Forever After, Chapter 1
"Good day, Stoick, sir," Astrid said by way of greeting, "Is Hiccup home?"
"No, he's not, Astrid," Stoick replied as he stood just outside the front door of his house. He was watching as a variety of dragons were flying, walking and perching here and there about the village of Berk.
"He left early this morning for the smithy and now he's up there," he said, pointing to a high spot just beyond the village bounds. "I think he and Toothless are getting some afternoon sun."
Astrid smiled and hurried off with a 'thank you'. She made her way along several lanes that ran through the village upwards towards the steep rises that flanked the more livable section of this part of the island. It wasn't long before she saw the black bulk of the Night Fury stretched out on the grass, his wings partially extended. She slowed and tried to edge around the apparently sleeping beast. Despite what she had seen and done over the past few weeks, she was still apprehensive about approaching the most feared of all the dragon species. Seven generations had bred that fear deep into the bone and mere logic and experience would need a lot of time to leech it out.
As she stepped past the long tail with the red artificial tailfin, she heard a deep rumble. The left wing folded back and she saw the one bright green eye regarding her over the recumbent form of Hiccup. The boy, the object of her search, was resting against the side of Toothless with the dragon's left foreleg forming a bolster on his right side. Hiccup's left leg, what remained of it, was visible but the wrought iron prosthetic fashioned by Gobber, his boss, was lying off to the side. She watched as the slitted iris that indicated the dragon was wary or angry resolved to a more friendly oval. The rumble continued and Hiccup's eyes opened and he looked first at Toothless and then back towards where the dragon was looking.
"Oh, hi, Astrid."
"Hi. Um, can I talk to you for a little bit?" she asked.
"Sure," he said, patting the grass next to him.
The blonde girl walked closer, avoiding the dragon's rear feet and stood next to Hiccup.
"The leg's bothering you?" she asked.
"Yeah, it gets sore. I guess it still needs to heal. You want to sit down?" he asked.
"Yes, but would you mind sliding forward a bit?" she asked.
The boy looked at her quizzically but managed to move away from Toothless' side about a foot. The lithe young Viking girl stepped up and managed to slide in behind him, one leg on each side, although the right one was squeezed a bit between his and the dragon. She then reached forward and slid her arms around him, the right under his and the left over his shoulder. She leaned back against the dragon and pulled him back against her and tightened her grasp.
"I liked how this felt when I was flying with you," she said quietly.
"So did I," Hiccup said with a sigh. "What did you want to talk about?" he asked.
Toothless, satisfied all was well, settled his head back down to resume his interrupted nap. Hiccup settled back some more, letting his head rest against Astrid's shoulder, the armor shoulder caps of her outfit not terribly uncomfortable.
"Well, I want to say some things to you and then we can talk about it when I'm done, ok?" she asked, her voice betraying her anxiety.
"Sure, if you want," Hiccup replied, wondering what had the girl, usually so self assured, so upset.
"Um, well, first I wanted to say that I know, we… me, have treated you really badly in the past. All the things we've done and said were really terrible. And I was probably the worst. None of us thought you were a Viking or would ever be one. And we figured what business did you have being in dragon training. None of us thought you had the right to call yourself a Viking."
At this last remark she felt him tense up and she tightened her grip, as if she feared he would try to pull away. She brought her chin to rest on his shoulder. Barely above a whisper, she said,
"We were so wrong, Hiccup. If we had only looked, we could have seen it. Bravery isn't always about standing your ground with a dragon coming at you. It can also be standing your ground when your whole village is against you. It's about pushing ahead when everyone tells you to stop. And it's continuing to believe you're right when everyone knows you're wrong," she finished, with a heavy emphasis on the word 'knows'.
Hiccup wasn't sure where Astrid was going but he was sure that now wasn't the time for him to say anything. He could feel her trembling and he silently marveled at the strength in those slender arms. He wondered if she was going to leave bruises. He heard and felt her take a shuddering breath.
"When it really counted," she began again, "when it was about life and death for maybe all of us, it was you. You saw what had to be done and you did it. You got us all to do it. You may not have your father's size, but you are certainly every bit the leader he is."
She fell silent for a time and then in a short voice close to his ear, she said,
"Now I need you to do something for me, Hiccup. I need you to tell me it doesn't matter. That everything I just told you doesn't matter."
Now she felt him take in a breath and let it out. He turned his head a little to try and see her a bit better and said,
"I can't do that, Astrid," and it was her turn to stiffen. "If I did that it would be a lie and I won't ever lie to you."
"Why would it be a lie, Hiccup?" she said, her voice barely audible.
