A/N: A big chapter ahead. The relationships are changing. You may want to re-read chapter 2 for the Hiccup/Astrid interactions to make the most sense.

Also, please vote in my coloring contest found at the top of my profile! (you may need a DA account to vote though)

Chewing the Rag

Hiccup stumbled into the homestead, blindly following the large, guiding hands until the back of his knees buckled against a fastened wall bench. He dropped into the seating, grateful for it and desperate for any form of anchor. It wasn't the pounding of his blood or the angry shouts beyond the oak walls that had him so disoriented, that had him picking at shambolic flashes of events to try and piece together a proper memory. It was the speed of how those events played out—his own actions—which kept him in shock. Actions that felt beyond his control, both then and now as he reviewed them in his mind.

He shook his head in a poor effort to knock everything back into sensibility. His ears rang, and continued to ring with Thuggory shouting his name.

"Oi!" Thuggory snapped again. He shook Hiccup by his shoulders. "You alright?"

The question came to him once more before Hiccup unclenched his eyes and answered, "Yeah."

His blood was cooling, his anger dissipating. The noise was fading to the background. Hiccup pushed Thuggory's hands from his person. He needed space. Air.

"How's Toothless?" he asked.

No sooner had he said it did a large, black head crop up behind the Meathead's shoulder.

"He's fine," Thuggory answered, though Hiccup took Toothless' adjoining, gummed smile as proof over the other man's words. "Waiting on you to wake up, I suppose."

What Thuggory referred to was not Hiccup losing consciousness. Only his senses left him, alongside his composure, when Buck of the Rudeboys put a thoughtless, stupid plan into motion.

One that was stopped, Hiccup had to remind himself. He felt his body sag against the grain as his head began to clear further. He still couldn't make sense of it. The crack of a whip, the screaming—dragon screams as well as human—flames and flight—pain in his arm and the jarring shock of striking ground...

He took another breath and tried to ignore the ashen taste of the air. The taste of dragon flames.

"So we're good?" Hiccup asked. His voice sounded more listless than he was prepared for and he wasn't sure to whom he directed the question at—Toothless or Thuggory. He'd take information from either source.

"We're good," Thuggory answered. "Hamchops is dealin' with Buck and his followers right now. People are still in a state, but for the most part no one got hurt. Well, y'know, except for—"

"Move!" a new voice commanded. The dim lighting kept Hiccup from noticing her approach (there really weren't enough candles lit in this outbuilding) but Thuggory was pushed aside in the next moment to be replaced by a Rudeboy shieldmaiden Hiccup had met once before. Oddi, if he recalled her name correctly; married naught a year earlier, seven months pregnant, and currently restricted to civic duties.

She was also quite skilled in healing.

"Gimme yer arm," Oddi commanded as she took hold of the bleeding limb without waiting for an answer and yanked the ruined sleeve back.

Hiccup kept his mouth shut as she worked. The blood cleared from his head as his stagnancy drew on, and the knowledge that the danger had passed steadied his heart.

He had done it. He had handled his first riot. The queasiness in his stomach soured the relief; he knew this could only be the first of many situations to come. The first that he had known of. Vikings would fight the integration—he always recognized this—but dealing with it, being the one outsiders looked to for solution, taking action...that proved a challenge.

Hiccup first heard of trouble starting in a poorly written correspondence from Hamchop. The thirty-year-old Viking Chief wrote to him of an anti-dragon faction brewing unrest, terrified with his new position after the death of his aunt, Bulgwarg the Bold, former Chieftess of the Rudeboys.

So Hiccup came as promised—with Thuggory, who had more connections in the Rudeboy tribe than he (but not Camicazi, for the Bog Burglars and Rudeboys would forever feud and she refused to set boot to a Rudeboy colony). It took two days of travel, and Discord was everywhere when they finally arrived. Hiccup spoke with the elders and head-figures of the tribe, pleaded with the riot leaders, but his placating words were not enough. The party of anti-integration Vikings was too aggressive.

A demonstration pushed forward—one that aimed to prove the dangers of hosting dragons by using one.

Hiccup swallowed, ignoring the sting of ale Oddi poured on his wound as he recalled the aged Arrowjaw they dragged onto the pavilion. It had been beaten into hostility long before the end of the Nest. The old ways were still with this dragon; leaving it conditioned to fear humans and react to triggers. It was a dragon with a grudge, mistrustful and hateful towards humans just as so many felt in return.

There was the crack of a whip—a whip Hiccup never saw, but he heard it and he knew what would happen next. He had only enough time to a share a look with Toothless before the Arrowjaw released its jet-stream fire onto the people of the tribe. The lone Hooligan had already sprung into action, leaping onto Toothless' back, in time to take off with the dragon.

Hiccup had seen dragons scrapple in air before, but for once he was a part of it. Dragon scales could take the damage of teeth and claws but his frail, human skin could not. He never felt the talons slice down his arm as the Arrowjaw attempted to sink a grip onto Toothless' shoulders, nor did he know how long they battled the dragon above the heads of Rudeboys—attempting to subdue it, attempting to prevent more people from killing dragons. Hiccup only knew that in one breath he was airborne and, in the next, they were back on the ground, the dragon pinned beneath Toothless, the Night Fury's jaws clamped deeply into its neck.

Before the dragon's last cries faded into the night, Hiccup had directed Toothless to pounce on Buck. The wizened Viking was beneath a snarling Night Fury before he could think of his next move.

The Arrowjaw was dead, the riot nipped in the bud in a sudden and unexpected move by a foreigner. All that was left of the event was a stunned band of Rudeboys and a furious Hooligan. When Hamchops bellowed at the offenders it was with the words Hiccup whispered to him, shaming and compelling.

"Look at you, with battle wounds..."

Hiccup blinked. His mind flew back to the present and his eyes to the speaker. Thuggory leaned against the hut wall with his arms crossed over his chest and his focus on Hiccup's arm. Hiccup too focused on the wrap already spotted with blood.

"At least they'll listen to me now," he said tiredly. It was as positive as he could feel.

It was dead. That Arrowjaw was dead now.

Gods, how he hated doing things the Viking way. He wanted to pacify the crowd with words before actions, but it wouldn't always work. He was learning that, "hero" or not, Vikings were Vikings. They would do things the Viking-way before doing things his way.

