Entitled

Hiccup stared at the door—veined by age and colored by weather—and suffered its unwelcoming silence. A heavy breath rushed from between his lips. He craned his neck back, seeking some outside source of strength. Toothless, absolutely unwelcome in this home, gave Hiccup a nod of encouragement from his perch on the roof.

Without further stalling Hiccup let himself into the chief's house, all the while feeling uncomfortably an outsider in his childhood home. There was no cause for knocking; he knew his father waited for him.

He also knew a difficult, albeit long-overdue, conversation waited for him.

The room he entered was dark from shuttered windows and poor lighting—the only source of which arose from the hearth central to the space, blocked by a broad and stooped back.

Stoick hardly seemed surprised to have his son slip in as quietly as he had. He didn't so much as turn, instead jabbing at the fire a couple more times and sending a halo of embers into the air.

Nevertheless, Hiccup knew he was recognized; he saw his father's ear tweak back at the soft click of a shutting door.

When the popping of the subdued fire became too solitary for Hiccup to handle, he dared to take another step into the dark-cornered room. He couldn't read his father, not from this angle. He knew his father was upset but he had no idea how greatly; he had not quite figured out the circumstances for this melancholy—what exactly he had done wrong or how he could have done it differently.

Aside from not leaving in the first place.

Stoick let out a weighted breath, not unlike Hiccup's just moments before, and Hiccup saw those great shoulders sag under something that stood between bitter disappointment and lamentation. Only then did the chief turn, the flames of the hearth highlighting the profile of his heavy features.

Stoick's mouth opened—Hiccup sucked in a breath, waiting—but rather than say anything he turned away from Hiccup again and began to pace along the sharkskin rug.

Hiccup said nothing, did nothing, other than wait for his dad to begin this. Stoick had to make the first move because, frankly, Hiccup had no idea where to start. It was just like old times—he, frozen in a corner, and his father, pacing, wondering how to address a difficult son. His dad always paced.

After an eternity Stoick found his voice and his movements stilled.

"Son..."

Hiccup reacted immediately, "I'm not your—"

"You are my son," Stoick rumbled softly. He wet his lips after the declaration, an obscure sign of nervousness. Again, Hiccup waited for his father to speak; he truly did not know what to say.

Stoick rubbed his forehead and the meaty fingers skewed his helmet in the act.

"You've come a long way, Hiccup. You've always been different, and maybe it was my mistake to try and push you, but you managed to grow into your own anyway. I'm—" he licked his lips again, "—we're—grateful for your help. Impressed by your initiative..."

Stoick seemed to struggle with his words, or perhaps he lost his direction of speech, and Hiccup found an opportunity to break in.

"It may not be that way for the rest of the villagers," Hiccup pointed out. "You're the one calling all the shots. If you let me stay they have to allow it."

Stoick shook his head. He set his helmet on the lone table and smoothed his hair.

"They'll see it too in time. Even the most bullheaded of them. It's hard to keep turning a blind eye at you with the way you go on."

Hiccup had to snort at that, if only for the hypocrisy of his father calling anyone bullheaded.

"Regardless of who-thinks-what of me, the terms of my re-admittance into the village were very clear," Hiccup reminded his father.

A pained grimace stretched across Stoick's face—the same Hiccup caught a glimpse of after his fight—and without the necessity of pretenses, it stayed there.

"You have to understand..." Stoick sounded desperate. "I never thought you'd...you'd..."

"Ever grow past your elbows?" Hiccup quipped with a light grin. He had to do something to lighten this dark, oppressing atmosphere.

"Hiccup please," Stoick said, stern and wary. "The village will see reason. Every day you're more and more accepted. People want to follow you—"

"I can't stay," Hiccup said just as softly. The gloom of the room made everything feel muted, including his own voice.

"Hiccup..."

"I ride a dragon, dad," Hiccup no longer felt weird about referring to his father as such, not when he was allowed to be a son again. "Why would I...why would I ever chose to stay on an island when I can go anywhere in the world? Why would I stay here? What do I have?"

He didn't even have Gudrid, in any form.

He couldn't imagine it now—ever settling on this island. Any land, for that matter. Flying wasn't enough anymore, not when he'd had a taste of something greater. When it was just him and Toothless and the unknown his heart would beat in ways he could never describe, never recreate. The occasional altitude would never satisfy him. A daily fly would never cancel out being anchored to one piece of land.

That wasn't freedom; that was a hawk returning to its cage every day.

Even more, what would it do to Toothless? Toothless was nomadic, born to be, long before Hiccup had ever fell in love with the same condition. Toothless needed to keep moving; therefore, he needed to keep moving.

"What do you have?" Stoick repeated. Shock embittered the question and Hiccup quickly realized his mistake.

"It's not that... I wasn't—I didn't mean you don't...that I don't—"

Gods, how could he say this? How did he tell his father how happy he felt every time Stoick looked at him with pride, even though it took betraying his village to garner it? How could he admit the shame he felt that he still sought such affection?

Stoick turned back to the hearth. "It's alright."

"No," said Hiccup. "No it's not. It's great that you want me to stay. You have no idea how happy it makes me—"

"I'm also thinking of the village," Stoick went on as though he couldn't hear Hiccup. "Of our future. If we do finish this war...by the time we do you might change your mind about staying. It could be a new world ahead of us; a place where people and dragons work together. Only you could lead us then—I'm not the only one who thinks so. You've shown that you have the power to carry out change. You'd be the best thing for this village if you were the head of it."

A part of Hiccup felt this was coming, but that didn't make hearing it any less disquieting. He had been shaking his head all throughout Stoick's speech and it was lucky the man had his back to him.

"What? Dad—so can Snotlout. He's a great fighter. He has the respect—"

"Being chief isn't about fighting," Stoick said gravely. He turned to look at Hiccup, his face as solemn as his voice. "It's about decisions. Leading Vikings into battle is good for image and respect, but that's not what leads a village. You can delegate, you're smart, you can plan—"

"I don't even know if this plan is going to work," Hiccup admitted. His father was glorifying him and it was the worst time to do so.

Stoick made a fist, confident in everything he said.

"But we can trust that you've done everything in your power to see it through!"

"You're making this seem more nobler than it is," Hiccup muttered. His face felt hot from this twisted praise. "I'm just...I'm helping in the only way I know how. It's because I can't do it your way—I can't be a Viking—"

"Your way may just be the right way," Stoick said with a small smile. "You could never take orders, and I think that was because you were meant to give them."

"I don't like it," Hiccup said because, like his father, he suddenly felt it was okay to be honest. "It scares me."

Stoick smiled wider yet.

"Yet you do it despite that. You understand necessity when I never thought you would. You learned it out there." Stoick nudged his head to the south beyond the boarded windows. "Hiccup, I believe you would be best for this village."

Hiccup closed his eyes. "Dad...you know I can't."

"You can," Stoick stressed. "Have you not been listening to me?"

"But I shouldn't. There are so many others who should be chief over me...so many great Vikings."

Stoick was ready for this argument. "They're great at following orders, not so much leading."

"A Viking should lead a village of Vikings," Hiccup said flatly. "And I will never be a Viking." There it was; that look again—like Hiccup just struck his father with his own sword. "I—I could still give orders—guide, I mean...if that's what you need. I can persuade Snotlout to see things my way, or his inner circle...I can still be an influence, if you let me," he added hastily. "It's totally doable."

"Or," Stoick sounded just as stubborn in his argument, "...or we can just ignore that whole front and have you be chief. It's not too late."

Now Hiccup felt desperate. His father was not listening to him. Stoick had that eager look on his face that told Hiccup he would block out any outside influence just so he could continue to build up an idea in his mind.

"It is too late," Hiccup said sharply so that Stoick would actually look at him. "I can't fit in here. Not anymore. Dad—I...that ship has sailed. It could have been if things had been different, maybe if I had made different choices, but..." His eyes fell to his scraces and Toothless flashed in his mind. He thought of how easily Toothless could shed his scales now, how early it happened—Toothless' shock and calm acceptance of it. With a quiet certitude he said, "I can't regret what I've done, what I've chosen to do. This is how it has to be."

Much of Stoick's eagerness had drained from his face to leave it stony with dismay.

"You're choosing for it to be like this. Just like you chose to leave."

For once Hiccup welcomed the disappointment, as it meant Stoick was starting to pay attention to his words.

"Maybe," Hiccup conceded. "But it's a choice I believe is best for me and the village." Stoick appeared unmoved at Hiccup's decision, so he tried, "Look at it this way: if I hadn't gone, we may have never figured out a way to deal with this demon."

Stoick snorted and put his hands on his hips.

"Oh, was that your purpose then?" the chief spoke with a sarcasm usually marked by his son. "You were born in this village for that sense of loyalty, so that you'd later use your persuasions to our benefit? That's a load o' crock."

"Maybe," Hiccup said with a tiny grin. Now his thoughts had moved to the Elder and how she knew, long before any of them, how his upbringing in Berk would influence his path. "I'm not going to disappear. I just—we need to keep moving."

"Why?" Stoick whispered. The unattended fire behind him began to die along with his earlier bluster.

Hiccup shrugged, his smile rueful. "It's in our blood."

Amazingly, Stoick's bearing softened though lost none of its sadness.

