She'd left without a cloak, walked off into the forest armed with bow and dagger, but being armed wasn't the same as being prepared. Her father had laughed at his headstrong daughter, said that the heat of her blood should have been warmth enough. The day had been mild for autumn and Hiccup supposed she couldn't be blamed for thinking she'd be more comfortable in her dress of hard-wearing homespun. But no matter what King Fergus said, everyone knew that southerners had thin blood; she'd soon find herself in trouble if she lost her way and the sun dropped. At a glance from his dad he'd stuffed one of his own cloaks in a sack and slung it over his shoulder, leaving Toothless to carry on frolicking with the triplets. Hiccup hoped that he could manage to find one princess, even an especially mischievous one, without help.
Southerner or not, an experienced woodswoman should have known not to wander off unprepared in a strange place. Then again, Merida probably didn't consider Berk a strange place, though her last visit had been three summers ago. They'd spent days together in the woods, her with a scaled-down bow and him with a knife all but forgotten in his belt, since she'd confidently declared that she could protect the both of them from anything they might encounter. They'd found neither his trolls nor her ghostly blue will-o'-the-wisps, but they'd stripped a bush free of berries between them as they told each other tales, each trying to best the other with the fantastic, bragging about their fathers' feats with childish pride. He wondered if she remembered all that, and the bony boy with a mind too quick for his limbs. He couldn't help the grimace that crossed his face at the specter of his younger self, eager to impress someone, anyone.
Then his grimace became an embarrassed grin. Judging by the kiss a few days ago, she'd been impressed when they met again. Even though he was alone in the woods he didn't allow himself to reach up and touch lips that buzzed with the memory of hers there—he wasn't that hopeless. She'd said he deserved it, and after a few sleepless hours of staring into the darkness over his bed he thought he understood what she meant.
At first glance she hadn't changed, with the same wild mane and bright grin she'd had as a child. But though her eyes were just as blue as he remembered, they were heavier. She saw more now, somehow, was more aware of what lay beyond the present moment. That knowledge hadn't stopped her from kissing him; did that mean she'd thought it was a good idea? Not that he thought it'd been a bad idea… He shook his head to clear it of the haze that filled it whenever he recalled the kiss. That was silly. It was just Merida, after all, and surely at some point in their past she'd kissed him. But try as he might he couldn't remember it ever happening, and there was no just about her.
Right now, though, he needed to find her and make sure she made it back to the village safely. The search, or maybe the force of habit, led him to the cove. He wandered down the path and through the gap, pausing for a moment to look over the valley. Shafts of sunlight lanced down from between the trunks that ringed the valley, and shadows were already pooling below the western cliff face; the leaves of the trees above were turning to yellow and orange and some floated through the light to drift down to the surface of the water. And at one end, perched on a rock outcropping, hair turned to wildfire in the afternoon rays and leaves fluttering around her, sat Merida, her face tipped up to catch the last of the light and the bow and quiver at her side. She looked like the queen of an untamable little kingdom. Down there, bathed in the glow of autumn, she'd never looked wilder or, he realized abruptly, more beautiful. It knocked the breath from his lungs.
What with dragon-related duties and diplomatic chores they hadn't had time to talk since their first conversation, and the space between them felt like nothing had changed, and everything had. When she threw her head back in laughter at one of Gobber's jokes she was the Merida he'd always known, but that girl disappeared when she caught his eye and smiled. It had thrown him for a loop, left him feeling strangely dizzy, but now he thought he understood that, too.
By the time he'd joined her she'd stood, arms crossed loosely before her, bow still on the ground. She turned to face him before he reached her, a small smile playing on her lips. "Come to take me home?"
The words set his heart to pounding against his ribs, but he ignored that as best he could. "I brought you this," he said instead, pulling the cloak from his sack and shaking it out. "It'll be cold when the sun sets."
She rolled her eyes and dropped her hands onto her hips. "I've been cold before and lived to tell about it."
"Just humor me, okay?" She huffed quietly but made no other move, either to take the cloak or to avoid it; so he muttered something about her being a spoiled royal brat and whirled the cloak around her shoulders. When he looked down to fasten it he noticed how close they were.
It was far too easy, too quick, to do up the clasp, even with her gaze on him. His hands moved of their own accord to her shoulders, smoothing down the rough fabric, and a tremble coursed through her, though it couldn't have been from the chill, not now.
Sometimes he thought too much, overanalyzed details, planned for contingencies that never came about. He didn't mind it too much; those tendencies made him a good smith and inventor. But he'd also learned that sometimes you had to toss the cheatsheet and fly by instinct—sometimes you had to jump and trust the wind.
His name was a whisper that hung in the air between them. It was enough.
The last of the sunlight gilded her hair, giving her a burning halo; in contrast her eyes were like cool water, a relief, a blessing as he dipped his head. This time he knew what was coming and moved slowly to relish the heat of her hand on his arm, the hitch of her breath, the half-conscious close of her eyes. Her lips were cool and yielding; her fingers pressed into his arm as she pushed up, rising onto her toes like she had the first time—the first time, some still-functioning part of his brain registered, they'd done this more than once now, he would have to specify which time if he ever talked about kissing Merida—and kissing him back willingly, eagerly.
He opened his eyes again to find that the sun had slipped below the rim of the cove and it was already noticeably cooler. Funny, he'd been perfectly warm a second ago. "We sh—we should get back." He stepped back, cleared his throat, and then glanced down at her, the effervescent feeling in his stomach doubling at the sight of her rosy cheeks and parted lips, the curls tumbling over the earthen-colored wool of his cloak. "Are you warm enough?"
A smile blossomed on her face, wicked and sweet, as she edged close to him. "Now that you mention it, I'm feeling a little chilly. Think you can help warm me up?" She blinked up at him slowly.
Hiccup felt his face burn, but it didn't stop him from brushing his lips over her waiting mouth one more time. "Come on, before they send out a search party," he grumbled unconvincingly, turning to lead her out of the valley. At the top he looked over his shoulder, but the hollow was charmless and full of shadows now that she was gone from it.
Then she threaded her fingers through his and warmth billowed through him and filled him up as they followed the sunset home.