The shabby curtain pervading the doorway was pushed aside in a soft ruffle of cloth. Chief Hamchops stepped in.

"Yeh alright?" he asked upon looking directly at Hiccup. Hiccup noticed how Hamchops kept to the wall on his way over, as though making every attempt to keep from turning his back on Toothless. The dragon was stretched against the opposite wall from Hiccup, waiting patiently for Hiccup's medical attention to end and licking the last drops of blood from his maw.

"He's fine," Oddi answered before Hiccup could process the question. He winced as she gave the bandages a few firm tugs. She slapped his wrist gently. "Yer all good tae go."

Hamchops nodded curtly at her and took a seat at Hiccup's side.

"Thanks fer that, out there," he said with a jerk of his head towards the outside. "I just got a Dervish meself, but I don't think we could have reacted so quickly. That was... that was really something yeh did there... just knocked it right back down before I even knew what had happened..."

Hamchops' eyes darted to Toothless again. Hiccup supposed he should feel flattered by the chief's obvious unease around his dragon—or offended—but he was too focused on Hamchops' words. 'Really something' didn't seem impressive to him at all. He felt sick.

"He's right handy in a situation, innit he?" said Thuggory.

Oddi looked up from the bucket of bloody rags and smiled at Hiccup. "Aye. Hiccup the Handy."

"Useful," Hiccup automatically corrected. It's what his father called him shortly after the Nest Battle. Truthfully, he didn't rightly care what he was called so long as it wasn't useless.

Oddi shook her head. "Dinnae have the same ring tae it. Yeh with me boys?"

Thuggory and Hamchops nodded. Thuggory because he not only agreed but thought Hiccup's weak argument against the name as laughable; Hamchops likely did so because he felt he owed Hiccup at least an audibly pleasing title. Hiccup dropped his head back against the wall and suppressed a groan. He just wanted to sleep and try and drown out the image of that Arrowjaw's head falling limp against the ground.

"Well!" Hamchops said, pushing his hands against his knees and standing. "This was a success! Time fer a drink!"

The chief moved to a lopsided cabinet and pulled out some pewter goblets and a flask.

"A dragon died," Hiccup pointed out. He felt sluggish still, exhausted by the events with a slow-running brain. He didn't lose much blood, but he remembered the dragon's squeals before Toothless silenced it forever and it was enough to weigh in on him. He could remind himself again and again that it was tortured, broken long before the scuffle, that it deserved the peace of the afterlife, but it wouldn't negate his involvement with its death.

Hamchops went right on pouring anyway in an outstanding example of selective hearing.

"Well, we'll drink to a success and you can drink to the dragon's memory," Thuggory said while handing Hiccup a goblet. Thuggory was always happy to share a drink with someone, and had the optimism of a Viking: a conflict and ale meant a good night.

The Meathead heir nodded as affirmation to his own statement and clanked his cup to Hiccup's.

Just as Thuggory was learning to tolerate Hiccup's odd thinking—similar to how Camicazi had when they were younger—Hiccup learned to tolerate the Viking way of life. He was learning patience. He was learning to implement his ideals into the future heirs year-by-year, encounter-by-encounter.

Hiccup was also learning to tolerate the alcohol, and it was only with a small grimace that he swallowed. He had to—it was a social thing. He sipped at it while Thuggory gulped. The older boy drank with a desperation that begged to forget the night, and Hiccup realized that perhaps Thuggory wasn't as unaffected by the Arrowjaw's treatment and demise as he first thought.

"This'll be odd to explain to my da'," Thuggory commented with a brief squint into his cup to gauge what was left. "I mean, me visitin' someone like Viscious is nothin' strange, but out here in Rudeboy territory? You showing up and laying Ol' Buck the Barge out like that? You think he'll get suspicious?"

All it took was one adult feeling the threat of usurpation and their parents would shut down their meetings. Hiccup explained this to the chiefs-in-training time and again; he still worried that it hadn't sunk in. The discretion of their travels and meetings and ethics discussion (which were mostly one-sided impressions on his part) were vital.

"No," Hiccup said with more confidence than he felt. "Our parents don't talk as much as they should for village leaders."

Their stubbornness and grudges of past feuds were to blame, and the dragon war only served to divide them further. It may have ended, none of the adults wanted to move past the tradition of limited contact and militancy. It had become a thing of pride. A stupid, pointless, state of mind, if anyone were to ask Hiccup.

Hiccup took another sip and the bite of the ale slid down his throat smoother than before. The adults were a bit of a lost cause, but his generation was salvageable.

"With any luck he won't hear about it until the Thing come harvest." Hiccup lifted his eyes from the ripples of his drink. "He won't hear about it otherwise, will he?"

His eyes bore into Thuggory's first before sliding over to Oddi, and finally Hamchops.

Months ago he would have been pleasantly surprised by their slow nods of agreement. Now, he had come to expect it.

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"Where in th' Hel did yeh get that?" his father asked four days later.

The Hooligan Chief just settled into his seat for the evening. The chair gave its familiar creaks and groans as it bore his weight but, as always, proved up to the challenge. A tankard of mead was nestled snugly in Stoick's hand, and a well-deserved one at that. Hiccup really could understand the ritual of winding down with a drink after a day of decisions and responsibilities.

Hiccup glanced down at his arm—the only thing his father could possibly be referring to. The scar was pink and raw and just free from bandages that morning.

"Hit a tree when I was flying," Hiccup said while resisting the urge to pull his sleeves back down past his elbows. The neatsfoot oil he worked into Toothless' saddle was not only foul-smelling, but would stain any cloth it touched. Hiccup already had a limited supply of clothing after an unexpected growth spurt that left him both clumsier and skinnier than before.

Stoick heaved an inflated sigh—or perhaps it was a normal one for the bear-of-a-man—and withdrew the tankard from his lips. He never failed to make his feelings on Hiccup's "reckless flying" known with displeased noises and expressions, but he had long-since stopped verbally berating his son. It was pointless, after all.

With a slight shake of his head, Stoick moved onto a necessary, though difficult, topic.

"Hiccup, we need tae talk."

