Atoned

Thunder rolled across sable skies—deep, almost warm in its rumble, like a promise to settle the fire with rain.

Toothless cared nothing for the flames dotting the sea and land. He did not care about how many human lives were lost or how many dragons perished in the explosion. For a single, detached moment, Toothless could feel nothing but pain; he only knew that his body hurt, his head hurt, and his tail hurt.

Another sensation prickled to life. Wetness lapped at his belly and legs, and Toothless was reminded of the harsh landing against rock imbedded shores—a landing that left him stunned and dazed in shallow waters

A low moan trundled from his throat as his conscious continued its recuperation.

The sky cracked overhead, the heavens opened, and rain fell. Droplets struck Toothless' eyes repeatedly; he blinked and squinted as he dragged his body from the shallow waters. It took a surprisingly long time to cover the short distance to land. The water felt thick around his tired legs and his body demanded that he rest.

Another heart-wrenching groan moved his throat.

His boy...

Awareness came more quickly. Toothless hastened his limp onto land, pulling together his bearings and memories.

Dozens of faceless Vikings stood before him. They watched him, watched the sea, blood and tear streaked faces turned toward the carnage. They searched as Toothless searched—without actually seeing anything, their minds blotting out the wreckage for their hearts' sake and their eyes seeking familiar faces.

Toothless saw Hiccup's sire; the man was soaked and stained, cut and burned, with blood to darken his beard. He stared at Toothless in horror, probably expecting his son to be with the Night Fury.

But Toothless didn't have Hiccup—a fact he was all too aware of.

Against his agony, the dragon limped toward the cluster of humans. The fire-forger and the female stood out to him, the bonded dragons and the alpha youngling and the large intellect all distinctive. But no Hiccup.

Mumbles in Hiccup's language arose from the crowd.

"Where is he?"

"I don't understand—"

"There's no way, it can't be—"

::Where's Hiccup?:: Toothless barked at them. ::Where is he?::

The stupid humans could not understand him. Vexed, Toothless turned to the silent stone flue from which smoke continued to billow.

::Hiccup!:: he called, begging the landmark for an answer. ::Hiccup!::

Toothless sniffed and sniffed, his nose moving from ground to air, and warbled out his human's name again and again—but Hiccup was not among them.

"Toothless—Toothless, stop—he's not here—he's not..." Astrid had tears in her eyes. She looked as lost as he felt but she couldn't understand—noneof them could.

::HICCUP! You answer me right now!:: Toothless tried to roar. It sounded more like a whimper.

"Toothless please," Astrid begged. She acted as though he were making the truth more difficult to accept.

Hiccup was alive. Toothless would know if he were dead. He just had to find him.

The Night Fury swallowed the dense air and suddenly found it hard to breathe. His throat ached from the movement—he overworked his chamber and his fireholes were raw. He felt as if he wouldn't be able to breath flame for days.

Where was Hiccup last? Toothless asked himself. He closed his eyes and thought—because Hiccup did the same thing when he thought—and Toothless quickly found the lack of visual stimulus helpful in dredging up those final moments before he struck ground.

...A different pressure against his shoulders. Lighter. Hiccup fell. He hadn't realized, even after the snaps of that human fastener...

A very odd feeling came over Toothless as he remembered—like he himself was falling. Anxiety, mingled with hope, filled his breast and tingled his limbs, heightened to the point where he could uncomfortably feel it. Toothless didn't know if he felt such a potent combination because of all the humans that currently surrounded him, or because of his time with Hiccup.

...Not until the weight had left him, a part of himself gone, did Toothless know something as wrong...

Toothless' earfins flicked towards the sea, picking up signals his mind had yet to follow.

...The mouth rose from the tract of smoke, every bit as horrible as Toothless remembered, and took him. It took Hiccup. It took him...

He turned to the darkened water. His nostrils flared. The blackness beneath pitched.

...a stupendous crash of water...

Water bubbled, crusted with salt and blood.

It emerged.

Ichorous water cascaded down curved horns and virescent scales, rolled down the twin, ribbed crests stippled in dark bone and dribbled along the ridge of sunken, clouded eyes. The long face of a prehistoric serpent rose from the water.

Vikings screamed to their gods and scrambled back. They grabbed for their injured and reached for half-useless weapons as the mammoth snout slithered onto dry land.

Toothless stayed. The fetid scent of eel never registered to the Night Fury, nor did centuries of instincts demanding that he fight or flee. Instead, he limped forward. Humans called to him, begged him to take leave, yet he continued. Toothless approached a time-old enemy simply because something entrenched in his nerves urged him to do so. Something he knew he could trust over logic or ancestry.

His faith was soon rewarded. For when the sea serpent opened its mouth, on its tongue lay the still and very-human form of a boy.

A weak, unintelligible noise tore from Toothless and he limped faster against reason to the mighty jaw. The sea serpent's tongue snaked from its cavern, moving the body between upstanding tusks without effort, and gently deposited Hiccup on the pebbled shore.

"Hiccup!" Stoick roared, and a number of similar gasps bloomed from the survivors. Much as Toothless had done, Stoick ignored every vibe from his body that bid for him to get away. He ran, limping horribly on a bum leg, and skidded to his knees by his son's side.

"Hiccup!" he whispered again. Stoick's hands went to Hiccup's cheeks, then his neck, and over his mouth, checking for air. The shallow puffs touched his palms like reassuring kisses. Hiccup unconsciously flinched at the touch, bringing more relief to the onlookers than he'd ever know.

"He's alive!" Stoick cried for the benefit of his tribe. "He's alive!"

No words could have been sweeter to Toothless' ears. He knew it, of course—he'd always know when it came to Hiccup—but hearing it spoken in Hiccup's native tongue made it more real.

Toothless lifted his gaze to the sea serpent. It had retreated back into the water until only its bony crest and eyes were visible. The Night Fury nodded; the gratitude he felt in that moment could never be expressed into words. A simple gesture was all he felt capable of.

Perhaps, because of this speechless show of thanks, the sea serpent did not reply in like. It returned to its home in silence, staring at Toothless with a milky focus until it fully disappeared into the abyss.

Hiccup coughed and took a shuddering breath.

"Son!" Stoick cried, delighted.

"Toothless—?" Hiccup moaned out. His voice was so quiet, so weak, yet managed to shock anyone within earshot. "—Where—?"

Toothless pushed Stoick's hand aside, nearly knocking the man on his backside in his effort to seize Hiccup's attention.

::I'm right here, I'm here::Toothless hushed, all the while cursing this horrid, human frailty that plagued his boy. It wasn't the sopping, torn clothes, or the slight abrasions decorating any exposed skin; Hiccup was so wet and so pale. Deathly pale, with blue tinted lips and frosted tips to his splayed hair.

...Did humans normally look this pale?

Hiccup's eyes never opened, but he smiled.

"We did it," he whispered no louder than a breath. A hand lifted; fingers as white as the bed of pebbles he lay on reached toward his dragon's face. Toothless touched his nose to the icy tips; he found the absolute chill of them shocking.

::We did it:: he confirmed.

"Hmmm..." Hiccup continued to smile, even as his conscious fled. Despite his paleness and the lines taking his mouth and brow, he seemed years younger. A great burden had been lifted from his soul, a freedom they never thought they would achieve.

Exhaustion settled in on Toothless as well. All the energy keeping him conscious went into ensuring Hiccup's welfare. Now that he knew his boy to be alive and in good hands, Toothless saw no reason to force his body to keep moving.

The exaggerated sound of spitting caught the very dregs of his attention. The last thing Toothless saw was the bow flying from the water as though launched by an invisible force. It landed, upper limb deep in the sand, by Hiccup's side with a dull color and no string between stave and nock.

But there was still life in it, just like there was life in Hiccup.

Toothless allowed his head to rest on Hiccup's chest. He trusted the humans to take things from here. It was the least they could do.

Stoick the Vast sat back on his haunches. His eyes fell to the bow; Snotlout warned him off this bow, as had the Speedifist boy. It was something to be concerned about—both its powers and how it fell into Hiccup's possession—but his curiosity over it was passing and he quickly returned to staring at Hiccup.

In his mind raged a number of things: ponderings on the sort of trouble Hiccup had gotten himself into, on his suspected involvement in things men had no business involving themselves in, on his services to the village, his complete redemption, on his heroics...his son...heroics...

Nothing could be answered now, of course; Hiccup's fleeting moment of consciousness was spent blind to his father's presence.

Someone in the back was telling the Riders to fly to Berk for rescue ships. Someone else was ordering a headcount, while another voice demanded they start treating wounds. Stoick kept his back to it all, to his responsibility. He chose to stare at the slight rise and fall of Hiccup's chest, his living son, and the dragon's head that moved with it.

"...Stoick!"

Stoick jumped. He followed the hand on his shoulder—a hand he hadn't felt—to see Gobber looking down on him in concern.

"You alright?" the smith asked. It was hard not to notice how unfocused Stoick appeared or how dispirited he looked for a man who just found his son alive after a death stunt.

"Aye," the chief responded. He blinked tightly and gave a slight shake of his head. "Aye, aye—this is great. Fantastic. But that—that—"

"Let us have a look at 'em, make sure they're alright," Gobber cut in. "We'll worry about all that sea serpent nonsense later."

"Aye," Stoick mumbled. His son needed medical attention—they all did.

He stood, stepped back, and allowed Gobber and Phlegma to begin an assessment of Hiccup's condition. Fishlegs hurried over as well, opting to stay with those marooned rather than follow the other Riders to Berk, and began checking over the dragon.

Stoick noticed that all three of them seemed reluctant to separate Hiccup and the beast. They worked around the dragon head for as long as they could, Fishlegs avoided moving Toothless until absolutely necessary. Stoick heard Phlegma say something about needing blankets or extra clothing, but Ringworm had just passed by, barely able to walk and supported between two badly burned men. Stoick looked, finally, at what had become of the survivors and saw the call for structure.

Now was not the time to prioritize fatherhood over chiefdom, not when his village needed him more than his son did. Stoick followed after them, certain Hiccup would forgive him for choosing to tend to others rather than hold his hand through this.

After all, it had been that dragon Hiccup had reached for. Not him.

########


########

Hiccup inhaled sunlight and a dusty, deeply sweet scent. He felt the fingers of too-much-sleep pressing into his eyes and the ache of lengthy immobility holding his body in place. His first reaction was to push out the newly invading senses and force himself back to sleep.

Something heavy thudded into the soft part of his stomach.

"Umph!" Hiccup winced through his sharp gasp and curled in around the thick, dark tail that struck him.

::You tried to die on me, you ungrateful Lun-a-tic::

The assault was forgivable. The boy grinned widely at the words—a smile so full of life and color that Toothless felt his body sag into the straw-mattress.

"Mmm...I'll try again tomorrow," Hiccup whispered.

The air felt so warm compared to what he last remembered. He risked opening his eyes to a world of light and warmth. His world—Midgard.

As his vision swam into focus Hiccup felt a surreal sense of displacement. He wasn't under Toothless' wing—a spot he was used to waking up in when he wasn't feeling well. Nor was he in his father's home. It took another moment of staring blankly at the overhanging bundles of dried herbs for Hiccup to recognize the home of the læknir, Bersi.

Still in a state of vertigo, Hiccup's mind wandered off at this revelation, realizing that Bersi was a healer trained by vǫlvaGudrid's son...he was in Gudrid's son's home

A soft gasp startled the atmosphere. He turned his head.