"Ah," he spoke so lightly he could have been talking to himself. "Your just like your mother."

And this, above everything else, struck Hiccup hard.

He knew his father loved his mother dearly, still did to this day, despite her absence in both their lives. Stoick had a look about him, a weary, lonely stance that hammered Hiccup's conscience with guilt because he had seen it so much as a child. He just couldn't recognize it for what it was back then.

Still, he couldn't stay. He couldn't.

"Dad..."

"I know I wasn't the best...the best father..."

Hiccup reeled back, not liking the path this conversation took, hating how uncomfortable it was.

Moreover, an apology—if that were what this was—would be meaningless at this point.

"It wasn't your fault," Hiccup muttered, wishing for the comfort of Toothless' body heat. He had trouble looking at his father, despite knowing Stoick suddenly felt the same way. "You were chief first—that's where your priorities should have been."

Stoick turned his eyes to the window, imagining the scenery past its shutters because staring at his son started to hurt. Hearing Hiccup's words hurt worse. A dead mother, a chief for a father, present only in proximity...it was no wonder Gobber knew Hiccup better than either of his parents had.

"I don't think that's an excuse," Stoick said. His voice had gone gruff.

From the corner of his vision, Stoick could see Hiccup shrug again.

"What's done is done. I'm an adult. I'm choosing to help you win this war, and then I'm choosing to leave. If you don't want me to have... I mean, if you want me to retain my outlaw—"

Stoick found the strength to look at Hiccup.

"No! No, that's not..." Stoick took a breath. "It's still in discussion right now. But there's a fair bit of talk about you...you being a Hooligan, provided your methods actually win this war."

Hiccup drew in a breath just as he heard a subtle thump on the roof above them. Toothless wanted him to accept this.

"I would love to be...to be considered a part of Berk in someway because, believe me, I never wanted to cut ties like I did." Hiccup wet his lips in the same way his father did. "I want to make it right again, I do. I will do everything in my power to save Berk—"

Stoick regained some eagerness.

"That's what I mean—you would make a great chief—"

Hiccup held up a hand, shaking his head. His stomach rolled at how his father's face brightened. He had to keep talking.

"I've already sworn to stay until its safe again—"

"It's the right choice," Stoick insisted. "They'll see it too, the village will. You need the option of coming back in case you change your mind—"

"You need to know where I stand," Hiccup cut in, "where my priorities are..." He troubled himself for a moment over how to say this without upending the longest conversation he and his father ever shared in recent memory, but it needed to be known. "If I could have my way, no one would get hurt trying to finish this war. I want to protect Berk, I really do, but I will always have the dragons in my mind. In terms of safety, I'm going to think of them first—"

He stopped talking; the look his father gave him was one of the utmost betrayal.

"You were chief first," Hiccup reminded him, and it killed him to say it, for this would be the release of his last childhood whims. "I'm telling you this so you can make your decision to reinstate me with that in mind. Don't... For this, don't think of me as your son. For the sake of the village."

"That's what makes it so hard," Stoick said with a sudden hoarseness to his voice. It was the closest Hiccup had ever heard his father come to crying. "A chief wouldn't feel as proud of you as I do."

Hiccup opened his mouth to respond, but the words he thought he had ready on his tongue left him. He took in air, trying to keep his composure in the face of hearing words he'd always dreamt of hearing.

It was because his father showed him such affection that Hiccup knew he could not lead him astray with any false hope. It was sick, how happy just knowing his father wanted him back made him. There was always the possibility that Stoick was simply interested in keeping the chiefdom in their family line and now hiccup had the power to uphold it. There was always the chance Stoick saw Hiccup as a bargaining chip to keep dragons working along side of them so that they could be used as Astrid suggested a week earlier. But it was still more attention than he had ever received from his father—positive attention, to which he never thought he'd feel. He basked in it for a moment, embraced it.

"Look," Hiccup managed after clearing his throat, "dad, I just want you to know what the plan is. I don't want you thinking everything will...that I'll still—"

Stoick nodded curtly. Hiccup could see he had fallen into that Chief role he spoke about so much; it was a crutch for his father, a way to block out too many feelings he didn't know how to handle. The openness of their conversation had ended without any further warning.

"You'll not stay; I understand," Stoick said starkly. "You're still aiming for no casualties; commendable, but naive."

"I aim high," Hiccup said wryly. Stoick took no heed to the comment.

"The Meathead clan are coming Tirsdag," he informed Hiccup. "They'll be bringing about twelve representatives and they expect a sound plan and a good demonstration."

"I'll have a number of riders ready by then," Hiccup promised. "We can show them the benefit of bonding with dragons."

Stoick nodded and his back turned to the fire. Even with nothing said Hiccup could read that this was a dismissal.

Hiccup returned to the door, making his movements loud should his father call him back.

He wrenched the heavy thing open and already his thoughts had moved from the strained conversation to his volunteers, like the blast of outside air reminded him of his responsibilities beyond the personal. Already, Speedifist had managed to ride a Swiftglider a few times—but then, everything in Speedifists' life was fast—while Tuffnut's progress was slow but solid. If he had three prime examples, excluding himself, he could be persuasive. But more would be better.

He needed a greater variety of dragons to match with Berk's volunteers. Tonight he would taunt the demon again.

"Hiccup?"

Hiccup paused, one hand on the frame, one foot colored by the sun's touch, to show he heard the quiet call.

"It's a big world out there." He could hear Stoick take in air. "No matter what happens or where you choose to go after, don't forget about us."

Hiccup smiled into the sun.

"I never could."

#######


#######

Luring out dragons turned out to be unnecessary for Fishlegs' fears had come to pass: a raid occurred that night.

It was on his way to the nest that Hiccup saw them coming—a cloud of wings and screams, heard before seen. He and Toothless immediately turned and used every speed known to them to make it to the village with time to spare. They paused only to warn Stoick before they set off again, this time to the Safe Island.

Once there, Toothless convinced any dragons who had spent significant time with a human to try and follow them to Berk. It was the ultimate test for how strongly a human had to bond with a dragon before it could function in Her range. As Astrid and Speedifist were two of the first to start riding dragons, Hiccup was not surprised to see the Timberjack and the Swiftglider intrepidly following behind them.

By flight, the journey back to Berk was a short one and the incursion had yet to arrive. They circled the village, looking for a safe place to land. Defenses were raised, Vikings armed and stationed, and most of the livestock hidden with the extra warning time.

"Hiccup!"

Hiccup looked down to see Astrid in the village square waving her arms; though it was more her stationary position among the running Vikings which made her stand out to him.

Her call alerted many to his presence for which Hiccup felt silently grateful. It would not do to be shot down by those of the same side.

He swooped down to meet her. Astrid jogged to them. Her eyes widened when she saw who followed.

"Chip!" she cried and she finished her arrival at a sprint, passing Hiccup and Toothless without any other greeting.

Hiccup looked at Toothless and mouthed 'Chip?', to which Toothless shrugged.

"What are you doing here?" Astrid unthinkingly asked the Timberjack. Naturally, she could not understand any response he might give her, so she turned the question to Hiccup. "What is he doing here?"

"Suit up," Hiccup instead ordered. "We'll be defending the village a bit differently this time. Find Speedifist—"

"Right here!" A tall, wide-shouldered youth sprinted to their group with one hand holding a multi-rimmed helmet to his head. He had craggy, black hair that bounced against his shoulders and a droopy-cheeked face. Though not quite as narrow-waisted as Hiccup, he was one of the more slender Vikings on the island. Speedifist's feet skidded to a stop, his smile wide and sharp-toothed. "And you have Slowpoke! Hey—!"

"Suit up!" Hiccup repeated at a shout.

Astrid, who had transformed into the grim warrior at Hiccup's order, grabbed Speedifist by the shirt and hauled him to the forge at a sprint, where equipment was stored in Hiccup's old backspace.

Hiccup shook his head, directing to the dragons, "Seriously, what is up with these names?"

Toothless stared over at him, flat-faced.

"...Right..."

"Oi!" The boys both startled to find Tuffnut trotting up to the group, his spear resting on his shoulder and his eyes scanning the dragons. "Where's Rippy?"

Hiccup flinched, slightly abashed, and said, "He's not ready yet."

His apologetic look seemed to have gone ignored; Tuffnut took on such a petulant pout it would have seemed better suited for a ten-year-old.

"That's bullshit, man!"

"Next time," Hiccup promised without much conviction, "for sure."

"Ready!" Astrid announced. Hiccup turned to see her just finishing saddling her Timberjack. Her harness was strapped around her shoulders and her axe across her back.

Speedifist stumbled past her toward his Glider, fumbling with the fixings of his saddle. He seemed extraordinarily disheveled and unorganized when next to Astrid, who had taken on the appearance of an exemplary soldier: cool, calm, and waiting for instruction.

"Excellent. Mount your dragons!" Hiccup instructed. As Astrid gracefully leapt upon her Timberjack and Speedifist hauled himself upon the Swiftglider's shoulders, Hiccup took a moment to scan for his father.

What he found was a good number of Vikings showing them attention when they should have been preparing to defend their village.

::He's not here:: Toothless informed him. ::The secondary of your kindred is approaching::

"Hmm?" Hiccup looked to where Toothless nudged his head.