"I'm listening," Hiccup automatically muttered. Predictably, he continued working out the cracks in the leather, never looking up.

He was listening, he was simply focused on his self-assigned task. The state of the seat-brim frustrated him; the damage from the Arrowjaw appeared irreparable.

Listening wasn't enough for the chief.

"Yer nae lookin' at me."

"I want to get this fixed up before I head out." The straps were fine—thank the gods. Everything functional was left unscathed. It was the comfort of the saddle that had been compromised. Comfort to him, not Toothless. It was usable.

Hiccup missed the grimace on Stoick's face, but he heard the clear perturbation in his father's tone when he asked, "Yer headin' out again?"

Only then did Hiccup pull his attention away from the saddle in his lap.

"Er... yes?" He planned to try and reach the clans of Tomorrow. The journey was lengthy and the Viking tribes dotting the costal lands were long removed from past alliances. He had no idea where their situation stood with the dragons or how they coped after the war. It could take a few days.

"Hiccup," Stoick said gravely. The lines in his forehead deepened in time with his frown. "Nae again. Yeh leave fer days at a time. Don't yeh have work tae do at th' forge? There's so much yeh could be doin' here. I could use yer help. There's more yeh need tae learn about bein' chief, more responsibilities yeh should be pickin' up rather than running off fer fun—"

"It's not..." Hiccup sighed, frustrated. "It's not all fun. I'm... I'm collecting wisdom and... and experience." He was. "This is really good for me. And for Berk—"

Hiccup had to stop himself there. He still feared he would be confined to the island if word got out of his affiliations with other heirs. His father, along with several other current clan chiefs, stubbornly held onto old rivalries. Some would see it as a play to usurp the current chiefs; others would feel their ancestors were disrespected by the audacity of youth.

He could already feel it ending without his father's interference.

Everything he did seemed to be for Berk these days. He didn't know when or how it came to be like this, but Camicazi's thoughtless words of comfort had the unintended effect of starting a generation-wide network. Hiccup let Fishlegs take the reigns on the dragon-training academy, only stepping in to manage from time to time. Admittedly, when he first approached Fishlegs about taking on more responsibility, it was because things between him and Astrid were so awkward that he wanted to avoid seeing her (and it truly seemed things could never be the same between them). But the loosening of one responsibility only pulled him deeper into another. The other clans were terrifying and frustrating but Hiccup couldn't deny he loved the freedom. Out from under the stares and expectations of his own tribe, he could spend hours—days—flying, he sought out who he wanted and not the other way around, like a taste of his cove-days with Toothless.

More than that, he was starting to build a true rapport with outside clan figures. Thuggory and Hamchops, Moondoggy over in the Glums and Tackytic of the Frothifists, Grizzly the Grimbod, Camicazi...

But it would stop soon. Though he would sooner be an ambassador than a chief, Hiccup knew this lifestyle would never hold up. He could feel it ending now. Slipping. Camicazi could too. The last couple of years were the freest of his life but Duty would soon befall him. He had to grit his teeth and face it.

Hiccup focused at the saddle in his lap and his resolve to reach Tomorrow strengthened. He had to reach as many tribes as he could before duty anchored him to this island.

"Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?" he asked, not looking at his father.

Stoick sighed, yet again acknowledging another topic he and his son would leave unresolved, and set his mug down on the table. Hiccup looked up at the action. Hardly two sips had been taken and the drink had already been removed from hand. Either his father had extremely grave news or he was about to broach an uncomfortable subject.

Stoick steepled his fingers in front of his mouth but Hiccup could still see the corners turned in a deep frown.

"Yer eighteenth birthday will be up in a few months," Stoick began quietly. Hiccup swallowed involuntarily—eighteen could mean a lot of things for an heir. "...You're going to have tae take a wife."

So a grave and uncomfortable subject...

"I know," Hiccup said quickly, and he looked down to the saddle again. "I know."

He knew. Oh, how he knew. He was the chief's son. He had a lineage to protect.

Hiccup focused on oiling the saddle with greater intensity, rubbing over the same spot until the pigment wore. A beat passed where he worked in silence and his father continued to stare at him.

When Stoick spoke again, it was to ensure that Hiccup understood. "A serious wife. A proper one."

"I know."

"I'm nae stupid, Hiccup." Stoick's voice said it all. Quiet and commanding. Knowing.

Against his will, the hand rubbing oil into the leather slowed to a stop. Hiccup felt his body seize. His stomach soured.

"I told you," his father went on. "Nothing happens on this island without me knowin' about it."

So he knew.

But how long did it take you to figure it out?

Still, Hiccup said nothing, even as his face warmed. What could he say? The prick of his father's stare added to his discomfort and the fumes of the neatsfoot oil shortened his nerves. Hiccup feared if he did attempt to speak it would be an outburst of truths and vexation.

Another beat of stifling, heavy silence passed and then:

"She's a Bog."

"I know!" Hiccup snapped, harsher than he meant. He took a shaky breath, tossing the oil-soaked rag away from him. The dam was broken; his feeble resolve against having so much revealed to him crumbled away. "I would never—it was never even an issue! That—I can't marry her—that's just—"

Perhaps it was saying it out loud, or maybe it was having his father of all people bring up the subject, but Hiccup was forced to acknowledge the impending reality that it was ending. It was. His respite and sanctuary from the tumultuous role he unwittingly took on. He was going to have to end things with Camicazi—Camicazi who was just there, never pushing, never delving. Camicazi, who he never had to impress, who trusted him enough to let him see her at her weakest, who understood the burden of being an heir even with their cultures so vastly different...

More shocking than the uncomfortable tightness in his chest, was his father's leniency for his tone.

"Okay, okay," Stoick said with easing hand motions. "I just want tae make sure we're on the same page 'ere."

It was proof of how far their communication progressed over the last three years. But something about the way his father looked at him, something in his eyes akin to pity, rattled Hiccup. His father had never looked at him like that before.

Hiccup let the saddle slide from his lap. He body felt too heavy to do anything more, his mind too weighted. It was really happening. Camicazi would be removed, he would be land-bound, his personal influence on other tribes quenched...

