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Astrid had been out of sorts lately.

She wasn't sure why.  Nothing had really changed.  Hiccup was still Hiccup, kind, intelligent, and awkwardly self-confident.  Ruffnut was still vain, crazy, and wild.  And the guys still teetered the line between being amusing and being annoying.  The only thing that seemed to have changed was Astrid.  It was confusing, and frustrating, and the only thing she knew was that she had to do something about it.

Of course Hiccup could tell.  He bore the brunt of her bad moods, obviously.  And he wanted to talk about it, had been trying to get her to increasingly often over the past few weeks.  She always brushed him off, because how could you have a talk when you had no idea what to say?  Well, he'd get his talk today.

Three years.  Over the past three years Astrid had come to enjoy spending time with Hiccup more than she ever really expected to, even when she had welcomed him home from the battle with the Green Death with a kiss, laying her claim for all the village to see.  He was clever and wickedly funny if you knew to listen for it.  He was better than almost anyone at interpreting and navigating her moods.  He knew when to be cavalier, when to be consoling, and when to cower, because sometimes Astrid just really needed someone to cower before her.  He would never be the epitome of traditional Viking manliness that some girls craved, but for Astrid he was pretty much the perfect boyfriend.

He didn't satisfy her in the bedroom.  He never had, really.  At first he had simply been inexperienced, but he was a fast learner and almost embarrassingly eager to please, and his skills increased quickly.  Astrid's pleasure, however, did not.  It was always a little frustrating, but considering how good everything else was, she had learned to ignore it.  And when she really needed that kind of release, she had Ruff.

She had thought her liaisons with Ruffnut in the forest would end when she got together with Hiccup, but the other girl had quickly proved to her that wasn't the case.  And that was all right.  It was good, even, she thought, because it took some pressure off Hiccup in the bedroom and made the rest of their relationship flow smoothly.  And it's not like Ruffnut was looking to settle down.  She was Astrid's best friend, that's all, even if they were closer than normal.  They had been together since childhood, and shared a million memories and rituals and inside jokes no one else would find amusing.  They could stay up all night talking about anything, or not talking at all.  Ruff was better at making Astrid laugh than anyone, and better at pissing her off too, although unlike Hiccup she could hold her own in a fight if it came to blows.  It worked out.  Hiccup was her boyfriend, and Ruffnut was her best friend, and if the wrong one made her scream in the middle of the night, it was a minor aberration.  She could overlook it.

So when had it started to matter?

Hiccup knew about Ruffnut, which added another layer of oddity to a situation that was already far from normal.  He certainly didn't seem to understand it, and he hadn't even seemed to believe her at first, but he knew, and didn't disapprove as far as Astrid could tell.  It was important for him to know, because while Astrid wasn't without her vices, she didn't want to be a liar.  So even though it was odd, she tried her best to be honest.  And she explained to him that she and Ruff had been going into the forest to spend time together long before she had got to know Hiccup, and didn't want to stop, but they were only friends after all.  Only exploring in the way children do.  It was fun, but it wasn't exactly deep and meaningful, and it didn't pose any threat to her and Hiccup, to their relationship.

Well.  Maybe she wasn't completely honest after all.

She saw Hiccup sitting in front of her, leaning against a rock and watching the sky, his notebook and charcoal hanging loosely in his hands.  Even though she had been looking for him, she had been so lost in her thoughts that the sight of him hit her like a blow, made her doubt the resolutions she had made.  Still, her legs propelled her forward.  When she got close enough, he turned to regard her with a lazy, contented smile.  At the look on her face, however, his smile faded and he wordlessly opened his arms to her.  And despite all her intentions, Astrid sank into them gratefully.

After taking a few much needed seconds to center herself, Astrid turned so that her back was resting against Hiccup's chest.  He wrapped his arms around her, and even with the maelstrom of confusion raging through her mind, the feeling buoyed her.  Was it wrong to crave this kind of touch from him when she had become so reluctant to take him to bed?  Ruffnut certainly wasn't averse to cuddling -- every night Astrid had spent in her bed she had woken up with all of Ruffnut's limbs wrapped around her like some kind of creeping vine -- but the Thorston girl was rarely still enough to make it practical.  Hiccup, however, seemed to love holding Astrid as much as she loved being held.

She found herself wishing suddenly that they had been brother and sister, so she could seek comfort from him without the weight of expectation hanging over them.  She could have protected him from bullies, and he could have kept her from becoming quite so serious and angry.  And she would never have to risk losing him.  Would never even have been in this situation.  She was surprised to find tears prickling her eyes, and blinked them back quickly.

"What's wrong?" Hiccup asked, and Astrid shook her head sharply.  She was holding it together, but trying to speak about it now would undo her.  She put a hand on his knee and squeezed gently, and he seemed to understand, silently allowing her to compose herself.  She realized that if nothing else, it was wrong to take this comfort from him given what she had come here to say, and reluctantly pulled away so she could face him.

She opened her mouth, paused, then sighed and looked down at her lap.  So much for her rehearsals.  Hiccup reached up to gently touch her cheek.  "Do you want to talk about it?" he asked.

"I think I have to."  Although she knew she shouldn't, she caught his fingers with her own, idly twisting their hands together in the space between them.  It might be the last time he let her touch him like this.  She forced herself to meet his eyes and said, "I don't think I've been very fair to you.  For a long time now."

"What do you mean?"

She hesitated, and dropped her gaze to their joined hands, cursing her cowardice.  "I mean, it's not working," she said, and knew Hiccup knew what she meant.

He pulled his hands away, and she felt the loss keenly.  "Not working?" he asked, and she glanced up to see the shock spreading across his face, followed quickly by hurt.  "I-I thought it was good."

"It is good."

"Then what's the problem?"

"You're so much better than 'good,' Hiccup."  Astrid bit her lip and tried to put the things she had been feeling for months into words.  "If it were anyone else, it would be bad.  If it's good, it's because of you --"

"And you," Hiccup said.

Astrid shrugged.  "But it's not because of us.  I mean, does that...?"

Hiccup clenched his hands into fists.  "I don't know.  I guess so.  Does it matter?"

"Does it matter?"

"Does it?  If that's how you feel.  I mean, it's not like I can club you over the head and drag you home."  He suddenly gave an awful, sickening smile.  "Literally.  Everyone knows you can still kick my ass."  He tried to laugh and choked instead, and Astrid quickly looked at her lap again so they could both pretend she hadn't seen the tears fill his eyes.  "Um.  I'm gonna go find Toothless."  He quickly stood, swayed in place, then turned and walked away.  Astrid didn't watch him go.  Didn't want to know whether or not he looked back at her.  Didn't know whether she wanted him to or not.

It was a very long time before she trusted her legs to carry her home.

Chapter Text

Hiccup almost winced when he saw that Astrid was the only one standing at their meeting spot near the edge of the village. They had more or less been avoiding each other for the past week, and what encounters they had were stilted and awkward. He hadn't been able to bring himself to tell anyone about the whole breakup thing yet, and apparently she hadn't either, because no one was treating them any differently. And it wasn't exactly uncommon for Hiccup to spend a few days hiding from Astrid after some blowup or other. Still, too much more of this and people would start figuring it out on their own.

He supposed it could be worse. It's not like he collapsed into uncontrollable tears every time he saw her. True, there was a dull ache in his chest that flared up in her presence, but it wasn't like the epic stories made it out to be. Astrid wasn't his anymore, but the sun still rose, the chores still needed to be done, the dragons fed, and life went on. In a way it was almost anticlimactic. Shouldn't the loss of his first love render him so paralyzed by grief that he couldn't even get out of bed? Shouldn't he be doing everything in his power to win her back, instead of spending more time at the forge and doing his best to avoid her? Well, once again real life thwarted the fairy tale.

It helped, probably, that he had kind of been expecting it. Astrid had been withdrawing for weeks now. He had just hoped she would come back eventually. Well, so much for that. Although if her decision had brought any peace to Astrid, he certainly couldn't see it. In what time he had spent with her over the last week, he noticed that she seemed subdued and off center. And Hiccup wasn't the only one she was avoiding. She seemed to be spending less time with Ruffnut as well, which was pretty much the opposite of what Hiccup had expected.

Hiccup wasn't stupid. Or maybe he was, because he had let it go on. But what could you say when your new girlfriend came up to you and essentially said, "We're together now, but just so you know I'm probably going to keep screwing my best friend on the side. Hope that's cool." Okay, Astrid had been a lot more tactful than that, but that's what had happened, wasn't it? And he had believed her when she said Ruffnut wasn't a threat because Ruffnut had at the time seemed more a caricature than an actual person. She was the Girl Twin whenever she and Tuff were together, the Loud Drunk Girl at parties, and yes, the Wild Thing in bed. Or at least she did a very good job of giving off that persona, since it wasn't like Hiccup had been able to confirm it for himself.

But then he had gotten to know the girl who diligently cleaned Tuff's wounds (as long as she wasn't the one who caused them). The girl who loved making her friends laugh almost as much as she loved making herself laugh. The real girl who really was Astrid's best friend. And he had become uneasy. But Astrid never seemed anything less than perfectly devoted, and he hadn't wanted to disturb the delicate balance that he had come to realize existed between the three of them. Maybe he should've. Maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe if he had said something...

No. Hiccup wasn't stupid. Once he realized how deep Astrid and Ruffnut's relationship went, he had known that if he forced Astrid to choose, he wouldn't like the choice she made. But he had stayed anyway, and maybe that made him as culpable as her. Maybe it was time for him to face that.

Toothless was still carrying him forward to where Astrid, idly twirling a spear in her hands, waited with her Nadder . She looked up when she heard them, and her expression was of someone bracing for impact. Even given what had happened, Hiccup didn't want it to be like that between them. So he tried to school his expression into something open and friendly and said, "Hi."

"Hi," Astrid replied, her hands flexing on the shaft of the spear restlessly, then said, "I guess we're it so far."

"Yeah. I saw Snotlout and Fishlegs by the supply shop, picking up a few things. They said they'd be along in a while."

"Ah."

There was a pause, during which Toothless looked back and forth between the two of them curiously, and Hiccup said, "No twins yet?"

"Nope. But they've never been real good with, you know, time."