Gudrid's granddaughter, Thyra, stood frozen in the doorway to the outside world with one foot on either side of the barrier. Her eyes were fixed on Hiccup's, the armful of burdock loosened.

"You're awake!" she stated, astonished.

Thyra took one step forward before stopping short. She made to turn toward a spouted pitcher on a table and stopped again. She looked ready to move to him but then seemed distracted by the door—beyond which knowledgeable adults would be.

The girl internally panicked on her next course of action.

Hiccup swallowed and tried to speak, "Why..."

Why was he here?

His throat hurt, so he must have been out for a while. He knew why he was here in a broader sense—he was injured. He and Toothless fought the demon and—by Thor he lived!

Thyra grinned at the sound of his voice. Round, freckled cheeks puffed around a sweet smile, showing off two distinct gaps for missing teeth.

She leaned back outside, having come to a decision.

"CHIEF STOICK!" she screamed out at such a volume even Toothless jumped. "HICCUP'S AWAKE!"

Thyra shut the door with a delicacy to suggest she did not want to disturb the woodwork. Then she gave him another bright smile.

"I'm so glad you're awake—it seems as if you've been asleep forever," she spoke as she pranced barefoot across the room to the pitcher.

::Two days:: Toothless intoned.

Hiccup quickly felt the results of two days inertia when he slowly pulled his torso into a seated position with a small wince. His head swam with his thirst and exhaustion. Confusion continued to peck at him.

"Wasn't sure when you'd wake," Thyra went on, paying the boys no mind as she poured water into a pewter goblet. It seemed to take much of her focus as the table was a bit high for her and the pitcher made of a heavy ceramic. "Pappa said it could be months—though I knew better. And everyone's been talking about what you did. It'll be put in the books and songs! Though I'm not sure how much of it is true..."

Thyra appeared to have the unique ability to keep a conversation going without ever needing input from the other side. Hiccup was instantly reminded of Camicazi.

::You had quite a number of people check up on you:: said Toothless. He was curled on the end of the large bed looking ready to sleep, but his eyes were alert and focused on Hiccup. ::Your drove sees a lot of value in you::

Thyra held the full goblet out to Hiccup before he could think of some witty response. Now that he could see her in better light he took note of a birthmark tinting the underside of her chin.

"Why am I here?" Hiccup rasped, graciously taking the cup from her. He drank deeply and spoke a little easier. "I mean, here. Was I seriously hurt or—?"

It just occurred to Hiccup to look at himself. Aside from a sweat-yellowed bandage on his arm, stiffness to his leg, and bone-deep exhaustion, Hiccup didn't think he needed so much attention.

Thyra read his expression.

"You look better now, but you weren't so good before. Pappa needed to take care of you better so we had you put here—you and Toothless. And so many people wanted to see you—we always had people in here, you know—"

::I already told him so::Toothless sniffed, despite knowing she would never understand him.

Thyra snatched the cup from Hiccup's hand the second it emptied.

"Pappa's over at the Whittleman's fixing a broken hand. I've been taking care of you." Thyra's thick hair bobbed with each step as she returned to the pitcher for a refill. "I put the medicines on and changed your bandages, and I helped keep you warm...though Toothless did most of that. He was always on the bed. I can't believe it hasn't fallen apart yet."

"I—" A familiar and unwelcome harshness clogged his throat; he needed more water. Hiccup gave a couple of dry swallows and said, "Thank you."

Thyra smiled and returned the cup to him.

"Hiccup!"

The muffled yell was their only warning before the door banged open. A cluster of laurel flittered from the ceiling.

"Hiccup!" Stoick bellowed again, still retaining the volume of someone outside. The man's eyes flicked to the Night Fury draped across the end of the bed and back to Hiccup. "You..."

"Dad," Hiccup greeted with a weak smile.

Stoick walked up quickly with hands reaching out as though to take Hiccup in them, but he stopped himself just before. His hands fisted awkwardly by his side.

"You—you're allright?"

"Yes, I'm..."

Seeing his father jolted Hiccup's working mind. He picked things up faster—he was alive, Toothless was alive, his father was alive—and with that thought came the memory of the burning ship. The bodies...

"So…so did everything turn out okay?" Hiccup asked. "You're okay? How is everyone else?"

Stoick could read the cautious anxiety on his son's face. He sighed, picked up a stool by the wall with one hand and seated himself at his son's side.

"Lost a good number of men," he said in his usual gruff tone. "Maybe, maybe I shouldn't have pushed to follow you. You were right—we weren't prepared for that demon—"

"No," Hiccup cut in quickly, "no—I'm glad you followed me! I—we never would have been able to finish her off without your help."

Stoick rubbed a hand over his eyes, throwing off his son's attempt to mollify his conscious.

"We were ants...practically helpless against that beast. It was a massacre."

"You helped free the dragons from her control," Hiccup said strongly. He hadn't planned on explaining the mechanics of mankind's latent power to anyone, as he didn't quite fully understand it himself. "It's a...well, something happened when you did that—all those humans you brought there eliminated the threat of her army. I can't—it's hard to explain. But you really saved us there. We never would have been able to hit her like we did without you..."

Stoick didn't smile at Hiccup's admission or show any reaction to the gratitude other than acute sobriety. He focused on his son's face with such inquiry in his eyes that Hiccup had tensed before the man even spoke.

"Hiccup...what happened?" Stoick's question had hushed by the end, conveying his disbelief at the turn of the battle.

Hiccup couldn't answer at first; he didn't know where to start. His father shook his head, struck speechless for a moment more as the memory of his son flying into the nest replayed.

"Why would you...what was going through your head?" Stoick went on.

"I..." The answer was "not a lot".

"It was suicide!"

"I can't…" Hiccup looked at Toothless, who appeared just as helpless. "I can't explain it, really. It was more of a feeliiii—ahh—Framherja!"

The last morsel of energy Hiccup had been seeking returned to him and it powered his alarm. He jerked forward, pain shooting up his legs and back.

"Easy!" Stoick yelped as Hiccup hissed.

Hiccup hardly heard him. His bow—Framherja—something had happened to her. Something bad—

::...Here::

Toothless tucked his head under the bed and emerged with Framherja. Hiccup opened his eyes from his pained grimace and immediately snatched the instrument into his possession.

"What...where's her string?" he asked helplessly. She was flaxen in color, as though she were tired and unresponsive.

:: Don't know:: said Toothless. ::Something happened to her after we left that ice world::

"But—"

It snapped. Hiccup suddenly remembered feeling her snap against his chest and more questions came to him. He had fallen, so how did he survive? How did they get out?

::Your old friend caught you:: Toothless informed the unspoken inquiry. Hiccup continued staring at the bow with the most lost, incomprehensive expression.

"Hiccup, a sea serpent delivered you to us," Stoick said next, unwittingly in accord with Toothless. "In its mouth."

Hiccup jerked his words. Old Friend…there was only one sea serpent whose mouth he'd ever been in before. It found him. It saved him.

"A—it was a bloody—Hiccup will you put down that damn bow and look at me?"

Hiccup, who had been trying and trying to remember the sea serpent—or anything past Framherja's incomprehensible breaking—recovered from his dazing.

"Huh? Ah—yeah, sorry," he said in a quiet voice. He rested Framherja across his thighs, but his hold on her grip remained strong. She wasn't as warm as he remembered and he didn't like it. He wanted her warmer.

"You need to give me something, Hiccup. We're in the dark here. You flew off like a fool! The thing was going to die anyway, wasn't it? But you went after it anyway and then the volcano went off. Then a bloody sea serpent drops you off and you're ice to the touch. We almost had to take your foot—"

Hiccup yanked back the covers in a knee-jerk reaction. The movement pulled at the healing skin of his arm and incidentally slapped Toothless in the face with blankets.

::Almost!:: Toothless stressed, who did not like being jostled. ::He said almost::

Hiccup stared at his left foot, which was splinted and swollen. He experimentally wiggled the toes and was shocked to find the entire area throbbing from the effort. They were sluggish to respond, stark white. Patches of his skin within the splint were raw and red.

"Frostnip, Hiccup," Stoick said for his benefit. "You flew into a volcano and came out looking like a body found in a hard winter—almost ended up as one too. Your foot was almost beyond saving."

"But it'll recover." Hiccup wanted reassurance. It was the foot that steered Toothless' tailfin and he could not afford to lose it.

Stoick continued to press him with that demanding stare.

"That's what's more. It should have been gone. Bersi thinks so, at any rate. I won't pretend to be a healer, but if your recovery from it has him scratching his head then I'm inclined to do the same."

::It's me—us:: Toothless softly informed him.

Hiccup nodded absently. He escaped this time because of Toothless—because he wasn't quite as fragile as a human body should be. But only just. His leg did feel cold. He drew the covers back over it and for added warmth Toothless rested his head on the limb, now curled half-across his legs like a giant, black kitten.

Hiccup would not tell his father how extensive his bonding with Toothless had gone. He couldn't. He didn't have the words or the courage at this moment. He knew how his father would react; already he had been extremely tolerant of having dragons in his village, but pushing too much mystic on the chief was cause for sparking his temper. Stoick the Vast had a healthy respect for the gods, but very little patience for tall tales.

"Hiccup," Stoick prompted again. His impatience began to show, annoyed that his son continually looked at that dragon for answers instead of speaking up himself.

"I don't know what to tell you," Hiccup said. "I really don't."

"Don't give me that," Stoick said in a low voice. "Not after what you put me through. You have some fire-bow, you fought up there more like a dragon than a human, you go after that dying beast—lunacy!—and you make it out by some miracle. Hiccup, you have to give me something more than that."

"I..."

::Tell him something:: Toothless advised. ::He's scared::

"I did get involved with some stuff," Hiccup began carefully. Still, he had to wince with the pressure it took to form those words. His father's stare felt too intense, he felt too tired. "And...I know, I knew, a lot because it was told to me. By Toothless and by Framjerja...and..."

And by the gods.

Hiccup bit his lip—Gods, how would he say this? His hand went to Toothless' crown, unconsciously seeking the comfort of those scales. He missed Stoick's face darkening with his inattention.

A gentle knock rocked the insufferable silence. Astrid stood at the door with knuckles still resting against the wood.

"Am I interrupting?" she asked, looking between Hiccup and Stoick.

"No," Stoick said before Hiccup could answer. He quickly stood. "No, he's all yours. I have, I have stuff to do. Chiefly duties—" He turned to Hiccup. "Hiccup, rest well. I'll—we'll talk again when you're feeling better."

He marched out the door, barely stopping to give Astrid a parting nod.

Thyra, who had busied herself with crushing leaves, took the opportunity to dart in and refill Hiccup's goblet of water.

Astrid approached the stool Stoick just abandoned as the boy drank. The abrupt departure of the chief had offset her, as told by the careful way she took in his expression.

"Hey," she said.

Hiccup swallowed, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and returned, "Hey. You lived."

Astrid smiled, now more at ease. She had bandages all up her arm and a shiny, new scar coloring a corner of her brow, but her skin was well flushed and her posture strong.

"My life was never in question," she pointed out.

"Good to know," Hiccup smiled. He went back to petting Toothless' head. The dragon's eyes had closed under the ministrations. "Really, it's good...that you made it, I mean."

Astrid bobbed her head and tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear.

"So...you're now the first Hooligan of our generation to be called a hero." She said it as a passing fact; leaving no hint to her feelings on him snatching an honor many expected her to manage first. "Granted–no one really knows why you did what you did..."

Hiccup's hand stilled on Toothless' brow.

"Not…not now, please."