"I'll find someone to marry dad," Hiccup promised. His voice was flat, every bit as tired as his mind and body. Beyond the burden of going through a marriage and all that it entailed, finding a girl to form a familial alliance with was a challenge in itself. There was no one on the island who he wanted to marry.

Not one that would want to marry him, anyway.

Hiccup had just pushed himself to his feet when a thought struck him. "Does she have to be from Berk?"

Stoick appeared off guard by the question. "Er...well, I suppose not..."

He travelled. Maybe he could find someone who would marry him? Someone who wouldn't mind him flying off for a few days or spending hours upon hours in the forge whenever inspiration struck...

Stoick cleared his throat and moved to take up with his mead again.

"But you needn't bother," he said. His eyes shifted with uncharacteristic unease before he focused into his cup. "I've, er, already entered negotiations with Aksel."

Hiccup knew that name all too well.

"What?" he yelped. From the sharkskin rug, Toothless' earfins perked, sensing the distress and shock in Hiccup's voice before settling them back against his skull. "Aksel Hofferson?"

For a moment, Hiccup was struck speechless. His father inhaled from his mug, refusing to meet the wide, horrified eyes of his son.

Hiccup found his tongue again but could only numbly utter, "Astrid doesn't want me."

She didn't. How could she? She had someone else. She seemed happy. She fought, she drank, and she tussled. Grund was a proper Viking who did proper Viking things and they looked like a proper Viking couple. It wasn't just Hiccup who thought so—he'd heard the offhand comments and village gossip: how Astrid and Grund looked so good together.

Two years after their break up and it still made Hiccup's insides twist into knots. He felt inadequate, for he was sure no one ever said that about him and Astrid.

Stoick shrugged and took another deep drink. "Her parents don't seem tae mind."

"Her p—" Hiccup turned to face his father, bewildered. "You talked to her mother too?"

His stomach felt like an iron ball. Full parental negotiations almost always led to unifying families.

"Aye. We were talkin' back when you two were hangin' around each other. Whit happened there, anyway?"

Hiccup bit his lip and shrugged. This wasn't the first time his father tried to have this conversation with him, and Hiccup still hadn't figured out how to answer. Everything around his and Astrid's separation was about emotions and expectations and nothing that could be put into words. The closest he had ever come to reasoning it out was the letter he wrote to Camicazi, and that he had Toothless burn.

If he had stayed with Astrid his life might have been very different. He wouldn't have the connections he had now, the undetected authority he was starting to gather, but he would have her.

Maybe it was the muted longing or the ever niggling what if or, quite possibly, jealously, but whenever he saw her Hiccup's stomach still flipped on itself. He hated it—loathed it, even—because he couldn't make sense of it.

"Alright, alright," Stoick said, holding up his free hand in a dismissive manner. He learned not to expect anything but blundering from Hiccup on that subject. "Just know that yeh have tae start fulfillin' yer role as an heir, and that starts with a marriage. It's an easy set up, the Hofferson lass. A good one."

"I..." His mind blanked. He could only think of one solution. "I'm going to bed. Toothless?"

Toothless was ready, and snorted into wakefulness.

Hiccup turned away from his father, dazed. He needed to sleep. He needed to end this night and this conversation and let unconsciousness take him. He needed time.

Gods, there was no time left, was there? That's what he had run out of.

Stoick leaned forward and said, "Well, hold on—should I talk to Axel? We'll go ahead with the handsal tomorrow if yeh like."

Hiccup couldn't bring himself to look at his father; the expression on his own face might give away his terror and yearning. He couldn't answer that question—he couldn't possibly decide what he wanted.

He wanted time. Just more time.

"I—I don't know," he managed to croak to the boards on the steps. "Just... ask Astrid, or something..."

She was the only girl he ever pictured himself wedding, but that was a long time ago. He was different. She was different. And she had moved on.

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The bark-wrapped charcoal spun between his fingers. He spun it again, then again, the tool moving as deft and soundlessly as the flame to his left.

Hiccup rubbed his eye and groaned. He should get to bed. The hour was late; the tallow of his candle now spilled onto his work desk. Gobber left long ago and the allure of sleep called to him from the shadows of the forge...

He gave his head a sharp shake. No. He had to write this letter. Time was short for him and he needed an invitation to Tomorrow, possibly someone to accompany him as well. Hiccup would have preferred someone from lands close to Tomorrow, someone who had associates in one of their diverse tribes, but Tomorrow's neighbors were the Murderous Tribe and the Lavalouts. Neither was on friendly terms with Berk.

Going by his connections, the Bog Burglars were closest. However...

Hiccup sat back on the stool and let the writing stick fall from his hand. It clattered against the table, setting a hollow tap to echo around the silent room.

Camicazi. He had to meet up with her. He had to tell her that his father finally brought up marriage.

Feeling heavy from more than sleep, Hiccup tore a new page. At least the words would come easier for this letter. A simple meeting request. He would tell Camicazi in person.

She wouldn't be as caught off-guard as he had been by the news. If anything, Camicazi had more interest invested in his future on Berk than he did. She told him repeatedly that he needed to start "seducing that Domestic"—usually as a joke, sometimes with distain. He had to marry and she did not.

"And you know who it'll be, right?" She would nudge him repeatedly in the side, as though she found how uncomfortable Astrid made him a thing of great amusement. From the beginning, Camicazi insisted that Astrid would be the one he married and he never took her seriously, always assuming she was needling him.

He wondered if Camicazi would keep the same good humor when—if—it became true...

"Hiccup?"

Hiccup swore.

He didn't mean to; the word, used so often by Thuggory, slipped from his lips in his startle. It was more than the unexpected voice (at an even more unexpected hour) that drew such a reaction from him. It was her voice.

He spun in his seat, his elbow sliding his papers askew as he did so, and felt his stomach pitch lower at the sight of Astrid on the doorsill.

She looked... appalled.

"Ah, sorry," Hiccup managed to choke out. His mind was faltering, his fingers fumbling. He didn't know whether to stand or sit, to usher her inside or question her presence. For a moment, he didn't know how to breathe. Why was she—? How did she—? What should he do?

His subconscious settled on staring dumbly.

"It's fine," Astrid said with just as much hesitance. Had Hiccup managed to get his thoughts in order he might have noticed she looked every bit as uncomfortable as he felt.