"Because all of those things that you, everyone, had said were a big part of what made me keep pushing, kept me trying to become a real Viking. I needed to prove you were all wrong. I needed my father to have a reason to be proud of me. And," he said, drawing out the word, "I wanted you to think I was something, or someone, you could be interested in."
"Finally. But look what had to happen. The truth is the way I feel about you right now is no different than how I have for nearly as long as I can remember. All the things you said and did never changed that. It made it harder, but it didn't change it. But I can't just say it doesn't matter."
They sat together in silence for some moments. Her grip on him was just as fierce and he had put his hands over hers. He could feel how rapid her breathing had become and then it started to slow. Finally she said,
"I think I can live with that, Hiccup. Better that we be honest with each other and work to heal the hurt than try and ignore it. I think some day they are going to call you Hiccup the Wise," she said.
"What are they calling me now?"
After a moment she said,
"That damned kid. As in 'I never thought that damn kid could do something like that' or 'I didn't thing that damn kid was going to make it."
Hiccup laughed and said,
"It's not the worst I've been called." Then after some thought he said, "Um, Astrid, what day is today?"
She told him.
"Really? What week?"
She told him.
"Three and a half weeks?" he asked incredulously.
"That's right," she said, releasing her grip on him so she could stroke the side of his head. "You were unconscious for the whole first week, delirious with a fever for the next three days, and then the elder gave you something that kept you asleep for the rest of the time. You did a lot of talking and mumbling through the fever and sleeping."
"I guess my dad told you about that?" Hiccup asked.
"Nope, heard it myself, we all did," Astrid answered.
"Hiccup, you were never alone for more than five minutes for the whole time. We all took turns, the five of us, plus your dad and a lot of others. Toothless was there most of the time, too. Yesterday was the first time that he's flown in over three weeks," she said as she laid her cheek against his head.
After a few moments he said simply,
He sat quietly for a few moments and then said,
"Astrid, you shouldn't be feeling bad about all that stuff you told me, about how you and the others were treating me. Why should you have been treating me any different than all the others? I'm just glad we had a chance to work it out, you know?"
She didn't say anything in response, except to hold him tighter. He thought he felt something wet where her cheek rested against his but he chose not to say anything. They continued to sit there and watch the last warmish sunset before winter, but the first of many they would watch together.
The following week proved to be a hectic one for the residents of Berk. The last raid, the one during which Hiccup brought down Toothless, had cut deeply into the sheep flock and the village was facing a food shortage for the long winter. Fortunately, Hiccup wasn't the only thinker in town. Someone figured out that the dragons that had come to hang around the village and accept riders could be used to scout out the surrounding waters for schools of fish. With the number of ships lost in the fight with the monster dragon, the ships that remained needed to find those schools fast and often before the ice closed in. Hiccup joined the scouting efforts. He also took a couple of flights north to locate the leading edge of the pack ice. I wasn't all that far away. He was also able to report sightings of seals and other aquatic mammals that could be taken for food. If might not be such a hungry winter after all.
There was still tension in the village, however. One would assume that being freed of the dragon threat after nearly three hundred years would be the source of great relief but apparently it wasn't so. Some folks were upset over the loss of so many ships. Others were on edge over what the future held. Dragon fighting had been a corner stone of their society for generations and now they didn't know what to do. And Stoick, as the tribal chief, was becoming the focal point of all this discontent.
Things came to a head one evening as most of the village gathered in the big hall. Hiccup, Astrid and the others were sitting off to one side. Hiccup watched as his father moved from one table to another, discussing with some and arguing with others. Astrid sat at Hiccup's side, holding his hand.
"This could get ugly," she said.
"It's been ugly," Hiccup replied. "Tonight it could turn violent."
Things got progressively louder until several shouting matches erupted between some of the groups. Stoick finally walked up before the fireplace and bellowed,
It took a few moments for the shouting to subside but it finally got quiet enough so he could be heard without shouting.
"This wrangling gets us nowhere. If you have something to say, say it to me here and now."
"You nearly got us all killed on that island, Stoick," someone shouted from one side of the hall. "If it hadn't been for your son and those other kids on them dragons, we'd all be dead now."
"I know that," Stoick replied.
"Aye, 'tis true," Gobber said from his seat near the front, "but he kept his head and put himself between that monster and the rest of ya."
Comments for and against Gobber's statement were fired back and forth until someone stated loudly,
"And what about now, Stoick? You were always a good man to lead us in a fight, but without dragons attacking maybe we need someone new, someone who can think in new ways."
This started another round of shouting from table to table. Astrid leaned into Hiccup and said,
"He looks lost up there, Hiccup. I don't think he's ever had to fight his own people before."
