I don't even know how this happened, but it did. I was listening to Damien Rice on repeat and then it sorta came to me. The song's amazingly sad, but it's so beautiful. Go listen to it, if you can.
To be honest, I… I'm not entirely confident with this. Just… I dunno. There's so much good fic out there and mine seems really average and angsty to a juvenile degree. Whatever… I just hope you guys enjoy it.
He awoke that morning and, for the first time, the dragons were gone.
He'd flung open the mahogany doors of his house and, as he gazed out into the bitter expanse of blank snow, found no trace of the creatures that so often filled the morning skies.
His breath clouded thickly in front of him, and he clenched his fists as a rush of cold wind sliced through him. The winters in Berk had always been vicious, but this year's was particularly ravaging. Hardly anyone ventured outside, for there was no point; no matter how many thick furs they put on, no matter how many times they asked their shivering dragons to attempt to melt the snow, it remained ever-freezing, ever-oppressive. Hiccup knew that dragons had a hard time during the winters, often taking to hibernating, but they couldn't exactly do that when they had… "owners."
But now they were gone.
Even Toothless had slid out, in the pit of some frigid black night, and whether he had left with sorrow or conviction Hiccup would never know; he didn't know the Night Fury had left until the morning, when the blankets were cold and the window was open. He would be back someday, eventually, but for now, the house was empty.
Hiccup hadn't seen his father inside, so he assumed that he'd gone off somewhere, likely to attempt to find some food. Game was scarce at this time of year, save for the occasional ocean fish, but even they were so far out past the jutting rocks that they were hard to reach. Morning after morning, Stoick, Gobber, and a dozen or so others would head into the icy woods to search desperately for things that could fill the village's concave bellies. At the though of food, Hiccup's stomach rumbled, and he put a hand on it to quell the sound, feeling his ribs poking out at him.
It was like this every winter. A Viking learned to grow accustomed to it, no matter how hard it was. Spring would eventually roll around, and everything would be all right. They would have lost some here and there, but never any huge numbers… never anyone Hiccup really knew. Usually just the elderly and the young.
He never thought that he'd be trudging day after day to the Healer's cottage on the hill to kneel beside the bed of an emaciated girl who he loved more than anything that could ever exist.
Ignoring his stomach's begs for something equal to food, Hiccup pulled on his (now-baggy) wool shirt and attached his prosthetic foot to its familiar stump and threw a thick fur cloak over his bony shoulders. After a moment's hesitation, he reached under his pillow and pulled out the dark iron band that had been there for several months, and he held it in the palm of his hand, gazing pensively at it. He closed his fingers around it, and was thankful that no one was there to see the pained expression ripple across his face; with a sigh, he put it back under the pillow and left.
The snow crunched like breaking wood under his boots, soaking the foot that wasn't made out of metal to the bone, and he had to bow his head against the biting gusts that barraged him every so often. The plume of smoke from the Healer's chimney flickered into his vision, and as he hiked up the slope, he could smell meat cooking. The Healer always got first dibs on the hauls from hunts, which were few and far between nowadays, for it was those who were housed with her that needed it most. Hiccup's stomach gurgled resentfully, but he ignored it.
He made it to the top of the hill, and it took a great deal more effort than he thought for him to raise a fist and pound on the great wooden door. After a brief moment, it creaked open to reveal the hunched, elderly figure of the Healer, Thorgunna, who was rumored to be at the very least 110 years old. Solemnity burdened her sagging face, and she stepped aside wordlessly to let Hiccup enter.
Hiccup nodded in thanks, not bothering to take off his cloak. His eyes fell upon her in an instant – the same place they always fell… the same dimly lit corner, the same enervated white form beneath the blankets, the same rattling breaths and laboriously rising chest.
He stumbled forward, hardly able to describe how utterly exhausted he was, and knelt beside her bed, gently placing his hand on hers, which was pale and bony and cold.
"Astrid?" he whispered, ignoring how painful it was to even say her name.
She stirred – her eyes flickered open, and a rush ran through Hiccup as they did; he had never seen such heartbreakingly lovely things, and he knew he never would again. A faint smile slipped across her face, which had grown gaunt since the autumn but was still incredibly beautiful.
"Hi," she breathed, her fingers twitching faintly beneath his. Hiccup's eyes ran over her meager figure under the blankets, blankets that looked so horribly large compared to what they were covering, and tightened his grasp.
"How're you feeling?" He hated that question – it was a stupid question – but he asked it every time in spite of himself.
She coughed, a racking, hollow sound, and he flinched.
"Okay," she answered halfheartedly – that was always her answer. Her eyes wandered from his as she said it, and she drew the blankets closer around her, clearly trying not to look at him.
He placed his fingers on her cheek and stroked it, trying to ignore the dips they took over her sunken cheekbones. Her eyes fluttered closed at his touch, and she curled up tighter, sniffling.
"Are you hungry, Astrid?" Thorgunna's voice drifted over from behind Hiccup. Astrid shook her head weakly.
