which was suddenly mere centimeters from hers. His eyes stunned her – she had never seen them so close up before, nor, she was sure, had she ever seen anything as impossibly, beautifully green as they were. Only twice, however, had she seen them darkened by the presence of such severity – once, when he had declared that he would keep the location of the nest a secret to protect Toothless, and again when, as the two of them had both gazed out over the infinite expanse of the gray oceans surrounding Berk, he had told her that he would not kill Toothless because when he had looked upon the creature he had seen himself looking back.
Her stomach gave a lurch, and she was very sure that she wasn't supposed to find such rare, utter seriousness as attractive as she did, but she was not spared the time to elaborate on the idea.
Hiccup clasped her hand in both of his, not breaking his gaze.
"I'm real. I'm right here. And I always will be." He paused, and his head leaned forward such an infinitesimal amount that it was barely noticeable, and for a fleeting moment Astrid was sure he was going to kiss her, but the imminence passed silently and unnoticeably, making way for another smile to twitch over Hiccup's cheeks. "Now I know you may find that disappointing, but I'm sorry; you're stuck with… well, all of me for a long, long time."
Gobber's words flashed through Astrid's mind: well. You know. Most of him.
And, inexplicably, she felt a horrible, overwhelming urge to burst into tears as soon as possible. But, as she had taught herself to do, she inhaled deeply, retained her composure, and did not allow herself to break.
"Don't say that; you'll make me seasick." She snickered, releasing his hand and sliding to the floor, turning and leaning her back up against the bed. "Well, more seasick."
"Aw, you don't like sea travel?" Hiccup asked in jest. "Who couldn't love being holed up in a moldy hunk of wood with nothing around you but fog and water? Sounds like a good vacation to…"
His voice abruptly trailed into silence, causing Astrid to whirl around much more swiftly than she'd intended to for fear that he had suddenly lapsed into a coma or come to realize that his leg was missing. Her eyes fell upon his, which were unexpectedly closed, and she stiffened, finding herself back in her kneeling position in one swift motion.
"Hiccup!" she yelped, and mocked herself at the panic in her voice. She shook him by the shoulder. "Hiccup!"
A quiet, pensive smile drifted across Hiccup's face, and Astrid felt tempted to punch him as hard as she could for scaring her.
"Hey, Astrid?" he murmured. "This might sound weird, but… whisper to me. Please."
Astrid inadvertently wrinkled her nose and withdrew slightly, taken completely aback.
"Whisper to you? What for?" she inquired harshly, folding her arms.
"I don't know." The smile still hadn't left. "Just… could you? Just for a second."
Astrid frowned derisively at him even though she knew he couldn't see it, surprised, as always, by his abnormal whimsy. Certainly normal Vikings would never think of such silly things – she knew she wouldn't – but then again, Hiccup was anything but a normal Viking. Perhaps this explained why she had a sudden, inexplicable need to kiss him.
She rolled her eyes and threw her shoulders back, staring in exasperation at the ceiling, before sighing dismally and leaning apprehensively closer to him, flushing at the warmth emanating from him, at the presence she could feel between their faces. Her lips were mere centimeters from his ear now, and she felt horribly embarrassed, and giddy, and stupid; they accidentally brushed against his earlobe and she winced in mortification.
"What… um, what would you like me to say?" Her voice was barely audible, thanks the gods; otherwise she'd probably be even more embarrassed by her actions.
"I don't know," Hiccup answered, just as quietly. "…This was kind of a stupid idea, wasn't it."
"Not really," Astrid breathed, brushing her hair out of her eyes. "Not stupid, just… Hiccup."
He chuckled appreciatively at her comment.
She wasn't even sure why she said what she did next, and for a brief second she wasn't even aware that she said it.
"I thought I'd lost you."
Hiccup's eyes flickered open and he turned his head to stare at her, and suddenly Astrid noticed how close their faces were, how distinct his breath was when it hit her cheek.
"I… I really did. I…" She turned away from him, staring instead at the floor. "I don't know. I don't think I've ever felt that afraid before. Not since dad…"
"You don't have to talk about—"
"I know I don't," she interrupted. "But I am."
Hiccup frowned at her, and she thought for a moment that he was going to reach a hand up and brush away the tear running down her face. Another one? By the gods, what was she, a girl?
"I remembered hating you, and then not hating you, and then never really telling you that I didn't anymore…" She sighed. "I was… I felt so guilty… I thought…"
She honestly wished she wasn't saying any of this. She hated telling the truth about things like this; it left her feeling so vulnerable, like at any moment someone was going to poke fun at the fact that she was crying, at the fact that she could feel anything in the first place.
"Well," Hiccup muttered, with a glint of a smile in his eyes, "now's your chance."
Astrid glanced up at him, confused.
"For telling me that you don't hate me anymore," he explained, as though it was perfectly obvious, sounding just the slightest bit smug. He rolled back over and laid back on the bed, closing his eyes and grinning in total satisfaction. Astrid's eyebrows shot up – Hiccup was rarely this bold. But why not play along?
"How do you know I haven't changed my mind?" she said slyly, trying to hide a snicker.
That did it. Hiccup's eyes snapped back open, stunned, and he stared over at her, looking baffled that she'd managed to turn the tables on him.
"Uh," he grunted. "Well, um, if you had… you wouldn't be down here, right?"
"I could just be here because your father ordered me to." She shrugged with a heavy, overacted sigh. "I just don't know, Hiccup. What do you think?"
Hiccup frowned, pondering this, and gazed at the ceiling pensively for a few seconds, brow furrowed.
"What do I think?"
"Mm-hmm," Astrid confirmed, nodding expectantly.
His eyes met hers and the earnestness in them was astounding as he whispered: "I think you're beautiful."
This certainly was not what Astrid had expected. She opened her mouth to say something hopefully intelligent in response, trying to hide the fact that hearing him say such a thing had made her stomach clench so pleasantly she felt like cheering; but she noticed that Hiccup had closed his eyes again, head resting stilly on the pillow, his breathing soft and even. Astrid's mind lurched in worry again, but its movements ceased when he spoke.
"I… I'm tired," he mumbled – Astrid could barely understand him. "I… think I'm going to go back to sleep…"
"Hiccup," Astrid interjected, as firmly and sharply as she could. "If this is the last time I'm going to talk to you… I…" She huffed, straightening herself. "Well, I will hate you."
He grinned sleepily, dazedly. Dreamily. "Yeah, Astrid, I love you, too."
"Wh—!" Astrid spluttered, but it was too late – it was clear that he'd drifted off again, still smiling contentedly, and Astrid realized just how much he managed to infuriate and endear her at the same time. She had to ignore her instinct to raise a fist to punch him, instead choosing to use her hand in an almost more appealing way: holding his. And, in barely a whisper – in what would sound like the sea outside to any passerby – she began to sing to him, softly, a lullaby from when they were children.
When Stoick came down to fetch them, he found them both asleep, half-smiling, their hands intertwined – Astrid was kneeling beside the bed, her head resting on Hiccup's chest. For a brief moment, Stoick forgot about the leg his son had lost, and the men that had perished because of his miscalculations, and the fact that he missed his wife more dearly than anything, and simply smiled, chuckling to himself, and walked back up on deck, figuring that they'd wake up when they needed to.
Astrid later carried Hiccup to his house upon the hill and laid him in his bed, her eyes sleepy, wondering if he'd remember all that they'd said on the ship after he came out of his comatose state.
Let him speak soft words who longs for a woman's love. —Norse Proverb