His uncle stood out among the rushing bodies by climbing a top a wagon. Spitelout cupped his hands over his mouth.

"We got the defenses up," he called from his distance. "We're focusing on higher attacks and disabling them. If it comes to it we will kill!"

Hiccup raised a hand to show he understood. He turned back to the other riders, suited and fitted to their partners, and suddenly realized the village would see firsthand what a team was capable of.

A nervous excitement overtook him, one that aroused Framherja. She hummed against his back so strongly even Toothless could hear her purr.

"No," Hiccup murmured, trying to quell his energy to mute hers. "Not tonight."

"Hiccup?"

He focused on Astrid, who looked at him with great expectation. The other faces came to his awareness; so many eyes focused on him, so many ears waiting for instruction.

"Alright!" Hiccup called for not only the attention of the riders but also those who had gathered in curiosity. "Until we can free the dragons we will have to treat them as enemies...to an extent!" Some familiar faces grimaced—ones that had been to the Safe Island before. Those that had bonded with dragons were learning. That they looked troubled with the thought of attacking other dragons heartened Hiccup more than he would ever admit. "You may have to fire at them—it will hurt them, but not likely damage them permanently. Aim for body and legs. Avoid wings and tails. We don't want to cripple them; we just want to drive them off until we have a chance to free them. If you can, capture them."

He focused more closely on Speedifist and Astrid, "You need to be careful you don't get knocked out by any Vikings. Stay high if you can, try and knock them out—there's a point roughly ten vika from here," he pointed to the direction of the Safe Island. "If you can lure or chase any over there and push them off...well, you've seen how they act outside of it," Astrid nodded. Speedifist shrugged. "You'll know when they're free; the behavior should be obvious. Don't trouble yourselves too much with dragging them out there—focus on buffering them from the village—"

The first roar sounded from the blackened abyss above the dark ocean.

"'Ere they come!" one Viking bellowed and it spurred every Viking on the island into a frenzy.

"UP!" Hiccup barked.

The riders launched into the sky. Hiccup could sense more than he could see Astrid and Speedifist follow.

"We're going to see how many we can take down before they reach the village," Hiccup informed his crew. "Be careful!"

"Don't worry about us!" Astrid hollered back.

"Yeah!" Speedifist added. He leaned back in the saddle in a show of confidence. "We totally—aguh!"

Speedifist gripped the neck of the Swiftglider when he nearly fell off backward.

"Comforting," Hiccup drawled. He pressed forward anyway, shifted his ankle, and disappeared from the eyes of any human watching.

He and Toothless sped through the night, comfortable in their element, with the water rushing underneath them and the clouds shifting slowly above.

::There's a lot:: Toothless cautioned all too soon. His earfins twitched like madly.

"We'll be fine," Hiccup murmured with his head down to the wind.

::We will be fine::

"So will they," Hiccup responded. He knew Toothless thought him to be too optimistic, but something in his gut told him those dragons felt ready to test the Control for a reason.

He could hear the wings, disturbingly loud when unseen, and the unnerving rasp clouding around the Mindless abraded his ears—nothing less than pleading whispers on the tenterhooks of words, yet still so inhuman.

So unnatural.

"Let's knock them into the water!" Hiccup hollered, trying to focus on their assignment rather than how upsetting he found the dragons' situation to be. Just two years ago that had been Toothless. "It will slow them down at least!"

::Right!::

They rocketed upward, crested at the belly of the night clouds, and dove using both velocity and skill.

They first barreled into the back of a Devilish Dervish, its size no match for their speed. It screamed at the unexpected tackle. Toothless continued to flap his wings, driving it down in its state of shock to take out two other dragons directly below it. All three ended up in the water.

"Yeah!" Hiccup crowed, throwing a fist into the air as they started a fresh climb.

::How many do you think we can knock into the water before they make it to your grounds?::

Of anything in the night, Hiccup could see the lights of Berk most visibly—their fires and beacons creating a halo around the island. They did not have much time.

"Twenty-five!" he decided even as they began another dive, this time aiming for a cluster of Gronkles.

They ended up only getting twenty-four into the water, and that was because some of water-strong dragons were like Toothless in that they could still fire even when wet. The boys welcomed the challenge.

All too soon, their game of knocking dragons down had come too close to the village and the sounds of battle too prominent not to participate.

::Let's get back:: Toothless decided. Hiccup consented by switching gears and pulling a quick wingover.

They arrived into chaos. Hiccup recalled watching raids from the shop window and thinking the village had never seemed more crowded, but the air was far worse. A labyrinth of wings and tails and unmanned weapons cluttered their world. They couldn't fly half a faðmr without having to employ seven evasive maneuvers.

It excited Toothless enough for Hiccup to pick up on.

::Headbutting time!:: Toothless announced with a buoyancy that brought a smile to Hiccup's face.

"I found one already," he responded as a Viking with a sheep under each arm ran along a housing ridge. Hiccup focused on the Gronkle swooping claws first at the fleeing man.

The boys sideswiped the dragon, catching its oversized head and sending it spiraling off course. They didn't slow or stop to see what became of it; they kept moving to the next attacking dragon.

A "Thanks!" had followed them back into the sky, where they looked for more areas to sneak in and do damage. Berk did not accommodate their piloting as the open ocean had; they had to worry about avoiding friendly fire and village obstacles, keeping the dragons they knocked out from causing more damage, staying out of the way for those fighting...

Hiccup quickly found it easier to stay above most of the hubbub; he could skim dragons off the top without interfering with Berk's battle dynamic. It also allowed him to keep a better eye on the new riders. Hiccup watched as Speedifist's Swiftglider yanked a Zippleback off its barn-bound course by grabbing its neck as it flew overhead. The jerk of tackling another dragon would have dislodged Speedifist had he not had his harness on. The boy appeared shaken but determined to continue, now more aware of the perils of flight.

"Fish!"

The name, and the voice, snatched Hiccup's attention to the shadow of the forge where Astrid and her dragon hovered. Chip fired a streaming jet of fire at a diving Nadder. The bird-like dragon squawked as it dodged, tail recoiling, and abandoned its target to find something easier.

A grounded Fishlegs hardly seemed to notice how close he came to being spiked.

"Hey, hey...you're okay," Fishlegs coaxed to a Basic Brown. The dragon hissed at him, but could neither attack nor run. Blood welled from a mangled foreleg, which she kept raised and bent close to her mouth.

"Are you out of your damn mind?" Astrid roared down at the blond. "If you're not fighting, get inside!"

Most people would have cowered when having Astrid Hofferson direct such a tone at them, but Fishlegs remained defiant.

"I can't leave her—look at this!"

Hiccup didn't know if Astrid looked, but he certainly did. It was definitely a Viking-made wound that inflicted the Brown's leg; too much bruising surrounded the area, the abrasions clean with a whittler's care.

"You can't stay here, Fish!" Astrid argued. "You're right out in the open!"

"She's going to get hit," Fishlegs said, desperate for Astrid to see his reason. "Someone will hurt her!"

Fishlegs got a little too close to the Brown and it shot a weak stream of fire at him. He stepped to the side, hardly fazed.

Astrid, on the other hand, looked horrified.

"You can't do anything for her! She's feral!"

"She's not attacking me—"

"She will if you get close enough!"

"Fish," Hiccup called, flying over to them. "She'll be fine for a little while. Don't endanger yourself over this." He looked down to Toothless and said more quietly. "Toothless can you get through to her?"

::No:: Toothless said without needing to try. ::She's definitely under control::

Hiccup knew this even as Toothless spoke; he saw the vacancy in her eyes, glassy and unseeing. But he also saw Fishlegs—determined to get this dragon to safety—and he knew exactly how the larger boy felt; that feeling of involvement that made it impossible to turn away.

Heat shocked the back of his neck when a ball of fire streaked by his back. Thinking fast, Hiccup made a quick mandate.

"She's stunned now, but don't let her try and fly off. After the raid we'll load her onto a boat and take her to the Safe Island. In the meantime, don't get too close to her; you're not going to get through. Stay by her if you have to and redirect Vikings, but stay out of danger if you can."

"At least arm yourself!" Astrid yelled down at Fishlegs. She seemed to have not yet forgiven him for almost getting himself killed. "And don't turn your back on the battle!"

Fishlegs grinned at the reluctant permission.

"But I have you watching it!" he said as she turned and flew off into the fray.

"Blarney of a dead man!" she returned in the distance.

"Take care!" Hiccup bid, and he followed Astrid's path. She turned at the east watchtower to charge a Dimbruiser, while he interfered with a Dervish's attempt to take out a braizer.

He passed Speedifist on more than one occasion; the young man went on rocketing around blindsiding dragons, sometimes into structures or fighting Vikings. Astrid was a bit easier to keep track of; she was more calculated in her attacks and far more precise. Periodically, the two new riders would herd dragons far enough away to knock them out of range, where the freed dragons from days ago would wait for them. Hiccup marked them as this took place, feeling accountable for anyone and anything under the influence of his program.

::Uh...Hiccup...::

Hiccup took his watch away from Astrid and redirected it to where Toothless stared. He felt his face slacken.

"What the—?"

It was the Nightmare from the island—in complete control of his actions with his clawed wings braced on the ground. And on his back, clinging to the blunted, jutting spikes, was Snotlout.

