17.1


Why exactly are we flying south? Toothless asked.

"I'm pretty sure I told you about this when we made the decision," Hiccup replied, leaning a little over the side to see the summer fields far beneath – and, ahead of them in the blue distance, the foothills of the Alps. "Besides, we're not technically going south, we're more going southeast."

We're still going south first, Toothless countered. Anyway, I've forgotten, so explain it again.

"I'd say you were intellectually lazy, but then I'd have to confront charges of being normally lazy," Hiccup admitted, as the miles washed away beneath them – Toothless was flying very high, and fast as well, and while they weren't at the point he was breaking the sound barrier they were still going at the kind of speed a higher-tech world would call airline cruising speed. "As you're doing all the driving. But, basically… things seemed a bit off, and I thought we'd better go and see what's going on in the interesting bits of Europe."

Speaking of which, why are we going the long way? Toothless checked.

"We don't have coordinates, remember?" Hiccup said, chuckling. "And I felt like enjoying having miles of air beneath us."

Nothing but air between us and everything, the dragon agreed, in slightly reverent mental tones. You're right, going Between too often can mean we forget how freeing it is to be up in the air.

He flipped his tail slightly. Still, we're going to need to rest at some point. I'm a hell of a dragon, if I do say so myself, but I prefer not to go all day and night and into the next day without a rest. Did you think of that, since you're the brains of this partnership?

"Hey, hey, I'm the hands of this partnership," Hiccup corrected. "You're the wings. And I'm sure Gobber would agree neither of us is the brain."

You make a cogent argument.

"Going back to the specifics," the Rider added, since they had the time for it, "I think we ended up at a different point in history to normal. Nothing's off from baseline in our local area, and it's not like we use the Christian calendar yet – for obvious reasons – but it's worth checking out why. Worst case, we go right back to New Berk and report that there's still Romans out there."

Will there be Romans out there?

"There's always Romans out there, bud," Hiccup told him. "Unless we're so far forwards that everyone's using cannons, or so far back that Rome hasn't been invented yet."

Toothless made a groonk noise. I did hear it was built in a day. Is that when they invented it?


"It's actually kind of a weird problem that we have, that many Loopers don't have," Hiccup said, the next day, as they flew over Greece. "This sort of thing is never really a problem for F'lar, say, or Twilight. Or, really, most of them."

Explain it like I'm five, Toothless requested.

"I'll explain it like you're a Looper and you'll be happy with it," his rider snorted. "The idea is – the idea is, most of what happens with us is in a pretty small area of the north Atlantic and North Sea. And we don't generally make much contact with the rest of the world, so there could be almost anything going on there. We could have a fused loop or partially fused loop without even noticing."

You noticed something this time.

"That might just be me guessing," Hiccup pointed out, then leaned over the side – prompting Toothless to bank left slightly to compensate. "Okay, that's Alexandropoli… yeah, I think we might be a bit earlier than normal. But that doesn't really tell us much – Hel, Leman's father could be out there, he'd be several thousand years old by now."

Are we okay to go down and look?

"Sure, it's not like people have no stories about dragons in this time period," Hiccup replied, shrugging. "We're here, after all… just act like there might be a ballista out there."

Toothless' teeth retracted in with a shoonk which Hiccup felt through his knees, and the dragon inhaled.

"Without going invisible," Hiccup added. "I'm not going to be invisible even if you do do that."

Fair enough. Toothless slid lower, and they flashed over the Hellespont and over the Sea of Marmara.

"...wait, hold on," Hiccup said, getting out a telescope. "That doesn't look right…"

He reached into his Pocket and pulled out a PADD, scanning through until he brought up an image, then checked it against what he could see. "Okay, that's the old Hagia Sophia…"

You should really make a habit of wearing that me-scale armour all the time, Toothless sent. That way I can stealth both of us.

"Yeah, but the balaclava kind of messes with my eyesight," Hiccup said, laughing. "You win, bud. I'll keep working on it until there's a setup I like."

Or you could use thermoptic camo, but I know what you think about cheating. Toothless tilted his head. Hey, look, a sail. Should we go and say hello?

"Toothless, don't-" Hiccup began, but Toothless hadn't really been asking as such and they were already plunging down towards the dromon.


"Okay, so… let me make sure I understand all this, because right now I don't understand all this," Hiccup requested, some minutes later.

He pointed at one of the Roman soldiers. "You're a general. And you've… come back in time, but only once, and it wasn't really you who went back in time but you remember what happened in the future because of a gemstone."

One of the other Romans grumbled something about how really the one who should be doing the explanations was the one with the dragon, rather than having the one with the dragon asking questions, but Hiccup waved it off. "And you know there are other people with knowledge from the future, in India, who are giving everyone gunpowder to try and conquer the world… so they can do eugenics to it."

"You seem to be taking a lot of this in stride," the general said – general Belisarius, if Hiccup remembered the name correctly.

"Oh, I'm very annoyed," Hiccup assured him. "Here I was, trying to teach my corner of the world about how you don't have to worry about dragons, and now we've got to deal with this as well."

"Actually, where did the dragons come from?" Belisarius said. "Aide says they weren't here last time."

"Other dragons, I think, but I haven't actually researched that all that closely," Hiccup replied. "It might be spontaneous generation or something."

Toothless cuffed him with a wing, sending him sprawling.

Half a dozen of the Romans went for their bows – the grumbler from before had his out and ready with impressive speed – but Hiccup just got back up, snorted, and punched Toothless back. "All right, you don't ask questions about my love life."

And finally he realizes nobody wanted to know in the first place, Toothless told him.

"Easy, Valentinian," Belisarius ordered. "After what we've seen so far, this isn't as surprising as it might have been."

He turned to look the way the ship was still moving – towards Constantinople. "Though… if you're willing to help, then we could do with some idea of what we're sailing into. We want to know if Constantinople is still under the control of Emperor Justinian."

The Roman general paused. "And, by the way, your Greek is excellent."

"You pick up a little, here and there," Hiccup shrugged. "Come on, Toothless, let's see what we can see."


What they could see was mostly not good, as it happened.

A whole army was loading itself onto ships on the Bithynian side of the straits at Chalcedon, and a riot was going on in the Hippodrome, and all in all it looked like there was about to be some kind of civil war.

The question is, do we get involved? Toothless asked Hiccup. I mean, we could, but do we?

"That's an ethical question," Hiccup replied, considering. "But, then again, I guess… well, this Belisarius guy has a reputation for loyalty, so – hey, bud, I know it's early but want to found the Varangian Guard?"

What, again? Toothless asked. We always do that.

"We haven't done it in ages, Toothless," Hiccup chuckled. "You're exaggerating… anyway, I feel like showing off. Do you feel like showing off?"

Showing off how?

By way of reply, Hiccup projected an image of Belisarius' dromon.

Toothless issued a warbling chuckle. I like the way you think, Viking.

His wings spread, and they vanished into the blackness Between.


Once the chaos of the Nika revolt had subsided – the Army of Bithynia's transports sunk in five blazing minutes by the sleek black dragon, Antoina's grenadiers rescued, control of the Imperial Palace secured and the surviving traitors killed – General Belisarius had two critical meetings to deal with.

The first was the one he'd been dreading, with John of Rhodes. The Navy officer was angry – furious – hopping mad, absolutely livid.

"A dragon!" he said. "A dragon, if you please! I spent weeks – months – working those fire bombs! And a plodding fleet of grain ships was the perfect target! And now-"

He groaned, a sound of absolute frustration. "I didn't even get to test it!"

"I didn't exactly expect it either, John," Belisarius told him.

I did not either, Aide said.

The gemstone's facets whirled in his mind. And I should have. It is not fair.

"Besides, you've got to admit, it was better than having Hiccup and Toothless dive-bombing you," Belisarius added.

John's expression grew even more thunderous. For a moment, for a moment.

Then John's keen professional mind worked at the problem, and he shook his head with a hiss of frustration.

"I know," he said. "But it's still not fair."

That was a start, at least. It took another ten minutes for Belisarius to properly mollify him – assure him he was sure the warship would be a mighty weapon against future enemies – convince him that there would be a need for more naval development in future, and that John was the best man for it.