Hiccup just nodded a bit and then stood up, took a deep breath and started walking towards the front of the hall. The sound of his wrought iron 'foot' echoed on the stone floor above the noise of the shouts. As he passed tables, those seated at them would nudge each other and whisper to one another. He finally came to stand next to his father. He didn't say a word. He just looked out at the assembled Vikings, his eyes sad, his mouth making a thin line across his face. The room slowly went quiet.
"You know, I always thought that I was the only Viking to be scared, to be afraid. I was afraid that I would never become a true Viking, to kill a dragon and earn the respect of my village, my classmates in training, my father. Then, a few weeks ago I saw something that made me think. I saw a Night Fury, wrapped in ropes that I had thrown at it with my launcher, and it was afraid, of me, or of what I might do to it. But I couldn't, wouldn't, kill it. So I became even more afraid. But things turned out they way they did and here we all are. And just a little while ago, sitting over there with my classmates, my friends, I realized something pretty amazing. I was sitting in an entire hall, full of frightened Vikings."
This started some grumbling around the hall.
"Yes, you are. You're frightened of the future. You're afraid of a future where killing a dragon isn't going to make you a true Viking. You're afraid of a future where fighting a dragon doesn't define us as a people anymore. But is that really true?"
The room got quieter.
"Now I didn't see how many dragons flew off when you broke up their nest, but Astrid and I saw how many there were when we were inside it. We haven't seen nearly that many around the village. Who's to say that the others might not take up raiding again? And was that monster the only one of its kind? I think there's plenty of things out there that we need to be concerned about. But you're letting your fear of the future make you angry and you're taking your anger out on Stoick. Some of you think you need a different leader. But different doesn't always mean better. I think we need to let the future happen for a while before we decide how we want to live it."
He looked around the room, many faces lost in shadows, many others lost in thought. Standing there for that length of time had started to take its toll on his injured leg. He looked up at his father and said,
"My leg is starting to hurt, Dad, I'm going home."
"Alright, son. I'll see you there in a while."
Hiccup slowly walked away from the fireplace toward the exit. Astrid hurried up to his side and offered her arm to Hiccup to help support him. The other youngsters followed after.
"It's a sorry lot we are to have to have a boy tell us what were about," Gobber said after taking a sip from his mug.
"He's hardly a boy anymore, Gobber," Stoick replied.
"Oh, ay, but it's true all the same."
The object of these observations was slowly but surely making his way to his home with some help from Astrid and plenty of moral support from the others. Even the twins, Ruff and Tuff, were refraining from their usual bickering.
"That was really amazing what you said in there, Hiccup. I don't think you have all that much to be afraid of anymore," Astrid offered.
"Oh, you mean all that? I guess so. But we still have a lot to be concerned about. I wasn't kidding about the rest of the dragons and what might be left on that island."
"You think we should think about goin' and lookin'?" Snoutlout asked.
"I think so. I think we should spend some time this winter thinking and talking about it. And then make some plans for when spring comes," Hiccup said.
This got some grins from the others. They hadn't said anything but with the prospect of peace where dragons were concerned, they were wondering what they had to look forward to in the years to come. Hiccup may just have offered them an option. As they neared the path that led up the hill to Hiccup's home the others offered him a good night and walked on to leave Hiccup and Astrid alone. This was either the result of a remarkable intuition on their part, or more likely, a good talking to by Astrid earlier in the evening.
They weren't entirely alone however. From the peak of the roof a pair of bright green eyes watched as Astrid pulled Hiccup's arm over her shoulder and slipped hers around his waist to help him up the path. The soreness in his leg had gotten worse and she could sense it. They finally made it up to the front door and Astrid moved around to stand in front of Hiccup, holding him in a loose hug.
"You'll be ok?"
"Sure. I'll go in and get rid of the hardware and just lay down. Toothless will keep an eye on me," he said, looking up over their heads, seeing the eyes and the outline of the dark face against the star studded night sky.
She nodded and then cocked her head to one side and looked at him for a few moments, her lips pulling up into a small smile.
"What?" Hiccup asked.
"I just still find it amazing that I never saw it. What you had inside. I should have, but I didn't."
"Don't let it bother you, Astrid. It doesn't bother me…anymore," he replied with his own small smile.
They leaned into each other and their kiss was soft and lingering. When it was over Hiccup had to grab hold of the door handle but he managed it well enough so that Astrid didn't suspect how weak in the knees he had become. She looked up and said,
"Come on down, Toothless. It's your turn to watch over him."
The Night Fury warbled a bit low in his throat and then jumped down, landing with a thud. Astrid gave him a pat and a scratch and then with a last look at Hiccup proceeded down the path and then took the lane home. Hiccup didn't move, or stop watching her until she was out of sight. He swung the door open and with one hand on Toothless' neck he slowly walked into his house to wait for his father to come home.