His head nodded, yet he didn't remember ever giving it the command to do so. He felt foolish but he didn't know what else to do. He'd spoken to her before. Why was she here at this hour? In the forge, of which she otherwise avoided aside from business related matters.

The marriage. He glanced down to the table, his mess of letters, and back at Astrid. He didn't know if handsal was completed, if his father had spoke to the Hoffersons directly or if he first asked Astrid for her opinion. He didn't know what she knew.

Hiccup pushed himself awkwardly from his chair; the legs teetered from the movement.

"Ahm," he cleared his throat when his voice caught. "I don't know what you've heard. There was something... Our parents—that is yours—well, mine did too, my dad, but that's not the point—"

"I just spoke to my parents," she said bluntly. Maybe it was his blatant discomfort, but Astrid's shoulders relaxed some and she took a step into his confined workspace.

In contrast, Hiccup found her words rattling.

She knew. Gods, she knew. His father must have completed the handsal... or it was rejected. He and Astrid might be married and he couldn't tell how she felt about it because she kept her face schooled—impassive, with searching eyes and a light frown.

Hiccup winced, suddenly unable to meet her gaze anymore, and rubbed a hand down his face where he could feel his heating skin. He felt responsible for all this and he didn't know why.

"Oh... oh gods, look, I'm sorry—"

"Are you?"

"Huh?"

The quickness of her question brought Hiccup's focus back on her. Astrid had her head cocked and she stared at him so intently that he found he couldn't look away again.

"Are you sorry that our parents want to marry us?" she elaborated.

"I'm..." Hiccup thought on his next words, "sorry for you." That still didn't sound right. "That you're getting pulled into this."

Her brow furrowed, her eyes lightened, and Hiccup realized he found her expressions so much easier to read than her words.

"You broke up with me," she said softly.

Hiccup nodded, but said nothing. He had nothing to say. Nothing that could be put into words.

"You didn't want me," she went on. She was pressing an old wound, clearing the pus that might have lingered.

"No," he said quickly. "That isn't—that wasn't it at all. I always—that is..." How could he say this? "It was the timing and the village—"

"I know," she said, just as quiet but so much shorter. She didn't want to hear the reasons again as much as he didn't want to say them.

Her eyes still searched the floor, the walls and his belongings. She no longer looked at him anymore with that blue, blue gaze. She came to say what she needed to, she could leave, but there was so much more they both wanted to say.

So she lingered.

"Were you heartbroken?" he asked. The question spilled from his mouth thoughtlessly, and he found it sounded just as stupid when he said it out loud. He couldn't help it.

She shrugged and shifted, uneasy. "I was...shocked."

"So was I," said Hiccup. He felt his lips quirk when he confessed, "I didn't think I'd have the courage to go through with it."

"Then why do it at all?" She looked at him again, her confidence back in the form of reproof.

Why not? he wanted to say, because unlike every other Viking on the island change didn't terrify him. He wouldn't stubbornly push through something that failed so often, and he wouldn't push through a relationship that would only fall into destructive patterns. Stepping back may have saved them... from themselves and each other.

But the focus in her eyes told Hiccup now was not the time to unload all his inklings and 'what if's. Astrid hated 'what if's. He remembered that much about her. She wanted black and white, clean-cut reasoning. She liked having a "right" choice.

Hiccup could never see that "right" choice she was so fond of. He would question it too much.

Maybe they're still too different...

"Because it was hurting us both," he heard himself say. "I guess I thought we could do better apart for a while. I don't know."

Astrid tightened her lips. They were moving forward finally. Slow, like slogging through bogs in the summer, and as painful as ripping the wrappings off a clotted wound... but necessary.

"Do you regret it?" she asked, treating his direct question with her own. "Breaking up?"

Hiccup understood what she wanted—closure and structure and truth—and gave her exactly that.

"No." He would have never had Camicazi otherwise. "I don't regret breaking up with you…"

He forced himself to say his next words, words he might have otherwise kept silent.

"But I still care about you. A lot."

Astrid nodded. She didn't return the sentiments and Hiccup would never ask her to. He remembered how she reacted when he first broke it off with her—for their own sakes. He remembered how she looked at him with such disappointment, like he let her down even when somewhere inside she too knew it was for the best. She avoided him, avoided looking at him and talking to him because it was so hard. She was hurt deeply; he could see that even through his own turmoil.

Astrid wet her lips and flicked her hair out of her eyes. "Then...we're getting married?"

The question startled Hiccup, and it wasn't simply the implication that she agreed to it. Maybe it was his admission of still caring, but Astrid's posture had relaxed immensely. Her voice lacked her earlier restraint, like she felt more comfortable talking to him.

The fingers of her right hand fiddled with the wrappings of her left arm as she waited for his response, and her eyes would only meet his briefly before scanning his wall of blueprints.

A slow smile pulled at his cheeks.

"I guess... I had planned on seducing you back to me, you know," Hiccup admitted before he could check himself. He always had this problem around her: a running mouth. "This just kind of twists everything around. Less work for me."

He wanted to lighten the mood. Their marriage was sounding so forced—he had to make sure she was as okay with it was he was. It was never Astrid he had the problem with; it was everything marriage represented: responsibility, stagnancy, an exponentially shorter flight time...

To his happy surprise, Astrid let out a brief, breathy chuckle before she slapped a hand to her mouth to stifle the offending sound.

"You...were going to seduce me?" she asked through her fingers. He couldn't blame her for laughing. Proactive seduction was never his strong point.

"That was the plan." Definitely Camicazi's plan, anyhow. "For when I was ready to grow up."

That was his plan, Hiccup recalled with a start. Even as he made the gut-wrenching decision to let her go two years ago, he had every intention of trying for Astrid again. He would wait for the politics to blow over or for one of them to

Then he became too involved with Camicazi... then too involved with the other clans... and thoughts of returning to his imagined life fell further and further away.

"Are you ready yet?" Astrid asked him.

"I don't have much of a choice," Hiccup said. He flinched as soon as the words left his mouth. Sure enough, the smile Astrid had slowly fallen into vanished. He hadn't meant it like that. "But yes, I suppose I'm ready."