Astrid held up her hands. "I'm not here to pry—I'm sure the truth will come out quickly enough seeing how you're all anyone seems to be able to talk about. How much does your father know?"

Hiccup stared at her, startled. She gave him a flat stare.

"Going by the way he just stormed out of here, I take it you wouldn't talk to him either."

Hiccup shook his head.

"I tried but...it wasn't enough for him. So, how is everyone out there?"

Astrid allowed the obvious topic change. He looked too pale and tired to antagonize at the moment.

"All the riders made it out alive." She grinned. "Just wait until you see what's going on out there. We've had a lot of dragons stopping in these last couple of days—a lot of people are bonding. Fishlegs even has this Gronkle following him around—so it looks like he'll have a riding dragon."

Hiccup brightened at the news.

"That's great! Though, I guess I'll have to stay a while. At least long enough to make sure Gobber knows how to manage harness and saddle designs."

"You were planning on leaving?" Astrid asked. She looked at Toothless, who hadn't responded to the implication.

"Well, eventually," Hiccup admitted. He went back to rubbing Toothless' head.

"When?"

"As soon as I'm able, I guess." A look passed over Astrid's face; she didn't agree with this decision. Hiccup added, "I think I've left Berk in a state to take care of herself. I did say until Berk is safe, didn't I? Which she is."

"I think we still need help," Astrid countered. "Hiccup, the dragons showing up here is great and all, but not everyone is ready for it—not everyone knows how to ride or, or do all the tricks you do—"

"Then they'll learn, like I did," said Hiccup. "They have you and Fish and the others to train them. I have faith in you guys."

Much like his father earlier, Hiccup's words did nothing to soothe her. She continued to stare at him with dissatisfaction.

"And...and the Meatheads?" Hiccup asked, deciding to press a different subject.

Again, Astrid allowed it.

"Just sent them off home. But a Thing is going to be held in a few days' time—all the clans are coming. Not only to give them the details of ending the war but also to decide how the Meatheads should be punished."

Hiccup grimaced. "Wait, we need help with that?"

Astrid's expression told him she agreed with the skepticism.

"Well, they are arguing that their actions were responsible for ending the war, and therefore shouldn't be punished."

Hiccup scoffed, "Yeah, and responsible for the death of several good Vikings." Toothless' earfin twitched at hearing Hiccup say 'good' and 'Viking' in the same sentence. "Please tell me they aren't asking for a reward."

"No, they have a bit more tact than that, amazingly. Though..."

"Though, what?"

Astrid drew in a breath, crossed her arms, and turned her focus on a very dry bushel of Angelica root.

"Thuggory had the nerve to propose I marry him," she muttered.

"Thug—what?" Hiccup wracked his brain for anything that may have spurred the older man into such recklessness.

"In front of the village," Astrid went on, deadpan. "At a meeting."

"...are you?"

Her head whipped around to him.

"Of course I'm not!" she snapped. Hiccup thought she looked rather flustered. "After everything he did? I just—why would he do that?"

"You shouldn't have hit him," Hiccup stated. "Nothing turns a guy on faster—"

Astrid punched him in the arm before he could finish.

The same arm fresh in the stages of recovery.

"Augh!" Hiccup cried out and clutched at it tightly, willing the throbbing to ease. The bandages felt warm under his grip, the warmest part of his body.

Astrid's hands flew to her mouth.

"Oh gods—I'm sorry!" she gasped into her palms. "I wasn't thinking—!"

"Toothless!" Hiccup grouched through clenched teeth. "Did you see that?"

The dragon hadn't so much as opened an eye at Hiccup's pained cry.

::Verbal primary—I have no experience with this::

"What part of that was verbal?" Hiccup hissed. He kicked at the dragon. Or tried to; he could only manage a slight twitched under Toothless' substantial weight.

"He lives!"

Hiccup and Astrid both gave a start as Tuffnut marched into the room with arms swinging.

"And he looks human!" Snotlout added, following close behind.

Ruffnut came in last, rolling her eyes.

"Hey," she greeted in the closest semblance to normalcy. "It took you two days to wake up."

"Is that fast or slow?" Hiccup asked wryly.

"Well, looking at you now I'd say slow," Tuffnut decided. He came to a stop beside Astrid and gave Hiccup's condition a sweeping assessment. Hiccup thought the blond looked disappointed.

"Not nearly as exciting as the rumors, is he?" Ruffnut asked her brother, speaking as though Hiccup weren't even in the room.

"Rumors..." Hiccup prompted carefully. He looked at Astrid, who shook her head. Her frown showed her intolerance towards said rumors.

Snotlout was more than happy to jump in with the answer.

"There's a rumor going around that they had to amputate everything—everything—and now you're just a parsnip waiting to die."

"What?"

"They started that rumor," Ruffnut inflected before Snotlout or Tuffnut could elaborate. She nudged her prominent chin at him. "So how are you actually doing? You do have all your limbs, don't you?"

"Yes," Hiccup deadpanned.

"Because we just passed your dad and he didn't look too happy."

Hiccup exhaled audibly. "Yeah, you know—er, well, maybe you don't know—but it was just a typical disagreement. It doesn't have anything to do with how I'm—well, with my condition—"

"He's fine," Astrid intoned. "He'll be out of here in no time."

Only Hiccup caught the double meaning. He frowned at the jab.

"That's good," Ruffnut said distractedly. Her focus had fallen on some potent-scented horehound. She, nor the other two, suspected Astrid referred to anything but the hospice.

"Dude, I'm liking the ginger-beard," Tuffnut snickered.

Snotlout grinned, and Hiccup couldn't tell if it were mean or not; his cousin always had hard features.

"Hiccup the Gingerbeard!" Snotlout tried. "I like it. Sounds piratey."

Tuffnut nudged his friend's side, "Hey, he's got half the heroic hair. That'll match his new status."

Snotlout's smile fell.

Hiccup grimaced as they jibed and placed a hand over a jaw that had gone from rough to soft seemingly overnight. He cast a nervous glance on Toothless, who had opened one eye and glared reproachfully at him.

"I'll fix it later," Hiccup mumbled.

"Don't," said Ruffnut, having heard him. "I like it."

Her brother scoffed.

"Why? Because Tumble's a gingerbeard too?"

Ruffnut threw her elbow into his side.

"Screw off!" she bit out.

"Ow—you gnome!"

"Where's Fish?" Astrid asked Snotlout over their bickering.

"Hounding Gobber for saddle designs," answered Snotlout. "He's not going to get it, though. Gobber's already swamped—"

"Oh yeah," Tuffnut cut in. He had one hand holding his sister by her cheek with his head cocked to the side from the force of her pulling his hair. "Hiccup, you better be prepared for him to barge in here."

"He's already taken a dozen measurements of that Gronkle," Ruffnut added, muffled by her brother's hold on her cheek, before she bit at Tuffnut's hand. He retracted it quickly.

"He'll want your help with designs," Tuff finished.

Hiccup groaned and fell back on the bed. He decided he had woken up a day too early. He wanted to go back to sleep.

"Too many people!"

For the umpteenth time since he woke up, Hiccup was treated to an unexpected voice by the door. He couldn't see due to Snotlout's broad torso blocking his view, but he knew the voice well by now. Thyra marched into the room, into his sight, having returned from the well with more water for the pitcher. She placed the bucket under the table.

"What?" Tuffnut said dumbly.

"Too many people," Thyra repeated and with one hand on her hip, she thrust her other out to point towards the door. "You all have to leave."

She stuck her chin in the air as she spoke. Hiccup received the general impression that she acted on examples set by her father.

"We just got here," Astrid pointed out.

At the same time Ruffnut said, "We were just visiting."

Thyra appeared to swell with the next breath she took, drawing strength to face off against women far older and larger than she.

"This is not the Mead Hall!" Definitely her father's words. "And he just woke up—he needs to rest!"

"Well it's not like he's doing much besides laying there," Snotlout said with a flippant wave of his hand.

::I'm with the man-ling on this:: Toothless sighed tiredly. Dragons had their own methods of recovery, even then the injuries weren't visible. And it required a lot of rest. ::Too many::

"They're called children," Hiccup whispered, but he felt inclined to agree. Now that he was lying down sleep sounded really, really good, no matter that he'd just slept nearly three days.

Thyra marched right up to Snotlout and hit him with the nearest thing she could get her hands on—a handful of tied pepperwort buds.

Snotlout looked at the wilted stems in her hands, then at Tuffnut, who had sucked in a startled breath, and then back at Thyra.

He barely felt the plant against his furs; it was the action itself that left him bemused.

"I am your future chief!" Snotlout declared with his voice raised in an effort to intimidate her.

"And I am your future healer!" Thyra hit him again with the pepperwort. A few flowerheads shook free. "And if you don't want me to let you die someday, then you will listen to me!"

Tuffnut lost the will to hold in his laugh.

"Oh, she has you there," Ruffnut snickered.

"We'll leave," Astrid assured the girl. Her voice was soft and soothing but Hiccup could see the smile she fought to control. She stood from the stool and ushered Snotlout away from Thyra. "Com'on 'future chief.'"

"That was good," Tuffnut guffawed. "Owned by a little girl—ow! Shi—dude!"

Snotlout had punched the male Thorston in the shoulder, hard. Ruffnut pushed both boys none too gently towards the door. Astrid followed behind her, herding the group of them into obeying Thyra's wishes.

"We'll be back later," she said.

Hiccup lifted one hand for the parting just before the door shut behind Astrid.

His good leg started to hurt from the weight of Toothless but he was too tired to care. He watched as Thyra spilt water onto the floor in an effort to pour it from the bucket into the pitcher.

"You'll be a force to reckon with," Hiccup commented. "You'll be good for this village."

Thyra looked up with wide eyes. In contrast to the pushy little girl of earlier, she seemed to shrink in on herself. Biting her lip, she lifted the newly filled pitcher back to its saucer on the table.

"No one would have argued with Amma," she said. "I want to be as good for the village as she was."

Hiccup closed his eyes—because he suddenly saw too much of Gudrid in the shade of Thyra's hair and the shape of her eyes.

"You will be," he whispered. Then sleep welcomed him.

########


########

The moon had risen, shining and watchful over a village that had just hailed slumber. The day had been an exciting one for the villagers of Berk: their young hero had awoken—briefly, but his proven consciousness was cause for a collective sigh of relief. The village had been abuzz; hopes had soared for his aid in integrating dragons with their lifestyles and everyone wanted to hear Hiccup's account of the battle.

Yes, the inhabitants of Berk could only be exhausted after such exhilaration.

So no one would expect to find a large figure moving up the steepest path of Berk's tallest mountain. A dripping mass was slung over the man's shoulder; it left a trail of red as evidence of the midnight excursion, a trail only visible in the passing flicker of the traveler's guiding light.

It wasn't until he was a good and deep within the forests that Stoick dared light his torch. It would not do to have anyone catch sight of his burden.

The chief limped up the last steps to the shrine. The leg injury he sustained in the Battle of the Nest had not healed enough for such a trek and this would likely set him back in his recovery. Every step since he left the village had caused him pain—because every step he thought of Hiccup... of his frail, broken body being laid before his feet by the tongue of a sea serpent.

His son had nearly died.

Valka had died on that island—the very same island. At the mouth of a beast. Of that beast. The demon Hiccup had warned them of. The demon Stoick had seen just days before.

He tried not to picture it: the image of his wife dropped into the gaping, gargantuan maw. He tried not to think of how she likely died in terror.

He missed her; he missed her dearly. For a very long while, Stoick didn't know if he could differentiate between love and longing, as he felt both in equal amounts when it came to Valka—before and after her death.