There was another pause, and Hiccup realized being friendly was a lot harder than he thought. "Did you wanna go check on them while I wait here for the guys?"

Astrid quickly shook her head and looked out into the distance. "No, I'll wait. You can go check on them if you want."

Hiccup stared at her for a moment, because that was pretty odd in itself. Astrid had always volunteered to go find Ruff in the past. He was understanding less of the situation as time when on. But all he said was, "Okay, be back in a few minutes."

He guided Toothless towards the Thorston house, and muttered, "You got any burning insight, buddy?" Toothless snorted and twitched his ears. Hiccup sighed and leaned back in the saddle. That had been painful. And that was probably the worst thing. Not that Hiccup wanted to be alone and girlfriend-less, but it wasn't the kissing he missed, or the sex, which he could admit hadn't been all that great for a while now. It was like he had lost his best friend. Well -- he patted Toothless on the head -- one of his best friends.

He could hear familiar voices coming from Ruffnut's window as they approached the house, so he pulled Toothless up next to it and pushed open the shutters. "Hey guys," he said, poking his head in. "Are you about wwwwwhat are you doing?"

"What does it look like we're doing?" Tuffnut sneered.

"We're braiding my hair," Ruffnut said. She as sitting on the ground near the bed, her fingers flying through a thick section of blond hair. Tuffnut was sitting on the bed behind her, doing the same to the back.

"That takes two of you?"

"Well yeah," Ruffnut said derisively.

"Have you seen this?" Tuffnut waved an admittedly sizable quarter of Ruff's hair at Hiccup. "If I had to wait for her to do it on her own, we'd never leave the house."

Hiccup opened his mouth to point out that Tuffnut didn't technically have to wait for Ruff to start the morning, then closed it. Who was he to interrupt a relatively rare moment of peace between them? So instead he said, "Are you about done? Astrid and I are waiting in the square."

"Yeah, almost," said Ruff.

"Five minutes, tops," said Tuff, both of their attention once again focused on the task in front of them. Hiccup took one last look and withdrew.

"That was a little weird," he whispered to Toothless. Then he looked up to see twins' Zippleback watching them. "Did you know about this?" he asked, but Scabber and Dash just looked at each other. Their mission accomplished, Toothless began walking away from the house.

Well. Once he got over the oddness of the sight, he had to admit it had been almost...cute. Which actually made it odder, because Ruff and Tuff? Not really cut out for cute. Although to be fair, it's not like they were (completely) violent psychopaths like he had kind of thought before he got to know them. True, they bickered constantly, and hardly a day went by that one or both weren't bloodied by the other, but he suspected the arguments were usually motivated more by habit than genuine anger. Still, it was odd to see them demonstrate...affection? No, that wasn't right. Judging by Tuffnut's proficiency, that little morning ritual had been performed enough to become as much an unconscious habit as most of their other interactions.

"Did you know the twins actually get along sometimes?" he mused, still half-lost in this thoughts, to Astrid as Toothless came to a stop next to her.

She looked at him. "I imagine they'd have to. You'll notice neither of them are dead yet." She offered him a cautious smile, and for an instant -- just one instant -- he wondered why she was so nervous. Then he remembered. Remembered all over again, because somehow, caught up in examining the strange normalcy of the twins' relationship, he had unthinkingly fallen back on years worth of habit. But now he remembered the distance that had grown between them, and the terrible conversation that wasn't quite so terrible anymore because he had heard it before. He remembered spending the last week lonelier than he'd been in years, and the pained, regretful look Astrid had given him before he had walked away. Astrid, who was now regarding him with something almost like worry, something almost like fear.

Screw that, Hiccup suddenly, sincerely decided. He had lost his girlfriend, and there wasn't anything he could do about that. But he didn't have to lose his friend too. It might not be normal, might not be how he was supposed to behave, but that was pretty much par for the course with him. And with that decision the knot that had taken up residence in his chest over the past week loosened, and he smiled. "I don't know," he said, "I think Ruff might just be lulling Tuff into a false sense of security before she springs her death trap."

Astrid almost chuckled. "I wouldn't put it past her." She took a good look at him, then the nervousness in her expression melted away, and the smile she gave was genuine, and more than a little grateful. Hiccup returned it.

 

**********************

 

"I like this clearing," Ruffnut said cheerfully, taking a few quick steps ahead to stand in the middle of it. "We should just bring a mattress out here."

"It'd probably get all gross and moldy when it rains," Astrid pointed out.

"Hm, true. Maybe we could put up a tent."

"Then what's the point of even being outside?"

"Good point." Ruffnut sighed, and fell back on the grass, wiggling around to get comfortable before looking up at the sky. "I wouldn't want to give up this view." She silently watched the clouds for a few seconds, then glanced at Astrid and gestured to her own body. "Well? Have at it."

Astrid ducked her head and bit her lip, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "Can you stop thinking about sex for two seconds?" she asked, taking a seat near the edge of the clearing.

Ruffnut sat up and shrugged. "Sure, but that's about all you've got." She scooted over to Astrid. "What's up?"

Astrid pursed her lips and tugged at a few nearby grass stalks. Ruffnut tilted her head and nudged Astrid's hand with her own, because something was obviously on her mind and it calmed her down to have something in her hands to play with. This time, however, Astrid didn't take the bait. Instead she glanced up at Ruffnut, took a deep breath, and said, "I broke up with Hiccup."

"What?!" Ruffnut cried, rearing back so quickly she heard her spine pop. "Why'd you do that?"

Astrid looked about as shocked as Ruff felt. "What do you mean?" she said quickly, then, "Why not?"

"I just mean -- you --" Astrid looked about two seconds from seriously freaking out, so Ruffnut forced herself to relax. "I'm sorry, I'm just surprised."

Astrid didn't look much calmer. "Why?"

"Well, I didn't even know you guys were having problems. I mean, you never said anything."

"Well we were," Astrid said, tugging at the grass again.

"Oh," Ruffnut said, and frowned at bit. She had thought the reason Astrid had been so scarce the past week -- which Ruffnut hadn't exactly been thrilled about anyway -- was because she was spending time with Hiccup, but apparently not. Now she had to idea what to think. But this conversation obviously wasn't about her, so she put those thoughts to the side. Astrid still looked upset, so Ruffnut put a hand on her knee and said, "Hey, I'm sorry. I'm the last person to judge your relationship. I guess I just kinda thought if you were having problems, you would have talked about it." She paused. "Why didn't you? Not that I'm all 'I must know everything about you all the time,' but you know you can talk to me about anything, right?"

Astrid finally smiled a bit. "I know. But I don't think anyone could have helped me with this."

"All right, as long as you know." Ruffnut squeezed Astrid's knee, then moved her hand. "So what happened? I thought he was like, the perfect boyfriend."

Astrid shrugged. "He was."

"So...?"

Astrid lifted her head and looked around, staring at the trees without seeming to see anything. "You remember when you told me you liked boys and girls?"

Ruffnut lifted her eyebrows as her mind flew back to that day and her first stolen kisses with Astrid. "Yeah, I'd say that one's pretty much burned into the ol' noggin."

"I didn't get it at first."

"You picked it up pretty quickly."

Astrid smiled. Then her expression grew serious, and she glanced at the ground again before looking at Ruffnut. "I don't think I like boys. At all."

Ruffnut blinked, but managed to keep any expression of surprise from her face and lips. That was a bit of a shocker. She was well aware of Astrid's enthusiastic response to her when they got under the sheets, but she and Hiccup had been knocking boots since they were sixteen, and Ruffnut had just assumed it was pretty much the same for them. Not that Astrid would ever tell her about it, the prude.

"Well, that's all right," she said for lack of anything better to say.

Astrid's eyebrows drew together. "Is it?"

"Of course! It's good, actually, I mean that you know now. Now you don't have to spend any extra time messing with 'em. And I get it. Hiccup's the perfect boyfriend, but he's a boy, so no dice." Ruffnut shrugged. "Makes sense to me." Mostly. Kind of. Because Ruffnut liked Astrid, but she for sure liked boys too. But to each her own, right now she as all about being supportive.

Astrid relaxed visibly, then gave her a tentative, thankful smile. Ruffnut scooted closer so that their legs just barely touched. "So, what's the next step?" she asked.

"Well...this is kinda the next step," Astrid said, motioning between the two of them.

"Tell the best friend. Done and done," Ruffnut said, shooting Astrid a thumbs up.

"No, I mean..." Astrid looked flustered, and Ruffnut pursed her lips. Not that she had never seen Astrid like that before -- Ruffnut could fluster just about anyone -- but there didn't seem to be much reason for it. They had gotten the hard part out of the way, hadn't they? "I thought, instead of Hiccup, you and I could..." She motioned vaguely again.

Ruffnut stared at her. There was almost a full thought somewhere in there, she just had to find it. Instead of Hiccup...? "Astrid, we already do that."

"By the gods, Ruff, I'm not talking about sex," Astrid hissed.

"Then what are you talking about? Hey," she said when Astrid glared at her, "I'm trying to follow along here. Cut me some slack."

Astrid looked extremely put out at having to explain. "I mean like...being in a relationship. Instead of just fooling around when we're not with other people, we'd be together. Just the two of us."

"A rela -- a relationship?" Ruffnut cried incredulously. "Astrid, I've been avoiding those since I was twelve!"

It was Astrid's turn to pull away, a look of shock spreading across her face. "But I thought...I mean we're..."

"We're best friends," Ruffnut said. "And okay, yeah, if I had to pick anyone right now it'd be you --" Astrid did not look much happier at this declaration, "-- but that's not something I want."

"Not something you want?" Astrid repeated, her voice strained. "Why not?"

"It's..." She already knew this was something she wasn't going to be able to explain to Astrid, because Astrid could be wild in bed, and was conservative anywhere else. As far as Ruffnut could tell, the only people she had ever expressed any attraction to were herself and Hiccup -- which was another thing, because really, how did you know you didn't like boys if you'd only ever tried the one? Ruffnut, on the other hand, knew she was more than a little easy, and knew she wouldn't be able to get away with it forever, so she wanted to have her fun while she had the chance. But how to explain that there was plenty of time for commitment and stuff like that when they were older, when Astrid was sitting across from her with wide eyes and thin lips right now? Ruffnut raised her hands somewhat helplessly and gestured widely at the space around them. "It's a big world out there, Astrid. Why limit yourself?"