Then, once the navy man had been mollified sufficiently, there came the other meeting.

The one where he didn't know what to expect.


One of the things he definitely hadn't expected was to find the odd young man from Northwestern Europe outside in one of the smaller gardens attached to the Imperial Palace complex, playing catch with his dragon.

He had an odd discus-like shape, made of metal, but hollow underneath instead of the shape Belisarius was familiar with, and when he threw it it curved through the air instead of flying straight like a discus should. Toothless would dart along the ground after it, tail and wings flapping, then lift off and catch it only to throw it right back again.

It was surprisingly hard to remember that the sleek black creature in front of him had sunk an entire fleet in five minutes. Or that it had moved so fast that Aide had been quietly having conniptions.

That is a Frisbee, Aide told him, as Toothless slung it back at Hiccup and the young man caught it in both hands with a faint oof. Not invented until after 1936.

Belisarius was curious, but waved off the digression.

"There's a lot I don't understand about you," he said, as a conversational opener.

"Yeah, I get that a lot," Hiccup replied. "Sometimes from my dad… sometimes from my girlfriend… sometimes from my dragon…"

Toothless nodded firmly at all three, especially the last one, and Belisarius wondered again just how much Greek the dragon actually spoke.

"But, well, I'm sort of interested," Hiccup added. "You're a general, right?"

"I was the last time I checked," Belisarius told him. "My position was a little shaky at one point, but I think I've improved it no end by saving the Emperor!"

Hiccup chuckled. "Well, I'm sort of interested to see how useful you think everything Toothless can do is, when you add it all up together."

He began counting on his fingers. "You've seen us flying, and the plasma breath, but Toothless can also control lightning… turn invisible… and teleport, anywhere either of us have been before. It takes less than eight seconds to go anywhere in the world, and I've always wondered what a general would actually think about that."

You are hyperventilating, Aide warned Belisarius.


17.2


Boy and dragon shot along the shoreline, weaving in and out of the stacks and arches, and behind them the Red Death crashed into or through every one along the way – sending rocks flying, and hitting the great dragon hard enough that even it had to be feeling it.

Hiccup glanced back, then focused his attention on the flight.

If they wanted to set things up just right, they'd have to stay baseline for the whole of the loop. And that meant...

"Okay, Toothless," he said, angling the Night Fury's attention up slightly towards the stormy low clouds. "Time to disappear!"

Toothless climbed higher into the sky, wings hammering, then a sort of greasy feeling began to build up.

"Wait, hold on-" Hiccup began, then went for his Pocket and pulled out a ring of elemental immunity. It went onto his finger a few seconds before Toothless flared his stormcaller power, and an explosion of electricity from the thunderclouds overhead engulfed them both.

When it faded, Toothless was invisible.

"I didn't mean it like that!" Hiccup said, still visible and looking like he was sitting on thin air. "What was that in aid of?"

Was that something you said baseline? Toothless asked. I can't remember, it's been a while.

He did a roll, evading the Red Death's jet of firebreath with casual ease, then groaned. Wait, this means we've messed up the baseline run. And I gave up my tail fin for that!

"Next time, I guess," Hiccup said. "Tell you what, let's just unlock all your powers right now, and I'll make you a fin that's indistinguishable from the real thing. And heal your tail fin."

Well, if you're offering, it'd be rude to say no, Toothless replied, his body lighting up blue from the inside as he activated the Blue Thing and dropped his stealth. Lightning arced over his wingtips, and he flipped over in a perfect half-Kulbit before spitting a jet of fire and lightning and plasma that left a solid bar across Hiccup's vision.

The effect on the Red Death was considerably more dramatic.


"Well, I guess we invented fireworks," Hiccup decided, once the shrapnel had finished landing. "Maybe that was overdoing it slightly."

Eh, it's no fun unless you overdo it.


17.3


"Well, now, this is bloody weird, isn't it?" Gobber mumbled. "Wouldn't you say this is weird?"

"Little bit," Hiccup agreed. "Little bit weird, all right."

He heaved the ledger open. "Let's see, now… go back, um… twelve, thirteen, fourteen… I make it sixty-one generations, and there we go. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and Astrid Hofferson, First Chief and Chief's Wife of New Berk. Their children… and it goes down like that, and there, and there…"

He looked up. "I'm not sure but I think this might be odd even for the loops. We're our own descendants, admittedly more than a thousand years removed."

"Wait, hold on, does that mean we're related?" Astrid asked, making a face. "That's going to suck."

"Well, related several generations back," Hiccup answered. "But we weren't exactly from a large village, so that's actually about what you'd expect… it's nothing to be worried about, if you were worried about it."

"That's a relief," Stoick said. "The question is, what exactly are we going to do now?"

"Well, the world out there's in the middle of the Cold War," Hiccup answered – being naturally more familiar with baseline-Hub Earth history than the others since so many fused loops involved it. "So… I'm guessing spying, trying to work out if the myths about dragons actually mean anything around here…"

Gobber tapped his chin knowingly. "Which they do."

"Which they do, yeah," Hiccup confirmed. "Based on the information we've got here about increasing numbers of sightings, some old letters that Hiccup VIII left about going to the world's edge… that's my great-grandfather this time, by the way, I'm Hiccup IX, in case anyone wasn't keeping track."

"Sorry for calling you Ix," Stoick told his son. "Even like that."

"You're Stoick VI, so who knows how this works," Hiccup shrugged. "It looks like the way this is meant to go is that spies from both sides of the Cold War show up and sniff around to try and find the dragons, and we try and find out what they're on about, find the stuff in the archives, and find the Hidden World. And that's where we find Toothless and Stormfly and all the others… though from there I'm not sure."

"Fishlegs would have loved being involved in that," Gobber sighed. "Kind of hope we come back here now with him."

Astrid snorted. "We're not seeing whatever this Variant thinks of as Baseline either way, though, are we?"

She nodded towards the way out of the stacks. "Not with Toothless the Whateverth blocking us in here."

It's not my fault, Toothless replied, broadcasting widely. Hiccup gave me terrible coordinates and now I'm sort of wedged. Count yourself lucky I'm invisible at the moment or you wouldn't be getting any light.

"Telepathic bonds do sort of reduce the difficulty of that particular bit of deduction," Hiccup agreed. "Speaking of which, they're all down there, right?"

A trio of nods reached him.

"Both Thor and Sif," Stoick added. "No sign of Cloudjumper, though."

"I was wondering about that," Hiccup admitted. "I, guess it wasn't a dragon attack where she went missing, this time?"

Stoick glanced up for a moment, then shuffled a little awkwardly along the shelves and sat down. "Burglary," he told them. "Middle of the night, and she vanished. I wondered if she'd been taken hostage or something, but… never heard back."

"Now I'm wondering which side of the Iron Curtain did it," Hiccup mused, then steepled his fingers and pushed them out with a crak. "Right. Let's start by getting Toothless out of the library, and then see if we can work out where Mom is."


17.4


"Heheheh," Ruffnut chuckled, as the newly-freed dragon rose into the air. "Suckers."

She gigged him left slightly, patting the dragon on the neck. "Always works, you know?" she asked. "Fishy might know more than me, but man can I talk! And the more you talk, the harder it is for anyone to keep track of what you're saying until it just kind of merges together into a drone that nobody can even begin to follow – and it helps if you stick some insults in there, too, just so they can't tune it out but they can't focus on it either. Never fails."

Glancing up at the sun, the dragonrider steered her mount right a bit. "Speaking of which, don't you think it's great how we're bonding? I mean, we never met before, and you're just glad to be here, but when I shift my weight it lets you know what would be a good idea and you adjust automatically – you don't even need to train a dragon in it, because fire breath is another thing but the centre of balance, pssh, that's easy…"


Ruffnut kept talking for the whole hour-long flight, until they were entering the mists around her destination and she hunched a bit lower to focus.

"Bit slower," she instructed, inclining the dragon down to fly through an arch, then up again to rise over a wall of rock. The mists eddied a bit around her, thicker with every wingbeat, and she smirked.

"This is going to be great!"


"So, this is where they're hiding," Grimmel said, staring into the mist. "Unexpected, but cunning."

"It is?" Ragnar asked, frowning. "It just looks like mist to me."