She left him repeatedly in their life together, but she always came back. Always, until the day he learned where loss deviated from leaving. Loss never came back. It was the hardest lesson he ever learned.

For two horribly cruel years Stoick had tried to come to terms with the fact that he lost his son as well.

But Hiccup came back—he returned a hero, more of a man than Stoick could have hoped for, and, in a twisted sense, the son he always wanted.

It was a sign. An opportunity. A blessing.

Stoick pushed his hand against a broken stone as he came to the clearing atop their outdoor hof. The circle of cow skulls leered at him, even more sinister in the dark. The moon made the bone glow and the hollows of their eyes deep and sucking.

Stoick pulled his attention to a tablet of stone positioned between two hörgr. He shouldered his burden onto the altar and it hit the post with a heavy slap. The head lolled off the edge, a useless tongue peeking between coarse-haired lips.

Hiccup couldn't leave. Not now. Not when he had just returned. It was too soon. An old wound had reopened on that blustery evening when he first reunited with son, in this very spot. It could heal right this time if it was properly cared for. If he had his son with him, if he were a part of Hiccup's day to day life.

Who knew what Hiccup would get up to out there, too far from his father's protection.

Stoick lifted bloodstained fingers to the sky, his head bent over his sacrifice.

Hiccup wouldn't speak to him. Stoick had his boy back and yet they were still worlds apart. So he would reach out to Hiccup the only way he suspected the youth would listen: through the very elements he feared Hiccup had gotten mixed up in.

Stoick closed his eyes and began to speak.

"Please, gods—Odin—any who reside in the realm of Asgard, I ask that you answer my prayer. Don't take my boy from me."

Something had happened in that Nest. Something unnatural had hurt them, something unexplainable. Hiccup hardly seemed fazed when told a sea serpent had delivered him back to the village, and that boded ill to Stoick.

"Keep him here," Stoick begged. He tried to focus, tried to keep down the horrors of whatever else Hiccup could get caught up in whilst off on his own. "Keep Hiccup here!" He didn't want to lose his son again. He was given a second chance. He would do better. He would listen, be there for him... "Please, please... Please don't take my boy from me again..."

The wind picked up, early and warm for an autumn wind. Decorative bones rattled under the force of it.

Beneath the dancing braids of his beard, Stoick smiled.

########


########

Toothless prodded the newly exposed skin with his muzzle. His nose wrinkled at the fetid scent swelling from the thick yellow clinging to the wound's edges.

::That is disgusting—::

"Toothless..." Hiccup pushed the dragon away with his free hand. "Leave it."

::Why is it doing that?::

Hiccup looked at the wide gash in his arm, recently revealed as Bersi set to getting him fresh bandages. Usually after three days the blood would have clotted and the beginnings of a scab would appear, but this was still moist and now stung with juices and puss.

"I'm not sure," he said under his breath. He kept his eyes on Bersi rummaging through a basket of clean cloths.

::I don't like its smell::

"It'll heal. It just needs to be treated."

::Well if you just let me—::

"You're not licking it," said Hiccup quickly. He pulled a face at the thought for even he could smell it. "Why would you want to?"

:: Because rubbing things into it that you plucked from trees or pulled from the ground is stupid::

"It actually helps humans. You should try listening to me some time," Hiccup whispered. He brought a hand up to hover over the throbbing area.

"Oi! No touchin'!"

Hiccup jerked at Bersi's bark. The man had returned bearing a small bowl of cypress-oil extract.

::I'm hungry:: Toothless decided. ::I'll be back::

Hiccup suspected the dragon just couldn't take the smell of the infection any longer.

Toothless used his tail to pull the door open—a simpler task with one tailfin. It took only a little tug before the whole thing swung into the house with the full force of the wind. Toothless galloped off into the tempest, leaving rafter-hung plants to swing wildly and wooden bowls of seeds to tip over.

Bersi swore and ran over to the entrance. It took throwing his whole body against the thick oak to close it once more.

"Bloody, effin' weather—!" Bersi grumbled, straightening a few things as he returned to Hiccup. "'N' where is he goin'?"

Bersi laid the new bandages over his leg once he had seated himself by Hiccup and reached for the extract.

"To get some cod most likely," Hiccup answered with a shrug of his good shoulder.

"Hmm," Bersi sniffed. "I trust he'll be staying away from the hawks, then?"

Hiccup stilled. "What do you mean?"

The læknir set to ripping a good-sized mopping rag from the cloths. His head shook.

"All I know is our fastest messenger hawk wasn't around when we needed to contact Mogadon about that treachery incident. Now I'm not pointin' fingers—"

"It was him," Hiccup deadpanned. He was going to kill Toothless when the dragon came back.

"Your loyalty to one another is exemplary," Bersi said, just as dry.

Hiccup ignored the goad.

"But I swear there won't be any more," he promised. He suspected Toothless only went after the bird because Hiccup forbade him from eating it in the first place.

"How about pigs?"

"Pi—?" Hiccup started to ask, but his inquiry ended in a hiss as Bersi applied the stinging ointment to the wound.

"Aye, Munchglob was gripin' all mornin' about some hog that disappeared in the night," Bersi went on as he worked. He wiped his hands clean of the ointment. "Anyway, this infection looks like it's finally clearin'. Goin' by the discoloration o' your skin I'd have to say it was poison. Zippleback claw?"

"Ah, yes," Hiccup answered slowly, unsure if it were truthful. There were so many claws when he got these injuries...how was he to know?

Bersi clicked his tongue. He began to slowly re-wrap the wound in clean bandages.

"I should have been there," he said. "We could have come back with so many more—"

"Or we could have come back to no læknir—" Hiccup's counterargument cut off in a small yelp. His eye narrowed at Bersi, who gave the fresh bandaging an extra firm tug to ensure the wound was properly covered.

It was as gentle as a Viking healer would ever be, and Hiccup had to admit—his arm did look better, as did his leg. The swelling in his foot had gone down and he had been allowed to walk around for a bit that morning. Hiccup intended to walk out of the hospice before nightfall, regardless of permission. His healing had progressed to the point where restlessness and boredom became too prevalent for him to bear idleness any longer.

It would be best to set all his affairs in order before then.

"Well," Hiccup said, folding his hands in his lap, "since you've been treating me for full wounds I expect you'll want some tangible pay."

Bersi, who had just stood up from the stool, stared at him. Hiccup had obviously caught him off guard.

"I feel obligated to do yeh this service for free," Bersi responded after a beat. He balled the dirtied wraps and tossed them in a whicker basket already brimming with cloth.

Hiccup shook his head.

"No, no. The world runs on favors," he said. "I can't stand being indebted to others. Just let me pay you something."

"Then consider you saving us a favor, 'n' call it even," Bersi said in his crisp manner. "I'll not be acceptin' any pay from yeh, as I can't stand being indebted to others."

"Alright—" Hiccup grudgingly began.

"'N' you're to drink the tea I'll be sendin' Thyra up with," Bersi went on. "Do not argue with her—"

"Wouldn't dream of it," Hiccup muttered, Snotlout in mind.

"—It's yarrow 'n' it'll help yeh heal. I'd let her change the bandages on yer leg as well. That one shouldn't need any medicines."

Changing the bandages on his leg wound would require taking off his pants in front of a little girl.

Hiccup gave another long-suffering sigh. So be it.

"Okay, okay." He might have found it a mite awkward, but Hiccup thought it was nice that Thyra's father, and even her grandmother, played active roles in helping the girl reach her potential. "So I take it she's your apprentice? She seems to be in here a lot."

Bersi spared Hiccup a quick glance and went back to pressing some leaves.

"She'll likely be the læknir after I'm gone, but we're expectin' a bit more out o' her. I may know a lot about herbs, but I'm no vǫlva. No, she must take over her grandmother's post some day. My mother taught Thyra all she knew before Odin's grace took her, 'n' I shall teach her all I know before my time."

Hiccup smiled, thankful that Bersi no longer faced him because he feared an evident sadness would read too easily in his eyes.

"Your mother..." Hiccup hardly recognized the words coming out of his own mouth. "Did she—"

The first scream sounded from the outside world—high and female and quickly choired by many more.

Bersi's head whipped around to the door. His eyes narrowed.

"What the..."

It was as if someone took a wool blanket and wrapped it around Hiccup's head; he suddenly found it hard to follow the læknir moving across the floor, scarcely heard the door open or the augmented screams. Hot wind pushed at his face from the broken barrier but the muffling sensation that had overtaken his senses buffered its full effect.

There was a dangerous, powerful presence out there. He knew it, somehow, without having to see. It intoxicated his curiosity and threatened his instincts. It called for him to recognize it, to react to it.

"Oh dear Odin," Bersi gasped and it helped pull Hiccup's attention outside of his inner distraction. The man had gone very pale. From the light of the door Hiccup could see a dark shadow reflect in his eye.

Another scream joined the rest. Inhuman. Draconic.

Hiccup threw himself from the bed. The splint cracked under his sudden weight and his leg threatened to buckle, but forces beyond his own power propelled him onward. He sprinted past Bersi, who could only sputter at his patient running into the unknown. By its own accord, Hiccup's hand darted out during his movement and enclosed around Framherja's grip just before he cleared the hospice.

The winds were every bit as fearsome as they threatened to be. The ceaseless gust molded his oversized tunic around his body, tangled his hair, and burdened his hearing and sight. Though forced to squint, Hiccup would have had to be born blind to miss the cause of mayhem.

Rising from the sea was a figure of a man, and if it weren't for the panicking, shrieking Vikings surrounding him Hiccup would have first assumed it were a hallucination. He may just as well have still been unconscious.

The figure was a shade off of opaque, dark, undefined, and looming from the waters of Hooligan Harbor to stand at an unfathomable height. Nearly four-dozen rôsts tall, the only reason Hiccup could capture its full size in his vision was his considerable height and distance from the harbor.

Weapons were thrown; spears and axes hurtled through the air, high enough to strike at the specter's belly. They passed through the figure as if it were made of the blackest smoke and continued on their paths to plunge into the icy depths of the sea.

"What..." Hiccup whispered. "What...?"

For a moment, Hiccup could only stand and gape. The hair on his arms and neck had risen. He became acutely aware that all the dragons had fled—and that was a very bad omen.

Then the scream sounded again—the one that stood apart from the hundreds of human cries, the one that spurred him from his bed rest. Even from beyond Huge Hill, Hiccup could see the massive hand of this creature, pressing down on a trapped dragon.

Toothless.

Only his triangular head was visible between the thumb and forefinger of the entity; the coloring of monster and dragon were so similar it were a miracle they could be differentiated at all. But Hiccup knew. He knew Toothless' cry and his presence. He knew when Toothless was in danger.

A hole had appeared in the faceless head—gaping and black, wide and curved—just before a booming laugh rolled across the skies, rich enough to mock thunder and toxic in its presence.

The body leaned over, pressed harder, and another cry fell from the dragon's lips. The monster delighted in it.

A very strange thing happened. Rather than the panic or horror one would expect Hiccup to react with, Hiccup felt a calming power settle over him. A power of necessity—so potent even the wind seemed to have lost its drive.

Thought had abandoned him. Hiccup didn't have to think on what this creature was—if it were a horror that had followed them from Niflheim, bent on revenge—or why it attacked Toothless. Nor did he wonder how the string had reappeared between Framherja's limbs.

Hiccup's thumb found the familiar touch of the string's fiber and drew it back. Energy pulled from his body, energy he needed for recovery and it left him stingingly cold, but in that moment he could not tell.