It was a weak save, and Hiccup felt like he took a step back in making this marriage seem less like a punishment.

Astrid opened her mouth and Hiccup prayed to Odin she would say something to set them back on track again. They were doing so well...

"I heard about what happened in Peaceable country, with the Rudeboys..." Astrid said and Hiccup's heart plummeted. Nothing could prepare him for that. "Someone on a Night Fury put down a wild dragon."

He relaxed a little. News travelling across tribes often had to pass through many mouths; the story changed a little more every time. He could work with this.

Hiccup didn't realize how light he felt talking to Astrid like this again until he was forced to lie to her like he did his father. He had to treat her like a Viking and not a close friend.

"It wasn't me."

Naturally, she wasn't to be put off. Astrid took another step forward.

"You're the only Night Fury rider," she said.

"You don't know that."

"Hiccup, don't insult me."

She was full in the candlelight now. Her jaw set forward and her eyes ablaze with certainty and accusation. She seemed so much like when she first started to take notice of him three years ago; he nearly forgot what it felt like to have Astrid Hofferson's full attention on him. Terrifying, exhilarating, bewitching. Dangerous.

Hiccup chewed his bottom lip. He felt dizzy—unprepared—and instead of thinking of a clever cover story, his traitorous brain chose to focus on the many new freckles on her face—a thinner, more angular, face, but still the same round cheekbones and pointed nose and pronounced chin...

He could tell her, Hiccup realized, because even when he first made the decision to end things trust was never an issue with Astrid.

"I did what had to be done in the moment," he conceded. He wouldn't tell her everything—he couldn't! She was so Viking. Half-truths for now. "I could never plan to do that though." Gods, that Arrowjaw. It's dying shriek, cut off— "I would never intend for it—"

"Okay, okay!" Astrid jumped in with mollifying, pulsing motions of her palms. She had a peculiar look on her face that made Hiccup wonder if he had gotten too emotional without realizing. "I wasn't attacking you for it... I'm proud."

Proud. So Viking.

"Sorry," Hiccup mumbled, suddenly embarrassed. "It's just...it's still a touchy subject."

The claw down his arm. The crowd's screams. The whip.

Astrid tilted her chin and surveyed Hiccup the same way she would when walking through the forge, observing freshly-sharpened weapons.

"You're remarkably aggressive these days," she commented.

His face still cooling, Hiccup made a note of his own.

"And you're...remarkably calm."

Astrid gave a breathy, dry laugh.

"You learn to be patient when Gothi drones on and on for hours," she said.

This caught Hiccup's attention.

"You've been hanging around Gothi?" he asked. He was unaware of crossing his arms or leaning forward. "That must be amazing! She's probably full of stories."

Astrid shrugged, but the smile was back on her face.

"Yeah, I didn't think it would be my idea of a good time but she's not bad for an elder. I spend most of my time sorting and drying herbs with her. We've just begun planting new ones with the melt out of the way." Astrid paused a moment and added, "And by 'we' I mean 'me'. She claims she's too old and just watches me do the work, yaking all the while..."

"Wow," Hiccup commented, and he didn't say to word to fill in empty space. He was honestly shocked. Gothi was known for only speaking at the oddest of time and even then, only to a few, select people. She otherwise maintained a resolute silence and mastered the use of gestures and pointed looks. "I wouldn't have thought you'd go for a job like that."

He always thought Astrid would worm her way into the political scene. A second-in-command, like Uncle Spitelout. Attending every war meeting and throwing forth battle ideas.

"She requested me actually."

Hiccup settled back in his stance. "Did she?"

Astrid sounded proud again. Proud of something that had nothing to do with axe-wielding or dragon flying. Even as she complained, the fondness in her voice when she spoke of the Elder was unmistakable. She shared a bond with the older woman that few were entitled to.

There was so much he didn't know—details like this, what now made her happy—and it occurred to Hiccup that, in his intent to network and monitor other tribes, he neglected what was happening in his own village. To his peers.

He also realized this was the most he had spoken to Astrid in a long time. And it was easy, just like back when they used to hang out...

"Yeah..." Astrid said, and with much less enthusiasm and quite a deal more reverence, she added, "Also, Grund was courting me for a while." She paused here, watching him. "But I...I think it's going to end anyway. Gothi was taking up so much of my time..."

Hiccup fought down the impulse to swallow the spit that had suddenly pooled under his tongue because he didn't want to show any reaction to hearing Grund's name.

"That's the only reason he's stopping?" he forced himself to ask.

Astrid played with a forelock of her hair and nodded. When she spoke, her voice sounded far more nonchalant than her body language would lead him to believe. "He's trying to make me choose between him and Gothi, but I can't disrespect an elder like that so, obviously, I have to choose her. My parents would kill me if I did otherwise."

Hiccup bobbed his head. He didn't know if he was nodding or just doing something with his body to avoid speaking.

He couldn't blame Grund for wanting to move forward. The man was four years their senior, after all, and quite the warrior too. Astrid was a catch, but Grund had to move forward in his life.

Still... they would have been a great couple. The perfect couple, really. Even Hiccup couldn't deny that.

"Thanks," he murmured. "For telling me. I knew you were seeing Grund but I didn't know, you know, the details..."

Shit. Hiccup stopped speaking. Here she was, willing to unload all the things she felt he needed to know about her and there was so much to tell her on his end. He couldn't keep his contacts a secret from her. Not if they were to be married.

He couldn't keep Camicazi a secret, even if they weren't in a courtship. It wasn't fair to anyone.

Ignorant to his thoughts, Astrid shrugged, acting unaffected. "I suppose things have to end anyway if we're getting married."

"I'm sorry." Hiccup didn't know why he was still apologizing. They had already moved passed this. "You know, I told my dad to ask you first..."

"He did," Astrid said. "I said yes."

It was such a small admission, and yet Hiccup felt it changed everything.

"You said—? You want to?"

Astrid cocked an eyebrow. She was long-passed feeling self-conscious around an ex-suitor. Ever since he revealed that he still cared for her, in fact.

"I told you we were getting married, didn't I?" He could hear in her voice the thoughts of marrying against her will. She would have never allowed it to happen.