Grimmel sighed.

"Would you care to explain?" Griselda the Grievous requested. "You are clearly the expert here, on this at least."

"It should be obvious," Grimmel replied. "The thick mist conceals their dragons from afar. It's not somewhere dragons would like to fly, but with the Berkians to get them over that reluctance it's effective enough… but it's also to our advantage. They'll have to get close to attack, including that Night Fury."

"Then we should ready the nets," Chaghatai decided.

Grimmel spread his hand. "Naturally," he agreed, then paused. Sniffed.

Taking two quick strides to the boat's rail, he looked out over the edge at the sea-hugging fog.

Greenish fog.

"Lift now!" he snapped, calling for one of his Deathgrippers, but too late.


"Boom!" Ruffnut declared, clapping her hands as all the Zippleback gas Barf had spread over the last six hours went up in a single cataclysmic explosion.

The applause made her temporary mount shake its head, confused, until she quickly gave it a reassuring pat.

"Now that was cool," Tuffnut declared, as their Zippleback flew over. "How'd you come up with that, anyway?"

"You don't think I'd be thick enough to lead him straight home if I got out, did you?" Ruffnut asked, conveniently ignoring baseline.

And the dozens of other times she'd done it.

And you can shut it, she added, to her partner's mental sniggering.


17.5


"Hey, Meatlug?"

The brown dragon on the other side of the weyr flicked his ear.

"I was going to ask if you were awake," Fi'gs admitted, a bit woolbeastishly. "Sorry."

Well, of course I'm awake, Meatlug replied, standing up and stretching. It's not all that late, not really.

Fi'gs shook his head. "I should have thought about it, though."

The brown dragon flicked his tail. Something's on your mind. Come on, I know you better than anyone.

"I guess you do," the human Looper agreed. "It's… you know, just thinking. Wondering how much you actually like visiting Pern."

It is where we truly came to understand one another, Meatlug told him firmly. It is how I became who I am, and how you became who you are. Even if the best way to shorten your name does turn you into a sort of fruit.

The mental overtones of love that flowed down the link made Fi'gs smile. "Just worried, I guess… sometimes when you come here you're a brown, like Hookfang, and sometimes you're a green. I wondered how much it mattered to you."

I was born female first, and if I had to choose it is what I would prefer, Meatlug told him. But it is not important enough to me. It may be to others, but not for me.

He focused, and snatched something out of his Pocket. Now, I know what we need to do when you're melancholy.

"I thought what we did when melancholy was burn down Lindisfarne," Fishlegs countered. "Or am I thinking of other Vikings?"

This isn't actually that far off, theme wise, Meatlug told him, putting the box down. It's a dice game about making stained glass windows. Now, let's have a game or three, and you can tell me what else is bothering you.

Fishlegs picked up the rules, scanned through them, then took a handful of dice and shook them. "It's kind of related, yeah… baseline stuff with Ruff, no baseline children so no children at all…"

The next few minutes passed in silence, except for the occasional comment related directly to the game, and eventually Fishlegs nodded.

"Well done," he told his dragon. "Good game."

I'm sure you'll win next time, Meatlug declared, sweeping everything back into his Pocket. Feel better?

"A bit, yeah," Fishlegs admitted.

Now, just to help out, what I'm going to do is talk to Ruth and Mnementh, the dragon added. I'll get them to put something way more high-tech in the ash fields.

Fishlegs shot him a confused look. "Like what?"

That's for you to find out, Meatlug told him. Consider it a challenge…


17.6


The world reformed in a blur, transitioning from a peaceful snowy afternoon to a night of chaos and fire, and Snotlout the Epithetless (work that one out) grabbed for a bucket of water before running out into the night to douse the effects of some dragon fire.

He sent out a ping, answered by three others, and reached through his bond to Hookfang – feeling the wash of formless love from his faithful Monstrous Nightmare.

Mind asking Toothless what's up this loop? Snotlout asked, ducking under the fire of a Gronckle and flinging his water at something which shouldn't be on fire – specifically, a sheep.

Hookfang was silent for several seconds, then his reply came with a definite sensation of frown. I can't get in touch, he said. Or, I can feel that I'm sending it to the right place, but Toothless isn't replying.

Snotlout stopped halfway back to the well, then got moving again a bit more slowly. Oh, huh. Anyone else present?

None of the other dragons, certainly, Hookfang told him. No sign of Stormfly, Barf, Belch, Meatlug… neither Thornado nor Blitsif… even Lazy, though of course most of the actual dragons are in the cages next to me anyway.

Right, right, Snotlout said. Huh. I guess that means whoever else is here isn't a local. That means… hey, that means we can do whatever we want!

A particularly big explosion hit, and Snotlout dumped his second bucket on it – then glanced around at the forge.

Oh, right. Hiccup.

I wasn't going to say anything, Hookfang replied.

I guess we'd better do baseline, then, Snotlout decided.


Toothless – or, 'the Night Fury' – went skimming overhead a minute or so later, and Snotlout watched as Hiccup came running out of the forge with his bolas launcher.

It was kind of cool to watch, really. Toothless was incredibly fast, and yet Hiccup sighted on him and shot him down.

"Yes!" Hiccup announced. "Oh, did anyone see that?"

Snotlout only just remembered to hide behind something.

I think I might not be very good at keeping to baseline, he told Hookfang. No practice.

So what should we do, then? Hookfang asked.

Snotlout shrugged – both mentally and with his actual shoulders. I'll figure something out.


Honestly, Snotlout was kind of weirded out by the whole situation.

He was mostly used to his cousin as the grown up version of Hiccup – the chief of Berk, or the heir (overwhelmingly the heir, because on some things baseline could go screw itself with a Rumblehorn) but either way he was a lithe, heavily armed, tactically minded and scarily smart Viking war captain whose dragon companion was like a shadow or ghost or second body. And then there was everything Hiccup had learned to do in the Loops themselves, giving him the usual preposterously varied arsenal of any senior Anchor (or indeed Looper).

By comparison, seeing Hiccup as, well, kid Hiccup was just bizarre.

I think it is partly because you are thinking about what Hiccup usually sees you as, Hookfang observed.

Hey, stop peeking, Snotlout protested, but without any real heat. It's just weird, that's all.

Yes, Hookfang agreed.

And, well, um… yeah, you're probably right, Snotlout went on. I was a real jerk now.

"Today," Gobber announced, breaking Snotlout out of his reverie, "we'll be learning about dealing with dragons."

"Oh, huh," Snotlout said, frowning. "I thought this was the bread-making class. Is it too late to switch?"

Everyone gave him a baffled look. Including Hiccup.

"What?" he asked. "Have you seen the Jorgensen old family recipes? Let me tell you, when they say rock cakes, they mean it."

Gobber chuckled. "There's always a joker. I tend to find the first lesson shuts them up."

He reached for the latch, and opened it – sending the future Meatlug buzzing out into the training arena.

"This is the first lesson?" Tuffnut demanded.

"Best way to learn!" Gobber told them, and Snotlout dove for a shield.

Dragons might be nice and all, but this dragon might blow him up if he didn't concentrate. At least a bit.


"You know," Snotlout said, an evening or two later in the hall. "I kind of think it makes sense, the way Gobber trains us."

"I've nearly died seven times!" Fishlegs protested.

"Yeah, but, you know," Snotlout shrugged. "At least it means that if I get a scar it'll be a cool scar."

He turned his gaze to Astrid. "You know what I mean, right? Scars make you irresistible!"

Astrid rolled her eyes.

Snotlout snorted, not even fazed. "She's barely resisting my sheer magnetism," he confided to Hiccup.

Loudly.

Hiccup looked dubious. Astrid looked like she was barely resisting braining him with a plate.

"But, yeah, scars," Snotlout went on. "It's not like anyone's going to care if your epic story about a cool scar is, 'oh, I dropped something on my foot'. It's got to be a real fight, you know what I mean?"

Now Hiccup looked conflicted.

Snotlout wasn't entirely sure on the timeline, really, but he was pretty sure Hiccup had cut Toothless free by now. He might even have named Toothless Toothless.

"What do you think Night Furies are like?" he asked.

Hiccup turned several different colours at once. "...huh?"