He aimed and he released.

The lightning did what man's weapons could not—the intangible body swallowed the fire. Energy crackled like the popping of kindle; something within the figure lit up, and in that flash the figure had suddenly humanized. Sharp features, dark, groomed and handsome illuminated in the blink of an eye. Deep, gleeful eyes flickered of green and red.

Then it passed, shadow encompassing the silhouette once more, and any who may have been watching at that time would forever wonder if they had seen the face at all.

The arrow of lightning spread through the Jötunn's body as quickly as it had been fired, and as it died so did the figure. The Jötunn did not scream from the shot to its heart, nor did it despair as it lost form. Its body broke apart as smoke would when mixed with too much air, from the bottom up, dissolving the head last. A hysterical cackle escaped the yawning blackness of its mouth before it too vanished. The haunting sound lingered long after the creature was beyond sight.

The villagers' cheers began before the air had quieted, helping to erase the sudden and confusing attack. The time for questioning would begin soon enough, but for this moment they wanted to hail the redeemed son of the chief saving them for the second time in a week.

No one saw the ghostly, black hand of vapors—as tall as a grown man—shoot forward from the last wisps of the Jötunn's position. It moved through the air with an otherworldly disturbance, unattached to any arm, passing through barns and homes—invisible to humans.

No one saw it pass through Hiccup's body and continue on to the skies. No one saw the shining force of energy it took as its trophy.

No one, that is, except for a young priestess-in-training who followed the victorious hand with her eyes, helpless to stop it.

The inhabitants of Berk only saw Hiccup fall as though pushed backwards, the smiles on their faces dying with his descent. He hit the ground and Framherja rolled from his slack grip, as dull and dark as any bow made from wood.

########


#######

Hiccup swallowed a couple of times; consciousness came to him in a slow, rising wave. The usual post-waking confusion plagued him; he didn't know where he was or how he got there. All he knew was that it was very bright beyond his eyelids and he wasn't ready to face that light.

A shadow passed overhead.

"Toothless...if you try to lick me, I will kill you," Hiccup warned, feeling particularly grumpy. He hated waking with intense light on his face.

"No one here has any intention of licking you."

Hiccup did not open his eyes, even when he had the strength to do so. Gods, oh gods, he was

"Dead," Hiccup whispered. "I'm dead."

"I should say not." Gudrid sounded delightfully amused.

Hiccup gathered all the courage and daring he had left in his being and opened his eyes. He was exactly where he last stood—just outside Bersi's home—but the village was silent. Somewhere in his mind Hiccup knew the village was empty, that this was nothing more than a setting for Hugrvöllr. He sought her face without any care for his surroundings and found it, leaning over him, a dreamed sun haloing her with light.

Gods, she was every bit as beautiful as he remembered. Smooth skin and brown hair, clear, grey eyes looking down on him with fondness...

"Gudrid?" he croaked.

She cocked her head to the side. "Yes."

Gods, she was here!

He sat up with a deep inhalation. She was crouched by him. They were face-to-face—so close. Closer than they had been in ages.

"I thought—" He thought he'd never see her again, that she was lost to him in every world. "I thought you were..."

"Yes?"

Gudrid looked rightly concerned now; his behavior had thrown her when usually she was so adept at reading him.

She didn't know, Hiccup thought in cold realization. She had no idea...

How would he tell her? How would he tell her that he met her in life, that they would never meet as they were now, that she would wait for him in vain? That she died already?

Should he tell her?

"What is it?" she prompted again.

"Uh—" he cleared his throat. "What happened? To me, I mean. I—"

Memories resurfaced. Framherja returned to him, that creature—the giant—and Toothless—

"Toothless!" he gasped. "That thing! That—did—"

Gudrid pressed two fingers to his lips. Hiccup fought down a very inappropriate urge to kiss them because the touch reminded him of how soft those hands were to his mouth.

"Toothless is fine," she said, but even with his silence she didn't remove her hand from his face. Her fingers roved to the short beard, noting the new texture. "It is you that we need to worry about."

"Me? What?" The Jötunn kept returning into his mind's eye. "What—who was that?"

Gudrid took her hands to his lap and folded them primly. Even with a beard Hiccup missed the warmth she had taken with her.

"Loki," she answered.

"Loki!" Hiccup gasped. "Wait...Loki? Loki-Loki? What?"

"I suppose you would more readily believe a Jötunn with what you saw," said Gudrid. "But recall that Loki is a shape shifter, and one of his many forms is Jötunn."

Hiccup squinted in thought, still trying to keep up to speed.

"But he's a god. Why would..." His hand clenched and he realized the absence of his bow. "Oh...so I...?"

"You do not regret it," Gudrid stated in an observation. Hiccup did not appear remorseful, just confused and contemplated on why his actions were necessary, not their consequences.

He looked at her and his eyes flashed.

"Of course I don't! But why was Loki attacking our village? No—Toothless! Why was he attacking Toothless?"

He leaned forward, completely focused on her answer.

"He answered a prayer, as gods tend to do," Gudrid said delicately.

Fury like Hiccup had never felt before reared up within him. For a moment he forgot with whom he spoke and his aggression went unchecked.

"Someone prayed for—"

"No," Gudrid had a power in her soft voice that managed to cut off his anger. "Prayers are liable to be interpreted however the acting god pleases. Answering prayers are often nothing more than a whim to them. The prayer was for you to remain in Berk."

Hiccup gave a hollow laugh. "And I can't leave if I don't have a dragon, right?"

Gudrid rested a hand on his arm. "I am sure that was not the intent. It is rather obvious to all that Loki took this prayer and twisted it in a way that would force you to break your promise. He did it to attack Thor through you."

"He...he what?" Hiccup didn't care about the details of the prayer anymore or who had made it. For the first time since he woke in Hugrvöllr, Hiccup feared for himself.

Gudrid gave his arm a small squeeze; it did nothing to comfort him.

"You have Thor's favor," she said. "And anything Thor likes, Loki wants to see destroyed. They are gods, and they are children."

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Hiccup said miserably.

"There was a lot of debate on what to do with you."

"What to do with me?" Hiccup repeated. The phrasing had him alarmed.

"Well, there is the question of whether you should be accountable at all."

Hiccup regarded her for a moment. He was oddly reminded of the Meatheads, and how they had made a similar argument.

"I shot a God," Hiccup reminded her. "When I promised never to do so. Not with Framherja anyway."

"However," Gudrid continued, leveling a stare at him that told him to quiet. "Loki was in his giant form—giants, with whom the gods are destined to fight."

Hiccup perked up. His mind analyzed her words.

"It's like a loophole?" he said hopefully.

"In a way," Gudrid conceded. "You will be granted reprieve. This time."

"That's good then, isn't it?" Maybe this was a freebee? Maybe he could walk away from this with just a slap on the wrist.

"Reprieve for your actions, yes. But you have garnered Loki's attention as well."

And Hiccup deflated. "How so?"

"You will not be punished for striking him, and Loki has taken that as an offense. I warned you before, Hiccup, that Thor was attracted to you out of many others for your intellect. One of Thor's champions thwarted Loki's trap. And Loki prides himself on his clever schemes. He won't forget this."

"So..." Hiccup narrowed his eyes, trying to understand exactly what happened. "So because Thor thought I would make a fun hero, Loki decided to pick on me. And now that I won't be punished as he thinks I should be...he's pissed at me too?"

"No one ever said the gods were reasonable," Gudrid said regretfully.

"But...but how sure of this are you? I mean, you said before it's all about interpretation—"

Gudrid shook her head. "It is true that I spent my whole life trying to figure out what the gods wanted me to know..."

She spoke of her 'whole life' as Hiccup would his, as a significant measure of time. But knowing how long she would live, knowing that this was only the beginning, hardly deserving of a 'whole' as if it were significant, put into perspective his own lifespan. What was this for him? This time in his young life where everything was changing? A prologue to what he unwillingly agreed to?

"I'm sorry Hiccup." And Gudrid truly looked regretful as she spoke it. "I get more than visions, I get whispers. I know their expectations of you, their plans for you..."

Hiccup gave a humorless laugh as his irritation rose to new heights. His hands moved through his hair and gripped the strands in frustration—it was loose, as it had been during his recovery, passing his shoulders and dirty after the recent stretch without wash.

"Why?" Hiccup hissed. Despair settled over him. "Why me? I didn't ask for this—I never wanted this kind of attention before. Even as a kid, I just wanted people attention, not godly attention."

"You know why," Gudrid said patiently.

"But I still don't understand," Hiccup stressed. "I know I decided to free a dragon and...and help it, and that was w—" He stopped himself from saying 'wrong', "—weird...but I wouldn't have been the first. I couldn't have been, not with all the other people and all the other dragons in the world. Not for as long as our people have existed!"

"Others have tried," Gudrid agreed, "and died. You did not."

"I didn't die because—oh..." Hiccup deflated. "So Toothless played a big part in it too?"

"Yes, but it is more than that." Gudrid appeared thoughtful for a while as she worked out the best way to explain this to him. "Life is a series of choices, Hiccup, and it is through these choices that we forge our paths, our destinies. The gods create situations to force us to make choices, to set apart the people who are meant to play a bigger role in this world.

"Millions have the making of a hero, Hiccup, and their entire lives are composed of choices. Some of their decisions show them as brave and capable individuals. And then there is that one choice; somewhere along the line they make a choice that shows they are only meant to be a brave and capable human. The choice that a brave and capable man makes is not always the choice a hero makes.

"You made all the right choices...and the right choices are not always good choices, and the right choices are not always right for personal reasons. But they are right in defining what makes a Hero."

A lot of those choices were because of you, Hiccup wanted to say, but he could not let on about her future decisions as the Elder. Even as he felt his composure slip with every word she spoke, he knew enough to never reveal the future if presented with the opportunity.

Gudrid said she did the things she did because she wanted to see the man she spoke to now. Hiccup became that man by acting on her direction. It was a circle, one feeding into the other. The songs of old taught him the dangers of breaking circles.

Gudrid carried on, for once out of tune with Hiccup's thoughts.

"Attention is garnered with every favorable decision, and the more a potential hero pleases the gods, the more the gods will test this person. Hiccup, you must know that every choice you made, even as far as questioning tradition as a small boy, brought more and more attention to yourself until a god decided you would make a hero. And then you continued to make choices to solidify this decision. Even your last choice—shooting Loki against warning—was the right Hero choice."

Hiccup kept his eyes shut, wallowing in a painful resignation.

"I don't want to be a hero."

"No sane man does."

His eyes opened and they rolled heavenward. "Neither do the insane..."

Gudrid didn't say anything for a moment; Hiccup got the impression she was allowing him time to digest this fortune.

"So, now what?" he said, still embittered by the whole ordeal. "I'm a Hero, I did what they wanted. Are the gods done messing with me?"

The vördr looked at him in admonishment.

"You know, as well as I, that gods do not leave Heroes alone. Loki feels slighted by you. Had you been punished accordingly and had Thor lost a champion, then it would not be so. But you escaped his intended wrath."

Hiccup pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed for the hundredth time upon "waking".

"Did I hurt him?"

"Not at all," Gudrid immediately responded. "He is fine—furious, of course, though not by anything you did to him. Aside from gaining too much favor. He is more maddened by the ruling of the gods."

Hiccup was almost too afraid to ask, but he had to.

"And what did the gods rule?"