Astrid clenched her fists and gritted her teeth. "I can't believe you," she said, her voice low and dangerous. "You want to keep fooling around with other people that badly? Haven't you had enough of that yet?"

"Apparently not!" Ruffnut said flippantly, more than a little annoyed herself.

Astrid suddenly stood up, and Ruffnut joined her, her body tense with something like but not quite anger. "I don't want to do this anymore," Astrid said. "If we're going to keep doing this, I want it to be just us."

"Why?" Ruffnut demanded. "Up until this morning you seemed fine with the way things were. Why the big about face?"

"It's not what I want!"

"Do you even know what you want? You said you and Hiccup were having problems, but you never gave me one damn clue. I'm not the most sensitive person, Astrid, but I know you better than that. If you didn't let on, it's because you didn't want me to know. Why?"

"I was trying to figure things out!"

"Then why didn't you let me help you, instead of just dropping a fucking ultimatum in my lap?" Astrid set her jaw and glared at Ruffnut, but the other girl continued regardless. "You don't get to just up and decide after five years that you want things to change. Why are you doing this? And why now?"

Both girls stared at each other, hands fisted, bodies quivering with barely contained energy. Astrid looked ready to attack. A large part of Ruffnut wanted her too, because anything would be easier, and less painful, than this.

"I don't know," Astrid said slowly. "I don't know why I suddenly want this, and I don't know why now. I think I'm just...growing up." And in front of Ruffnut's eyes, she deflated.

Ruffnut took a deep breath, then released it, and with it her anger and frustration, because this was still her best friend, after all. "Okay, just...what do you want? Lay it out for me."

Astrid stared at her. "I don't want to have sex with you," she said, "if you're having sex with other people. Period. If that's something you're going to do, I don't want us to have sex at all."

Ruffnut glanced at the ground and said, "Okay."

"Okay, what?"

"Okay. We'll stop doing...that," Ruffnut said, and frowned at how awkward the words felt in her mouth.

Astrid's face went completely blank. "Fine."

"I mean you said --"

"I said it was fine." Astrid took one more long look at her, then turned and walked quickly away.

Ruffnut tangled her hands in her own hair, leaned back against a tree, and sighed.

Chapter Text

Ruffnut sat alone in the clearing, occasionally poking the ground unhappily.  That had been an unmitigated disaster.  Although really, what was Astrid's problem anyway?  Didn't Ruffnut perform in bed?  Wasn't she as loyal to Astrid as she was to anyone, or even more so?  Wouldn't she drop everything if she thought her friend needed her?  Wasn't that enough?  Why did the whole 'exclusive' thing have to enter into it all?

And she still didn't understand what Astrid was getting at, with the whole confession thing and breaking up with Hiccup.  So she didn't like boys.  There were several women like that in the village -- and Ruffnut was pretty confident she had managed to suss almost all of them out -- but no one went around making big declarations about it.  To be fair, telling your best friend wasn't exactly screaming it to the village, but she had broken up with Hiccup too.  Which, really?  What was up with that?  It's not like he would force himself on her or anything if she didn't want to.

Because in the end you could talk about liking girls (or boys on the other side) all you want.  But the fact of the matter was that good Viking woman married strong Viking men and made strong Viking babies.  That's just how it worked.  Just because Hiccup had changed the world a few years ago didn't mean the rest of them didn't have to follow the rules.  And Astrid was the best Viking of them all.  She ought to know that.  Ruffnut knew that, and there was no way she was smarter than Astrid.  She knew one day, probably one day soon, she'd have to stop fooling around and get married and be forever devoted and blah blah blah.  But one day hadn't seemed to matter as much when she had Astrid right now.  And it wasn't fair for Astrid to decide to cut that time short because she grew some stupid fucking morals or whatever.

Ruffnut had realized fairly early on that Hiccup was, in fact, the perfect boyfriend.  Not because he was the future chief, although that was a major plus, or because he was a famous hero who was gaining acclaim for his dragon handling not just in Berk, but other nearby villages as well, or even because he was smart and funny and he and Astrid got along well.  All that was secondary to the fact that he had never tried to stop Astrid from seeing Ruffnut, even when he knew what was going on.  And when would that happen ever again?

Ruffnut had sometimes entertained the notion that, if she played her cards right, marriage wouldn't matter too much in the end.  If Astrid married Hiccup and Ruffnut married...well, none of the men of Berk were particularly observant, but someone she could succeed in sneaking around on, there would be no reason for her and Astrid to stop doing...that.  Astrid had her whole honesty thing, but Ruffnut had no such scruples.  They could make it work.  And Ruffnut really would stop with other people then.  She just didn't want to rush that part because she knew once it was over, it was over forever.  Astrid had never understood that, but she had seemed to accept it.  Until TODAY, apparently.  Ruffnut jabbed the ground angrily.

Maybe it would help if Ruffnut went and told Astrid she was special.  That she may fool around with a lot of people, but she only opened herself up to one.  Or would that just give her the wrong idea?  Forgetting sex -- which was definitely nice and something Ruffnut still hoped she could bring Astrid back around to eventually -- no one understood Ruffnut as well as Astrid, not even Tuff.  The twins tended to not connect so much as collide with people, short, painful encounters that usually left someone hurt.  It wasn't something they did on purpose, but dealing with the Thorstons required a highly specific and fairly rare skill set.  Snotlout gave Tuff a run for his money on the 'Oh, I'm a manly Viking!' thing, Fishlegs seemed to deflect everything they did by either pure obliviousness or pure bulk, Hiccup was so far outside of traditional Vikingness that nothing seemed to touch him, and Astrid could take anything any of them could dish out and give it back double.  She was the only girl in the village who could, really.

Ruffnut sighed and leaned back on her hands, letting the sun warm her face.  She could admit it.  Astrid was special.  And that had nothing to do with whether or not they shared a bed.  So if she wanted to stop that, it sucked, but it was her choice to make.  Ruffnut could roll with the punches.  She was tough, and so was Astrid.  They'd just have to get back to where they were before, when they were only ever just friends.  Ruffnut could do that.  There was no reason for things to get weird.  There were lots of potential bedwarmers in the village, but only one Astrid.  It'd probably be awkward at first, but Ruffnut would make it work.

After all, what choice did she have?


**********************


Hiccup watched Astrid and Ruffnut from a distance.  There was something strange going on there, and he still didn't know what.  After the breakup Astrid's mood had been uneasy, but for the past week and a half it had been downright foul.  Since he obviously wasn't in the primary pissing-Astrid-off position anymore, he assumed that pleasure had fallen to Ruffnut.  But Ruffnut, in contrast to Astrid, was acting perfectly normal, as friendly and boisterous as always.  She may even have been a little more so, like she was trying a little harder than usual, but maybe it just looked that way compared to Astrid's scowl.

Hiccup didn't know if something had happened -- okay, that was a lie, something had obviously happened, but he didn't know what -- or if it was simply in response to his overtures of friendship the day before Astrid's mood had gone downhill, but Astrid had started seeking him out again.  These encounters, however, typically consisted of Astrid showing up at his door and saying, "Let's go flying," or, "Let's go hunting," or, "Let's go fishing," and then spending the whole time more or less ignoring Hiccup while she stewed in silence, occasionally muttering angrily to herself while Hiccup tried and failed to work up the nerve to ask her what was wrong.  He still didn't know where the boundaries were.  "Hey Astrid, I know we just broke up a few weeks ago, but something seems to be going on with that girlfriend I'd thought you'd have by now, and I was wondering if you wanted to talk about it."  Well, there were certainly less interesting ways to commit suicide.

Abandoning the girls for a moment, Hiccup looked around the square.  He noticed Tuffnut just a little ways down, sitting on an open windowsill and idly picking at his fingernails with a dagger, and paused.  Hm.  It was worth a shot.

Tuffnut looked up as Hiccup walked towards him, then jumped down from the window and pocketed his knife.  "What's up, man?"

"Hey Tuff."  Hiccup paused, then looked over at the girls.  "I, uh, I was just wondering if you knew what was up with Astrid and Ruffnut.  'Cause they seem a little off to me, but I'm kinda scared to ask."

Tuffnut looked at Hiccup, looked at the girls, pursed his lips, and finally looked back at Hiccup.  "I guess I can tell ya, since you and Astrid aren't together anymore --" Hiccup blinked at that, because it still seemed like most people hadn't put that together, "-- but Ruff and Astrid have been like, getting it on for a long time now, but the other day Astrid told Ruff she didn't want to do it anymore."

"Wait, she told her to stop?"  Hiccup furrowed his brow and tried to put everything right in his head.  "That's...kinda the opposite of what I was expecting."

"Wait, you knew?"

"Well, yeah."  Tuffnut was staring at Hiccup in shock now, seemingly struck speechless.  Apparently more explanation was required.  "I mean, Astrid's not a cheater or anything.  She told me."

Tuffnut still looked awestruck.  "And you were okay with that?"

That's exactly what he'd been asking himself for the past few weeks, and he still didn't have an answer.  "Well, it was Astrid's choice, wasn't it?  At least she was honest.  And..."  He spared one more glance at the sullen girl.  "...I wanted her to be happy."

Tuffnut regarded him for a long minute, then solemnly clapped his hand on Hiccup's shoulder and said, "Hiccup, I hope I find a girlfriend like you one day."

"...Thanks, I guess?"

Chapter Text

"Hiccup!"

Hiccup stiffened before he realized the voice calling his name wasn't the one he'd been bracing himself for all week, or even male, although it was familiar.  He turned around and saw Astrid's mother bustling towards him.

"Hey, Mrs. Hofferson," he said somewhat weakly, more than a little surprised to see her, and realizing it was because although he and Astrid had been getting together on a fairly regular basis lately, he hadn't seen either of her parents in a while.

"Hello dearie," Mrs. Hofferson said with a familiar, affectionate smile.  Slightly unnerved, Hiccup nevertheless slowed his pace and allowed her to accompany him down the street.  "And how have you been lately?" she asked.

"Er, fine," Hiccup said.

Mrs. Hofferson nodded as though he had revealed some deep wisdom, and said, "And your father?  How is the chief holding up these days?"