"Night Furies," Snotlout repeated, like he thought Hiccup maybe hadn't heard of them, and grabbed the copy of the Dragon Book before turning to the Mystery Class section. "Look, there's nothing about it in here, so they could be able to do anything. What do you think they can do?"

"Breathe fire, duh," Ruffnut insisted.

Tuffnut snorted. "No way that's fire."

"Um, Night Furies have a fire breath that forms a single fire globe," Fishlegs said. "It's the only thing we ever see them do, though."

"Yeah, because they're invisible or something," Snotlout countered. "It makes so much sense! That's why they never show themselves. And I bet they can shoot lightning, too, and turn blue."

"I… guess I mostly just thought they were night coloured?" Hiccup suggested, tentatively. "That's how they're, you know, invisible at night… why they're called… Night Furies?"

"That's boring invisibility, though," Snotlout dismissed. "It's a much better kind of invisibility if it's see through. Then it steals stuff when nobody's looking, and whoosh! It explains so much!"

You're having fun, Hookfang said.

Yep, Snotlout agreed.


Snotlout glanced back, listening in case Gobber was on the way, then heaved and lifted the bar holding the Monstrous Nightmare enclosure in place.

It slid just a little way up, not enough to open the entrance entirely, and Snotlout leaned forwards before tugging open one leaf of the metal door just a bit with his free hand.

"All right, in it comes," he said. "Seriously, you don't have a tennis ball in your Pocket?"

No? Hookfang replied, sounding puzzled. Where would I put it? There's no room.

"All right, wise drake, what is taking up all the room in your Pocket?" Snotlout asked.

Napalm.

Snotlout waited.

"...that's it?"

I don't see how you can have too much napalm, Hookfang said. Or, indeed, enough napalm.

There was a clang as he flicked the tennis ball up in the air and bounced it against the door, then another, and then another.

"Careful!" Gobber called sharply.

Snotlout let the bar drop. "I was trying to get a look," he explained. "The Nightmare's way cooler than the other ones you have in here."

Hookfang volleyed the ball against the metal door five times in quick succession, making a rhythmic metallic bang which made Gobber shake his head.

"Dragons always, always, go for the kill," he insisted. "You're lucky it didn't smell you until the bar dropped."

"What does it matter?" Snotlout asked. "I'm going to be beating it at the end of training anyway."

Speak for yourself, Hookfang 'pathed. Actually, how are you going to be doing that? Normally Hiccup wins.

I've got this idea.


Keeping up with Hiccup was surprisingly hard.

Oh, sure, Snotlout could have brought out various Looper stuff, and it would have been easy enough to ace Dragon Training – and that was before considering how he could have used each of Hiccup's tricks first. But doing it the traditional way was a lot harder, especially with Astrid driven to increasingly homicidal frustration by all of his comments, and after some consideration Snotlout had just started fighting with shot puts.

There was a lot that a Viking could find impressive about throwing a ten-pound cannonball at a Gronckle and knocking it unconscious.

With that – hopefully – taken care of, the only other thing to pay attention to was Hiccup.

Knowing (roughly) what was actually going on when Hiccup went off to the woods, coming back every time more confident and happier and just generally all-around more like the Hiccup that Snotlout knew… it was pretty neat, really.

One day it was the grass, and another day it was the pressure point, and each time Snotlout knew that it wasn't a guess or some kind of secret knowledge but he knew how Hiccup had got it. And looking back, it was kind of obvious Hiccup had to have been experimenting with a dragon… it wasn't like you could just guess stuff like that and have it be right first time… but in Snotlout's defence, he'd been a bit thick back then.

Still are, Hookfang interjected.

Nobody asked you, Snotlout replied.

And then there was this bit. The bit after the raiding ships had got back to Berk, and the bit which Snotlout just had to watch somehow.

Of course, he only really had one option for how to watch, and that meant that just that morning they'd put a small sound device with a random assortment of Monstrous Nightmare growls in Hookfang's pen. And Hookfang had jumped two inches off the floor, gone Between, and emerged halfway across the island.

"Remember, we don't want to distract them," Snotlout added, as Hiccup and Toothless set out far below – about a mile and a half away, if Snotlout's judgement was right. Toothless' wings were spread and even, and he could barely see Hiccup, but there was still enough to connect it with all the stories that both human and dragon had told about their true first flight together.

Including all the crashes.

And the bit where Hiccup had come free and they'd fallen without control for more than a mile.

"Ouch," Snotlout winced, as Hookfang dropped into a dive – shedding altitude just as fast as the smaller dragon (and smaller Viking) to try and keep them in view. "Somehow I never really figured it was this bad."

It's because we know them only how they came out of this, Hookfang said. But they are getting very close to that mountain.

Then, all of a sudden, they clicked.

Snotlout could see it happen, and Hookfang could practically feel it happen – the moment when Hiccup and Toothless reached a state of perfect resonance.

It was pretty awesome, especially because they'd done it at a couple of hundred miles an hour going through a death course of rocks.

Then the alarm they'd left outside Hookfang's cell started buzzing, and Hookfang had to drop Snotlout off in the woods before returning to his cell, but it was worth it.


"Well, now," Gobber said, after a bout of Dragon Training.

This particular bout of Dragon Training had gone a little bit wrong, if by 'a little bit wrong' you meant that a Terrible Terror had eaten all of Tuffnut's hair before spitting out a foul-smelling glassy lump and been noisily sick.

"Yeah, yeah, we get the idea," Snotlout interrupted. "They screwed up. But what I want to know is how well I did. I'm guessing… inevitable surefire winner of Dragon Training, definitely going to face the Monstrous Nightmare, awesome as ever."

He winked. "Right?"

"Keep that up and I'm going to feed your hair to the Terrible Terror," Astrid informed him, with a steely voice. "Then I'm going to feed you what comes out."

"Ouch," Hiccup winced.

"She can't resist me," Snotlout stage-whispered to Fishlegs.

Now Astrid looked like she might be ill.

"Yes, that is what we need to work out," Gobber conceded. "And, well, it was very close. But I added everything up-"

"You used maths?" Ruffnut demanded. "Are you sure that's, like, safe?"

"I've heard that if you do too much you end up with mathema ticks," Tuffnut agreed. "Uh… is it me or is that hair lump dissolving the rock?"

They looked at the hissing crater, gradually getting deeper.

"I'll put something over it," Gobber said. "Anyway, the overall winner is Snotlout. By… two points."

"Knew it!" Snotlout insisted. "Was always going to happen, never in doubt, this is going to be awesome."


When the day of the fight rolled around, Hiccup wished Snotlout a sort of wobbly good luck and then disappeared off into the woods.

Astrid went that way as well, and Snotlout had no idea if her introduction to Toothless was that day or if it had already happened, or if he'd screwed that up by mistake, but really it wasn't something that bothered him much.

Instead, he went into the ring with hundreds of Vikings all around him – cheering – and adjusted his helmet, before going over to the weapons rack.

He inspected it for several seconds. Then put his hands over his mouth.

"Hey, uh, where's the 'I don't need a weapon' option? Because I don't need a weapon."

"Go for the hammer!" someone called down.

"Fine, whatever," Snotlout tutted, and grabbed the hammer. He took a shield as well, then watched as the door to Hookfang's pen was slowly hauled open.

Ready? He asked.

Hookfang sent back an image of a draconic claws-up, then blasted the door open from the inside.

"All right!" Snotlout announced, running forwards. "Let's do this!"

He threw his hammer to one side and his shield to the other, slid to the side as Hookfang sent a jet of fire his way, and grabbed one of his dragon's horns. Then he twisted, throwing the entire Monstrous Nightmare over his shoulder and crashing into the side wall.

Hookfang rolled upright, roared, then lashed out with his foreleg. This time Snotlout caught it, and the two pushed hard for several long seconds until Hookfang got the better of the engagement and threw his Rider against the ceiling.

Clinging on to the chains, Snotlout oriented himself before dropping down and landing on Hookfang's back. He slid off, grabbed Hookfang by the neck, and flipped him over before holding him upside-down.

The Nightmare's wings thrashed, but Snotlout's leverage was too good. After several seconds he went limp, then bashed his tail twice against the floor.

