Author's Note: After what seems like an unusually long break, I'm finally back with a new chapter and, as ever, a fresh new apology for the delay. To be honest with you, I've kind of been distracted... by new story ideas! RotBTD, of course, but not necessarily Mericcup. Who else likes to multiship? Mericcup are my forever OTP, but I do so love exploring the dynamics of different relationships. Sigh.

As always, your reviews and favourites are genuinely astounding. (Big shout out to those of you who've reviewed many, if not all of the chapters - I hope you know who you are!) Thanks for reading - I'm sure we'll be reaching a conclusion soon...

At the Viking camp, time was trickling by at a snail's pace: anticipation drifted through the air like fog, everyone waiting for just the right moment to strike; the Scotsmen held their weapons high in readiness. Stoick flexed the knuckles that gripped his hammer, his eyes - deranged and determined in equal measure - flicked back and forth, watching, waiting. Hiccup wanted to call his father's attention but couldn't. Stoick would have ignored all else to see his son - and left himself open to attack. A shudder rippled through the lean and lanky teen's body at the thought of his powerful, imposing father left vulnerable; he was grateful just to have Toothless by his side, ever the watchful protector. Night furies weren't exactly common, and Toothless' plasma blasts gave them somewhat of an edge; he'd only do what he had to to protect Hiccup, not for the mere fact of getting in a fight - it had taken him long enough to shake off the clansmen. They waited. Hiccup drummed his fingers against his leg. A draw of breath... and the world erupted into violence. Scotsmen flooded the area, swinging swords and battering shields into anyone who came close; Stoick swung his heavy hammer with relative ease. Astrid's battle cry rung out above the noise and just seconds later, an axe flew overhead, lodging into the shield of an enemy. He toppled easily.

The younger, more inexperienced Hiccup would have panicked, maybe hid behind a device of his own design and hoped for the best. But he had grown up. He was a dragon conqueror now, a future chief, a Princess' boyfriend; he was all of these things and many, many more. Without skipping a beat, Hiccup knelt down beside a fallen Viking and, having lost the sword Merida had given him, scooped up the now-unused sword and shield. Weapons always felt wrong in his hands, but there was no denying now that he could use them - and just to prove it, Hiccup raised his shield as a Scot lumbered forward to attack and punched him in the stomach with it. The sword would remain unused as long as it could - if Hiccup could stop this fight with little blood on his hands, that's what he would do. He charged headfirst into the throng of men circling the other Viking teens, leaving Toothless to fight as he saw fit; the dragon crouched low like a cat, ready to pounce. Wings extended to half-mast. Teeth bared. Claws out. Eyes narrowed. Alert to the fight, alert to Hiccup's safety, the dragon leapt into battle alongside Barf and Belch, the Hideous Zippleback belonging to the twins. Green smog billowed from one of their heads, followed by a vague sparking sound. The gas ignited and Toothless ducked just in time to avoid being caught in the explosion of fire.

Hiccup was kicking men left and right, hunkering down behind his shield and using his body weight to slam into anyone who dared corner his friends - Astrid was in there. He could hear her grunts, the vague gasps of breath that she used to blow the hair from her face. His heart pounded, knowing that once he was on the other side, there would be no welcome; she would, for all intents and purposes, ignore his existence. It hurt. She was the person who'd spurred him on and encouraged him throughout most of his teenage years, and though Astrid hadn't wanted to know him at first, there was an obvious connection between the two. Hiccup loved Astrid so much. Not in the same way he loved Merida - (though he thought he had, once), but he loved her. And she loved him, too. He knew that. Astrid wasn't a best friend or a former girlfriend but something else, a relationship without definition: they'd always be there for each other. Always. Hiccup fought hard to break through the crowd, getting more agitated with every glint of blonde hair peeking through the gaps; soon enough, with one last punch to some guy's face, he saw his friends.

"Hiccup!" Fishlegs gasped. Hiccup stopped for a moment, eyes widened. To his amazement, Fishlegs held a shield in one hand, a spear in the other, with a fire in his eyes; what a delight it was to see the most gentle of his friends fight just as bravely as everyone else. He had, unfortunately, set off a chain reaction.