"Hiccup!" Snotlout cried through his clumsy attempts to stay seated. "How do I do this?"

He had a wild look of fear and amazement to his features; he behaved very much like he had no idea why he decided to take the Nightmare's offer.

For one speechless moment Hiccup could only sit on his saddle, bemused, choking down the wild urge to laugh.

::Hiccup:: Toothless prompted.

Hiccup shook his head.

"Just...sit on his shoulders, lean forward...and—" He swooped down, cutting so close to the side of a house it looked as though he would crash into the water barrels. In a deft move Hiccup swiped a spool of rope belonging to the homeowners, curved back towards Snotlout, and threw it at him. "Use rope to hold on to him for now!"

Snotlout caught the line in one hand, managing shoddy, makeshift reigns in very little time. He gave the rope around the base of the Nightmare's neck a few tugs.

"Like this?" he asked.

People around them were slowing in their battling just to stare at their future chief atop a Nightmare.

"That's fine for now," Hiccup said. "Stay low to the ground. Let the Nightmare do most of the work."

The Nightmare took that as a cue to take off. It was jerky and choppy; the Nightmare was as unused to a rider and Snotlout was to riding a dragon, but they made it into the air well enough.

Hiccup hovered above them, feeling a fresh layer of worry settle over his shoulders now that this first-time riding experience was taking place in the middle of a raid. It released—only a little—as he continued to watch a messy first-flight take place.

There was something Snotlout had that made for such a quick aligning between him and the Nightmare. Be it a lack of thought or a penchant for acting on impulses—something made picking up the basics of flight easy for him. Snotlout wasn't in danger of over thinking things.

"I don't—" Hiccup continued to feel at a loss for words. "He just met that Nightmare today!"

And not too long after his talk with his father. Once on the island, Snotlout had gone straight for the Nightmare and visa versa, they had gotten along swimmingly—but hardly a full sun cycle had occurred since.

Toothless could understand a human's confusion over the matter.

::That Nightmare had been waiting for him::

"But—wait...what does that even mean?" Hiccup continued to struggle with the quick bonding.

::That human had all the qualities he deemed important, and all the room for improvement he felt he could influence him on. When you know, you know::

Hiccup shook his head, knowing he shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.

"Ha...ha ha...!" Snotlout's laugh, slow, breathy and cautious, could be heard from their altitude. He bobbed on the Nightmare's neck, seated just behind its head.

"Well if that's not a chief for you, I don't know what is," Hiccup quipped.

Toothless snorted.

::Chiefdom is for the short-sighted::

Hiccup laughed and they dived back into the battle. Arrows and bolas flew all around them, but with Toothless' night vision and Hiccup's reaction timing, dodging would never be a problem. They flew circles around the new riders, of whom Hiccup had kept nearly as much focus on as he did the dragons. He felt responsible for them, particularly Snotlout, who had no prior experience flying. Should they get hurt, he would have to accept full liability.

But they preformed wonderfully, occasionally needing direction from Hiccup, but otherwise amazingly conscious of their limits...for Vikings, anyway. Astrid stuck to basic maneuvering, Speedifist continued with his quick cycling—possibly knowing better than to use sheer force against stockier dragons—and Snotlout, surprisingly, adhered to his instruction to stay low to the ground, using force and flame to protect his home.

Before Hiccup knew it, they left. The dragons were leaving, flying off into the night sky as dead-eyed as they arrived.

And, for the first time that Hiccup could remember, Vikings cheered at their departure.

"That was the shortest raid I had ever seen!"

"Hardly anything was taken!"

"Did you see those kids?"

"Hiccup was so fast—those Night Furies are insane—!"

"I want to try it; I think I'm ready..."

He saw Astrid grounded, surrounded by Vikings, talking animatedly in response to their questions. The Timberjack seemed nervous around so many humans, but soothed into staying by her side as she unconsciously stroked its neck.

"Thanks for gitting that Blubberwing off me back!"

"How did you not get cut riding that thing?"

Speedifist remained in the air, flying in victory circles, spurred into continuing the dizzying cycle by the rowdy calls of his friends.

"Go higher, I saw you going higher earlier!"

"Ride no hands! Hands in the air!"

Hiccup's father and uncle stood, uncertain, near Snotlout and the Nightmare. They were quite a bit more subdued than the rest of the village, but their quiet tones relayed their awe. Snotlout looked more proud than Hiccup could remember ever seeing him; and it wasn't the arrogant sort, but a pride born of accomplishment and joy.

Even amidst all the fanfare Ruffnut's whine reached Hiccup's ears:

"I can't believe the Nightmare chose you!"

########


########

"I can't believe how well that worked to our advantage!" Hiccup's voice echoed within the confinements of the cove. Much splashing followed thereafter as the young man waded into deeper waters.

Never before did he think he warranted a more deserved bath. Already a week's worth of grime clouded the tarn in his immediate vicinity.

::Yes you can:: said Toothless. ::You've been making great headway with your drove::

"We have," Hiccup acknowledged, "But I'm serious. I was really worried we wouldn't have enough examples of riders to get across to any other tribe. The Meathead clan is coming in one day. We are going to be the prime example of what bonding with dragons can do. There are so many actually listening to us—and so many that are my age! It's awesome!"

Toothless sat in the shallow water, enjoying the crisp touch on his sun-saturated scales. The bight within their cove was perfect for this sort of sanctuary with its light waterfall to keep the water moving and fresh and its large stones to shield them from the common entryway.

::Is it better the that younger of your drove find this appealing? I'd think you are just happy you have your peers' approval::

Hiccup spun with a loud splash.

"What?"

::Wouldn't it be better to have the elders approve?::

"I mean...that helps. But we live shorter lives. If you expect anything new and crazy to take hold, you need to target the generation that will be elders." Toothless continued to scrutinize Hiccup until the boy sheepishly added, "Well...that's my theory anyway. But I'm pretty confident in it. Just look at how many people are really listening to us now!"

Nearly as soon as the sun had risen and repairs were well underway, Hiccup had a number of individuals vying for a visit to the Safe Island. His Mánadagr morning had been spent surveying another mingling party and helping ease the tension between two old enemies. Tuffnut and Ripper bonded over an impromptu fishing expedition, which resulted in a soaked rider. Astrid and Chip helped those who wanted to try flying.

Ruffnut now had a Puffnadder—a very arrogant bird for a very earthy girl. That Basic Brown took to Fishlegs almost as soon as she was taken out of the Control—a particular dragon for a tolerant man. Hiccup could almost see a pattern in the dragons and humans which took to each other; a balance of qualities.

::It does seem to be turning in our favor:: Toothless admitted. His voice sounded far off to Hiccup.

"Hey, are you okay?" he asked. "I mean...with seeing those dragons under control again?"

::It just reminded me of what we're aiming for. It was a good thing::

Hiccup nodded and gave Toothless a humorless smile.

"We'll free them, buddy. I promise."

::How many dragons were killed?::

"Seven bodies to be counted," Hiccup said as he began to scrub soap into his hair. "...most ran off. The injured are at the Island and I think they'll all make a recovery."

He ducked under quickly, popping back up with a think layer of suds remaining in his hair.

::How many humans?::

Bubbles ascended from Hiccup's submerged mouth as he blew out a breath. He lifted his head after a moment.

"Astrid said not nearly as many as usual...which I guess is good. Mostly injuries and property destruction. People are taking it as a sign that following us is a step in the right direction."

::And as long as there's progress...::

"Right." Hiccup stood, the water falling to his waist, and grabbed his soap rock that he had floating by on a piece of wood. "It was weird though...not as much food had been taken either. It was like they weren't even there to raid for anything."

Toothless did not seem surprised by this assessment.

::I think it was a warning::

Hiccup paused in the act of scrubbing his chest.

"A warning like...she knows what we're doing?"

::She knows:: Toothless said with such certainty that Hiccup knew he had been thinking on this for a long time. ::She's had to have figure it out by now. Our repeated visits, the loss of her dragons...::

"But she'll only lose more dragons if she keeps attacking Berk," Hiccup pointed out. "The more dragons we get, the more potential riders we get, the more dragons we can save in each raid."

::Right. When dragons and humans work together it proves effective—more effective than even she could anticipate::

Hiccup smiled. "It does."

::I think that means we're getting closer to a final fight::

"Hopefully we'll have enough support by then, and enough of her dragons on our side to stand a chance."

::Or even a plan::

"Or even a plan," Hiccup agreed.

He dunked under again and swam a few strokes closer to the waterfall, popping back up on the other side of Toothless. Toothless appeared unimpressed.

::You swim like a human::

"You swim like a human."

The water was too deep to stand, so Hiccup took to gentle treading. Topic aside, there was something incredibly calming about the weightlessness of floating. Second only to flight. He closed his eyes and relaxed onto his back.

"And then...after we miraculously survive, and save Berk...and our moment of—did I miraculously survive?—we'll go see your family."

Water pushed heavily at the right side of his body. Hiccup opened one eye to see Toothless float by.

::No::

Grinning, Hiccup closed his eyes again.

"I'm serious. We're going to do it. We're going north if we survive," Hiccup hummed. He particularly enjoyed the contrast of the cool water lapping against his sun-heated skin.