"First," Gudrid started with great heed, "You must take into account the facts of what happened not long ago. You fired against a god—but a god that was in Jötunn form. Then Loki took your soul as punishment. I believe he intended to deliver you to Hel."

Hiccup's breath stilled. He had not considered what had gotten him here.

"He killed me?"

Gudrid took her lip between her teeth. She seized both of Hiccup's hands and held them fast in her own. Hiccup was not comforted by the action. He was even more offset that she did not immediately respond with "no".

"Hiccup," she began slowly. Her caution came across just as foreboding as her actions. "Do you recall the day I gave you Framherja?"

"Yes."

"The day you were executed?"

"I wasn't executed, I was just hurt really bad," Hiccup corrected her.

"No," Gudrid's voice was barely above a whisper. "No. You were executed."

"No—"

"Hiccup, you died."

Her hands tightened around his when he jerked back.

"What?" He shook his head. "No! I was—"

"Dead. It was only through the gods' graces that life was restored to you but for a short while your body was broken and life gone," Gudrid went on hurriedly, perhaps under the mistaken impression that forcing the whole explanation on him would calm him. Hiccup tried to pull his hands back—he needed to stand, to pace—but she held them tighter still. "At Thor's bidding your body was healed and your soul returned, and you were given his token. The gods have granted you salvation once again by undoing Loki's deed, and in return expect your unyielding cooperation."

"What if I didn't want their graces?" Hiccup asked. Anger swooped through his belly once more and he had half a mind to yank away from Gudrid's support. He was sick of this, the manipulation.

"I know, it is unfair—"

"Why couldn't they just let me die instead of forcing me into their debt?"

"You made all the choices," Gudrid pointed out, as though he should have been aware that making unconventional decisions would lead to this. "And you cannot think of leaving Toothless now, can you?

She had him there.

"No," he muttered. Though it did little to cool his resentment.

"You died once, Hiccup," Gudrid stated again, "Your life could be restored, but it could never be the same after it was taken. The gods regard you as in their custody since that death. They simply granted you a little more time in Midgard," the unspoken 'to see what you would do next' hung in the air. "Now you are back in their custody—through heroics, yes, but you put yourself back here nonetheless—and the price for your placement will be steeper."

Suspicious, Hiccup narrowed his eyes. "What are you saying?"

"It all goes back to your sentence," Gudrid said. She had fallen into a businesslike manner. "You challenged a Jötunn, you are marked as a hero, and you are regarded as one of the passed. You certainly will not be sent to Hel."

Hiccup managed to keep all remarks to himself, because nothing he felt like saying in that moment would have been appropriate in front of Gudrid.

"Now, it is custom for heroes to reside in Valhalla," Gudrid said. Hiccup missed the sparkle in her eye when he hung his head. "You, however, seem more comfortable in Midgard."

Hiccup snapped his head up.

"Huh?"

Gudrid managed to keep the smile from her face but her eyes were bright.

"You may see it as a punishment or a blessing," she carried on, "but, by the divine order of Thor and endorsed by Odin, you are sentenced to suffer Midgard until Ragnarök. Then you shall play your part."

"I'm going to be in Midgard until Ragnarök," Hiccup repeated in an attempt to force his mind to absorb this. "But the gods see me as dead...wait, suffer Midgard? So...so I'm a draugr now?"

He felt numb as the horrible word touched his lips. Gudrid appeared highly amused at his conclusion.

"Draugr reside in bodies that are dead. It was your soul that was taken from your body, not life, and the body can sustain itself for some time without a soul. You will be returned while your body is in full health—health that was granted after your actual death. So, no, you will not become a draugr," she explained.

Hiccup visibly relaxed, but he could not fully rid himself of the tension that had accumulated in his time in Hugrvöllr.

"I'll be human?" he needed to clarify.

"Human, yes. But a human with expectations not commonly found in life. Your body was restored in hopes that you may champion the gods. Your soul will be restored because you have proven you can champion the gods."

Hiccup filed away the information. He felt incapable of thinking on it at the moment.

"Will I age?" he asked.

"With Toothless."

"Can I die?"

"You are, effectively, already dead," she said slowly. "But your body can be damaged, irreparably so, so do try to be careful."

Something touched Hiccup's ears, a voice floating in from the very air itself—young and sweet, but haunting.

Hiccup ignored the noise. He had too many questions.

"So—so I'm immortal?" he asked.

Gudrid smiled. "I did not say that."

"Right," he whispered, "until Ragnarök..." But how long would that take? What if Ragnarök happened tomorrow? What if he had been sentenced to one extra day of life? "When is Ragnarök?"

Fornu lag, mistakast ekki þín tilgangurinn...

Gudrid gave no indication that she could hear the same voice Hiccup did. She moved her head in the negative.

"That I do not know. Even the gods do not know. The plans are still unfolding, the prophecies still forming."

"But..." That didn't help him at all! "How will I know when Ragnarök is here?"

...Snúðu til baka, horfin sál... Aftur á við til mín...

"You will listen for it," Gudrid replied.

...Of snemma fóru þú... Góður vinur, ábyrgð ástkær minn...

Hiccup shook his head, rueful. "You are still so confusing."

He felt tired, so tired.

...Snúðu til baka, elskin minn... Góður vinur, ábyrgð ástkær minn...

Too tired. His fingers dug into the dirt; he struggled to keep his body in an upright position.

"You won't leave?" he asked. He didn't care how childish it sounded.

He was leaving; he could feel himself being drawn back by that voice. It was too soon. There were so many things he needed to say to her, but the energy to do so had been drained from him. He could only fight to hear her response, to squint through his swimming visions to see that smile.

...Taktu hendina mína, og ég skal leiða þig heima.

"I have never left you," Gudrid soothed. Her hand touched his face, cool against his brow.

"No," Hiccup smiled at her fading form. "No, you never did."

########


########

"The bow! It's-! Is anyone else seeing this?"

"Don't touch it! Remember what happened last time?"

"Oi...look! Look—he's moving!

"Shite, he's alive!"

"Back! All of you back!"

"What was that? What happened?"

"Well done, Thyra. Well done, lass!"

The scent hit him first, more potent than the words that coaxed him from rest. Fragrant and earthy.

"I'm back on the bed again, aren't I?" he whispered, hardly daring to move his lips.

::Ea, yes!::

Hiccup knew he was on a bed because he felt it depress the way only a mattress could when something inordinately heavy climbed on it. The mass dropped down on top of him.

"Umph!"

"Get that thing off him!" boomed his father.

"Leave that thing here," Hiccup coughed out under a groan. A number of gasps rose from the unseen mass of spectators.

"Hiccup!"

Hiccup finally opened his eyes to see Stoick stumble forward and fall to his knees at his bedside. The large man leaned over him, creating a dome of body and beard to block the rest of the world from sight. Hiccup found an unexpected comfort in this, especially as the large, dark mass that was Toothless further concealed him from the ribs down.

"Hiccup—are you—"

"I'm fine," Hiccup said in a stronger voice. "I'm pissed, but I'm fine."

It was evening, the lighting in the home was dim—crap, he was back in the hospice—but even amongst the ambiance Stoick appeared stark white beneath the ring of red hair. His eyes were wide and fearful, his hands wringing against each other to quell their shaking. His reaction to Hiccup's waking was far more exaggerated than the one of yesterday.

Hiccup knew who sent that prayer. And his father knew he knew.

"Will yeh all get the Hel out of here?" Bersi could be heard yelling to the pressing crowd held just at bay beyond his door. "He's fine! He just had a spell—"

"He killed that thing—!"

"Ask him what it was! Does he know what it was?"

"I'll do no such thing! He fell because he was still recoverin'! He over exerted himself 'n' there's nothin' more to it! Now git!"

Bersi's words stung both men. The chief knew, even when he could not see what the girl could see, that Hiccup fell to outside forces. He knew that abomination appeared in their village after his begging to the gods, and that it attacked Hiccup's dragon. Even Stoick the Vast, for all his headstrong and thin-minded tendencies, could read those signs.

Hiccup's eyes had taken on a glacial sheen. His stare bore into Stoick's conscience.

The chief peeked a glance over his shoulder, seeking to ensure some privacy. He couldn't let any who followed him hear what he had to say.

"Second mistake," Stoick said under his breath. "I endangered my entire village because I couldn't leave well enough alone."

"Not sure how in danger the village was," Hiccup replied. Loki was only after one thing, it had seemed.

Looking at Stoick's absolute shame, Hiccup felt more ready to forgive his father than he thought the man deserved. But any forgiveness Stoick should receive depended on one thing.

Hiccup turned his head to face his dragon.

"Toothless, are you okay?"

The dragon's tail flicked across the lower frame of the bed box. He snorted hot air into Hiccup's face and moved his head to rest on the boy's chest.

::My body will heal. You were in the real danger::

And before Hiccup could say anything in response Toothless darted forward and licked the exposed skin of his cheekbone.

"Uack! No! No!" Hiccup moaned helplessly, for Toothless' body weight had trapped his arms under the blankets. "I will have you removed—"

"Hiccup," Stoick called for his attention. His voice was grave and his presence dour, but it did pause Toothless' unwanted attentions.

Hiccup regarded his father with another stony frown.

"Toothless is fine," he stated softly. "And you're lucky. Or I would have been so much angrier than I am right now."

"I know," Stoick said under his breath. "I know, you have every right to be."

"Did you think I would stay here if I lost Toothless? That I'd be able to stomach it?"

"It was never my intention, son, I swear it—"

"I know," Hiccup said shortly.

"If you—" Stoick paused to swallow. His eyes darted to Toothless, who's stare was far more acrid than Hiccup could manage. Hiccup had to give his father credit for keeping so close to them with his face in immediate danger. "Can you tell me anything? Anything at all about what happened to you? Why you fell like you did?"

Hiccup turned his head back toward Toothless; it was the only way he didn't have to look at the chief.

"You got me in trouble," he said to the hanging herbs above. So much trouble. If not for his father he would have never been "sentenced to Midgard", something he had not begun to work out his feelings on. "There are certain things I'm not allowed to… to fire at...and there are consequences for it."

"So that bow—"

"Dad," Hiccup cut him off, "there are a lot of things I feel like I'm not ready to talk with you about. I'm still leaving. I have—there are things I need to do, for myself and for Toothless." He looked back at his father. The man looked fearful of his next words. "I will tell you one day, but there is still so much I have to figure out."

A large part of his mind was in denial about Gudrid's message. His heart demanded that he think of the consequences—of the pain he'll have to endure should he live past everyone he knew, of Loki's attentions and if the god would actively seek to taunt him. He needed to figure out how alive he was and if he could exist in this world without it affecting him as an individual.

"When will you leave?" Stoick asked with quiet resignation.

"As soon as I'm able," Hiccup said, repeating the words he gave Astrid.

"The dragons..."

"Berk should be fine," Hiccup assured him. "The war is over."

Stoick peeked over his shoulder again to make sure no one was near enough to hear.

"This is territory I don't think I can handle," Stoick admitted. "I still have to control myself around the beasts. With them dropping in like this...people are needing guidance. They need time to adjust, methods of taming the beasts. You're good at that...not us."

Against his will, Hiccup's expression softened.

"That's why you have the riders," he said. "Snotlout, Astrid...Fishlegs knows a lot... They're all here to help. I've taught them all they need for foundation but there's still so much I have to learn as well. This is a learning experience...now, where's Framherja?"

The bewilderment on Stoick's face implied that he could not follow the connection in Hiccup's mind. He leaned back and the displacement of his shoulder revealed Framherja, shining and strung and left against the wall by Toothless' volition.