"Hiccup?" Ruffnut asked.

"Hiccup?!" Snotlout exclaimed.

"Hiccup!" Tuffnut yelled.

The call from Astrid never came. She just looked at him, narrowed blue eyes burning furiously. They stared at each other in silence until she broke the connection, not willing to look at him anymore. Just as expected, a tight band contracted around Hiccup's heart. Hurting Astrid was, by far, the worst thing he'd ever done.

"I'm sorry."

She did not respond.

Hiccup sighed sadly as the friends who did, in fact, want to speak to him enveloped him with a barrage of questions like, 'where have you been?', 'what are you doing here?' and, in the case of the twins, 'how cool is this?!' Blood was smeared down Ruff's face in two streaks - she told Hiccup later that it was there on purpose, the result of a wounded enemy and the desire to look more intimidating (it worked) - and Tuff was covered in bruises, missing several teeth. They were enthusiastic about the battle, always happy to have the chance to inflict some damage. Hiccup flinched at that. These were Merida's people. He didn't want to hurt them, and he didn't want his friends to hurt them either, but they had no choice. A clansman charged at them with a club, and Astrid ducked, quickly kicking him in the gut and sweeping her leg around his shin to send him to the ground. She then took his club and hit her victim over the head, effectively knocking him out;; Astrid forcefully kicked his unconscious form and he rolled away, crashing into several people, both Viking and Scot. In this moment, Hiccup was reminded of the fierce warrior that she was, and of the brutality of it all.

"Awesome," Tuffnut sighed.

"Just a second too quick there babe, I totally had it under control," Snotlout blustered, arrogantly sweeping a lock of stray black hair back under his helmet.

Everyone rolled their eyes, settling into what Hiccup supposed was a comfortable formation - like a dragon's body, everyone had a function: Hiccup supposed he was the brain, though Fishlegs could easily have claimed the same spot - the bulky, blonde male was a veritable fountain of dragon knowledge. Hiccup could at least claim to be intuitive and admittedly, kind of risky - Fishlegs wasn't suited to that type of leadership. He was more like the heart. Astrid, perhaps in contrast with her warrior-like attitude, would be the eyes - she the most observant; she was precision personified and rarely (if ever!) missed a target. The twins were obvious: they were the fire, simply due to their penchant for destruction, and Snotlout... well, he could be the ego.

Most of the teenagers looked at Hiccup, the brain, the unassuming leader, as if waiting for him to plan their next move. "Uhh... what next?" He wondered aloud, rubbing the back of his neck. The post-MacIntosh defeat glory had worn off.

Astrid grunted. "Isn't it obvious? We fight."

As the blonde Viking charged forward, her friends behind her, another journey was beginning. Merida emerged from the Armoury in clothes befitting a warrior, one at least twice her size: a mixture of chainmail and plate armour hung from her average frame, the helmet she wore doing a poor job of concealing her hair; the DunBroch tartan was draped from shoulder to hip, serving as a grim and glorious reminder of all the things worth fighting for. She was wearing her clan pride on her chest for all to see, and her sense of purpose was renewed once more: it was time to find her father, look him straight in the eye and tell him that in no time at all, she'd fallen in love with a boy who was meant to be her sworn enemy.

If that wasn't enough, Merida also had her hair to contend with: she had become accustomed to her vivid mane drawing it's own attention. It's vivacious colour and extraordinary mass seemed to act of something of a beacon, as if lost villagers who needed to find their way would simply seek the hair of the Princess; even though she didn't always like it, Merida had accepted her fate this way. That's why it was no surprise that almost everyone stopped to stare as she and Angus hotfooted through the village - the horse wasn't nearly odd enough to garner solo attention, but his rider certainly was; beneath her new clothing, it was hard to make out the figure, but the red hair spoke of the unknown man-at-arms being Merida. The villagers were shocked, the Vikings confused and as the warriors stood stupefied, a semi-clear path emerged through which Angus thundered, both silently thanking their lucky stars for such freedom of movement - even for two beings who knew the forests better than they knew themselves, they were making record time. The only problem was actually finding who they were looking for.

"This way, Angus," Merida said as the pair ventured deeper into the heart of the woodland. "They'll be somewhere near the center."