"No… no, not right now… thank you, though…" She smiled, and it pained Hiccup to see it, for he had encountered it in all its radiance and strength, but now it had been extinguished, and it would never be the same as it had been.
No, he shouldn't think such things – of course it would. She'd get better. She'd get better.
"Tell me a story, Hiccup," she breathed hoarsely, still giving off that bare smile, slightly tightening her fingers around his wrist. "Tell me a story about… about…" Her voice trailed off into another heaving cough, and Hiccup cringed.
"I…" He withdrew his hand from her face, ashamed. "I can't think of anything," he said dejectedly, looking at his knees.
She regarded him intently, her gaze like a tide rolling over him, and he felt more useless than the village had ever called him.
"I'm sorry," he managed to eke out, clenching his pants legs, letting a tear trickle out from the corner of his eye.
"What're you crying for…?" Astrid asked, sounding ravaged and tired; her words struck Hiccup in a way he normally wouldn't expect them to, and suddenly his voice had risen to a fearsome volume, and he couldn't stop the words spewing from his mouth.
"What am I crying for? What am I crying for? Freyja's chariot, Astrid; why do you think? I can't… I can't stand it, seeing you like this; as weak and frail as any old woman, as thin and bent as any dead sapling – I mean, how can I be expected to keep coming here and not noticing – not noticing that you're… that you're…!"
He choked on the words he knew he could never say, choosing instead to put his head in his hands and push his fingers as hard as he could against his skull, feeling as though he was burning alive in the cold and the wet and the desolateness and the dim torchlight. He couldn't stand it anymore. He didn't even know how he had to begin with. Memories of the summer they had spent dashing like butterflies through the holly fields and gazing for hours at the vast expanse of stars flashed behind his eyelids; his heart clenched as he thought back on the autumn night when, as the firelight flickered across her skin, he undressed her, hands shaking, and they had loved each other, and she was beautiful and strong and everything he knew he could never be.
And then what had happened? What had gone wrong? Suddenly he had the strength – suddenly she was the weaker one. No, that couldn't be, not Astrid. Not Astrid, of all the people in the world. What loathsome god had damned her to this fate, these agonizing days spent hacking in a bed like a dying calf? Hiccup had once been sure the gods hated him. Now he was sure of something else entirely – that he hated them.
"It… it seems like just last week we were…" he whimpered, incoherent and quivering, pressing his palms into his eyes to hold in the tears. "Oh, gods, Astrid; this… it isn't fair."
She had not said anything for a while, her foggy eyes gazing intently at him, carefully reading each word that crossed his lips. She wanted to kiss them, but she knew she didn't have the courage. She screwed her strength up and lifted one emaciated arm to touch her hand to his head, reveling in the softness of his hair, the sheer warmth that emanated from him. He raised his head, surprised at her contact, and Astrid could see the tears glistening in his eyes.
"Don't be afraid," she murmured. "You big… baby." She cracked a smile, a smile that was sad and enervated and strained with effort, but it was a smile nonetheless, and though it was a shadow of what had once been, it still lifted Hiccup's heart.
Her eyes strayed to watch the snow drifting silently out the window, and she smiled a little more strongly, her eyelids drooping. "I love the snow."
Hiccup's eyes tightened in spite. "I hate it. It's freezing and it's wet and it sticks around too long."
Astrid laughed, a soft wheeze, and stroked his hair. "Come on, Hiccup. Lighten up. Soon the spring will come and we'll celebrate Disting and Ostara, and then we can get marrie—"
"Yeah," Hiccup interjected flatly, glaring fixatedly at the floor. He couldn't bring himself to look at her. It hurt too much.
Astrid frowned sadly at him, dropping her hand.
He caught it before it fell all the way, cradling it in his calloused palms, and brought it to his cheek, pressing it there with his own hand. Astrid felt a wetness stream down from his eye and pool between her thumb and index finger.
"It's not fair," he repeated roughly, clinging to her hand as though he would tumble into darkness if he let go.
"I know," she whispered. "I know."
After a moment's silence, she inquired, "what day is it?"
"January twelfth," Hiccup answered, wishing it were later. Every Viking on the island was keeping count of every hour that dragged frigidly by. He definitely wasn't the only one. "You've… been here for a month now."
Astrid nodded pensively, taking the truth of this in. The silence was suddenly disrupted by a violent rumble from her stomach. Hiccup gritted his teeth. "Why aren't you eating?"
"I'm not hungry," she replied simply, but Hiccup clenched his fist at her lie.
"Yes, you are. Come on. I'm not stupid," he snarled. "You're hungry, and there's food. Why aren't you eating any?"
"There's not much of it anyway… we need to save it for people who need it. I'll live…" she muttered dazedly.
"No, you won't!" It was those three words that had been tearing Hiccup apart for a long, cold month; it was that loathsome thought that had robbed him of countless hours of sleep – and despite all of his best efforts, he had never surmised that he would actually speak them.
Her eyes shot to his, startled, and although he knew it would be wise to keep from saying anything else, he allowed the words to be unleashed.