"He's good.  Is there something I can help you with?" Hiccup asked, because he had enough experience with Astrid's mother to know she could talk quite exhaustively about nothing at all.

Mrs. Hofferson, to his surprise, didn't begin to ramble about some inane gossip or other.  Instead she became quiet and thoughtful, and Hiccup actually looked around to make sure there wasn't some natural or unnatural disaster commanding her attention.

"Have you talked to Astrid recently?" she finally asked, and Hiccup was surprised yet again.

"Yeah," he said.  "I'm, uh, actually on my way to meet her now."

Mrs. Hofferson looked relieved.  "Good.  She's just been so quiet lately -- well, I'm sure you've noticed.  She's been spending a lot of time alone too.  But I'm glad she can at least talk to you."  She gave him another smile, and Hiccup suddenly realized that she didn't know Astrid had broken up with him.  Which, all right, they had never actually gotten to the part where they spread that particular news around, but he figured Astrid would have at least told her mother.

He opened his mouth to correct her, then closed it.  If Astrid wanted to keep her secrets for a while, that wasn't his business, and he didn't have the right to take that away from her.  Instead he said, "Yeah, she can talk to me anytime."  And he meant it, because sometime somewhere along the way and almost without him noticing it, hanging out with Astrid had become almost normal.  Maybe because his newest problem, the one he was actually going to talk to her about, pretty much used up all the 'awkward' and 'weird' he could handle.  Or maybe because it felt petty to hold on to any lingering resentments when it was so obvious Astrid had gotten the worse end of whatever deal she had been working on.

"Thank you," Mrs. Hofferson said sincerely.  "She's never been quite like the other girls, you know.  I think that makes it hard sometimes.  Of course, you were never quite like the other boys, were you?"  She smiled at him, and Hiccup returned it weakly.  That was probably an understatement.  "Well, I won't keep you, dear.  Run along now."  Hiccup waved goodbye, then hurried away.


**********************


Astrid was perched on a rickety wooden fence, keeping an eye out for both Hiccup and Ruffnut.  Hiccup she was expecting; Ruffnut she wasn't, but the other girl had been making it altogether difficult for Astrid to avoid her, so it was best to stay watchful.

After their disastrous conversation, Astrid had gone home and locked herself in her room for the rest of the day, where she had passed the time by curling up on her bed and concentrating very hard on not concentrating on anything at all.  The next morning her eyes burned for some reason she couldn't remember, but she had ignored them and gotten up, gotten dressed, and went and joined the guys for breakfast, letting their familiar chatter calm the parts of her that still felt rattled.

She had been trying so hard to put Ruffnut from her mind that when the other girl suddenly dropped into her usual place next to Astrid at the table, it had rather felt like someone had taken a hammer to her head.  Ruffnut had shot her a perfectly normal, perfectly friendly grin, then started badgering Snotlout about something or other, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Astrid suddenly couldn't breathe.

It had been strange, and horrible.  On the surface it seemed like everything was exactly like it had always been.  Despite recent evidence to the contrary, everyone still seemed to assume she and Hiccup were together, which was fine by Astrid.  It's not like she had anyone to replace him anyway, and just now she felt too raw, too fragile -- and she did not do fragile -- to deal with the difficult questions that would inevitably arise.  Meanwhile, Ruffnut seemed bound and determined to pretend nothing had happened between them either.  So she had to sit there and pretend like everything was fine, while under the surface she was drawing on every reserve of discipline she had just to keep from breaking down.  In the end it had been too much, and she had raced out of the Great Hall as soon as she could think of half a reason to.

Except that Ruffnut had found her later that afternoon, and again the next morning.  Every time they were both free, it seemed like Ruffnut hunted her down to chat or gossip or shop or just hang out, the whole time acting so completely normal and so willfully ignorant of any awkwardness on Astrid's end that it was almost surreal.  Astrid had stopped to ask herself more than once whether their conversation actually happened, or if she had just imagined it.

Did Ruffnut really not understand?  Had Astrid been unclear?  But no, Ruff had asked her exactly what she wanted, and Astrid had told her.  Mostly.  In retrospect, what she had said was only one part of what she really wanted, but if Ruffnut wouldn't even consider that one part...

Maybe Ruff didn't quite understand, but Astrid had already been rejected physically.  She didn't think she could take being rejected emotionally too.  So she ran.  Astrid, one of the most accomplished warriors in the village, ran because she couldn't understand what Ruff was thinking, and was too afraid to initiate another conversation where Ruffnut told her she'd rather be with other people than Astrid.  She spent a lot of time alone, or with her parents, or Legs and Lout, or Gobber, or even with Hiccup, who she knew was confused but more or less went along with anything she suggested.

It was going reasonably well until one day she realized that she was doing pretty much the exactly same thing to Hiccup that Ruffnut was doing to her.  And then she felt ashamed on top of everything else, because hadn't she done him enough wrong already?

"Do you want me to stop hanging out with you?" she asked him one day during another outing she had dragged him on.

He looked at her in mild surprise, then exchanged a glance with Toothless.  "I don't mind hanging out with you," he said after a moment of thought, "but I think we might both have more fun if you cut the death glares down by about fifty percent or so.  Just a suggestion."

It was such a wonderfully Hiccup thing to say that she had given him her first real smile in some time, and things had gotten much better between them after that.  Which was another thing.  Hiccup seemed to be getting better over time, while Astrid was only getting worse.  And if Hiccup was getting better, Ruff was downright happy-go-lucky.  Maybe Astrid was the defective one.

Hiccup was climbing up the hill towards her now, somewhat unusually sans dragon, and she gave him a little wave.  He stopped in front of her and put his hands on his hips.  "Hey, how's it going?"

She shrugged, tried to think of something to say, and then shrugged again.  "It's just...you know.  What's up?"

He hesitated, then said, "I ran into your mom on the way here."

Astrid just looked at him, because while a visit from her mother was always notable, it could hardly be the reason he asked yesterday if she would meet with him.

He paused again, then said, "Did you...I mean, does she know we're not...together?"

"Oh."  Astrid began passing her axe from one hand to the other.  "I haven't told her, actually.  She'd get worried, she'd want to...ask questions..."  She trailed off, and shrugged again.  "Why, did she say something?"

"Eh, not exactly.  I just kinda got the impression that she didn't, and I thought you might've told her."

Astrid shook her head, then looked at Hiccup curiously.  "Have you told your dad?"

"Uh, no.  I'm pretty sure I broke his heart enough when I was a kid, and if he found out he wasn't getting you as a daughter-in-law..."  Hiccup gestured helplessly.

Something inside Astrid clenched at Hiccup's words, but she understood.  "It's just --"

"-- easier," he finished.  "So, your mom said you'd been kinda..."

She sighed.  "Yeah."

Hiccup looked at her.  "It's Ruff."

Astrid's hands twitched.  "Yeah."

He had an almost reluctant look on his face, but said, "Did you want to talk about it?  I mean --"

"No.  Thank you," she said quickly, "but I really, really don't."

"Okay," he said, "but if you need to --"

"You'll be the first person I call."  She gave him a tight smile, then gestured for him to join her on the fence.  He perched himself carefully next to her.

"To be honest, I was kinda hoping we wouldn't have to tell anyone," Hiccup mused.  "I thought maybe they'd just eventually figure it out."

"How would they?" Astrid asked.  "We're spending just as much time together now as we were before."

He frowned.  "No we're not.  Unless we've been making out in my sleep."

"Let me rephrase," Astrid said with a little smile.  "We've been spending as much time together in public as we used to.  Behind closed doors no one can tell if we're doing anything or not, so they assume we are."

"Huh.  That makes sense, actually."  Then his posture changed slightly, and Astrid knew they were about to broach whatever topic he had called her here to talk about.  "Tuffnut knows though.  He told me so a couple of weeks ago."

Astrid shrugged.  She had enough experience with the twins to be neither surprised nor upset that Tuff knew.

"He, uh, actually told me that you and Ruff weren't, um."  He made a series of vague hand gestures that were apparently supposed to demonstrate what she and Ruff weren't doing.

Astrid scowled.  "I said I don't want to talk about it."

"I know.  That was actually a lead-in to a conversation about me.  What?" he said when she looked at him in surprise.  "We're not dating anymore, I can be selfish sometimes."

Intrigued, and consciously deciding to put Ruffnut out of her mind for Hiccup's sake, she turned towards him and said, "I'm sorry.  Please, continue."

He sighed a bit.  "So we were talking, and he was all surprised when I said I knew about you two, and I said I just wanted you to be happy --"

"Hiccup!" Astrid cried.

"What?" he said again.  "It was kind of a weird situation, but I like to think I was a pretty good boyfriend."

"You were the best boyfriend," she said, beaming at him.

He flushed a bit.  "Well, Tuff got all serious and said, 'Hiccup, I hope I find a girlfriend like you one day.'"

"That sounds like something he would say.  It's Tuff though, you can't take him too seriously."

"Yeah, you'd think that," Hiccup muttered.  "But he's kinda been following me around since then."

"What?" Astrid asked.

"I don't know!  But seriously, everywhere I look there he is.  He wants to talk to me, go flying with me, spar with me..."

"What?"

"Because apparently he decided whatever I told him was pretty important to have in a potential girlfriend --"

"What?"

"-- even more so than the whole 'girl' part."  Hiccup pressed his lips together and looked at Astrid.

Astrid looked back.  Then she started laughing.

"It's not funny!" Hiccup insisted.

"It's hilarious!" she gasped.  "Oh, by the gods, Hiccup, you should do it!  Do it, do it, do it!" she said, tapping his knee in time to her words, then laughing again.

Hiccup sputtered.  "You -- what -- are you serious?"

Astrid shrugged.  "Sure, why not?"

"Why...'sure, why not,' okay.  Because apparently skipping over to boy town is just that easy," Hiccup muttered sarcastically.

"It could be."

"Somehow I doubt it."

"Oh, come on.  How do you know you don't like it if you've never tried it?" Astrid asked, and bit her lip to avoid collapsing into giggles again at the look on Hiccup's face.

Hiccup ran one hand over his face in exasperation.  "I can't tell if you're being serious or not."