The horse whinnied in response.

After that, time slowed immeasurably. The sound of fighting had often been carried to them, then stolen away by the wind; Angus had trotted this way and that for miles, diverting down paths and going around in circles; Merida had leapt off him in frustration and attempted to follow her instincts on foot, but still, no luck. The forests that had offered her sanctuary had turned against them.

Merida's anger quickly manifested in several shots to several trees and an almighty scream. "Argh!"

Angus communicated in silence, perhaps the best way to get her attention: the horse trotted close to his princess and nuzzled his head into her shoulder, trying to soothe her tempestuous nature; Merida put her arms around his thick neck and sighed deeply, the weight of her worries escaping her body in one gasp. "Oh, Angus," she murmured. "I just want to find him."

After an encouraging nudge from the Clydesdale, Merida relented and climbed back onto her mighty steed. His glassy black eyes spoke volumes, and soon they were headed onward again. The paths that they themselves had created over years of trekking were betraying them, the forest now labyrinthine; her spirits had sunk lower than ever. "Umm," She murmured - they had approached a new fork in the road. "This way?" Merida pointed down the path off to the right, unsure if it was the correct one to take or not. Angus, however, had had a change of heart: he had never been a fan of the otherworldly, but it seemed that his princess attracted such magic like a moths to a flame. The Standing Stones, the true heart of the forest, had always provided her with something - never outright answers, but ways to get the answers she sought. Discoveries. It seemed, to him, that they were the place to go. Angus whinnied his disapproval at the right path and instead veered down the left.

"Oi, yeh big loony! What are yeh doin'?" She hissed.

The Princess' tendency for adventure had consumed his own animal instincts long ago, but they had returned with a vengeance: Angus could feel that this was the right thing to do. They'd be waiting for her. They'd lead her to the boy. But that didn't mean she'd necessarily stick around and, upon realizing Merida's innate ability to do her own thing, the horse started to sprint in what he knew to be the right direction.

"Slow down!" She grunted, raising her arms to cover her face. She'd learned the hard way that, if you went fast enough, the branches turned to whips. Even now they lashed at her skin - the sleeves of her new warrior garb were already marred with slashes and cuts. (Merida could deal with the pain - the slashes did make her look pretty cool.) "Where yeh' goin?!"

Angus became quicker with every step and soon, the girl had to flattern herself against his body to prevent any serious damage. It seemed he had forgotten all about his rider and her welfare on this newfound quest of his - the Clydesdales' behaviour was so strange. Merida could feel some sort of purpose radiating from him, and it was actually rather reassuring - for once, she chose not to question him. And for good reason.

Soon, as they had done many times before, they slowed to a halt before the Standing Stones.

"Here? You brought us here?"

Merida gripped the rein tightly for balance and swung halfway over the horse's body, teetering precariously as she caught his eye. A puff of air expelled from his nose and Angus stared back.

"Thank you."

Both stood silent as the stones themselves as they waited, knowing exactly what it was they were waiting for. It seemed they had sensed her presence - a blue flame flourished from the grass with a whisper, and immediately Angus resented the need for being here. Everyone, human, animal or otherwise, knew that they were of questionable intent. Many a man had been lead to death by the wisps' hand. Angus whinned a warning and Merida patted him reassuringly.

"Do you know where he is?" She asked, clearly addressing the wisp.

She had seen this a good few times in her life, but still the Princess could not deny the severe beauty; a trail of wisps had blossomed behind the first and Merida had to remind herself that they weren't always good. But... this was the first time they had come when she'd been looking for them. It was like they'd grown accustomed to her now, like they shared a bond. She sighed and, not feeling the need to say anything more, prompted Angus into following them.

The wisps dissipated beneath his hooves as they trekked along, but it had definitely been the right thing to do. The sound of Viking versus Scot battle had reached them again and Merida knew they were getting closer. With every step, it felt like her gut became more knotted - how ready she was to see Hiccup again! How the thought of him fighting churned her stomach! It was the most awful happiness she'd ever felt, they most agonizing walk she'd ever taken. They were closer, but no less in trouble. At least one good thing had come of it so far: Angus was getting a big, big meal later.