::She's restored because you are restored:: Toothless said by way of explanation. ::As you are her counter part, her condition is relevant to yours::

Hiccup swallowed and turned his attention to the dragon. Toothless' tail continued to flick in annoyance.

"How..."

::It seems whenever you pull some crazy stunt that kills you or the like, I get dragged into it too. And turned into a messenger snake::

"Sorry," Hiccup whispered in complete sincerity.

The tail settled.

::Don't apologize. They want you to figure that fickle thing out—I want you to. You need to learn control. Consider it another thing to do::

"We have time..." Hiccup muttered with the barest hints of bitterness.

Or, perhaps they had no time at all.

"Time for what?" Stoick asked. It was becoming commonplace to feel out of the loop when in the presence of his boy and the beast.

"Chief," Bersi spoke up. A silence had fallen in the immediate background. The chorus of voices had been pushed outside. "Chief, if you don't mind I'd like to look him over."

"A minute," Stoick spoke up. He lowered his voice again. "Don't leave. Give us a chance."

"I'm not leaving to punish you," Hiccup said, exasperated. "But I can't just... live here. Not any more. Trust me, you wouldn't like me after a month of being grounded. We went over this."

"You're as good at leaving as your mother," said Stoick as his eyes lowered. "She would make the same excuses..."

"Dad, I'm leaving," Hiccup said with finality, because he wouldn't let those words affect his decision. "Why can't you trust me when I say I'll be back?"

"Chief?" Bersi prodded again.

"Because you never wanted to come back," Stoick whispered. "You did because you had a reason."

"I do have a reason," Hiccup whispered back, finally smiling. "You want me back now, which makes all the difference..."

"Chief!" Bersi's voice had turned abrupt.

"...I'll come back here as long as I'm welcome," Hiccup swore.

Stoick's face had gone slack.

"Well, well o'course you're welcome! You're always welcome!"

"Then you have nothing to worry about," smiled Hiccup.

"Chief, really!"

"Like I said," Hiccup breathed as Bersi managed to drag his father away. "I'm not going to disappear."

Bersi shut the door behind Stoick and released a frustrated breath.

"People used to listen to me...Thyra dear, you should be in bed. Come now."

With a start, Hiccup realized that Thyra had been lingering by the furnace. She looked every bit as pale as her father had, amplified by the warm colors flickering within the hearth.

Her father took her by the arm with a gentle hold and began to usher her into a far corner of the room where Hiccup could not see. No doubt where her bed would be.

"Thank you," he said to the læknir just before the man disappeared from view.

Bersi paused where half his face was covered in shadow.

"Thank Thyra," he said. "She sang a galdr to bring you back from wherever you went. She was quite adamant you were in mortal danger, against my diagnosis."

"She..." It was her voice he heard. That heaviness in his body lulling him back to their world...it was her spell.

"Never heard it before," Bersi went on more so to himself. "...Must have learned it from my mother."

########


########

A week had passed since the spectacle of Loki's appearance in Berk. Hiccup never told anyone the factual details of that encounter, nor did his father—who only had a slightly better idea than the rest of the village.

Hiccup wasn't wholly sure why he felt he had to abridge and alter everything for the public. Likely, the truth was so terrifying to him that he couldn't imagine trying to share it. He had dealt with disbelief before, accusations of hearsay; he had no desire to experience it again.

His arm had cleared and nearly mended, he walked smoothly on fully healed legs, and Toothless was back to bounding form. Hiccup spent his last days of recovery alternating between forge work, setting up Gobber with a number of blueprints, and repairing Toothless' flying gear. People came to him constantly—children asking for his telling of the Nest Battle, teens demanding he give them flying tips, frazzled adults shrieking at him about the behavior of a dragon and whether it was aggressive or not.

Fishlegs consistently popped up to engage him in dragon-related discussions—which he would have loved had he not had everyone vying for his attention. Apparently the widespread knowledge that he was soon to leave pressured everyone into heckling him.

His father wanted to spend as much time with him as possibly, as if trying to get his fill of Hiccup's presence before an extended absence. Snotlout would needle him for general dragon administration ideas in his own subtle way...which wasn't very subtle at all. Astrid continued to prod at him about the Nest, his plans beyond Berk, the injury on his back (and the amount she had figured out for herself scared him). He wouldn't answer, of course, but his silence hadn't helped quell her concerns either.

By the time the sun peaked on Tyrsdagr Hiccup was more than happy to be on the road. He stood in the village centre with his bags at his feet and a crowd of well-wishers pressing in on him at a barely-comfortable proximity.

The skies were clear, Toothless was antsy to get in the air, and he had managed to compress all his supplies into three bags. He could have done without the crowd.

"We should have left in the night," Hiccup muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

"I heard that."

A sharp peal and a gust of air were Hiccup's only warning before Chip alighted at his side. Astrid swung down from the saddle, her boots crashing into the hard earth.

Mongrel dropped down next, followed by Rippy and Fidget. Their riders dismounted just as Fishlegs came spinning by on a Gronkle.

"Wh-wh-whoa!"

The blur of brown and blonde careened into a high pile of stacked firewood reserved for the braizers. Logs tumbled down on them with a great crash that startled several dragons in the air.

::Amateurs:: Toothless snorted. The dragon was moving onto irritation with how long they had been in the village square saying goodbye to anyone who wished to see them off.

"Be nice," Hiccup pleaded. He called to the cloud of settling dust, "You okay Fish?"

A large arm popped out of the fallen wood.

"I'm okay," Fishlegs gasped. "I'm okay—are you okay? Yes, yes, okay, you're fine..."

The Gronkle, which had risen from a mound of steepled logs, shook its warty hide to shower Fishlegs with flittering bark and buzzed off to the shade of a nearby barn.

Fishlegs watched it go and sighed.

"Alright, we'll work on landing later..." he muttered as he tromped over to the group.

Hiccup grinned at him, at all of them.

"I thought you guys weren't going to say goodbye," he remarked.

He had, in fact, experienced the passing fear that his old classmates would not show for his send off—a send off his father insisted he get. There were only a handful of people he really cared about saying farewell to and they were among them. They had bonded in their time of learning from him, in those days before the Nest Battle and after. He got to know them as people, not as names and faces. On the whole they were still offensive, still capable of tormenting, but he saw them for their merits as well as their flaws, and he could no longer label them as childhood bullies.

"We thought about it," Ruffnut started.

"But we really wanted you to see Fishlegs on his Gronkle," Tuffnut ended with a snicker.

"Shut up," Fishlegs muttered.

"Which is a prime example of why you should stick around," Astrid said in a manner that told Hiccup she was trying to keep the twins from picking on Fishlegs, but only ended in Fishlegs hanging his head further.

"You're as bad as my father," Hiccup muttered.

"I think it'll be good if he left," Snotlout piped up. He received several looks ranging from annoyance to bewilderment. "No—not like—I'm just saying this is the perfect opportunity for us to see how well we can work out from under your shadow."

"Under my shadow?" Hiccup repeated dryly. He shared a look with Toothless.

::I respect his grasp on reality:: said the Night Fury.

"I'm sure you do," Hiccup chuckled.

"What are you saying?" Tuffnut exclaimed, offense written all over his upturned features. Snotlout slapped a hand onto the blond's shoulder.

"No, man, think about it. He leaves, he comes back, and we're all so much better than him—uh, no offense Hiccup."

Hiccup waved a hand. "None taken."

Toothless had taken to kneading the earth with his claws. The dragon was growing impatient.

"They need your help more than they're willing to admit," Astrid said, taking care for them to hear her.

"We do not!" Snotlout barked.

"We totally have this," Tuffnut crowed.

"What about the new dragons that come here?" Fishlegs asked. "We won't know how to ride them or the best saddles for them—"

"I'm not going to hold your hands through this," Hiccup deadpanned. Why would he know any better? "You'll be fine."

"I think," Ruffnut cut in. "What they're trying to say is that they'll miss you."

All five of the young adults stared at her. She placed her hands on her waist and jutted her hip.

"What?" she asked, defensive. "I can read a situation."

Hiccup blinked twice and turned to Fishlegs.

"You guys are going have your hands full, I'm not saying you won't, but you're as prepared as you can get," he assured them. "It's trial and error from here on out. You know how to communicate with dragons on a basic level, people will listen to you, and—"

"Hiccup! Do yeh have enough furs?" Stoick called over to him. Gobber was doing his best to distract the anxious father but Stoick was persistent in getting Hiccup's attention.

"Yes, dad," Hiccup sighed.

"Did you bring a change of under-linens too?" Dogsbreath cackled as he passed.

Hiccup shook his head. Some things would never change.

Unhearing to Stoick or Dogsbreath, Tuffnut jammed a thumb to his chest.

"Well just know that I won't be sitting on my ass. I'm leading the first dragon-back hunting expedition for the winter," he boasted.

"I'll be getting married," Ruffnut offered with a shrug. Her mannerisms were nonchalant, but Hiccup caught her sneak a glance to the wharf where her husband chased a couple terrors from the daily catch. A smile turned her face, slight yet wolfish. "Gotta break in a man."

"Oh, that's disgusting," Tuffnut wretched. "Oh, I'm going to be sick. So sick..."

"I'm going to go on a flying expedition," Fishlegs exclaimed over Tuffnut's moaning. He had a nervous excitement in his flushed, shining face. Hiccup thought he might have just gotten permission. "Next spring, I'll have my Gronkle trained and I'll be collecting data to compose a new dragon book."

"I'll be going with him," Astrid stated.

Fishlegs froze. "What? You are? The chief said so?"

Astrid blew a lock of hair from eyes. Hiccup saw them dart to Chip. The dragon cocked its head.

"He will," she said with absolute confidence.

Hiccup snorted.

"Well someone has to make sure he doesn't get killed!" Astrid said hotly.

Fishlegs' eyebrows rose. "I'm not going to get killed! I have Horrorcow and that Gronkle."

"She's right," Hiccup interjected. His eyes met with Astrid's and he knew—he saw what he suspected had always been there: impatience, a desire to prove herself in these new circumstances, the search for an excuse to get off the island—even if just to avoid falling victim to her culture. "It's not just dangerous dragons you'll be encountering. There are dangerous people, dangerous creatures...pretty much everything is dangerous."

"I..." Fishlegs looked less confident. "There are?"

Hiccup smiled, just barely catching Astrid's grateful look.

"I can't tell you how many times I almost died...even with Toothless around."

Said dragon sent him a sharp look.

::Well you certainly didn't make it easy:: he said with a scathing undertone.

The corner of Hiccup's mouth lifted. "Just keeping you on your toes."

::Can we go now?:: Toothless threw in.

Hiccup had just started a slow nod when Snotlout butted in.

"I'll be taking over the village," he said with an air more boastful than Tuffnut.

"Say that a little louder—maybe chief Stoick will hear you," Ruffnut sniped.

Hiccup held out a hand. Snotlout stared at it, at a loss.

"I'm saying goodbye, chief," Hiccup explained with a rough grin.

::Finally!:: Toothless crowed as he hopped to attention.

Snotlout hesitated a moment longer; he likely expected Hiccup to be insincere. After a bout of hesitation he stretched his hand forward and accepted Hiccup's shake.

"Oh gods, don't encourage him," Astrid pleaded under her breath.

Snotlout ignored her.

"Bye, then," he said.

"Bye man!" Tuffnut bid. He now had the courage to give Hiccup a hard knock on the back.

::Let's go! Let's go!:: Toothless started to bounce on the spot.