::Don't you want to try and go east?::

Toothless circled him like a shark. His body wiggled from side–to-side with a tail to follow, his feet tucked in to his trunk.

"I want to go west too," Hiccup confessed. "I want to go everywhere. But I think we need to go north, you know? I think we need to finish all our unfinished business before we can really move on."

::Move on to...::

"Absolute disengagement."

::That sounds...negative::

Hiccup opened his eyes to squint at the sun.

"Yeah, it does," he decided. Then he shrugged, "I'll think of a better word..." Hiccup grabbed Toothless tail as the dragon continued to circle on by, "if you give me a ride."

::Hatchling:: Toothless scoffed, but he allowed the extra weight and slowly pulled Hiccup around the pond.

::Going north will be pointless:: Toothless continued. ::It'll be too cold for you and there's nothing more I can do up there::

"We need to find your drove! Don't you think they miss you?"

::Perhaps:: Toothless said slowly. ::But it's been so long...::

"Not too long in dragon years, I'm sure."

::Long enough::

Hiccup felt something in his stomach—an uncomfortable unease, like he knew precisely of what Toothless thought of.

"What about that dragoness you mentioned—the "perfect one" you called her?"

::Lost cause. She was far too desirable, and I already told you of my friend—he's certainly gotten her, if she did not kill him in Primary. I'm sure she has a clutch of her own by now. Shame...we'd have amazingly strong dragonettes...with the bluest scales and the longest tails...::

Toothless sounded rather like Astrid, and continued to as he went on to list all the benefits of he and that dragoness having a clutch together.

Hiccup released the tail, ducked underwater and swam a little closer to the shore. He resurfaced to hear: ::...full survival even...::

"Full survival?" he repeated in curiosity.

He turned around, just rubbing the water out of his eyes only to see Toothless right behind him, the water lapping at his belly.

::Most die in the eggshell. The forming of their furnace is the most volatile process—any outside disturbance could set them off. My drakehood was filled with horror stories of entire clutches setting each other off, killing their broodmother—::

Toothless stopped speaking. He sat up, his earfins perked.

Hiccup managed to snap out of his disconcertion to ask, "What is it?"

Then Toothless smiled at him—teeth retracted and gums glistening. Hiccup had long-since learned to associate that smile with bad, bad things.

"Hiccup?"

His heart jumped to his throat just as something heavy seemed to have settled in his stomach, reversing the cool effects of the water. He saw his clothes piled next to a large rock and thought maybe, maybe, he could reach—

"Ah—! Aww..."

Too late. Astrid had just rounded the corner. In a shining moment of clarity, Hiccup had the good sense to drop down so that the water rose to the very bottom of his ribs. He scowled at her just as she laid eyes on him.

"Whoops!" she giggled. A hand went to her mouth to cover an obvious smile.

Hiccup had never felt more disturbed. Not even when Toothless was describing unborn baby dragons unwittingly killing each other.

Why was she giggling? He had never heard her giggle before—perhaps wondered how it would sound—but now was not the time for it. There could be no more inappropriate time for it!

"Hi Astrid," Hiccup said with his droll voice. He hoped she'd take the hint that he wasn't up for conversation.

"Hi Hiccup," Astrid returned with far more cheer.

She removed her hand from her mouth to reveal pressed lips, which gave away her struggle for composure. Clearly, it was the only thing she struggled with. Hiccup hated how completely at ease she appeared with his state of undress; elated, even, with the position she caught him in. He felt an annoyance towards her he only experienced one other time—a week ago before just before he introduced her to flight.

"This is a really nice spot you got here," she noted with all the air of pleasant conversation.

"You've seen it," Hiccup reminded her with irritation. Why wasn't she leaving? What was wrong with her?

Astrid grinned and placed her hands on her hips. Her eyes scanned the waterfall.

"I've never really appreciated it before," she said in earnest admiration. "The water's very clear."

"Odin's—!"

Hiccup turned around. He didn't know if she was messing with him or not, but he didn't want to take the chance.

"Where is your sense of propriety?" he called out over his shoulder.

Toothless had taken to circling him again, careless to Hiccup's distress.

::It's with her armored scales...which she's failed to bring today! Look at that...::

Hiccup bared his teeth. "Quiet you—!"

::This is such a fun form of your human, verbal Primary!"

"What?" Hiccup yelped as quietly as he could. "What are you talking about?"

Astrid's laughter rang in his ears.

"Oh stop being so priggish! I've seen naked men before."

Her voice echoed off the barriers of their rocky confinement; it somehow managed to augment his indignity.

"I'm not—I'm not being priggish!" Hiccup objected. But he didn't turn around. "And I don't care who you've seen naked! This is ridiculous—"

"Where did you get that scar?" Astrid asked. An honest intrigue had entered the conversation, one separate from her game of dragging out his chagrin.

Where'd he get...?

Oh.

Reacting on instinct, Hiccup turned forward again.

"No where!" he insisted before his shoulders stiffened at the realization of his action.

How see-through was the water? Should he turn back around? She'd already seen the scar, but if she observed it longer she might get an idea as to what sort of weapon gave it to him.

But if he faced forward...

Hiccup tried to coach himself into gaining control over the situation. Women had seen him naked before. What did it matter?

It wasn't proper, for one thing.

But since when was he proper? Toothless had a lot of influence in having him second-guess human ideals. His body was his body, who cares if she saw it?

But he'd be working with her for the duration of this war. That might make things awkward...

"Hiccup?"

He had been silent too long. That playful grin on Astrid's face had started to fade, and Hiccup remembered the question she just asked.

"Ah—" He couldn't tell her. He simply couldn't. Before he returned to Berk he would have never revealed the crimes of her axe out of spite, to keep from her the satisfaction of her blade wounding him.

Now, however, he felt he had to protect her from ever knowing what her beloved mother's axe did to him.

"I...fought some Vikings," he said quickly.

"Really?" She leaned against the rock, sounding interested.

"Really," Hiccup said. And after a beat, "No really. Are you really going to stand there?"

She was smiling again, properly distracted and obviously still enjoying this.

Hiccup's shoulders sagged. Toothless passed around him again, his earfins perked and his expression as amused as Astrid's, and Hiccup thought in idle defeat, 'What would Toothless do?'

Toothless would probably do things Hiccup didn't have the yarbles to do.

Verbal, human primary indeed.

"I'm going to get out," he announced. He had finished bathing anyway; his skin would start to wrinkle should he stay any longer. With the shade of red he'd gone he would look like an overripe crabapple.

"Okay," Astrid said, but she didn't move. Hiccup pulled a desperate face.

"Just...turn around for a moment, will you?"

"Alright, alright," Astrid muttered like he was being absolutely unreasonable and spun to face the large rock she just traipsed around moments ago.

"And cover your eyes!"

Astrid gave a long-suffering sigh.

"Gods above, you're acting like a common village girl..." But she slapped a hand over her eyes with half a smile to curl her lips.

"Astrid..."

"I won't look!"

She heard the sloshing rising in pitch and then the soft pads of bare feet on land. Picturing where he stood, she attempted to glance over her should with the most unperceivable movements of her neck.

A black wall greeted her sight. Her eyes came to focus on the dragon sitting directly behind her, his wings spread like a great, veined curtain.

"Spoilsport," she whispered to him. Toothless smiled.

"Why are you here anyway?" Hiccup called from behind his impromptu dressing room.

Astrid focused on the spot of wing where Hiccup sounded.

"I was just flying around in the Control area. We were testing out his mental strength. I figured you were here."

"We...so where's Chipwoden?"

Astrid sighed, finding this modesty act a little overdone by now. None of the other guys were this shy.

"It's Chipwood, and you know it." She had almost taken to calling him Shearcloth or Ripwraps or Ruinedmynewleggings, for as much as she came to adore the Timberjack he was too excitable with his wings around her clothing. As it turned out, her father showed the barest hints of favor towards the dragon when he found Chip's usefulness in gathering firewood. "He's off hunting something. I think he's fine on his own around here..."

Figuring that if he could mock her naming-choices he must be decent enough, Astrid stepped around Toothless. The dragon didn't so much as move to stop her, most likely sharing a similar mentality.

Hiccup's back was to her, exposed as he worked the tie to his pants—the only article of clothing he managed to get on in his time on land. She cocked her head, her focus immediately falling on that scar.

It intrigued her. It stood out starkly against his freckled back—a grayish-pink, smooth and shiny against a patterned complexion. Her feet brought her closer to the curiosity.

"I can't believe you named him Chip," Hiccup muttered to his feet. "That's the last thing I would ever think looking at him. I know you mean it an action but people are going to think 'description'. At least Toothless can retract his teeth. There's just no basis for calling a Timberjack something so..."

He continued to mumble to himself—probably to her—but at a volume indicating no particular recipient. He didn't hear her approach, just as she didn't hear his words.

Astrid reached out and her fingers brushed the puckered skin of the scar. Hiccup jerked at the pressure. He spun, the look on his face one of wild shock. Then it fell to warning.

"What?" he asked, guarded. He had taken a step back, no longer behaving with his modesty in mind.

Astrid stared at his chest as though she could see right through it in an effort to continue her observation. The line of nerveless flesh was straight, precise, and calculated, falling across the bumps of his spine. It was deep—she could tell just from that brief glimpse. There was no restraint with its delivery.