"Woo!" Snotlout declared. "Best two out of three?"

"What are you doing?" Chief Stoick demanded.

"Wrestling, duh," Snotlout replied, as he let Hookfang up and the Nightmare rolled back upright. "It's my dragon and I'll fight how I want to!"

Don't think I'm going to let that slide, Hookfang sent. Expect to have a lot more trouble with this one.

Sure, sure, Snotlout said, turning and dropping into the Grip of the Starlit Dusk. Hey, rush me. I dare you.

Hookfang's mental reply was a burst of enthusiasm, and his physical reply was a jet of flame which Snotlout batted aside with his bare hands. Then he attacked with his massive tail, sweeping it back and forth in a lightning-quick strike which managed to sneak a blow past Snotlout's defences.

Nice! Snotlout told him. You're getting the hang of that one.

Prising himself out of the Snotlout-shaped crater he'd left in the wall, the human Looper slid forwards before ramming a Flurry of Blows into Hookfang's belly. The dragon let out a whoof, then caught fire, and for the next several seconds most of Berk watched in disbelief as Snotlout and Hookfang tried to catch one another in an armlock.

While on fire.

Oh, hey, I think that's Toothless orbiting up there, Snotlout said, staring skywards as Hookfang pinned him down. He does care!

He slapped his hand on the ground, and Hookfang let him back up.

"One each, so I guess that means whoever wins this wins!" he said. "What do you say?"

Hookfang grinned.


"...what in Thor's name am I even watching?" Astrid asked. "Did – did Snotlout just grab that dragon and whirl it around by the tail?"

"Oh, good, you saw it too," Hiccup said. "I was starting to wonder if I'd been driven insane by all the metal fumes from the blacksmith."

He shifted his weight slightly, and Toothless adjusted his trajectory – rising instead of dropping, because the Night Fury was staring just as much as both Vikings riding him.

"I was expecting to come in to save Snotlout," Hiccup admitted. "Or, maybe, to save the dragon. But I, don't really know what to do now."

"Look!" Astrid said, pointing down, and Hiccup leaned over to check.

There was a sizzling molten hole in the chain dome, now, and the Nightmare was rising into the air accompanied by a cloud of smoke.

Slowly, as it rose, they saw that Snotlout was holding on to its horns.

"Hey, whoa, so that's what you've been sneaking off to do!" he said, waving cheerfully. "Should have known. Wait, is that a Night Fury? Thank Odin!"

"...I'm sorry, stranger, have you met my cousin Snotlout?" Hiccup asked, which was about the only response he could think of. "He'd be about your height, slightly crazy, but in the normal Viking way."

"Oh, nah, it's me," Snotlout replied, with a careless wave. "I'm just saying, we should really go down and show off our awesome dragons, because otherwise they're going to think I'm the only one with a dragon and I might end up being the heir or something. And I do not want to have to deal with the paperwork."

The Monstrous Nightmare made a grrk sound, and Snotlout patted it. "Yeah, I think you're better, but everyone else is going to think a Night Fury is as amazing as it gets!"


A couple of years later, Hookfang and Snotlout were flying patrol about twenty miles outside Berk.

See anything? Snotlout asked.

I do not, Hookfang replied, head sweeping steadily from side to side. By the way, what is our plan for dealing with Drago? A fireproof cloak pretty much deals with most of what I can do.

"You know as well as I do you've got elemental substitution as an option," Snotlout tutted. "But if you have too much difficulty, just throw a Viking at the problem. Me, specifically."

I may take you up on that, Hookfang mused. Then he frowned, looking off into the distance. Hello there… I think we found something. A sail on the horizon there.

"Well, lead on, Hooky," Snotlout invited.

The Nightmare snorted, and banked before powering forwards and down.

"Wonder what this is going to be…" Snotlout said, half to himself. "We never did see that trader guy yet… bets on if he's evil or not this loop?"

It's about a two out of six on the dice, right? Hookfang asked. Or is it three… whoa!

Snotlout agreed with his dragon, as a gigantic golden shape appeared from absolutely nowhere as they got close to the sailing ship. A dragon, enormous and regal – considerably larger than Hookfang, in fact, who flared his wings to drop into a hover.

"Oh, hey, Twoflower!" Snotlout called, offhand-casting Shout. "And Ninereeds, it's been a while! Got any good alcohol on that ship of yours?"

I fear that if we did, Rincewind would have drunk it, Ninereeds said.

He looked down, and the ship turned into the wind. Feel free to come down and land, by the way. Twoflower says that there's a nice large landing pad on the aft deck.

"I see it, yeah," Snotlout agreed. "Rincewind, huh? I've been wondering who the Anchor was…"


17.7


"Mr. Haddock," their guest began.

"Hold on a minute, please," Hiccup requested. "I'm not ignoring you, I just want to make sure that the dragons are settled and they don't think I'm ignoring them."

I'm pretty self-confident about that kind of thing, Toothless told him.

"I know you are, bud, but I'm talking about the others," Hiccup clarified. "Having a Timberjack in the village this early's kind of awkward, he's a bit… big."

It's not often that I get to be the big one, you have to admit, Laughs-Brightly broadcast, looking down at his feet and carefully coiling his tail around them. Wouldn't you say, Admirable Dancing?

"Stinker…" the guest said, chuckling.

Hey, I'm not a stinky dragon. There are stinky dragons here and I'm not one.

"Look, Torch, I'm meeting someone," Hiccup insisted. "Toothless and I will be out later, okay?"

The Typhoomerang grumbled, then seemed to accept it, and Hiccup shut the door.

"Right," he said, with a sigh of relief. "You were saying?"

Praefecta Honoria spread her hands. "Well, I was going to ask you about what you thought we should do this loop, but what Nimitz said has reminded me… do you get the sense that there are certain related clusters of loops which cross over or fuse more often than average?"

"Most of the ones with dragons tend to," Hiccup said, after thinking about it for a bit. "I know Toothless and I go to Pern far more often than you'd expect… it's almost weird when I meet Loopers who haven't been."

The Roman Admiral nodded. "And I suspect the same thing is going on in reverse," she added. "What would your natural inclination be for a spaceship if you needed one?"

"One of your pinnaces, for a small one," Hiccup answered promptly. "I see what you're getting at, and I agree. It's like Roxanne and the others from all those dinosaur-related loops, they interact with one another much more often."

He got a considering look. "Though, speaking of which, how do your loops tend to go? It's so rare that I visit Manticore and you're actually there."

"I've got a trick these days," Honoria said. "It took plenty of experimenting, but… well, you know how it is, pick things up from all over the place. I found a kind of artificial wormhole generation system which works on the Manticore Junction, and I can even get it discovered without having to bring in tech samples from the outside… I just need to publish a couple of papers in the right way, and Sonja Hemphill's team eventually work it out without me. And that means…"

Hiccup whistled. "Wow, yeah. That makes the Junction from good to ridiculous, if I remember what Manticoran tech is like in general."

Toothless made a noise, and Hiccup rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I get the point. So… what is up with you this loop at the moment?"

"Roman admiral," Honoria summarized, ticking that one off. "Or possibly Romano-British, I'm not entirely clear on the politics of the whole thing, because if I remember correctly Western Rome should have fallen by this point. Also secretly befriended a Timberjack, which was quite an achievement."

Define secret, her occasional Treecat said. I set your enemy's fleet on fire that one time.

"Yes, but as far as the Emperor knows that was an accident," Honoria pointed out. "Anyway, I suspect I'm going to need to talk him out of sending a fleet to the Barbaric Archipelago to capture it."

"Please tell me I'm not going to have to defend Berk and the other islands against an Admiral Anchor," Hiccup pleaded. "Even with dragons that could be hard, and I'm assuming you haven't introduced Sea-Wiz yet."

Would you prefer a dance-off? Nimitz checked. With someone whose Treecat name is Dances on Clouds it might actually go worse.


17.8


Sometimes, when the wind blew over the moors and ruffled the grass in waves, when all it would take for Storm to rise into the air was to spread his wings, Hal could just lean back and enjoy the feeling.

He'd been told it was good therapy, and really he didn't see any reason to argue.

"Commander Kailas?"