Ruffnut stepped up next and said: "Bring us stuff."

Hiccup leaned back.

"Uh..."

Before he could think of a response, Fishlegs took Hiccup's forearm for a quick, firm grip.

"Maybe I'll run into you while you're out there," the larger man suggested.

"We'll," Astrid corrected. "Maybe we'll run into you out there. You don't want to fend for yourself out there by yourself, Fish. We both know this—"

"But—" Fishlegs began.

"You don't," Astrid said, and there would be no arguing. Satisfied, she turned to Hiccup. "Take care of yourself out there."

Her arm jerked as though she thought about offering a handshake, but instead brought both to cross in front of her chest.

"I will," he promised.

"And...I hope you figure out whatever you think you need to find out there," she added, appearing slightly uncomfortable with the words.

Hiccup's smile softened. "You too."

Toothless hopped for attention.

::That's all of them. Let's go::

Hiccup moved closer to Toothless while shouldering his carrying bag. His mannerisms caught the attention of anyone within eyeshot.

Stoick jerked at the sight of his boy so close to take off.

"Hiccup!"

Toothless released an underlying growl that had those closest to him stepping back in alarm.

::When will it end?:: he moaned with dramatics he could have only picked up from his rider.

Hiccup rubbed the dragon's head. "Last one, I prom—"

His father had pulled him into a hug Hiccup hadn't been expecting. It was brief but tight and it left him stunned. The next thing Hiccup knew, Stoick was holding him at arms length. He eyed his son from top to bottom, memorizing the man he saw now.

Stoick gave Hiccup two simple instructions.

"Be safe. Come back."

Hiccup was spared from coming up with an immediate response by Toothless' annoyed input.

::Does he think I'll let you die out there?::

"Dad, you're offending, Toothless."

Stoick dropped his arms from Hiccup's shoulders and stared at the dragon.

"I'm...sorry?"

A kind smile came to Hiccup's face, one he couldn't help. A part of him was still very upset with his father for his ignorant and desperation-induced choice of action. But he tried; he really did. And he cared, which meant the world to Hiccup.

"I'll be safe," he vowed, much as he did to Astrid. "And I'll come back."

"You swear it?" Stoick urged.

"Two years," Hiccup decided. "I'll drop by in two years and see how you're doing."

Stoick nodded. "Seems a bit long...but I'll take it."

A new pair of helmet horns popped up from behind Stoick as someone approached them.

Hiccup's smile widened.

"Bye Gobber."

"Damn you," the blacksmith griped. "That's all I'll say to yeh. Damn. You."

"You'll be fine," Hiccup droned, knowing exactly what had Gobber in such a foul mood.

Gobber's mustache swung as he spewed his frustrations. "I'll never see the light of day! I'll be in that forge till the end of my days 'n' all because you had to bring dragons in as patrons!"

"You need to get a new—" Hiccup stopped, turned to his father and said, "You need to get him a new apprentice."

"Oi!" Gobber exclaimed.

"I will," Stoick promised.

Toothless took hold of Hiccup's tunic with his teeth and yanked.

::Let's go!::

Hiccup stumbled back from the pull and just managed to catch himself. Chuckles arose from onlookers.

"Alright, alright..."

He pressed his left palm into the saddle and used it to direct his body into the seat when he jumped up.

People called to him with their parting graces and well wishing. Hiccup wiggled his foot into the snug steering stirrup, checked Framherja for security, and tightened his knees around Toothless' ribs.

"Okay," he breathed for Toothless' ears. "I'm ready."

::It's about time:: Toothless commented, but there was nothing scathing left in his words. Both of the boys were filled with the same tingling anticipation a new adventure brought to them. The air tasted sweeter when they knew it wouldn't be breathed for so long, and their hearts sang for possibilities they couldn't predict.

Toothless' rear end wiggled a little with a juvenile thrill just before he launched from Berk's dirt.

Whoops and cheers followed them as Toothless' wings caught winds filled with the villagers' calls and they ascended into the air with soaring spirits.

"Hiccup!"

::I'm not turning around!:: Toothless stated, still climbing—though, he did slow some.

Hiccup never expected him to anyway. He swiveled in his seat, one hand gripping the saddle's rim for security, and looked down.

"Hiccup!" Thyra called again with hands cupped around her mouth.

Hiccup waved at her. He felt slightly bad he couldn't give her a more generous farewell. She had played an active role in his treatment.

Perhaps it was with great fortune that Hiccup was very far from the ground when the tail end of her words reached him.

"When you come back I'm going to marry you!"

"Wait—what?"

Hiccup did a double take back to the rapidly shrinking village, where the sound of his friends' laughter strived to reach their altitude. He couldn't make out faces anymore, and he took comfort in knowing they couldn't make out his because he was slack-jawed and gaping and positive he had heard wrong. She was barely ten!

Toothless chortled in his very human way of laughing.

::She is a vision seeker, isn't she?::

Hiccup felt more flummoxed with each passing moment.

"She—no—she only sees the present—"

::She is kin to the vördr. That has to count for something::

Hiccup resisted the urge to slap Toothless' earfins.

"You're ruining my good exit!"

::They can't see us anymore:: Toothless pointed out.

Berk had faded from sight. The air was crisp in the prevailing winter and Hiccup knew it would only get colder as they moved north. Within a day they would no longer see green. Just ice and blue and, with any luck, Night Furies.

"That's not the point," Hiccup griped. "You ruined it for me."

::I didn't ruin it. That child did::

Hiccup cringed. "Yeah, about that...maybe we should wait until she's actually married before we show up again."

::A promise is a promise. Two of your years, exactly::

Hiccup shrugged, determined not to let Toothless rattle him.

"Who knows how long we'll be kept up once we find your drove..."

::There is nothing in my drove that will 'keep us up'::

"I'm going to find that lady-fury."

::I'm going to cut your hair::

"I shaved! Isn't that enough?"

The bickering continued until they had to stop for food. They were back to hunting and cooking for themselves, the rough and simple lives that first brought them together. Hiccup sat with his notebook and Toothless lolled in the sun. They reveled about the times when this was their everyday life, and both looked forward to continuing with their old routine as they moved farther and farther from human settlements.

Hiccup didn't know where they would end up after two years, if they would make it back to Berk or if he would be sidetracked by fate's guiding hand. If he would be otherwise engaged by something important or ensnared by misfortune.

He did know that he would face challenges in the future; he knew that he could never fully conform to human society so long as his loyalty went to Toothless, he knew that his heart would break should he outlive those he cared about, and he knew he had to find balance.

Above all, Hiccup knew that, for all the divine intervention and manipulations and insights to the worlds beyond his own, his future was as much a mystery to him as the day he shot down Toothless. He would have to get by day to day just as anyone else would.

This wasn't the time to worry about when Ragnarök would come or his demise or about Loki. Nor was it the time to fret over what the gods expected of him. So long as he had Toothless at his side and time in his hands, Hiccup would fulfill every responsibility and meet every obstacle head on. Just at his own pace.

This was his time to see the world, to find balance in his life, to find a place among humans without compromising the life he had come to love. This was a new life; regardless of how the gods expected him to live it, it was still his. This was a life with family and support. This was a future of opportunity.

This was the Beginning.

########


#######

It. Is. Finished.

And. It. Was. A. Lot.

Small notes: Munchglob the morose is Berk's Butcher in Gumdropboo's series. She was kind enough to let me borrow him. Super ton of Norse mythology thrown in there. If you have questions, PM me.

Thanks, as always to Sir Nick the beta, who swooped in halfway through this fic and stopped the madness that was my grammar. And also thanks to Fjordmustang who helped with mental/content issues and Icelandic translations. Finally, thanks to Aronim who gave this chapter another clean sweep and really found some grievous mistakes.

I especially want to thank the reviewers.

This fic became what it was because I got more into it than I ever could have anticipated—and that only happened because of you. Your thoughtful reviews, the way you read more deeply into the plot than even I did often lead to more depth on the story's behalf. You posed questions that had me having to hash out my own subconscious reasoning to answer them. You kept reminding me—even if unintentional—of past mentioning's I needed to bring up again.

This wasn't an easy story to write. It started at a period in the movie where several characters were unstable. I wrote characters how they were in the film—not how I wanted them to be, but how they were—and developed them from there; I didn't always like the way I had to make them behave, but I was striving for reality above personal satisfaction. I won't apologize for it either. I'm proud of those characters, as am I I'm proud of this story.

As for its ending:

Hiccup is still learning to define himself as an individual. Both he and Toothless are so young and so raw to me because I have this universe ingrained in my mind now; I know the sort of men (er, and dragons) they are meant to become. I don't see their characters as final or adults. They're children to me, open to experience and influence and capable of so much more than we've seen.

Thank you, thank you, thank you all, especially those who have been with me every step on this journey. It has been an amazing experience and I'm so grateful I got to share it with all of you.

I'll keep writing. You keep reading. I love you!

#########


########

Greeting Readers! For those who don't know yet I have uploaded a series of one-shots involved with the Hitchups universe called Without a Hitch. They are not sequential in their listings, but they cover moments readers may be curious about. You can find it among my stories!

Without a Hitch

A beast moved across the dark northern Icelands in a smooth glide. His sleek build caused the press of the gales to roll off him, the impression of his tail and paws were swallowed by fresh snow with the next howl of flakes, and his color melted his scales into the night. He was invisible to all but one.

A man followed the creature several paces behind and with far less grace. He struggled against wind and snow and layers upon layers of fur, with a body far less equipped to handle the lands. He cursed and stumbled ever since he was made to walk, and breathed a sign of relief when the dragon finally stood still.

He came to a pause by his friend's side and sniffed. Frost coated the stiff hair above his lip, ever growing in the collective moisture of his breath.

"This is it?" he asked. Furs muffled his words and numb lips made them harder still. The travel from the village barely marked a rôst but the climate and conditions made it a journey he'd rather not repeat.

Toothless nodded.

"Where are they?"

::Look::

He was looking, Hiccup wanted to argue with no lack of petulance, but he knew this was Toothless' element—not his—so he bit his tongue, screwed his face against the blistering winds and peered into the darkness.

Another moment passed and still all he saw were snowflakes blinking in and out of the night and cool-hued mountains in the distance.

He took another breath; the chill of the Artic coated his lungs with it.

Something flickered before him. Something in the dark—everything was so dark—but he swore he saw something...

There it was again!

Hiccup blinked rapidly, trying to ensure the watering of his eyes weren't impeding his vision into misreading his surroundings.

::Stay back:: Toothless said unnecessarily.

Hiccup bit down the rearing curiosity—he wanted to see—but his trust in Toothless and self-preservation overrode the impulse.

Somehow, what he thought were snowflakes became stagnant, hovering before touching ground and growing ever larger. More of them did, and in pairs. They glared at him from the dark—the eyes.

Then the outlines of sharp wings and smooth heads began to take form, crawling from the dark much like how Toothless moved, but by then they were too close.

He heard the rumbling growl, felt the puff of sweet, hot breath on his face, all before he realized the monstrous dragon before him—and it was monstrous. Twice the size of Toothless, faded in scales but rippling with power and anger. Pale yellow eyes narrowed in fury, its cracked lips pulled back in a snarl, salvia dripping from the rim.

Others stared at him in similar contempt. Dozens and Dozens, most unseen to his human eyes but none quite so present as the one within biting distance from him.

Hiccup, dizzy with shock, forced his lungs to start moving again and took a step back, blindly seeking Toothless' warmth.

"Oh—sweet Freya..."

Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III had finally met Toothless' Drove.