"Honestly, I can't either," Astrid said cheerfully.  "But I still think you should do it."

He looked at her and said, "You're taking this much better than I thought you would."

Astrid pursed her lips.  "How did you think I would take it?"

"Honestly, I'm not sure, but I didn't think my ex-girlfriend's reaction to something like this would be, 'Oh yes Hiccup, you sure know how to treat a lady, but you should totally try it with a man now, just for kicks!'"

Astrid couldn't help herself.  She started laughing again.  He was right -- it was completely odd, but it was also the most frank either of them had been in a while, and there was a sense of closure in that.  Apparently Hiccup agreed, because he starting chuckling despite himself.

"Oh, man," he said, scrubbing his face with his hands.  "Only us."

"Pretty much," Astrid agreed.  "So, you gonna go find Tuff?"

He narrowed his eyes at her.  "I'll have you know, I recently ended a long-term relationship.  I don't think I'm quite ready to jump into the saddle again yet."

"There are worse people you could go to for a rebound," Astrid pointed out, and smiled when Hiccup merely stared at her.

"We have a rather strange relationship, don't we?" he said slowly.

"We really do," she said, then carefully ventured, "...but good, I think, at least now.  Isn't it?"

Hiccup stopped to think about this for a moment, then smiled.  "Yeah, it really is.  Well!"  He clapped his hands on his knees, then hopped off the fence.  "Any ideas on what we can do to avoid some Thorstons?"

The sudden, indirect, unexpected mention of Ruffnut almost made Astrid stagger as she stepped off the fence, but she gritted her teeth and pushed those emotions down.  Right now it was her and Hiccup's time.  She forced the smile back on her face and said, "Let's go find Valkyrie and Toothless.  I feel like getting off the ground."

"Sounds like a plan," Hiccup said.


**********************


Ruffnut was, as usual, keeping up a steady stream of chatter.  Astrid was, as usual, being uncommunicative.  Which was really beginning to get on Ruff's nerves because, for one, hadn't it been long enough already?  And two, it's not like Astrid couldn't chat someone up anymore.  Ruffnut had seen her earlier that day talking easily and comfortably with Hiccup, which seriously, what the Hel?  Weren't they supposed to be broken up?  And why was Astrid willing to talk to Hiccup of all people when seeing Ruffnut locked her jaw tighter than a dwarven treasure hoard?

"Tuff said he's going fishing later, but I saw Lout down at the carpenter's, so I don't know who he's going with."

Astrid, predictably enough, didn't respond.

"I'm still kinda hoping that on one of those trips he just forgets how to swim and I get his room," Ruff continued doggedly.  "Of course, he'd have to fall over then too.  How hard is it to stowaway on those smaller boats?  Maybe if I got some rope --"

"Look!" Astrid suddenly said, turning sharply to face Ruffnut.  "We -- we have to talk."

Ruffnut's shoulders slumped, because as far as she was concerned they really didn't.  The last time Astrid had wanted to have a talk everything had gone straight to Hel, and despite her best efforts they still weren't right.  While she was trying to figure out a way to say this without it sounding like she was ignoring Astrid's feelings (which she kinda was, but Astrid's feelings were way too complicated for Ruff to be able to help with right now), Astrid was looking around.  Her eyes landed on an empty alley, and for a moment she lifted her hand as if she were going to take Ruffnut's wrist and guide her there, but as soon as her fingertips grazed Ruffnut's skin she jerked her hand back as though it had been burned.  Her eyes met Ruff's for an instant, then she dropped her head, drew her hand in close to her body, and hurried down the alley without another glance behind her.  Ruffnut clenched her jaw and followed.

Astrid was leaning against the wall on one side of the alley, her hands pressed against the small of her back.  Lacking anything better to do, Ruffnut leaned against the opposite wall.

Astrid was quiet for several long moments.  Ruffnut was about to start babbling nervously when Astrid finally raised her head and took a long look at her.  Her face wasn't tense or angry like it had been for weeks now; instead it was tired, and sad.  After a moment she sighed, closed her eyes, and tilted her head back against the wall.  "How do you do it?" she asked Ruff.

"Do what, exactly?" Ruffnut asked slowly.

Astrid shrugged.  "This," she said, opening her eyes.  "Just, talking, and hanging out, like..."

"Normal?" Ruffnut finished.

"I guess so.  Like nothing's changed.  How can you just...act like that?"

Tension was gathering in the pit of Ruff's stomach.  "Well, how am I supposed to act?  I know things have changed; you said you wanted to stop having sex --"

"I said that, but it wasn't, I mean..."  Astrid struggled for a few minutes, and Ruffnut tried very, very hard to be patient.  "It wasn't really about the sex, Ruff."

"I know," she said, "I think."

That at last cut through the blankness in Astrid's expression.  Something sharp and bright glittered in her eyes, but it was gone much too quickly for Ruffnut to identify.  "You know?"

"I think," she repeated, because what she had said before was true.  She wasn't all sensitive, but she knew Astrid pretty well.  She knew that while Astrid loved making love to her, she was never half as interested in sex as Ruff was.  That if that was all it was about, she should have bounced back a lot faster.  That you didn't break up with one of the most desirable men in Berk or tell anyone that you liked girls, and only girls, without some serious conviction behind it.  And that all of this was adding up to something Ruffnut really hoped she was wrong about, because if there was ever anything she wasn't qualified to deal with, it was whatever she suspected Astrid had pulled her into this alley to talk about.  The twins were known for their capacity for violence, not their capacity for deep emotion.  "But I mean, it's..."  She trailed off.  There were too many dangerous undercurrents, and things were already so difficult that she was terrified of making a misstep.

Astrid pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes.  "You know.  But you can still..."

"What else are we supposed to do?" Ruff asked again.  "You're my friend, Astrid.  My best friend.  And I'm trying, okay?  I know things are weird, but it's better to be friends than nothing, right?"

Astrid wouldn't meet her eyes, and for the first time it occurred to Ruffnut that maybe Astrid didn't think that.  That maybe she didn't want to be friends at all anymore.  Panic suddenly hit her in a dizzying wave, and she just barely managed to rasp, "Astrid?"

"I don't think I can do that," Astrid said, slowly and almost regretfully.  "I don't think I can just go back, like nothing's changed."

Because you're not trying hard enough! Ruffnut screamed in her mind, but for once her brain was faster than her mouth, and she bit back against the words.  "Why not?" she said instead.  "Why can't it be like it was before, when we were kids?"

"We're not kids anymore, and things have changed."

"So?  Don't try to tell me you can't do the whole friend thing, not when you've been spending all your free time with Hiccup."

Astrid's eyes went hard.  "That's different."

"How?" Ruffnut demanded.

Astrid gave a bitter laugh.  "You don't want me to answer that."

No, I don't, Ruffnut thought, but she stubbornly said, "Yes, I do."

Astrid locked eyes with her and said, "I never loved Hiccup."  Ruffnut gasped quietly, because it was exactly what she had been trying so hard not to hear for the last few weeks.  Exactly what she had been afraid of.  Astrid's expression was raw and unguarded, and for the first time Ruffnut could clearly see the pain lacing it.  "Please Ruff," she said, her gaze unwavering.  "Please, I can't do this.  If you want to be my friend, I need..."

Space.  Distance.  Time.  Just not Ruffnut.  Or not Ruff in any capacity she was willing to give.  Just the one she wasn't sure she could.  But as difficult as it was, she knew that last thing she wanted to do was hurt Astrid; or hurt her anymore, at least.  She took one last look at her friend and said, "Fine."

For several long seconds neither girl moved, their bodies rigid and their eyes locked together.  Then Astrid closed her eyes, sighed, and walked away.  Ruffnut watched her go, again.

Chapter Text

Tuffnut, as he had been doing a lot these days, popped up out of seemingly nowhere.  "Hey Hiccup," he said.

"Hey, Tuff," Hiccup replied, barely wincing at all.

Tuffnut leaned casually against a nearby wall.  "So I was thinking of going fishing later.  You should come."

"Should I?" Hiccup asked, looking at the shops around them for some kind of distraction.

"Yeah.  It should be fun."  Tuffnut's eyes briefly tracked up and down Hiccup's body.  "Maybe we could go swimming."

Sweet Thor.  "Um..."

"Hey guys!" Snotlout called as he walked up.

"Lout, hey!  Hey man, what's up?" Hiccup said in relief as Tuffnut scowled.

"Not too much," Snotlout said, looking back and forth between them.  "What're you guys up to?"

"We're going fishing," Tuff said.

Hiccup looked at him sharply.  "I never actually agreed to that."

"Cool.  Can I come?"

Hiccup shrugged.  "I guess --"

"No."

"...not."  Hiccup and Snotlout both looked at Tuffnut in confusion, then at each other.

"What's your problem, man?" Lout asked.

Tuffnut scowled deeper.  "Go find your own thing to do.  Me and Hiccup are bonding."

Snotlout looked at Hiccup again.  Hiccup shrugged helplessly and tried to keep his face neutral.  "Uh, why?" Lout asked Tuff.

"Hey, I have an idea!" Hiccup said quickly.  "Maybe we can make a trip of it.  Let's find Fishlegs --"

"Fine, whatever!  Go have fun!  See if I care!  Ruining my trip..." Tuffnut stalked off, still muttering to himself.

Snotlout and Hiccup watched him go.  "He's my bud and all," Snotlout said, "but that guy is crazy."

"Yeah," Hiccup said.  "H-he's...yeah."

"You still want to go fishing?"

"No, not really."

"Me either."  Snotlout sent one more confused look in the direction Tuffnut had disappeared, then began walking away.  "See you around, Hiccup."

"See you," Hiccup said, and sighed.

It's not that he minded the attention, exactly, even though it was from a rather unexpected source.  Although it made a weird sort of sense.  The twins were wild, and impulsive, and it was widely known there was nothing (and no one) they wouldn't do.  But just because Tuffnut was willing to leap headfirst into any new experience didn't mean Hiccup was, and seriously, he had just broken up with Astrid.  Or been broken up with, whatever.

So yeah, not ready for any kind of new relationship, even if he liked guys, which he was pretty sure he didn't.  After all, wouldn't it have come up before now?  Although as far as the guys in the village went, Tuff wasn't bad...