A long green something slithered across their path and with a jolt, Merida realized that it was a dragon. Her heart leapt into her throat, and, fighting to control herself, she nudged her feet into Angus' sides. "Faster," she gasped. "We're almost there!"

Angus complied, and what had been a tentative walk turned into a frenzied gallop. Merida allowed the branches to snag at her hair and clothes. There was no way she would be ducking behind anything or obscuring her vision - she wanted to see him. She needed to see him. And her father...

King Fergus had taken his time to observe the fight, to analyze the patterns with which the Viking warriors attacked; from the cover of the trees, the Bear King watched as his counterpart, the Chief, had swung into battle. He wasn't even slightly scared of Stoick, and the feeling was mutual; the two could fight until the end of time and never have a victor. They were too... even. They were bulky and strong, both hardened to the loss of war. Fergus grimaced and gripped the hilt of his sword. It was time to join in. With an almighty bellow that immediately called the Chief's attention, Fergus charged into the clearing. Stoick immediately swept away those he had been fighting. The real challenge had arrived. The respective leaders ran towards each other with their weapons held high -

Stoick struck the first blow, battering his hammer into the Scot's shoulder and sending him only very slightly off course. For a man with only one leg - a wooden one, at that - Fergus was very stable. He regained his footing easily and lunged forward, managing to get the Viking chief into a headlock.

"It doesnae have tae be like this, Stoick!"

The Chief bucked, throwing the Bear King off his back. Fergus fell to the ground, raising his sword quickly enough to parry Stoick's attempted blow.

"And what about my son?" The Viking snarled.

Using the weight of his one good leg, Fergus kicked Stoick in the shin and the chief stumbled, giving Fergus enough time to get back up.

"I dinnae have your son! I don't even know where he is!"

Stoick howled in outrage, swinging his hammer violently. Fergus dodged, landing a swift and powerful punch to the face. The Viking chief gritted his teeth and threw his hammer to the ground.

"You want to do it like that, do you?"

"Aye. Fight like a man!"

Their weapons and their dignity forgotten, Fergus and Stoick launched into a brutal fistfight. Punches rained down upon both men, and very few opportunities came for them to get a good move in - Fergus managed to strike Stoick in the mouth with his elbow, quickly flicking his hand upward for a blow to the nose; Stoick countered by kicking Fergus in the gut and sending him backward into a tree. Warriors of both clan and tribe largely ignored the fight of their leaders - many were too preoccupied with their own opponents, and even more understood that the King and Chief had to fight on their own terms - but Hiccup couldn't look away. He'd only briefly caught a glimpse of the King entering the 'arena' before he heard Stoick's shouts. Seeing Merida's father fight with his own was both painful and not painful at all - it was his 'girlfriend's' father, alright, but both men could hold their own. Alone, Hiccup could have intervened - Stoick would have calmed by the arrival of his son, but the fight was too intense. Just as he'd thought before, there was no good that could come of diverting Stoick's attention. The most painful thing of all was swallowing the lump that had risen in his throat - Hiccup would wait for the opportune moment.

Merida did not exactly operate in the same way.

Instead, she appeared right by his side without warning. "Hic!" She whisper-cried, throwing her arms around the boy from behind - much to Astrid's displeasure - and causing Hiccup to freeze in horror, momentarily, before he determined the source of the voice. He couldn't see her face, but the accent was unmistakable, the wonderfully reassuring smell of pine and all things woodsy enveloping him. She was there.

"Merida!" He croaked.

The grin on her face was irrepressible as she squeezed him tight. Hiccup couldn't help blushing - seventeen years old and he still couldn't handle public displays off affection (though, to be fair, he didn't exactly experience them often) - and he wanted to hug her back. But she was holding on too tight for him to breathe, let alone move. It was the most wonderful feeling.

"I might be asking a stupid question here, but who is that?" Fishlegs asked, the Viking teenagers aware of the newcomer. Astrid just huffed.

"Uh, guys... this is Merida." Hiccup stuttered, an awkward cough ending his sentence. But still the way he said her name sent chills down her spine; the Princess smiled, reluctantly letting him go. Hiccup freed, he turned to take a good look at the enigmatic redhead - she felt more alive in this moment than she had in days - but was taken aback by her appearance.