"Hal, please," Hal requested, without looking up. "I've been a civilian, a light cavalryman, a dragonrider, a dragonmaster, and held every rank from Sky Marshal down to private second class. And I don't doubt you're no different."

"You know how it is," Mercy replied, sitting down next to him. "One loop you're with someone who identifies as Hal, the next you're with someone who identifies as Admiral even when they've turned up as a midshipwoman."

"I thought that was how midshipwomen became admirals," Hal said, stretching. "Boundless self-belief."

"I've been wondering," Mercy told him, then. "It's something that came about after the last couple of loops where things went badly wrong, and I got help from Adam, and while he's the physically stronger one of the two of us we definitely have a relationship of equals going on. So… I'm wondering about you dragon-riding lot."

Storm honked overhead, gliding on the air currents rising over the moor, and Hal smiled.

"Go on," he suggested.

"Well, obviously here in Deraine there's an advantage to having humans ride dragons," Mercy said, twirling a walking stick. "As most of them are, with the best kindness in the world, a bit thick."

"You mean Storm's about the only one with more brains than a sausage," Hal agreed. "Well, maybe a few of the others are good for it, but Storm's definitely the smartest."

"But what about Berk?" Mercy went on. "Or Pern? Especially for Loopers, that is."

Hal was silent for a long moment. Just marshalling his thoughts.

"I tend to think of it not that we're the pilots in the relationship," he said, eventually. "Or, we can be, but it's a team and the dragon's got a lot of say. No, for the most part Looping dragonriders are generally wizzos."

"...and you've lost me," Mercy admitted, putting the walking stick down.

"Wizzo," Hal repeated. "Term from… closer to your world than mine, actually."

He raised his fingers and sounded off. "Weapons Support Officer. W-S-O, Wizzo."

Mercy still looked politely blank.

"They're the ones who sit in the back of the two seater aircraft, handling the radar and helping the pilot with weapons…" Hal trailed off. "You know very well what that means, right?"

"Who, me?" Mercy asked, with a coyote's smirk.

Hal muttered something about tricksters.

"That helps, though," the coyote skinchanger added. "So kind of… second pair of eyes, able to focus on something else, that kind of thing?"

Hal nodded.

"Though those swap back and forth a bit," he added. "Anywhere we go which has fighters with AI fitted to them, generally speaking it's the rider who ends up the pilot and the dragon who goes to the AI position."

Storm interrupted Hal's musing, sending him an image of a rider cantering up the road – a rider in royal Deraine colours – and the Dragonmaster groaned.

"Well, it seems like it's war," he said. "Interested in getting involved? I'm probably getting drafted, but for a man who literally speaks dragon they're usually polite."

Mercy gave him a compassionate, considering look, then snapped her fingers.

"You know what I think you need?" she asked. "A bit of absurdity. Never mind military logic, let's see if those armies you're talking about still stick to their plans if it's raining plastic monkeys."


17.9


"Right, right, so that didn't work," Tuffnut said to himself. "Funny, I was sure it was going to."

He twisted around, a touch of the Force letting him turn to see the planet far below. "Okay, I guess now I need to pick…"

Are you all right? Barf asked.

Nah, I'll be fine, Tuffnut answered. Just trying to decide how to do this.

He paused. Oh, yeah, and your memory's better than mine. Next time I destroy a Droid Control Ship with a wrench, remind me that the wrench isn't going to last for more than about ten seconds as the main power conduit, instead of a minute or two.

You don't think maybe you should consider not doing it that way? Barf checked.

Tuff laughed into his helmet. "Yeah, um, no?" he asked, out loud to emphasize it. "Where's the fun in that?"

Just asking, Barf told him.

Tuff looked around, trying to spot a likely bit of debris, then reached out with the Force and grabbed it. He hauled it over with a burst of mental effort, drew his lightsaber, and scored three cuts along it to trim away the excess.

Triggering the magcoils in his boots, he fixed first one leg and then the other to the board.

"Now this is more like it," he announced, raising both arms and throwing up the horns as the atmosphere of Geonosis began to lick around him. "Woo-hoo!"

I'll ask someone to divert a gunship to pick you up. Barf decided. Incidentally, Anakin is giving you six points out of ten for style.

"Come on, this is at least an eight," Tuffnut insisted. But you know what would make it better? Telling me where the nearest CIS heavy walker is.

Aim north about two klicks from your current path, Barf told him. Twelve seconds to impact.

"Incomiiiiiing!" Tuffnut shouted, and crashed to the ground hard enough to send up a mushroom cloud.


Any idea why we got the crazy riders? Barf asked his twin. Even by Viking standards.

Probably because our thing is setting explosives, Belch replied with a shrug. Let's be honest, we're the sensible ones of the partnership but that is not a high bar...


17.10


"I know that look," F'lar said, a little nervously, as the dragons hummed for the hatching. "What are you planning, Lessa?"

"Oh, just an experiment," Lessa replied.

"Is this about making sure Prideth doesn't have to deal with Kylara?" F'lar asked. "It's about that time, and I know dealing with that problem is a massive pain most loops."

"You're right, actually," Lessa agreed. "I got Jaxom to help."

"Jaxom's about one Turn old," F'lar replied. "That means time travel, so… wait."

He leaned out over the edge of the Hatching Ground bowl. "Is that Brekke?"

Lessa nodded smugly, and F'lar lowered his voice a little. "You Searched her from the future?"

"Well, think about it," Lessa replied. "But it's actually an experiment into something else, as well. Brekke is paired with Wirenth… so what happens if we put her up with Ramoth's first clutch?"

The little Weyrwoman raised her hands in a shrug. "Given how weird Loops are, I'd expect the result to involve Wirenth hatching out, and wouldn't that be an improvement?"

F'lar frowned, but then the eggs began to break shell.


"And what have we learned?" F'lar asked.

"Very little, I'd say," Lessa answered.

"Something about not stress-testing our loop, perhaps?" F'lar pressed.

"I don't see where you could possibly think that was the lesson," Lessa replied, pulling the handkerchief over her and snuggling down into the slipper. "We may have all ended up as pocket-sized dragons living in Jaxom's bedroom after the loop crashed the second Brekke Impressed, but that's probably just a coincidence."

I do not think I like this, Ramoth grumbled. I am green, I have no wings, and Ruth is as large as I am.

Ruth, far more used to the consequences of crashed loops than his mother, just shook his head.


17.11


"Some of this stuff is pretty good," Astrid said, looking around the inside of her Hoplite-IV nova fighter.

Even as a pretty old and experienced Looper, you still sometimes ran into new stuff. New worlds, new loops… new tech and new situations. And this was definitely one of them.

Astrid didn't know who the local Anchor was, or if there was one at all. She knew there had to be an Anchor out there somewhere, because that was… well, how Loops worked… but there was no sign of whatever they were doing yet, and Astrid wasn't expecting there to necessarily be one.

They were over thirteen hundred light years away from Earth, after all, in a Loop where you could go six light years at a time once a day and rarely in a straight line, and humanity had settled space in a sphere rather than a line. That meant a lot of space out there, and a lot of time for news to travel… so, really, it could be years before whatever the Anchor was doing showed up even if they were being obvious.

Really obvious.

"Might have to show Hiccup this, it's kind of neat," she went on.

"Feeling homesick already, Valkyrie?" her wingman asked, and another Hoplite-IV drifted into position alongside her interceptor.

"Well, you know how it is," Astrid replied, feeling sort of gratified by her call-sign. Valkyrie was about right, all things considered.

Of course, her wingman – or wingwoman, strictly – was even more appropriate. She'd never explained in-loop how she came to have the call-sign Stormfly, but it made it pretty obvious who Cama Michaelsdottir actually was.

"Of course I do," Stormfly agreed. "So let's get these back to the carrier and talk about what we're going to be doing with them."


Running a mercenary squadron, even one of half-a-dozen fighters based off someone else's (also mercenary) carrier, was an interesting experience.

In some ways it reminded Astrid of when they were at Dragon's Edge. Just her, Hiccup, Snotlout, Fishlegs and the twins – and their dragon partners, inseperable as they were – taking on the whole wide world, doing what needed to be done and looking damn good doing it.