"What Viking did that to you?" she asked. Her voice had hushed as the severity of such a wound came to her realization. She wanted him to turn again; she wanted to observe that blemish some more, because everything she saw in that instant pointed to a killing blow.

Every move she made was countered by a guarded posture.

Hiccup's jaw clenched.

"It doesn't matter."

"I think it does," she immediately argued. "The length of that—"

"It doesn't matter," he repeated, stronger. "It was my mistake."

As he said it Toothless released a long, low warble.

Hiccup gave the dragon a miniscule shake of his head; they didn't need to think about that.

"What did you come here for anyway?" he asked. "Did you want to go for a fly?"

Astrid seemed to blink a few times.

"Ah—yeah yeah. I was...There was that maneuver I saw you use yesterday. I wanted to try it."

Hiccup nodded.

"Yeah, sure."

"Is it from your bow?"

"What?"

"You're scar," she reminded him. A recollection of how he carried that bow across his back struck her—they would align, the bow and that scar. "Is it a...a friction burn?"

She knew it to be wrong before the words left her lips. Stupid, even. That was no burn scar. Astrid knew battle wounds; she knew her scars from bearing and delivering.

"No," Hiccup said again, and he sounded more short-tempered this time. She could sense his discomfort on the subject, and that he was being so frank in his answering—not playing his game of redirecting conversation—told her she was trying his patience.

"It's just..." It was just so big. So particular.

Astrid needed to stop—she knew she did. Hiccup looked at her; his lips pressed tight, his eyes focused under a lowered brow, as though waiting for her to ask him one more time.

"...It's just that I...I can't get Chip to arch back in those loops. He's stiff."

Hiccup visibly relaxed. He saw the topic-change for what it was but appreciated her dropping of the subject. He pulled on his shirt as measure of finalizing the end of their conversation.

"It could have something to do with his frame," he said. "When he comes back I'll have a look at his ridge. You may have to alter your own body movements until it feels comfortable for him."

Astrid tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and nodded. She looked to the commonly used entryway of the cove, put two fingers to her mouth, and blew a sharp whistle at the forest.

Hiccup jerked at the shrill sound. Toothless' earfins flattened to his head.

::Isn't that a common way to summon those domestic, furred beasts?::

Toothless referred to dogs. Hiccup narrowed his eyes.

"You call him by whistle?" he asked.

Astrid allowed herself a small smile and turned to face both boys again.

"He called me by whistle first."

And then a resonant imitation of the whistle returned to them from beyond their sights, startling a covey of birds into the sky.

########


########

By the end of the day Astrid had pulled off that maneuver—the reverse-half Hiccup called it. Chip dropped her off home and flew back to the Safe Island, where dragons knew they wouldn't have to worry about a deranged Viking losing it and attacking them. She told him to return for her at first light and she knew he understood in that uncanny way dragons could understand humans.

Normally Astrid would feel more pride at achieving a useful, albeit showy, maneuver like the reverse-half, but something had weighed in on her cheer for the duration of her lesson.

She dropped her harness on the ground as she kicked the door shut with her heel. Her eyes fixated on the opposite wall—their honor wall, of weapons past. Her mother's axe was on that wall, left of her grandfather's shields and below her father's old sword. That axe was unusable to her; not only had she outgrown it but it now held a tragic sort of memory to it. It was sacred in a manner beyond that of lineage. It was the last memento of her mother.

Her feet brought her to it just as they had brought her to Hiccup—out of her control with her mind trying to grasp at something.

She plucked it off the wall, sighing in nostalgia and frowning at its feel. Her mind pushed the sting of its misalignment with her palm to the belly of her thoughts, and instead wondered if it had been used at all under Hiccup's care.

She spun the halt in her hand, observing every side of each blade, counting the unrecognizable nicks in the bevel. It had been polished and unused since, she could detect that much. She could also detect one blade far more braised than the other. She had always made it a point to manage both equally.

Her hand closed around the steel in pace with the closing of her eyes. She focused on its cool texture against her skin and was suddenly unable to keep down the rush of bitterness for having it stolen from her.

Why had that fool even taken it in the first place? An axe didn't fit him. That bow seemed more appropriate, even if he only ever carried it around like a child's comfort toy.

Her thumb traced the length of the more damaged bit, toe to heel, reacquainting her mind with its exact reach.

Her fingers had touched something of similar length not too long ago.

Astrid opened her eyes.

Why had Hiccup been so evasive about that scar? What Viking would give it to him? She knew what it looked like, what blade it appeared to have come from—she had battled humans before—struck them—but...no. It couldn't have been this.

Yet something continued to nettle her, something forced her to stare at the worn bit, the concentrated abrasion near the center of the blade, where it hit something hard.

Action seized her. Astrid swung the axe up, her shoulder rotating in a much familiar manner, and sent it into a support beam at a downward angle. The image burned into her mind: the length of the damage visible and its depth measured, where the harshest notch on the blade fell to the wood.

"What are you doing?" a deep voice roared from behind her. Astrid's shoulder's jumped, but she didn't turn. Her father had returned from the fields.

"Just testing something out," Astrid muttered.

She ripped the axe from the wood as effortlessly as if she struck sand; the sound of splintering may as well have been the sick squelch of blood. Mechanically, she placed the axe back on the wall and headed to her sleeping quarters, ignoring the splutters of her father.

She did not need to look at the mark left in the wood. She had already seen it once that day.

########


########

Vikings would never be of a silent breed. The Meathead representatives convening for a final decision in the Mead Hall whispered as only Vikings could—a standard indoor voice for most people.

Unfortunately, not even curiosity would quell the numerous murmurs and "whispers" of the surrounding, graciously separated, Hooligan Vikings, who's deep and rumbling voices kept Hiccup from picking up any sort of verdict.

"Feeling optimistic?"

Hiccup snorted at Fishlegs' question. His arms crossed in a show of impatience.

"About as optimistic as I get," he remarked. "I'm not overly worried, if that counts for anything. I think we had a pretty good pitch. And they're just about in the same boat as Berk was a while ago. We have desperation on our side, and their desperation should put them in an agreeable mood."

Fishlegs made a very dubious noise in his throat.

"They don't look like they're in an agreeable mood," he commented.

Indeed, they did not. Most, if not all, of their guests harbored deep glowers and often bared several yellowed teeth in a sneer during their heated discussion.

Hiccup shrugged. He could not recall ever seeing any other expression on a Meathead's face—no matter their mood.

"That's just their faces," he said with an air of decisiveness. "They're Vikings."

Fishlegs arched an eyebrow and gave him a slow, distasteful look; it was such an Astrid expression that Hiccup found more amusement in it than anything else.

"Are you saying Vikings have something mean about their faces?" Fishlegs asked.

Hiccup turned his eyes back on the Meathead clan with lips pressed to fight a smile.

"You're frowning," he pointed out under his breath.

"This is disapproval," Fishlegs deadpanned, "not anger."

"You're still frowning."

Fishlegs shook his head, his eyes rolled back to the Meatheads.

"When did you become such a fomenter?"

Hiccup took his attention off the congregated guests, not to look at Fishlegs, but to look up, where he could see Toothless lounging on the rafters. His lopsided tail swung off his stoop; his hide camouflaged him to all but those who knew where to look.

"I'm a victim of corrupt nurturance," Hiccup resolved. He spoke quietly but he knew his dragon could hear him.

::Sorry, I'm not sorry:: floated down to him from above.

"Yeah, I know you're not," Hiccup whispered back.

"What?" Fishlegs asked.

Hiccup shook his head.

"Nothing. Look, don't worry too much about these guys. Even if they don't agree now, they'll at least know there's a second option—one I know they'll be forced to choose when things get too dangerous for them. But I do think they'll come around to see our side today. They saw us flying around outside. I think that was a nice introductory. They looked impressed." Hiccup then grimaced. "Though, it probably would have gone better if Clueless hadn't fallen off."

Fishlegs gave a short laugh. "He's an idiot."

"That he is," replied Hiccup. "Come to think of it, I wouldn't be surprised if they try to throw that in our faces just to buy them a little more time to play the 'Great Viking Hero' game. We do need to account for that Viking-stubbornness."

This time Fishlegs honestly appeared exasperated.

"I think you have plenty of that for someone who says it with such distaste."

Affronted, Hiccup took his eyes from the Meatheads to say directly to Fishlegs, "My stubbornness—if there is anyis completely non-Viking!"

Fishlegs chuckled.

"You really don't want to be a Viking, do you?"

"I'm not one," Hiccup said simply.

"You think that," Fishlegs argued back, and Hiccup suspected his father wasn't the only one who thought he had returned to rule the village.

"Gudrid thought so," Hiccup said, far more subdued. Her name now sounded odd to him; he had two faces in his memory to match it.

"Who?"

Fishlegs' innocent question completely threw Hiccup off.

"The Elder," Hiccup answered, bleak.

Fishlegs remained bemused. "Her name was Gudrid?"

Hiccup blinked, shocked into realizing his error of assumption. Of course the Soothsayer of a village would drop her name and take on the title of vǫlva. He hadn't known her name either. Not as a boy.

"Yes," he forced out. "It was."

"Huh," Fishlegs murmured, noncommittal, and said nothing more.