"Um, Mer... your... helmet."

"Oh!" Merida gasped, and she pulled her helmet off, the Viking teenagers recoiling at the sight of her. Hiccup and Merida looked at each other and laughed, their eyes communicating a thousand different things that they couldn't say out loud.

"Well!" The Princess called, clapping her hands together briskly. "It's... nice tae see yeh all exist - rest assured that Hiccup's told me all about you - you've gotta be Fishlegs, right? And the famous twins - got triplet brothers maself..."

Fishlegs squeaked at the mention of his name and the glances between the Viking teenagers were those of extreme bewilderment - they hadn't expected her to speak. Many wondered why the redhead wasn't attacking the group - she was a Scot, after all, their sworn enemies. But instead this stranger spoke to them like an old friend.

"Your hair is awesome." Ruffnut blurted, her eyes glassy like a magpie that had just spotted something shiny. "So red." (Tuffnut simply stared at his twin like she'd dropped from the sky.)

"Uh... thanks," Merida replied, half-wary, half-joking. "I like yer plait- I mean... braids."

Hiccup recoiled at the awkward exchange between the two sides. Even in such a strange situation, his friends weren't exactly making this easy; slowly, a smile spread across Ruffnut's face. In fact, she even looked flattered at the compliment and the dangerous blonde nodded curtly at Hiccup, as if giving him her approval. He looked away - somewhere else, anywhere else.

"Well," Hiccup gasped at last, drawing out the word. "I think we've had enough Merida for just now - can we go? (Gods, please say we can go...)"

"Aye, ah reckon there'll be time for a formal meetin' later, y'know, after the fight and stuff. Hiccup tells me you know a lot about dragons, Fishlegs, and yeh can bet I wanna hear that!-"

Fishlegs blushed.

"-but yeah, for now, I think we'd best be goin'. Dad and yer Chief are fightin' so... bigger fish tae fry 'n' all that."

Merida grabbed Hiccup's hand - earning an angry huff from Astrid - and pulled him through the masses of fighting people, taking care to help him dodge around on his prosthetic leg. It was a hard task, bobbing and weaving through the crowd - both Hiccup and Merida kicked a few people from their path - but they largely went unnoticed. The adults of both clan and tribe tended to underestimate the younger generation, even with all their accomplishments - normally, this would annoy both Hiccup and Merida, but today it served them well. In no time at all, they'd escaped horde, coming to a stop by the edge of the forest where their fathers were fighting. Calling them wouldn't make the entire fight stop, wouldn't put to bed the issues that they had; Toothless appeared at Hiccup's side and the Viking's throat thickened. His dragon, his loyal protector, his best friend. At his side as always. "Thanks, bud."

A moment of silence passed, Scot and Viking thinking the same thing.

"Want a ride?" Hiccup asked quietly.

Merida's eyes flicked to what laid beyond the clearing's edge, and Hiccup looked too - Angus was there, in the cover of the trees, anxiously pacing back and forth. It seemed that even from this distance, her presence reassured the horse. She sighed.


Hiccup was reminded of how easily things could change - it seemed like just days ago since he left Berk, fleeing the pressure of being a Chief's son - and Merida could be stolen away from him at a moment's notice. He kissed her so quickly it felt like he hadn't done anything at all, but the widening of the Princess' blue eyes and the smile on her lips were all the proof he needed; Hiccup bowed awkwardly, gesturing at the saddle on Toothless' back.

"Your... chariot, I guess - my, uh... lady?"

The redhead laughed heartily; he vowed to remember the sound, the way her curls bounced around her shoulders.

"Nice try."

Still, she took the hand he held out to her and climbed onto Toothless back, noting that the night fury seemed to be smiling, too; Hiccup followed, sitting in front of her. It suited them well - he sat in front to do the steering, talented flier that he was; she sat at the back, gripping her bow just in case. No words were needed - the dragon rose into the air without further instruction, hovering about the battle like a storm cloud ready to unleash the rain. Merida looked at Hiccup. "Shall I, or do you..."

"No, you-" He sighed, holding on to Toothless for dear life. "-you go right ahead."