Then again, there was something which made the nova fighters surprisingly reminiscent of flying with her fellow Loopers. What made them nova fighters was a hyperdrive with a very fast cooldown, sixty seconds for a short enough jump, and it was enough like Between based fighter tactics that Astrid had barely even needed her loop memories to adapt.

"I think this is a keeper," she said, patting the Hoplite-IV with one hand and glancing over at Stormfly. "I'm not sure of the best way to do it, but even if we end up strapping completely different weapons to it – and shielding, and whatever else Fishlegs and Hiccup can come up with – I want to keep at least the possibility of having these things in future."

"I'm sure we'll figure something out," the erstwhile Nadder grinned. "Going to be hard without knowing when the loop ends, though."

"You're speaking like it's our first time in this situation," Astrid said, then shrugged. "Or, hey, worst case scenario we wake up back on Berk and feel annoyed."

"Worst case scenario, we wake up back on Berk and feel incredibly stupid," Stormfly corrected her. "It's one thing to lose the chance for some shiny new tech, it's another thing entirely to lose that chance because you did a stupid and got hit by a plasma cannon."

"Point taken," Astrid admitted. "Definitely taking a scan of my fighter first thing…"


Several increasingly crowded incidents later, space warped around Astrid as Conviction jumped into the system.

"Launch, launch, launch!" she called, and the mercenary carrier's catapults flung Dragon and Darkwing squadrons out into space. "What can you tell me, Stormfly?"

"At least a dozen gunships, just over there," her wingmate told her. "Way too close for comfort. Jammers coming up now!"

"I see them," Astrid agreed. "Dragons, Darkwings – nova and attack!"

A momentary flash, and more than a dozen nova fighters were ten light seconds away from where they'd started. Jamming threshed the electronic space around them, rendering communications all but useless, and Astrid twisted her fighter through a tight corkscrew before unloading a burst of plasma fire onto the first Costar gunship that caught her attention.

I'm starting to wonder if flying this thing is like how Toothless feels all the time, she sent to Stormfly.

Are you saying my fire has a problem? Stormfly replied, her own plasma bolts hammering into the exact same spot as Astrid's.

Mostly I'm saying that you don't quite have a plasma cannon, Astrid told her. Not all the time, anyway…

The little timer in the corner of her vision turned green, and she flashed away on another short-range nova.

Short range still meant fifteen light-seconds, straight to the rendezvous point she'd set up ahead of time. These things were definitely a great deal of fun.

"Everyone report fuel, report guns, report damage," she called. "Socrates, don't even pretend you can go in again, I can see that scorch mark from here. Get back to Conviction and fly CAP. Everyone else – I count seven gunships still in the fight. Forty seconds and we'll reduce it to zero!"

It was almost relaxing. Especially for a Viking.


17.12


"Sellswords?" GreatJon Umber asked, looking at his liege the King in the North – Robb Stark. "Really, Robb?"

"They were very persuasive," Robb told him, with a smile. "And – well. For justice for Lord Stark, for my slain father, we need all the strength we can."

"Still," GreatJon rumbled, looking down at the waters that gave White Harbour its name. "They're a pretty lot, but will they be worth it?"

Robb joined him, surveying the rainbow of peculiarly-shaped sails that marked the ships of the Company of Dragons.

He wasn't all that sure himself, he had to admit – only to himself – but the deal had been good. The Company of Dragons hadn't asked too much for him to pay, even with the terms under which they fought.

"Will they be marching with the rest of the army?" GreatJon asked. "The banners are nearly ready to move south of the Neck."

"I know, Jon," Robb replied. "And no, they won't be marching. They'll be sailing, covering the supply ships – the first convoys to the eastern side of the Neck, then down to the Riverlands."

GreatJon frowned. "Then what damned use are they?"

"Armies can't march without supplies," Robb pointed out. "And ships at sea travel faster than armies marching on land – even a fast army can't make more than twelve miles a day without good work, while even a slow ship can travel nigh on a hundred."

"Fair," the man of Umber admitted, examining them again. "With sails that big, they can't be slow ships either, then."

"The head of the company said they'd sail from the Bite to the Vale and up the Trident faster than we can march it," Robb told him. "I'll believe it when I see it, but at least if it doesn't work I get a discount."

That led Lord Umber to let loose a booming laugh.


"Left a bit!" one of the sellswords called. "And – no, downriver a little – that's it!"

The ship's ornate, blue-painted sails rippled and cracked in the wind as she slid into position, and another one of the mercenaries – this one a young man, or perhaps a boy not yet a man – danced across the deck from her to the next carrying a rope.

Strong hands took the rope, hauling it until a thicker rope came, then a rope that was thicker still, until finally a mighty hawser went across every last one of the Company's ships.

"They're damn efficient, I'll give them that," Ser Manderly said, shading his eyes as the bridge of boats took shape. "How long have you been planning this, Sire?"

He looked upriver – upriver to where the Twins sat, perhaps ten miles distant. "All to avoid having to pay the toll to Walder Frey?"

"You'd be surprised," Robb replied, watching as one of the women in the Company of Dragons began lowering sections of planking on the side of each ship. Not least because I didn't think of this until two days ago, but they seemed to have it in mind all along.

It was almost eerie, was what it was. He was half minded to have someone check all the ships in case there was a cask of balefire aboard, or something…

Then again, the whole Company of Dragons would be on the bridge with them. So it probably wasn't necessary… just prudent.

"Do you think there's some kind of rule about which sails are which colour?" Arya asked, sounding deeply interested. "See, that one there's got a golden sail and a sort of golden-brown one, but the one beside it just has a white one."

"I'm sure it means something to them," Robb told her.

He almost suggested she go and ask, but knowing his sister that might lead to a delay of hours in the completion of the bridge. And they needed to be across sooner rather than later – if there was one thing that could absolutely destroy an army, it was to be attacked while crossing a bridge.

Robb shook his head, chuckling to himself. There were several things that could destroy an army, and he needed to be mindful of all of them.


It had been fully three months of campaigning, after the crossing of the Trident, and Robb had been almost entirely occupied with the war. Feinting and striking between the Red Fork and the Tumblestone and in the space between there and the Blackwater Rush, forcing one Lannister army back and turning another out of position – rushing between the army containing the Westerlands and the one facing the Crownlands to the south – always more armies to fight, but not once defeated.

Now, at last, one of the Lannister armies had been penned. They'd had to scramble south and west to avoid a battle they didn't want to fight, but the Company of Dragons had come good again and Robb had crossed the Red Fork twice – south then north – in less than a sevenday, and cut them off from Hornvale.

Now they'd have to fight.

"Watch their positions," he said, looking up to meet the eyes of his bannermen – trusted lieutenants all, now. "We need to keep them penned up, and they might try a breakout tonight, but keeping them on the move up the valley will do for now."

As he was considering who to assign to the flanks, Grey Wind's ears pricked up. The direwolf turned to look east, and the clatter of hooves came but a moment later.

"What now?" GreatJon asked. "You wait, that'll be a warning that Riverbend's besieged and we'll have to give this up and march east again."

"If Riverbend is besieged the Company of Dragons will supply it," Robb pointed out, glancing at the representative from the Company.

"Of course," the man said, with an elegant nod, but then the messenger arrived.

"Sire," he said, panting slightly. "Word from your half-brother at the Wall."

Robb saw Mother's lips thin slightly at the reminder of Jon, but took the message without saying anything about it. "Thank you. Any word from Jon is welcome."

He unrolled the message, and blinked. Stared.

"Jon says that the Others march on the wall," he said. "With an army of the dead."

Finally!

The voice that spoke was not one Robb recognized. He couldn't even tell where it was from, but it sounded full of mingled excitement and relief.

"Alas," said the representative from the Company of Dragons. "I am afraid we will have to take our leave, Sire."

Robb turned his gaze to the company man, then looked down at the ships his army had finished crossing just an hour before.

Their sails were moving. Not rippling in the wind, but furling themselves. And the cloth bundled around each and every mast – the cloth he'd taken to be spare, in case the gaudy sails were damaged and needed repair – was falling away, revealing bodies and heads and tails.

I'm telling you, whoever came up with this idea was a sadist and no mistake, another unfamiliar voice sounded. My wings are cramped.

Probably Hiccup's fault, the first voice said. Most things are.