The Meatheads continued to argue amongst themselves, thick, hairy, braced-covered arms thrown in the air during their animations. Still, Hiccup could make out no words for the noise of the waiting Hooligans, and read no lips for the solid beards on their faces.

"Sorry," Hiccup said after a troubled moment. Realizing that Fishlegs may need some clarification he added, "I'll lay off the Viking stuff."

"It's alright," Fishlegs shrugged. He knew Hiccup would always harbor a bit of resentment for never fitting in. Hiccup forged his own path in the end, but no one could fully let go of their past.

Hiccup shook his head with a touch of frustration to tighten his jaw.

"It's just...seeing the Meatheads, and Thuggory, just brought back—"

"I know," Fishlegs stopped him. "Thuggory's a lot like Snotlout used to be."

Though shocked by Hiccup's return and, more so, the dragons flying around, Thuggory moved around their village with all the air of a privileged heir. He raised his eyebrows at Hiccup, the younger's banishment coloring any of Thuggory's past opinions of him.

"He was nice to us to piss off Snotlout," Hiccup declared in a flat voice. "It took a while for me to realize that. I think...now that we have Snotlout's support..."

"Do you think he'll be difficult simply because of that?" Hiccup could hear the incredulity in Fishlegs' voice.

"I don't know..." Hiccup murmured. Truthfully, he did not think this at all, but an old fear kept nagging at him. "It sounds ridiculous. I have no idea if he's changed any or not, or if he would actually behave that way."

"He's practically chief now that his father's on his death bed. If chief grooming helped Snotlout get his head out of his ass then I'm sure Thuggory won't be too bad," Fishlegs said. Amazingly, Hiccup's felt much of his worry settle with that logic.

They went back to Meathead watching, trying—in vain—to figure their decision before it was announced.

For a third time Fishlegs asked Hiccup a seemingly unrelated question.

"Why didn't you use your bow?"

Hiccup's eyebrows lowered and he slowly turned his head to see Fishlegs staring at the muted instrument at his back.

"In the battle," Fishlegs quickly added, "on Sondag."

Hiccup bobbed one shoulder and turned his attention forward.

"Wasn't the right moment," he answered. The truth of the matter was he saw no reason to. He didn't want to hurt anybody—and he had an uneasy hunch that he may have caused more damage by trying to use it in the chaos that night; both in others' distraction and in his inability to truly control the amount of power he put into it. He had fresh riders to focus on, not harming dragons.

Fishlegs clicked his tongue, not looking put out in the least by Hiccup's less than forthright response. He too went back to staring at the Meatheads.

"Astrid warned me that you do that."

"Do what?" Hiccup asked in a distracted voice. Thuggory now seemed to be in a lively discussion with one of his aides. He was thumping his fist on the table, repeating some word that Hiccup could just barely make out...

"—You don't answer questions directly. She said you're difficult just for the sake of being difficult."

Hiccup scoffed. "She said that? She did? There's the pot calling the kettle black. I've never met a more difficult woman!"

Or a more perverse one. He had not spoken to Astrid since their impromptu lesson the day before, nor was he inclined to. He was still fairly miffed at her.

Fishlegs chuckled, looking warmly several faðmr down their semicircle where Astrid, Spitelout and Stoick spoke with eyes focused on the Meatheads just as they did.

"Ah, yeah, she can be a handful," Fishlegs said ruefully. "I suppose it's part of her charm."

Hiccup followed his friend's line of sight for a spare moment. Years ago he would have been in awe at seeing Astrid speaking with the chief, looking so comfortable with the leaders. He wouldn't feel surprised—certainly not with her tenacity and capabilities—but he would be awestruck nonetheless.

Now he felt pity for her; he knew how pedantic those political talks could be.

"She's not like I thought she was," Hiccup admitted. "I learn more and more about her everyday..."

Astrid liked being in the know. She had a sense of humor that didn't involve cruelty. She could be really easy to make laugh when directed at the right thing. She liked challenges, she liked improving, and she took the safety of her village very seriously. She still hadn't figured her life out, and she was still learning how to slow down.

"Yeah," Fishlegs said dismissively, having known this for years now that they had been central figures to the war together for as long. "She puts up a tough front for the sake of getting things done to protect the village, but when she winds down she's pretty fun. Underneath it all she's a bit..."

"...Mischievous?" Hiccup mumbled. He turned his eyes back on the Meatheads.

Perverted is what he meant to say but he'd rather not allude to that embarrassing encounter if he could help it. Toothless still thought yesterday's ordeal to be hilarious.

Fishlegs laughed, somehow knowing exactly what Hiccup meant.

"She hung out with Ruffnut too much, that's the problem," Fishlegs decided then and there. "But it's been good for her, I think. When your entire life becomes fighting you start to find fun in every other thing you do, you know?"

Hiccup wasn't sure if he did know.

"Speaking of Ruff," he transitioned, "it looks like she's taken to that Puffnadder and visa versa."

Fishlegs nodded, familiar with the development.

"She's calling it Fidget." At Hiccup's look Fishlegs added, "Because she doesn't know the difference between preening and fidgeting."

Hiccup snorted. "And how about you and that Brown?"

"Horrorcow—okay, look, I went to throw her a hoof the other day and she freaked out. She'll only eat fish and grains."

Hiccup let the name slide for his curiosity's sake.

"Grains?" he questioned, perking up. "What about fruit? Because I know Toothless thinks the idea of eating fruit is repulsive."

"How do you know what Toothless thinks?"

"Let's just skip the part where I redirect your question—"

"—because you're not going to answer—"

"—and you answer mine."

Fishlegs sighed as though Hiccup were the most insufferable person he had ever met.

"Fine, but—"

"We've reached a decision!" Thuggory boomed. It was an impressive volume of speech that even Stoick gave a nod of approval for. It had the effect of muting much of the sweeping conversations. "But we require some clarification on your part."

He said this staring straight at Hiccup. Hiccup looked to his father for permission to head this discussion and received an allowing gesture of his head.

He turned his own nod toward the opposite heir.

Thuggory began to summarize, "So you want us to use dragons to get to the dragon's nest—very ingenious—"

Already, Hiccup wanted to smack his head. He should have foreseen this, that the Meatheads would follow the same logic as Astrid. He caught her eye from across their distance and was startled to find that she appeared just as troubled as he.

"No," he said quickly, pulling his gaze back to Thuggory's. "I want us to work together with the dragons."

"Yes, yes," Thuggory waved off, restive. He pointed his aloft hand at Hiccup, recognizing him as the force behind the plan.

"So we ride into this demon's nest and tear her down."

"That's simplifying it," Hiccup explained with patience. "This is a process, and it is one that has to be efficient with time and progress due to her swift rising in power, but also thorough—because if you haven't bonded enough with a dragon, you cannot protect it from her control."

"Protect it!" Thuggory's laugh thundered along the walls and his fellows jeered behind him much as Berk had in their first meeting.

No one else joined them in their mirth—even Hoark frowned at the heir—and Hiccup's distain for such a reaction was smothered by the realization of how far Berk had come in such a short while. Hope kept him in good spirits.

Thuggory finished his laugh by straightening his posture and puffing out his chest.

"I think you're a little too progressive, kid," he said with the last of his laughter fading from his voice. When Hiccup showed no visible reaction to the barb Thuggory pushed on. "You've claimed to have been to the nest, yes? Tell us the coordinates and my men and I shall travel there ourselves to finish the beast once and for all."

"You need dragons to get there," Stoick said with about as much patience as Hiccup felt. "And you need Hiccup to teach you how to ride them."

"No boats," Hiccup added, having told them this already. "Remember?"

Thuggory nodded, but his frown was profound. He knew the reliance he would have to put on Hiccup. He didn't like it, but he could find no way around it.

"We can take a couple volunteers to the island where the dragons are safe—see if you can't bond with them...then I can show you how to ride," Hiccup offered.

Thuggory looked behind him, meeting the eyes of several of his staff. Some nods passed between certain men; messages were conveyed with the intensities of their stares. Hiccup held his breath as Thuggory faced forward once more.

"Very well," Thuggory stated. "We will do just that."

Hiccup couldn't fight the smile on his face. He wanted to look upward at Toothless, sideways to his father, and continue to hold Thuggory's gaze in a show of strength all at the same time.

"Great—awesome—you can sail over to the island. Just follow me and Toothless," Hiccup instructed, and then he turned away to Fishlegs, hoping his father would tend to their guests now and make sure they were ready to sail. "Fish, I want you and the others to come with—"

"Of course we will," Fishlegs replied as though there were never any question as to where they would be. He looked over Hiccup's head and waved Astrid to them. Hiccup glanced over his shoulder to see her approach just as his father moved to the Meatheads.

"I can't believe it," Hiccup rushed out in an excited whisper. He wanted to get this boyish energy out before he had to deal with either Astrid or Thuggory. "They're going—we have another tribe on our side!"

Fishlegs appeared torn between amusement and censure.

"I still don't like him much," Fishlegs stated. He could see clear over the many heads separating them from Thuggory and Stoick. Thuggory spoke to the chief of Berk looking aggravated with his own decision.

"He's always been tolerable," Hiccup somewhat defended the heir. Now that Thuggory showed the slightest hint of agreement Hiccup felt far more charitable towards the man. "And he's much more cooperative than his father would be."