Dammit, he had to stop thinking like that.

Hiccup scrubbed his face with his hands, because now that Tuffnut and Astrid had brought it up, he couldn't not think about it.  The only person he had been with was Astrid, and they had been together for a long time.  Maybe he didn't really know what he liked, because he was obviously considering it.  Maybe he was just thinking too much about it.  Tuffnut's intentions were pretty clear -- he never could keep anything off his face -- but it didn't have to become a...thing.  Tuff had the attention span of a fly most of the time anyway.  He remembered what Astrid had said about a rebound.  Well, that was one way to satisfy his curiosity.  If he were curious.  Which he may or may not be.

Dammit.

Maybe he should just get it out of his system.  That couldn't hurt anything, right?  It was no big deal.  He was just considering a tryst with another man after dating a woman for three years.  That was...not normal at all.

Seriously, just dammit.

"Is he gone?" Tuffnut suddenly asked.

Hiccup almost jumped out of his skin.  "Geez, Tuff!  How did -- where did you come from?"

Tuffnut shrugged.  "Around.  So, you ready to go?"

Hiccup looked skyward.  "I never agreed to that."

"So I'm asking you.  You ready to go?"

Hiccup gave him a shrewd look.  "You're up to something.  I know you are."

"No duh, Hiccup," Tuffnut said.  "I'm not really subtle."

Hiccup blinked, then tried to bite back a smile.  Apparently even Tuffnut had his moments of self-awareness.  "You don't ask much," he pointed out.  "You kind of assume a lot."

"I'm asking now," Tuff said, and gave him a winning smile.

"Yeah, you are."  Hiccup breathed in deeply, then looked skyward again.  After a moment he looked back at Tuffnut and said, "All right."

"All right, fishing?"

"All right...something.  Your something.  All right."

Tuffnut beamed, and Hiccup tried to convince himself that there was no reason to be nervous.


**********************


Astrid sat on Valkyrie's back, watching the path from the village intently.  Toothless prowled restlessly around them.  "He'll be here soon," she said to the Night Fury, but it wasn't like Hiccup to be late.

Toothless suddenly looked up and bounded forward, and Astrid saw the young man in question shambling towards them, looking distinctly disheveled.  Toothless sniffed at him curiously, then reared back.

"Hey," Hiccup said vaguely as he came to a stop in front of Astrid and Valkyrie.

Astrid's jaw dropped as she looked at him.  His hair was sticking out at odd angles, his shirt had been ripped completely open in the front, and for some reason he was barefoot.  Suddenly it clicked.  "Great Odin, you went to see Tuff."

"Yes."  Hiccup looked down at himself, then looked back at Astrid.  "Yes."

"Well," she said, impressed, "good for you.  Looks like he moves pretty fast."

"Oh, no.  I mean yes, really, really yes.  But this," he gestured to himself, "is about as far as we got before I, you know, ran."

"What happened?  Is everything all right?" she asked in concern.

"Nothing happened.  I mean, nothing...bad, I guess.  Just unexpected."  He sighed.  "So I haven't really had a whole lot of spontaneous sexual encounters with random people."

Astrid's eyebrows lifted.  "I probably would have noticed that."

"Right.  But I thought, you know, I'll give it a shot.  And it turns out that's just not my thing, apparently.  Now I know."  Toothless nudged him gently, and he rested a hand on the dragon's neck.  "Hence the bolting."

She winced.  "I'm sorry.  I didn't know he'd be like that, but I probably should have guessed."

"It's all right," Hiccup said, running his hand through his hair.  "Like I said, now I know."

Astrid took another good look at him and shook her head.  "You look ridiculous."

Hiccup looked down and grimaced.  He slipped off the tattered remains of the shirt and tossed it to the side before sinking down against a nearby wall.  Astrid dismounted and sat beside him, while Toothless curled up on the other side.  "Can I ask you a question?" she said.

"Sure, why not?"

She hesitated, then asked, "Was is Tuff, or just the, um, method you weren't really into?"

"I-I don't really know.  Yet," Hiccup said, rubbing his face.  "I went with him, so there's that."

"That's all right," Astrid said.  "Take all the time you need."

Hiccup gave a wry chuckle.  "If he'll let me."  He sighed.  "Well, enough of my sexual misadventures," he said, and looked at Astrid.  "How have you been doing?"

Any hint of amusement or contentment instantly vanished from Astrid's face, and Hiccup's shoulders slumped in sympathy.  "I don't know," she said carefully.  "I haven't seen Ruff, but..."  Ruffnut had been true to her word, at least.  Astrid hadn't seen a trace of her since their talk.  She had hoped that not having to deal with Ruff on a regular basis might help her put the other girl out of her mind, but the opposite seemed to be true.  Now that she didn't know what Ruffnut was doing, she spent almost all of her time imagining it.  Did Ruffnut miss her?  Did she think about her?  Or was she angry at everything Astrid had asked of her that she didn't want to do, and didn't want to see her anyway?

"...it's not getting better," she finally finished.

"It hasn't been that long," Hiccup said.  "Like you said, take all the time you need."

Astrid blew out a frustrated breath, because it already felt like it had been much too long.  She still flinched every time someone so much as mentioned Ruff.  It was, honestly, ridiculous.  She still felt off-balance and, worst of all, weak.  Astrid was not weak.  She was one of the strongest women in the village, and she knew that.  So why did she spend so much of her time feeling like one wrong word or gesture would completely dismantle her?  Hel, even now, just thinking about Ruff, she could feel the very beginning of tears pricking the corners of her eyes.  It felt wrong and strange, and she didn't know how to deal with it.  Hiccup had never made her feel weak.  He had made her feel happy and inspired and angry and even occasionally excited, but never weak.  She had no reference for this.

"I just want it to be over," she said.  "It's already over, and I just don't want to deal with it anymore."

"I know," Hiccup said quietly.  "If there's anything I can do, let me know."

"You do enough," she said, leaning her head against his shoulder.


**********************


"Hey Astrid," Tuffnut said, and Astrid stiffened at the voice.  But a quick glance showed Ruffnut was nowhere to be seen, and she relaxed.  "Have you seen Hiccup?"

Astrid finished pouring the water into the trough and looked at him.  "Yes, and he's avoiding you, so give it a rest."

Tuffnut pouted.  "Aw, why?"

She rolled her eyes.  Tuff really was clueless, but following the drama between him and Hiccup was one of the best distractions she had.  "Because you tried to molest him."

Tuffnut shrugged.  "I thought he was up for it."

"Obviously not."

"Yeah, no kidding."

Astrid sighed and put her bucket down.  "Tuff, I really have to wonder what you're thinking with this," she said.

"When do I ever think about things?" he replied.

"Seriously."  She gave him a stern look, because she wasn't playing around now.  "Why Hiccup all of the sudden?"

"Aw Hel, Astrid, why do I do anything?" he said, spreading his hands in front of him.  "It just seems like fun.  He's a cool guy, and he's available, and I like hanging out with him.  He's kinda cute too, which doesn't hurt."

"Nice to know your standards are so high."  Tuffnut grinned at her, and she shook her head.  "So you're serious about this."

"As serious as I am about anything."

"All right."  She leaned back against the fence and locked eyes with him.  "Then here's some advice: you need to back off.  Way off.  Hiccup's not the kind of guy you can just throw into bed."

"You tried that?" Tuffnut asked, looking curious.

"I was a little more subtle.  Hiccup needs to be..."

"Tied up?"

Astrid glared at him.  "Wooed."

"I like my idea better."  He rubbed his chin.  "So I freaked him out a little bit."

"Little bit," Astrid said, holding her thumb and index finger a smidgen apart.  "You might want to give him a day or two."

"Hm.  All right, I can do that.  I can be smooth." She looked at him, and he said, "I'm like a major operator, you don't even know.  I'm super smooth."

Astrid wasn't sure of that at all, but she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.  "Well, good luck with that.  I hope it works out."

He cocked his head and looked at her.  "Huh.  You really serious about that?"  Before she could answer, he said, "You are, aren't you?  You really are."  He gave her a wide smile.  "You're pretty cool, Astrid."

Astrid ducked her head as a pleased smile crossed her face.  "I try."

"Well, I'm gonna go practice my wooing," Tuffnut said, clapping his hands together.  "Wish me luck!"

"I just did."

"Oh right.  Bye!"  And then he was off.

Astrid shook her head.  "Hiccup, you are doomed," she muttered to herself.


**********************


A couple days later, on the way to dinner, Hiccup once again heard, "Hey Hiccup!"

He sighed.  "Be nice," Astrid whispered, leaning in close and briefly touching his elbow.  "I think he's going to behave now."

"What makes you think that?" Hiccup whispered back as they turned around.  Astrid opened her mouth to answer, then flinched as though she had been struck.  Hiccup looked up to see a smiling Tuffnut standing in front of them, and behind him a scowling Ruffnut.

He glanced from Astrid, who had gone rather pale, to Ruffnut, who had locked glowering eyes on the other girl.  Then Ruff looked at him and her expression went from put out to fully pissed off, although he didn't know what he was supposed to have done.

Tuff barely even seemed to notice the girls at all.  His eyes were locked on Hiccup, and he said, "You going to dinner?"

Oh, no.  There was no way Tuff could think this was a good idea.  But he was giving Hiccup a happily oblivious grin, and Hiccup didn't want to say anything that might set off Astrid or Ruff.  "We are," he said hesitantly, "but..."

"Well look at this!"  Snotlout walked up, with Fishlegs close behind.  "Man, this is great.  I was just tellin' Legs it's been too long since we all got together, and here we are!  It's like fate or something.  Come on, let's get to the Hall before the good meat is gone."

"Actually," Hiccup said, "Astrid and I were --"

"Ah, you and Astrid can wait an hour!" Snotlout said, slinging an arm each around Hiccup's and Tuffnut's shoulders and leading them towards the Great Hall.  "Gotta make time for your buds too, man."

Hiccup tried to turn his head to look for Astrid, but he didn't have to.  She suddenly appeared next to him, walking so close they were almost bumping into each other and keeping her eyes resolutely forward.  Now Hiccup really couldn't say anything, but he reached out and briefly tangled their fingers together, hoping it might help a little.  Astrid squeezed his fingers and shot him a small, grateful smile, then dropped his hand.  Hiccup pressed his lips together and looked to the side.  Tuffnut was watching their interaction curiously.  He caught Hiccup's eyes and glanced backwards at Ruff, then grimaced and mouthed, 'Oops.'