"I can see what's happening here, Astrid – to Berk, to the dragons… to you… every winter the cold takes a few more of us; every Ostara we rejoice with fewer neighbors; I can never celebrate Winternights because I know… because I know that in a couple of months we'll be burying the people who we'd been dancing around with – I can't take this anymore, Astrid! I never… I never thought it would be you…!"
"Shh…" The sound of her was like a summer breeze hushing the treetops. "…Come up here."
He obeyed. He carefully clambered up onto the bed, ignoring the odd look Thorgunna gave him.
"Under the blankets," Astrid whispered. He pulled the corners of the huge fur mantles over himself and slid in beside her, relishing the warmth. He closed his eyes, feeling her light breath wash over his face like a tide.
"Much better," she said with a smile, her eyes closed as well. Hiccup clenched his jaw, wrestling the tears down, and wrapped his arms around her, resting her gently against him, burying his face in her hair. It was dim under the covers, but he could still see the softness of her blonde hair when he dared to open his eyes. She pressed her face into his chest, her fingers digging into his tunic.
"Once," he breathed, "there was a Nadder born in the winter with no color. She was born all gray and small and her parents and the other Nadders were appalled by her appearance. A perfectly normal Deadly Nadder existing in the world with no bright colors to grace her? It was really an atrocity."
Astrid giggled, much to Hiccup's surprise (and, a bit, joy).
"You always know such weird words." She sighed, bringing herself closer to him. "I love you."
Hiccup brushed his lips against the top of her head in response.
"Well… as you've probably guessed, this Nadder was exiled from her gaggle, because obviously a Nadder who wasn't colorful couldn't fit in with normal society. Even all the male Nadders derided her. Saddened and hurt, she took flight through the stormy ocean skies, and no Vikings harmed her because she blended in perfectly with the clouds.
"This Nadder wanted nothing more to be beautiful like all of her kin. She didn't understand why she was born so different, or why she had to be, even though she didn't want to be. She would look at her reflection in puddles and she would blast fire at it in anger, because she knew she would look just like everyone else if only she wasn't so disgustingly gray.
"Winter came, and this Nadder sheltered herself in a cave, looking just like a cold, sad rock. Some nights she would cry, and it is said that on those nights it would snow the hardest, and be the coldest."
"One day, she knew she had to venture out to look for food, because she was extremely hungry. She shook her wings out and stepped out into the snowy forest, sniffing the air for any sign of meat. None. She tried not to be disheartened as she set out to look for some prey.
"She came to a river coated in ice, and she cocked her head and stared at it, flaring out her crest, very interested in her reflection – like most Nadders are." Astrid laughed. "But she was heartbroken to see that she was still her same monochrome self, and in a rage she stomped on the ice, breaking it all apart. The water below it was dark and unfathomable and unimaginably cold, but thankfully she didn't fall in. With a huff of triumph, she turned to go.
"What met her eyes, however, startled her. Before her stood the god Baldur, his eyes thoughtful as he looked upon the creature. She squawked and recoiled in surprise, but after a moment she knew he meant no harm to her.
"He said, 'hello, Nadder, flower of all dragons. I have watched you from Breidablik and have observed your plight for many months now. Though you are still young, you have grown much since your birth.'
"Not knowing what else to say, the Nadder replied, 'thank you.'
"Baldur said, 'Why do you despair, beast? Why do you weep in your cave on these cold nights? Surely such a thing is not dignified of such a beautiful dragon.'
"'But I am not beautiful,' the Nadder corrected him. 'Look at me. I have no color. I am like a stone on the ground.'
"'My dear creature, do you not see yourself changing? The winter draws thin – it is coming to an end. Have you not taken notice of your scales?'
"Confused, the Nadder turned her great head and glanced over herself, and was surprised to find that, in a few sparse places, small, vividly colored scales were poking through the grayness.
"She turned back to Baldur, astonished. 'What is this?'
"'Great Nadder, great songbird of the seas, you were born to change with the coming of the seasons. You were born a fortnight before this winter began. When spring comes, your scales will make way for a dazzling display of all of springtime's finest colors – in the summer you will fade into a richer blue and yellow like the freshly opened sky – when autumn unfurls you will become red and brown and gold, reflecting the new dance of the trees, and the cycle will begin again. Do you see now, creature? You are different from those in your tribe, for you are ever-changing. It is a beautiful transformation, and it will circle through each year of your life, so through each year of the earth's life.'
"The Nadder was overjoyed. When spring opened itself to the world and the snow began to melt, she emerged again from her cave, and not even the blindest of men could miss the beauty of her plumage on that day."
Hiccup's narrative trailed enchantingly off, and Astrid smiled into the wool of his tunic, her body warm and lethargic with sleepiness.
"Good story," she murmured. "Thanks."
Hiccup held her close to him as she fell asleep, and he prayed for an early spring, for an early recovery, but spring came no earlier nor no later than it ever did, and when at last its feeble rays dissolved the whiteness around the Healer's ever-quieting home, all Hiccup had left were memories of summer days and blue bells, of autumn flights and nights not spent alone.