"Well, ah, sorry. You're right, yeah. I'm just still shocked by it all. I didn't know the details... like if you were just told by your parents or if my dad actually listened to me for once..." He didn't know what he was saying anymore. She wanted to marry him. She still wanted him, after everything. After Grund. "I just didn't think... Well, I thought I was going to have to do all this convincing—"

"Yeah, yeah, seducing me. Wish I could have seen it." She was teasing, but Hiccup was too off-foot to appreciate it.

She made the conscious decision to marry him. It wasn't out of their hands. She wasn't being forced.

He had to confirm it. He didn't want her to feel like she was settling either.

"Are you sure? This is big. You'd be stuck with me. If you aren't ready I can pull some strings and push it back—"

She laughed. Again, it was short. Her usual hearty scoff.

"Hiccup, I've always been ready."

She had, Hiccup realized. Astrid always had a plan in mind—an end game—where he took things day by day. It set them apart before because they never talked about it—they didn't know how to, they were children—but just knowing this about themselves could make a world of a difference.

"I wanted to talk to you before now," Astrid said, taking his tightened jaw as shock. "I could never seem to find the right time. Or you."

"Yeah," He just noticed how close they were. Astrid started out at the door and he at his seat. Now they stood in the center of his small alcove, face-to-face. He could smell the sweat and forest on her. She had been training earlier.

"You've been so distant...gone all the time."

"I've been..." He searched for the word, "busy."

Astrid glanced down at her wrappings again. She did that, he noted, when she needed to gather her thoughts.

When she looked up again Hiccup could see the candle's flame reflecting in her eyes. Ice and fire and bright.

"I'm sorry if this threw a wrench in your plans," she said.

After all his apologizing it felt weird hearing one from her.

"No," he said quickly. It put a damper on his plans, certainly, but it wasn't her fault. It was always unavoidable. "I said it before... I'm sorry for you. You had Grund and—"

"Hiccup," Astrid cut him off. "I'm okay with marrying you..."

Haustmábuður. That's when it would be, along with the harvest. Four months.

And Hiccup still couldn't understand why. "Which I'll never get. I—"

"He wasn't you."

That was her confession. Like his earlier, about still caring about her. Hiccup tried to swallow but his mouth had suddenly gone dry.

"Maybe you were right," Astrid said, still pushing forward. Hiccup suppressed the desire to make a quip about her admitting his correctness. It wasn't the time. "Maybe, maybe we both needed it."

"Maybe," he said, his voice as soft as the night.

She was different. She was still hard-edged and combinative. She still liked the sound of her own voice, especially when she had a point to make. But she was more reflective. More open.

This could work. For the first time since he heard of his marriage prospect, hope blossomed in Hiccup's chest.

Something about their words, or perhaps the dim atmosphere, charged the air around the former couple. It took strength to keep meeting her eyes at this proximity, and yet Hiccup felt the pull of them. He wanted to look away, to hide from this captivation, but he couldn't.

And she felt the same—he could tell. They were past reconciling. They were baring their souls to one another without control. Their worries and their wishes.

"Things wont be like they were though, will they?" she asked, her chin tilting.

That honeymoon phase when they first got together blanketed how ill-prepared they were for one another. Both in their first real relationships, the thrill of being with someone they were starting to know, the new world they were prepared to lead into… it seemed a lifetime ago.

They'd be cautious this time. They'd work with each other. Hiccup reached out to cup her cheek.

"Maybe they'll be better."

The smile left his face at first contact. His fingertips trailed across her skin as he revisited old territory, recalling what he once forgotten. He focused in on her features; the blue of her eyes, the freckles beneath scars and the scars beneath freckles. He felt her hands run up his chest and fist in the collar of his tunic. She pulled him to her, held him to her, and Hiccup's stomach tightened at the familiarity of her assertiveness. Her attention was on his mouth, eyes flickering up to meet his before falling back to his lips. He knew what she wanted, what he wanted, he saw it in the tilt of her head, felt it in the pressing of her hips. He heard the bandages around her hands groan as her fingers twisted more tightly...

Restraint crumbled, caution thrown to the wind, and Hiccup followed Astrid's subtle tug to his clothes to meet her mouth in a kiss. The last time they kissed Hiccup was of equal height; it felt different now that he was taller. New and enthralling. Their mouths moved as one; slow, cautious and tasting.

Astrid. Her name tumbled in his mind. He was kissing Astrid.

She was back—they were back—and the terror that came with the territory was back as well. Hiccup suddenly felt new at this, with the nervous excitement of a much younger boy coursing through his veins. Still, his arms encircled her waist and he pressed her to him. She tasted the same, but different. She fit in his arms different, against his body different. So familiar but so different. He wanted to re-explore this. To understand everything she had been up to in his absence. To learn about the woman she had become. To experience the woman she would become.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he noted that Astrid didn't hold him like Camicazi did. She was firmer, less fluid and more fixed. Steady. Self-assured. Strong.

His lips only parted to draw breath—he wanted more—but Astrid took the opportunity to push him back. The effect was immediate.

"S-sorry," he stuttered involuntarily. His head was spinning and clearing all at once. How had that happened? What were they doing? They weren't ready for this.

"No, it's fine." Astrid had one hand to her temple and the other to her mouth. She wasn't looking at him. She was looking at the floor with wide eyes. "It's just—"

"I know," Hiccup cut her off. "Way too fast."

He still had to talk to Camicazi. Was Astrid still with Grund? They had nothing but strained and polite conversation since separating; what in Thor's braided beard possessed them to...?

Hiccup wanted to kick himself. He should have never touched her face as he had. He gave into a long suppressed desire, too enthralled with the idea of marrying Astrid while realizing they could work together. Too intoxicated by the hope for their relationship.

"Yeah," Astrid agreed with a hard swallow. She was already backtracking to the door. "I—I'll see you tomorrow?"

They could see each other every day now. She wanted to see him. They could talk more. They could—

"Yeah," Hiccup muttered dumbly before his mind could run off.

He had so much to do—so much to do—but the marriage seemed a little less daunting and a little more promising.

"Yeah..." he repeated. She had already left, he spoke to a swinging curtain, but he smiled anyway.

The burden on his shoulders lightened.

This, out of every other worry he carried, could work.