Yeah, Hiccup was pretty sure 'Oops' didn't begin to cover it.

Dinner was about as awkward as he could have imagined.  Neither Astrid nor Ruffnut said a word.  Astrid spent most of the time pushing her food around, while Ruff attacked the meat and bread so viciously it seemed like the plate would shatter under the force.  Fishlegs gamely made some attempts at conversation early on, but he soon seemed affected by the general atmosphere, and clammed up.  Snotlout, of course, charged ahead regardless, but Tuffnut was ignoring him in favor of Hiccup, which meant Hiccup was left trying to hold up half of two different conversations.

"Do you still want to do those drills later this week, Tuff?" Snotlout asked.

Tuffnut ignored him.  "Hey, you know what I've been curious about?" he said to Hiccup.  "How the forge works.  You should show me some time."

"It gets really hot and melts things," Hiccup said.

"Tuff, man, I'm talking to you," Snotlout said.  "What's your problem?"

"Uh, hey, Fishlegs, it's about time for the new clutches to start showing up, right?" Hiccup asked.  "Were you planning on studying them this year?"

Fishlegs perked up and opened his mouth.  Then Ruffnut slammed her tankard on the table hard enough to rattle it, and Fishlegs flinched and scooted further away from her, apparently deciding silence was the safer route.  Hiccup couldn't really blame him.

Snotlout leaned back and took a good look at everyone, realization dawning on his face.  "What the Hel's going on here?" he asked.  "What's everyone's problem?"

"Maybe you're the fucking problem, ever think of that?" Ruffnut snapped.

"Ruff!" Astrid cried.

"What?"  Ruffnut slammed her hands down on the table and glared at Astrid, who sat as though frozen.  For several long seconds there was deathly silence, then Ruff abruptly stood and stalked away.  Tuffnut glanced quickly at the shocked faces around the table, then jumped up and followed his sister.

"Astrid..." Hiccup said, turning to look at her.

She pushed her plate away and stood up, mumbling, "I'm not hungry anymore."  Hiccup made to stand, but she pushed him down.  "I'll see you tomorrow," she said quietly, and hurried away.

Hiccup clenched his fist around his knife, and turned back to see Snotlout and Fishlegs staring at him.  "Is everything okay?" Fishlegs asked tentatively.

"No," he said.  "It's really, really not."

"Care to explain any of that?" Snotlout added, scowling.

"I can't, Lout.  Just, trust me on this."

"Great.  Whatever.  Everyone's gone freakin' crazy, and we don't know shit."  He stood.  "I'm gonna go work out and try to forget this mess.  You guys are on your own."

Hiccup sighed as Lout walked away, then gave up and put his head down on the table.  "Sorry about this, Legs," he mumbled.

"That's all right," Fishlegs said gently.  "I guess Astrid and Ruffnut are fighting, huh?"

Hiccup couldn't help a bitter smile.  "You have no idea."


**********************


"Ruff, wait up!" Tuffnut called.

"Fuck you!" she snarled, but she stopped walking.

Tuffnut slowed to a halt a few feet behind her.  "You gonna tell me what that was about?"

"You know what it was about," she said.

"Naw, I only know what you tell me.  And I know you haven't been happy, but I thought you were going to kill someone in there."

Ruffnut began pacing back and forth in front of Tuff, using long, quick strides that radiated tension.  "Astrid doesn't want to see me anymore."

"Got that."

"But she's still fucking ALL OVER Hiccup -- she said they broke up!"

"They did."  Tuffnut looked at her with some concern.  "I think they're just friends.  I mean, they have to be pretty close after all that time, right?"

"That's not normal."

"I don't think any of us qualify as normal, Ruff."

"It's bullshit.  She can't see me because I don't want to be all lovey-dovey, but she supposedly does the same thing to Hiccup and all of a sudden they're best friends?  Bullshit."

"What do you care?" Tuffnut asked.  "She told you she liked women, didn't she?"

Ruffnut scoffed.  "Hiccup hardly counts as a man."

"Hey!" he snapped.  "Look, it sucks for you, yeah, but you don't get to take it out on everyone else."

"It's just not fair, that she doesn't want to see me, so she spends all her time with Hiccup instead!  You know they're not just friends."

"Ruff, Astrid isn't interested in Hiccup.  Really.  Hel, if she was, why's she been giving me advice on how to get him?"

Ruffnut stopped and whirled to face her brother.  "What?" she said.  "What?  You have got to be -- when did this happen?  And why didn't you tell me?"

"I'm telling you now," he said with a shrug.  "Look, she's really not with Hiccup, so chill out."

"I don't care about Hiccup, I just..."  She ran her fingers though her hair in agitation.  "Gods, what does it even matter?  She doesn't want to see me.  She..."  She pressed her lips into a thin line, then turned and began walking quickly away.  "I'm going for a flight."

"Okay," Tuff said, trotting after her.  "You want company?"

"No," she snapped.  Then she abruptly stopped, and said, "Yes."

"All right," Tuffnut said soothingly, slipping an arm around her shoulders.  "Let's go fly."

Chapter Text

Toothless growled, Tuffnut swore, and Hiccup sighed.

A few seconds later there was a knock on the doorway to Hiccup's workshop.  "Come in," he called with some trepidation.

The door creaked open and Tuffnut's head poked in, followed quickly by the rest of him.  "Hey," he said.

"...Hey."

Tuff gestured vaguely towards the still open door.  "I accidentally kicked your dragon."

"I'm sure he'll recover."

"Right, right."  Tuff rocked on his heels.  "So, what're you up to?"

"Eh, the usual," Hiccup said, motioning to the piles of plans and notes on his desk.  "Obscure engineering stuff no one really understands."

"Yeah?  Like what?"

Hiccup blinked.  "Um, well, right now I'm looking at some architectural plans.  Which types of buildings retain heat better in the winter, and how we can use that information in the future.  I think our architecture's a little lacking since it used to be buildings were barely up long enough to get used to them before they were destroyed, but now that they're lasting years we should probably make sure they're actually worth having around that long."  He realized he was rambling, and shrugged.  "I mean, it's not the most exciting stuff, but it's important."

"Yeah, no, it sounds really useful," Tuff said earnestly.  "Like, I'm glad you're doing that, because I think most people wouldn't even think of it."

Hiccup shot him a curious look, but his face wasn't anything but sincere.  "Thanks, Tuff."

"So, do you think you could take a break?  I got something I wanna show you."

Hiccup tilted his head back and looked at the ceiling.  "Tuff, you're a nice guy and all, but I wish you'd stop trying to get me to have sex with you."

"I'm not," Tuff said, and this time Hiccup looked at him in shock.  "Unless you really wanna," he added with a lascivious grin.  Apparently Hiccup made a face, because he quickly said, "No, too fast, right?  That's okay, that's cool.  Actually, I just found this cool spot by this waterfall, and I wanted to show you."

Hiccup blinked again.  "Tuff, that sounds almost...romantic."

Tuffnut looked absurdly pleased with himself, and Hiccup had to fight back the urge to laugh.  Well, at least there wasn't much room for duplicity there.  "All right," he said, "I guess I can take a break."

"Awesome!"  Tuffnut grabbed Hiccup's wrist and dragged him through the door, startling Toothless.  "This is gonna be great, you'll see!"

"All right, all right," Hiccup said, laughing, as the curious dragon bounded after them.

Behind them, Stoick the Vast reached out from the shadows and slowly closed the workshop door.


**********************


It was late when Hiccup got back, and his father was good at filtering out background noises when he slept, so Hiccup wasn't particularly quiet about opening the front door.  Then he saw his dad sitting at the table, and for some weird reason felt like he should have been.

"Hey Dad," he said, as Toothless slipped past to curl up in front of the fire.

Stoick had his head bowed, and his hands clasped on the table in front of him.  "Where have you been?" he asked gruffly, without looking at Hiccup.

"Uh...out."  Then, because for some reason he felt like he should offer an explanation even though his father wasn't asking for one, "With-with," not Astrid, "the guys."

"Oh?" said Stoick.

"Yep."  Hiccup swung his arms a couple times, then made for the bed.  "So I'm just gonna --"

"Where did you go?"

Hiccup paused, for some reason nervous.  "We were just hanging out in the forest.  Near this waterfall Tuff found."

Stoick clenched his hands more tightly together.  "And who, exactly, is we?"

"Oh, well, it was really just me and Tuff.  He just found this spot, and I guess he wanted to show me.  He --"

Stoick's fist slammed down onto the table, making Hiccup jump and Toothless look up in alarm.  "Enough of this!" he shouted as he stood.  "I've put up with a lot through the years, Hiccup, but there's only so much I can take."

Toothless was on his feet and growling.  "It's okay, buddy," Hiccup said, keeping his voice deliberately steady.  "Dad, I don't know what you're talking about."

"I heard you," Stoick said, looking at him.  "You and that boy, making plans."

Hiccup felt the blood drain from his face, and knew his father saw it as the confirmation it was.  Stoick's face hardened, and for a moment he tore his eyes away from Hiccup to look around the darkened house.  "Dad," Hiccup said weakly, "that wasn't..."  But for once in his life he couldn't think of a thing to say.

"You were doing so well," Stoick said.  "After all those mistakes, I thought you had found your place."

"I'm not --"

"What are you doing?  What are you thinking?"

"It's just --"

"What about Astrid?" Stoick demanded.  "What about her?"

Toothless's back was arched as high as it could go, and he was pawing the fur rug underneath him restlessly.  Stoick didn't seem to notice, but Hiccup did, and as unsteady as he felt, he forced his voice to be calm.  "I care about Astrid --"

"You end this," Stoick said.  "You stay away from that boy.  My son ca--"  His voice broke, and for a moment he and Hiccup stared at each other in silence, Stoick seemingly unable to speak, and Hiccup having no words.  Then Stoick was brushing past Hiccup, storming out the door, and slamming it behind him.

Toothless cautiously approached Hiccup, and gave a soft whine.  Hiccup realized his hands were trembling, and balled them into fists.  "What are we going to do now, buddy?" he asked quietly.