"You realize," said Robinton, the Company representative, "that we never actually said the sails weren't real dragons."

As the dragons – dragons, dozens of dragons – dropped to the decks of their ships with heavy crashing sounds that sent waves rippling up and down the Red Fork, people he'd seen before began unpacking harnesses and fitting them snugly onto the dragons.

"We'll be back before too long, Sire," Robinton said, as one of the bronze dragons checked its harness before taking off with a single wingbeat and flying over to land on the other end of the bluff. "Just a little matter of the Others to take care of first."

Robb didn't realize he was gaping like a fish until several minutes afterwards.


17.13:


"Well, here we are again," Hiccup said to himself, before ducking behind a door as a Monstrous Nightmare tried to incinerate him. "Beautiful, scenic Berk. Come to see the beautiful firelit buildings, stay to watch them get rebuilt again."

A pressure touched the back of his mind, and Hiccup smiled. Even now, after – after decades, maybe even centuries, since that long-ago trip to Ista Weyr – it still amazed him that Toothless could actually talk to him. Not just that careful understanding of one another's languages and ways of speaking, and guessing how the other would react when they were apart, but… fluent and permanent and leaving the heart-deep knowledge that he would never be alone.

Of course, even wonder gave way to practicality.

What's the plan this time? Toothless asked. Are we going to go with the usual?

Yeah, no need to mess around with that, Hiccup replied. Or, actually, what about if you get territorial during the dragon training? Think you're accurate enough to blast Meatlug and the others without actually hurting them?

Teach your father to throw haycarts, his dragon replied with a snort. But sure. Just remember not to shoot me down anyway.

Sure thing, bud, Hiccup sent back. I'm off to the forge.


Hiccup's nicely organized plan about how he was going to spend the loop lasted until he was about halfway through sharpening a sword.

They hadn't been quite able to decide whether to have Hiccup go out and have Toothless fend off any dragons that got close or just have Hiccup stay indoors, and the debate had been good-natured but long – in fact, Hiccup was fairly sure they'd both sort of lost track of time – when the door to the smithy suddenly burst open and Astrid stormed in.

"Hey, uh, Astrid?" Hiccup asked, baffled. "What are you doing here on this fine, uh, dragon attack?"

Wait, Astrid's there? Toothless asked, picking up on what Hiccup was saying. What? I didn't see her. Admittedly I'm fishing at the Cove, but still.

And you were arguing I should go out into the dragon attack? Hiccup asked, but then Astrid was getting closer and he had to focus. "Um, is something wrong? Did I sharpen the wrong bit of your axe last time?"

"Come on," she said, before grabbing the bolas thrower in the corner of the smithy and yanking it out towards the door. Then she took his wrist and yanked him towards the door as well. "We're going dragon hunting."

"I, um, I don't really think this is supposed to be happening," Hiccup said, now totally confused. "Gobber specifically told me to stay put!"

"It's absolutely supposed to be happening," Astrid insisted, and gave Hiccup a powerful push that sent him stumbling out the door. "Too – there's a dragon out there with your name on it, and I'm doing you a favour!"

"I really think you have a different definition of that word to me!" Hiccup complained.

Astrid didn't seem inclined to listen, or at least didn't seem inclined to listen to Hiccup, and steered them both out into the middle of the chaos of the night. There were some Nadders under a net off to one side, and Astrid looked around for a moment – glancing between the catapult now readying itself for another round and the sky – before pushing them onto a high point.

"Come on, get it ready," she said, trying to pull the bolas arms into position. "You need to be ready to shoot down a dragon. Any dragon!"

"Careful, it's a bit temperamental," Hiccup warned.

"You're not getting it ready yourself," Astrid shot right back, and then the spring tensioner arm went sproing when it should have gone boing and after a blur of movement Hiccup found them both tied up in sturdy ropes.

"Oh, no, this is terrible!" Astrid said, looking genuinely distressed. "We need to get out of this now, and, and-"

Hiccup was now very confused. "So you didn't want to spend time with me? What was that about?"

Then a familiar sound caught his attention, and a Monstrous Nightmare growled at them.

"Well, that about sums up the night," Hiccup groaned.

Then Toothless screeched down through the night, and fired a plasma blast which went off just next to the Nightmare and knocked it sideways.

"Damn it," Astrid whispered to herself, slamming a fist into the ground. "Too early, you stupid girl…"


After enduring all the off-colour jokes from most of the village, and a severe glower from Dad for going out of the smithy, Hiccup still had no idea what was going on.

He'd have expected Astrid to be angry, probably with him – he loved her but she was kind of prone to getting angry, part of the whole Viking thing – but instead she seemed more… depressed, and somehow scared. And angry, too, but angry at herself.

"I don't get it," Hiccup said, leaning back against Toothless in the cove as he sketched out the first saddle design for the loop. "You think you know a girl, and then she surprises you like that."

Humans, Toothless shrugged. Oh, can you add a pully thing attached to your foot again?

Hiccup looked back to check Toothless' tail fin, just to make sure it was still there. "Um…"

No, I mean hook it up to a back scratcher, Toothless explained. Why not, when it'd be convenient, huh?

That made Hiccup snigger. "Hedonist."

I'm sorry, I don't understand that word. I'm a dragon.

"I'm sure you are," Hiccup replied. "Speaking of which, we should probably practice that other thing they could do on Pern. You should be able to do it, you can do the mindspeech and the Between jumps."

You say that every Loop. Toothless got up and stretched, flaring his wings, and knocked Hiccup over. Besides, I can already touch things from a distance.

"Really, wise guy?" Hiccup asked, rolling back upright. "Then catch this pencil without moving from that spot."

He threw it into the air, and Toothless fired a tiny plasma bolt. It detonated underneath the pencil, flipping it towards the Night Fury, and Toothless snagged it out of the air before letting his tongue loll out.

"Not bad," Hiccup agreed. "But you should still practice telekinesis. It's got all sorts of uses."

But I already have hands, Toothless argued. They're called you.

Hiccup smiled, then caught his pencil back and went back to sketching. "I guess the bigger question is how to do the big reveal…"

Well, we usually reveal it to Astrid first, Toothless said.

"And hey, we're back to Astrid!" Hiccup announced. "Let a conversation wander enough and it gets back to where it started."

He adjusted his line drawing of the cantle and pommel. "Hmm… now I think about it, I can't remember if she'd ever seen the catapult before."

Actually, speaking of which, I blew it up, Toothless admitted. So she's not seeing it again.

"Well, of course you blew it up," Hiccup replied. "I couldn't miss the flinders, and some of them didn't miss me… and given what it did to you the first time around, I can hardly tell you off for it."

Just checking in case you thought I missed.

"You're a Night Fury, you don't miss," Hiccup smiled. "Except for the point, sometimes… it kind of upset Astrid, though. Maybe she got hit by a bigger piece than me."

He stopped. "...oh, wait, hold on. That might make sense."

Now you think of it, it would, Toothless agreed, and took off.

"Hey!" Hiccup protested. Where do you think you're going?

To test a theory! Toothless replied. If she has started looping she'll be glad to see me, right?

"Oh, this is going to go so badly no matter what the answer is," Hiccup groaned.


AN:


17.1: A crossover with the Belisarius series, which to the best of my knowledge is not looping.

17.2: Actual line from the first film.

17.3: Someone write this modern-world fic please. There's not nearly enough.

17.4: Ruffnut focus, because why not.

17.5: And some matching Fishlegs focus. The game is Sagrada.

17.6: Speaking of focus, this is Snotlout, trying baseline. Badly.

17.7: We've seen F'Lar and Lessa on Manticore, here's Honor on Pern.

17.8: Hal from Dragonmaster, and Mercy from... well, Mercy Thompson.

17.9: Tuffnut's as crazy as his sister. Star Wars, obviously.

17.10: Don't try and force the issue...

17.11: Astrid focus! This time it's the Scattered Stars setting, which is also not looping.

17.12: Game of Thrones/ASOIAF. Does this technically count as shipping?

17.13: And a very early loop for Hiccup, something I neglected back in the not-entirely-necessarily-all-still-canon chapter one. There's a lot of other stuff that should probably be filled in back in the history of the various Dragons Loops.