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Camicazi climbed through Hiccup's window the very evening after he sent letter requesting to meet with her. Her window entrance was something to be expected by now, the expression on her face was one he had only seen once before.

Concerned and apprehensive about the conversation he was about to have, Hiccup stood to greet her.

"Cami—"

"So it's true?" she said as she hopped over the sill. "You're getting married?"

Hiccup ran a hand through his hair, taken aback by her greeting given he hadn't mentioned the proposal in his letter.

"Ah, yeah, yeah... I was going to tell you..." He cocked his head and narrowed his eyes, "How did you..."

"You're not the only one with connections," Camicazi said. A hint of her saucy self resurfaced for a moment before. "It's her, right? Astrid?"

"I mean, none of it is really set yet and things are...are awkward." Awkward, but promising. He could talk to her as easily as he remembered. He felt hope when he was with her. "Though, I'm not sure she's really broken up with Grund yet

"Congratulations."

Hiccup looked up from his thoughts.

"Thank you," he said. His words were sincere, because it meant a lot coming from her. "For everything," he continued. "For being with me, for helping me."

Camicazi grinned, but there was something muted about it. Her eyes were dark in thought.

"I did quite a bit for you, didn't I?" she agreed. "I broke a lot of rules—not just for a Bog but as an heir."

Hiccup winced. She was right. "I'm sorry," he said, though it sounded lame to his ears. Empty.

"I just want one thing from you," she said. She took another step towards him and something of the situation rang familiar to Hiccup, especially when she stepped into his personal space with so few words and gently touched her fingertips to his chest. "I need something."

Hiccup leaned back from the contact.

"Camicazi – remember when I said I was getting married...?"

She set her jaw, stubborn and insistent. "Just one last time."

"Camicazi—"

"Hiccup, I need an heir."

Her blunt words struck Hiccup dumb, and the air rang with silence after them. Camicazi stared directly into his eyes. Determination and passion and a hint of regret shined back at him.

"Cami..." he breathed when his lungs felt finally able to move.

"There is no one else I want," she said. "And I won't ask this of you when you're married, so please, please."

"I—Camicazi, I don't think I want a child outside of my marriage.

Her lips pulled back in a snarl and she stepped forward, poking his chest hard.

"Do you know how many men would love to have a bog-daughter?" she hissed. "Would beg to have me touch them!?"

The shine in her eyes offset the fury of her words and Hiccup found himself unable to meet her gaze. She was hurt. He was hurting her.

"You don't know it's going to be a girl," he muttered. "I mean, if we even—"

Camicazi grabbed his face and forced him to look at her. Her scowl softened at the feel of the quickened pulse in his jaw.

"I know it's a lot to ask," she said, her voice as soft as the moonlight cast upon her cheeks. "But I broke traditions for you. I lied to my mother and tribeswomen—for you. For you I—I—"

Her speech faltered, yet Hiccup understood exactly what she was insinuating. The shame said it all.

"Cami..."

"So you can't do this to me, you can't just leave me completely now that I need you. I just want an heir, that's all I want. So that I won't have to search elsewhere. And so that I can—so you—so that you won't leave me completely."

Her words spurred Hiccup into motion. He reached out and cupped her face.

"I could never—"

Camicazi closed her eyes, perhaps staining the feel of his palms against her skin to memory, and leaned forward until her forehead rested against his chin.

"Please," she whispered, and the word touched his throat like a delicate kiss. "Do this for me."

Hiccup brought his hands up to her shoulders, but he couldn't bring himself to push her away. He wanted an answer for her that was clear and clean, but he was starting to learn that nothing would ever be so simple as right as wrong, as he once tried to believe.

"I..."

He kissed Astrid only a day ago. They were to be married.

And Camicazi was to continue her life of pirating and plundering, roving the seas. She would have a freedom he lacked, but she would not be exempt from expectation either. She would have to provide an heir, just as her mother did, and her mother before her. Perhaps, she could find someone she cared about as much as him to help her.

She could find someone else. He could ask her to do this, so he wouldn't have to compromise his morals. Just like he asked her to listen to him babble about the, even when she followed that same Viking code. Just like he asked her to hold his hand and help him figure out his life when he first lost Astrid to politics and ethics.

Just like he asked her to act against her tribe and upbringing to meet him time and again, because she helped him make sense of the world with her simplistic thinking and base understanding of him.

Hiccup's fingers tightened around her shoulders.

"Okay," he mumbled, the same way he had their first time together. He pressed a kiss to her brow. "Okay."

He would indulge Camicazi one last time, because she asked it of him and he loved her. They could never say the words to each other; they could only show them. There were too many responsibilities, too many attachments to their own cultures. It was folly to utter, to entertain the idea of ever being together. But they could show each other. They had shown each other.

Hiccup would speak to Astrid on the morrow. He would tell her everything, of him and Camicazi, of his ambassador activities. And, after tonight, he would give himself completely to the woman he would marry.

Camicazi made a small noise of relief that sounded far too close to a sob for Hiccup's comfort. He dipped his head and kissed her slow and deeply, and in return she captured his head in the nook of her arms and clung to him. It made removing her clothes difficult but his fingers managed to take her fur vest off by one shoulder, then the other. He took his time, and planned to continue to take his time with her—to remember every movement, every noise—because it would be the last.

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If you haven't figured it out yet I first started writing this story for an excuse to practice writing sensual scenes. It ended up evolving into something much more complex - as everything I write tends to do.

So how was that transition back into Hicstrid territory? Predictable? Unexpected? Smooth? Choppy?

**I had Hiccup have his last time with Camicazi after he reconciled with Astrid on purpose. While I could have made things so much easier and cleaner for Hiccup, that would have taken away the poignancy of his decision. He's making the conscious decision to compromise his morals for Camicazi. Their relationship isn't one of romance. It's just... deep. They try to be what the other needs, sometimes it's a best friend, and sometimes it's a helping hand in fulfilling their tribal responsibilities.

Thank you Sir Nick for betaing even though you've been super busy with that awesome language German :)

Please R&R! I'd love to get some feedback. I don't need to tell you guys who weird and dangerous it is writing things like Hiccup and Astrid breaking up with that element of believability.