"Thank Odin for small favors," Fishlegs muttered. "But I'm still not looking forward to the meet-n'-greet that's to come."

Hiccup grimaced, imagining some of the more swing-happy Meatheads meeting the dragons on peaceful grounds for the first time.

"Right. Neither am I."

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Hiccup held the piece to his face. The scales felt cool on his cheeks and jaw and the tip of his nose. He took a deep breath, feeling the air come to his mouth slower.

"How's that feel?" Gobber asked. He stared at their combined efforts with a mixture of criticism and approval; pleased with the overall product but unable to help himself from looking for flaws. This time they found the perfect temperature for what they needed.

"Alright," Hiccup answered with his muffled voice. "Very nice."

The blacksmith sniffed, nodding, but didn't smile.

"Fits you well o'nough. Still have to work on the straps—you can't hold it to your face like that when you fly."

"I could," Hiccup argued in an absurd fit of pride. "But I would choose not to."

Gobber rolled his eyes and turned back to his workbench where a flat of leather had been laid out. He began to measure out the thickness and width of a good belt strap to encircle a head.

"At the very least it'll match up with that body armor there," Gobber muttered as he concentrated marking out a straight line.

Hiccup looked to the vest armor. It was an experiment with a higher dragon-fire to human-fire ratio, one that resulted in a more flexible material than the mask and braces.

"Think I should put it all on?" Hiccup suggested.

"Nah. People might mistake you for a Night Fury."

"Wouldn't want that," Hiccup murmured with an exaggerated shudder.

A tail swept the floor and slapped at his ankle.

Grinning, Hiccup turned to face his dragon. Toothless was stretched along the wall just under the open shop window, resting in a slumber of the lightest scope.

"What do you think?" he asked, continuing to hold the mask to the bottom half of his face.

Toothless opened one eye but left it narrowed.

::Take it down for a moment::

Perplexed, Hiccup pulled the mask away from his face and observed it for any particular defects. It was smooth and curved, perfectly cupped to his features. It had been made in layers, several breathing holes in each which overlapped. Linen in between for filtering. It was the most effective method of diluting the poison. Not perfect, but far better than nothing.

::You rat:: Toothless snarled. He picked his head up off of his paws and brought his earfins to attention. ::You have that nasty mammal fur all over your face!::

Hiccup yelped and jerked the mask back to his mouth.

::It's because you're in your village isn't it?:: Toothless went on. ::You're trying to show off to your kinsmen! To the females!::

"No," Hiccup whispered. His eyes darted between Gobber's back and a dragon who looked ready to pounce on him. "No, I just forgot is all. I've been busy with the—the Meatheads—"

::You've been facing away from me every chance you get!:: Toothless accused him. ::You planned this and don't you deny it! Remove it! Remove it at once!::

"I can't—," Hiccup countered, and in his agitation he pulled the mask away from his face. "I'm working!"

"Stop making excuses!::

"I'll do it later," Hiccup whispered because he was aware that Gobber was no longer measuring leather, but staring at him as though he were mad.

"Hiccup..."

"It's not what it looks like!" Hiccup cried, turning back to face his old Master.

"Hiccup—" Gobber repeated as if Hiccup had never spoken, "I think I'm ready to try and find a dragon partner."

Whatever Gobber could have said, this happened to be the last thing Hiccup would have expected. The smile on Hiccup's face could have been likened to an excited twelve-year-old.

"Really?"

"Well I can't just keep using yours to melt their scales," Gobber said. He held up Hiccup's scale vest—scest—and twisted it so that the brown fire still warming the hearth reflected majestically off the blue-black body. "Can yeh imagine if every warrior o' Berk had one o' these?"

Hiccup rolled his eyes but his smile remained.

"Figures. Some people want to use dragons to conquer lands or to fly or just to look good...you want to melt scales."

Gobber sniffed and thumbed his nose. "Don't even pretend you're of a different cut."

"I'm in it for the flying," Hiccup defended. "And maybe to look good. The forge benefits were just a pleasant surprise."

::You're in it for the esteem of being seen next to me and don't you dare say any different::

Toothless was obviously still sore with him.

"Wouldn't dream of it," his human returned.

Gobber looked from Hiccup to Toothless with an arched brow. He must have transcended into an age where he knew better than to torture himself over figuring out that particular relationship.

The shine of Framherja called out to him from its rest against the forge wall...as she always did. Every day he saw that bow he would ask after it, and every day he would be rebuffed. It was the one thing he could not help but push at when given the chance.

"Was it a gold dragon that she was made of?"

Hiccup followed Gobber's line of sight. He spared Framherja a quick glance and snatched the save from Gobber in the man's distraction. He set to cutting along Gobber's faint marks in the leather himself.

"I told you—I didn't make it. And it wasn't dragon made either—" Framherja was the daughter to Mjöllnir, made out of a weapon's spark. "Neither of us had any part of it."

Hiccup lost focus on what he was doing because as he said it he suddenly felt, in some roundabout way, that they were responsible for acquiring her. It was their actions, their decisions—after all—which led them to one another.

"Well when will we see it in action?" Gobber griped. He appeared cross, sorely looking at the golden temptation but knowing how adamant Hiccup was about not touching it. "There are bets flying around in everything. Lost twelve penningar when you didn't use it in the first raid you were present for."

"That should teach you against betting," Hiccup admonished lightly.

Gobber snorted. "I take it betting wasn't one of the dirty habits you picked up out there?"

Startled, Hiccup looked up from his project.

"I picked up no dirty habits!"

"Ha!" Gobber roared with braids swinging. "A man who carries around that much drink certainly has his fair share of dirty habits—"

"I have good taste!"

"'And if I know you—which I do—the only reason you didn't take up betting is because you'd never take the chance tae part with anything of value—"

"I'm... fiscally intelligent!"

"A greedy ickle whelp, more like."

"Words cannot describe how offended I am right now."

"Man's gotta know his own weaknesses."

"I'm not speaking to you."

"Denial looks good on no one."

"Shut up."

::Toothless! Toothless! Toothless! TOOTHLESS!::

Toothless huffed, upending much dust from a rarely cleaned floor, and pushed his torso off the ground. He turned to the wide window of the shop with earfins flat against his head to show his distaste for such attention seeking. Already he was annoyed with his human; the Basic Brown diving towards them did not help his temper.

::What?:: he said with a growl lingering in his throat. Though it was low enough to go unnoticed by the whiskered Smith, Hiccup casually looked up from the worktable.

::Vikings!:: the Brown howled in the undertones of her roar. She gathered the attention of humans milling in sight outside. ::Vikings took them—they took the others and chained them and put them on their flightless carrier! They are going to Her!::

Toothless had turned away from the Brown before she even finished relaying her message and jumped to his feet.

::Hiccup!:: he snapped. ::Vikings took dragons from Safe Island::

The save hit the leather with a dull thud as Hiccup's hand went slack.

"Wait...wait what?"

"Hiccup...?" The laughter from their earlier bantering had died from Gobber's face at Hiccup's alarm.

::They're going to Her—the demon—they're using the Freed to find their way to her.::

"Who?"

::It is the new Vikings. The fresh ones with the strange symbols on their fronts!:: The Brown provided from the other side of the window.

::The guest-drove:: Toothless relayed.

Hiccup swore so loudly that Gobber jumped. Thuggory looked too gleeful at hearing of the dragon's ability to find the nest over humans. He would only see the victory in such a plan...not the long-term benefits of uniting humans and dragons.

"Of course!" he hissed to himself, furious that he had given so much trust. "Of course they did! Why didn't I foresee—?"

::Should we get your sire?::

Hiccup snapped out of his frustrated mumbling.

"We don't have time...we have to go. Gobber, get my dad—call an emergency meeting. Toothless—!"

Toothless was already at the door, waiting for Hiccup to throw on the saddle.

"Hiccup—," Gobber gasped, trying to make sense of the coded events. He reached out to the boy who had already started working on the buckles of his gear. "Wait! What's goin' on?"

Hiccup jumped into the saddle, out of Gobber's grasp.

"Tell dad that the Meathead clan may be heading to the nest now," he called over his shoulder. "I'm going to check—!"

That's all Gobber heard before Hiccup and Toothless took off into the sky, sending up loosely packed dirt to billow out from their launching point.

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A/N: I am back from my island-bound job and now have much, much better access to Internet! I would like to thank everyone who read and reviewed this as well as apologize for all the long, long waits between responses. I did what I could with what I had. :)

Two fun announcements!

Prophetofgreed was a fantastic human being and wrote a fanfic to this fanfic (of sorts). Check out The Elder's Prediction: www. fanfiction s/7250994/1/The_Elders_Prediction (erase spaces)

Also Jiven has created a TVtropes page for Hitchups here: tvtropes pmwiki/pmwiki. php/FanFic/Hitchups (erase spaces)

I know I had a poll in my DA page about names for Astrid's Timberjack and Chip wasn't on it. Those were all my reject names and I just wanted to see the general opinion on them. Chip has a very boyish personality, as Astrid learned from her time spent with him, hence the very boyish name.

So let me know what you think. From Astrid's theory on the scar to the Meathead's behavior to Stoick and Hiccup's talk. Now we're getting closer to the final showdown!