**********************


Astrid was out far too late.  She had been in the woods, drilling for hours, and her body was almost shaking with exhaustion.  However, despite her best efforts, her mind was still racing, and she knew it would be another long night.

She almost didn't notice Hiccup's house, and then wasn't sure why she noticed it at all.  But light was shining through the windows, and after hesitating for a moment, she walked the familiar path towards it.

She knocked quietly, just in case, and after a moment Hiccup called, "...Yeah?"  She pushed open the door and slipped in.

"Oh hey," he said, leaning back from where he was sitting at the dining table.  "I thought maybe I was imagining things."  Toothless was curled up directly behind him, and for some reason he looked at Astrid suspiciously.

"Nope," she said.  "You're up late."

"Couldn't sleep," he said, rubbing his face with his hands.

She gave a wry smile and straddled the bench next to him.  "I know how that is."  As usual, the space in front of Hiccup was strewn with various papers and books.  "What are you working on?"

"Uh, politics," he said, rearranging some of the paper.

Astrid looked at him.  "What do you mean?" she asked slowly.  "Your dad's chief, and one day you'll be chief.  Unless there's something I don't know."

"No, that's not what I'm looking at.  I mean, me becoming chief, that's pretty much been set since I was born.  But the thing about being an," he looked at his notes, "'unelected official' is that I get my position whether people like me or not."

"Isn't that good?" she asked.  "And everyone likes you now anyway."

"Yeah, yeah, which is a plus, but I don't want them to just tolerate me being chief.  'Oh, Hiccup, he's not the mess we thought he'd be, at least.'  I want them to want me to be chief."

"Because...?"

Hiccup chewed his bottom lip and looked at his notes again.  "Because then I can do more than just settle fights and organize fishing trips.  If they like me, maybe they'll trust me if I want to change something.  Like, a social change."

"I don't understand," Astrid said.  "You already completely changed society with the dragons.  What more do you want to do?"

"Yeah, and that's what got me thinking!  Because I mean, Vikings are stubborn, but that showed they're also adaptable.  And there's always im-improvements that can be made..."  His hands suddenly jerked and sent some of the paper to the floor.

"Hiccup?" she asked in alarm.

He pulled his hands into his lap and sighed.  "My dad overheard me and Tuff earlier," he said, and Astrid gasped softly.  "He wanted to take me to a waterfall, and I told him that sounded almost romantic."

"Well, you and the guys tease each other all the time.  Can't you play it off?"

"I don't think so," he said.  "Before that we were kind of talking about sex.  In a kind of serious way."

"Oh, Hiccup," she said.  "I'm sorry."

"Yeah, he wasn't really happy."  Hiccup inhaled deeply, then forced himself to sit up straight.  "But it happened, and I couldn't sleep anyway, so I started thinking."  He looked at the mess in front of him.  "But now I'm tired and I'm not sure any of this makes any sense at all."

"It's a nice thought," Astrid said softly, "but it seems like there has to be an easier way for you and Tuff to have sex than a political regime change."

"This isn't about me and Tuff, really.  I mean maybe, eventually, depending on where things go, but if we wanted to have sex, we could just be sneaky about it."  Which was exactly what Astrid had been thinking.  "It's more about everything else.  Like you and Ruff," he said, shocking her, "or Speedi and Buck, or Spinster Helga, or that old man who used to live by the lake?  I don't remember his name.  I know people have this attitude of pretending like it doesn't exist, but come on, we ride dragons now.  Why can't we just...Astrid?"

Astrid suddenly snapped back from wherever her mind had drifted, and saw Hiccup looking at her with some concern.  She pressed a hand to her cheek and realized she was crying.

"Are you okay?" he asked quickly.  "Gods, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you.  I just had this idea, and...I'm sorry, it's a stupid thought."

"It's not stupid," Astrid said, sniffling.  "But I don't think it'll work."

One corner of Hiccup's mouth edged up into a half-grin, and he turned and put his hand on Toothless's snout.  "I don't know.  I think we have a chance."

A sob worked its way up Astrid's throat, and Hiccup looked at her in alarm.  "Oh gods, I don't know what's wrong with me," she cried, pressing the heels of her hands against her forehead.

Hiccup winced.  "I'm sorry, really.  I didn't mean --"

"No no, it's not -- it's just Ruff.  I, I still feel so...you've gotten better, haven't you?  From us?" she asked.  Hiccup hesitated, then nodded.  "Right.  And Ruff is..."  She trailed off.  "So what's wrong with me?  Why am I the one who, who can't..."  She gave up and buried her face in her hands.

Hiccup shifted towards her and put a consoling hand on her back.  "It's okay to hurt from this kind of thing.  Everyone does."

"No!" she cried.  "This isn't me.  Gods, I'm not this crying little girl.  I just don't feel right, and it's like I don't know how to get back to where I was, and everything I try just makes it worse."

Hiccup paused, then shifted so that he was fully facing her and gently took her by the shoulders.  "Astrid, we all have to find the chinks in our armor somehow," he said.  "How else are we going to get stronger?"

Astrid started sobbing, because 'strong' was the last thing she felt right now.  Then Hiccup was holding her, his arms safe and familiar, murmuring words of comfort in her ear, and she felt so lonely, and so tired, and suddenly she was kissing Hiccup.

He didn't pull away, although he didn't reciprocate either.  She slowly moved back, and he stroked her hair and face, giving her a sad smile.  "Oh gods," she said, horror dawning on top of everything else.  "I'm so sorry."

"It's okay," he said quietly.

"I didn't mean..."

"I know."  He gently cupped her face, and his expression was both affectionate and sympathetic, but it was also devoid of the passion he once held for her.  "Do you want to stay here?"

Astrid hesitated, then nodded.

"Okay," Hiccup said, then helped her to her feet.  It might have been her physical exhaustion finally catching up to her, or the emotional stress, or both, but she felt she could barely walk.  He helped her to the bed, then set about removing his prosthetic and shirt while Astrid removed her boots and extraneous outerwear.  Then he curled up behind her and wrapped his arms around her, and despite herself Astrid feel almost immediately into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Gobber hummed cheerfully as he stumped through the village.  His early morning fishing trip had been successful, the water cool and bracing, and it was shaping up to be a good day.

He glanced idly at the Chief's house as it came into view, then stopped and looked more closely.  The door was opening, and he smiled and started towards it.  Maybe he could convince Stoick to catch a bite to eat with him before the day got started.

But no, he saw, and stopped again.  The figure slipping out of the Chief's house was slight, and blond, and female.  Gobber smiled as Astrid hurried away.  "Ah, I know where you were last night, Stoick," he muttered to himself, then turned and headed for the forge.


**********************


Stoick hefted the axe to his shoulder once again, then sighed and let it drop to the ground.  He was tired, and it was light now anyway.  Time to get on with the day and try to occupy himself with things other than Hiccup and...well, other than Hiccup.

"Mornin'!" Gobber said cheerfully as he opened the back door of the forge into the small training area set up outside.

"Morning," Stoick answered tiredly.

"I thought we'd...oh.  Eh..."  Gobber looked around the area, taking in the demolished training dummies and cracked and scarred targets.  "Feeling a bit energetic last night, were you?"

Stoick grunted.

"Well, that's all right," Gobber said as he began picking up chunks of wood and tossing them into a pile.  He chuckled.  "Can't say I blame you.  If I were in your shoes, I wouldn't have wanted to be home last night either."

Stoick slowly turned to look at Gobber.  "What do you mean?"

"I passed the house this morning, and let's just say I saw a certain someone sneaking out," he said with a wink.

"You saw them?" Stoick asked, any hint of his exhaustion fleeing as he quickly turned Gobber's words over in his head.

"Oh, yes.  I imagine she was trying to get home before her parents woke up."  He passed and looked at the sky speculatively.  "Although I can't imagine why she's bothering after all this time."

Stoick's thoughts were racing in so many different directions that it took a few seconds for Gobber's words to reach him.  "She?"  He paused, then asked, "Who exactly are you talking about?"

Gobber looked at him curiously.  "I'm talking about Astrid, of course.  Who else would I be talking about?"

"Astrid?"  Stoick quickly reviewed everything that had happened since yesterday.  "You're sure it was her?"

"I'm missing a lot of things, Stoick, but I've still got both my eyes so far.  I think I'd recognize the girl after all this time."

"I have to go," he said, then hurried off.

"You sure?  I've got fish!" Gobber called, then shrugged.  "Eh, more for me."


**********************


Toothless whined and nudged Hiccup's shoulder.

"Not now buddy, I'm pouting," Hiccup said, but he rolled onto his back and looked at Toothless anyway.  Toothless tilted his head curiously.  Hiccup sighed dramatically and said, "Life's too hard.  All these questions of who likes who and who doesn't, and what it means, and even if you can figure it out there are people who don't want you to..."  He sighed again, softly this time, then nodded in resolution.  "That's it, I'm never leaving the bed again.  I'll just lay here forever."  He gave Toothless a little half-smile and rubbed his nose affectionately.  "You'll bring me food and stuff, won't you?"

Toothless looked at him, then ran off and started climbing the rafters.  Hiccup pushed himself up on his arms, and called "Thanks Toothless, I feel really loved!"  Then he smirked and shook his head.  Maybe it was nice after all to see that some things were still normal.

He had attached his prosthetic, pulled on his shirt, and just made it to the kitchen table when the front door flew open.  He jumped, and Toothless was at his side in an instant, growling at the figure in the doorway.

"Hiccup!" Stoick cried as he stepped inside.

"Dad?"

Stoick walked quickly towards him, and Toothless surged forward and bared his teeth.  "Oh, calm down, you great beast," Stoick said cheerfully, and brushed past him.  Toothless looked at Hiccup in surprise and confusion, and Hiccup could only shrug back.

Stoick put his hands on Hiccup's shoulders, smiling brightly.  "You had me worried, son.  I should've known you had better sense than that."  He laughed.  "You'd think I'd know better than to doubt you at this point, wouldn't you?"

"O-one would hope," Hiccup said vaguely.  "Um.  What are we doubting about me?"  Because there was no way this could be related to the incident last night, not with his dad smiling like that.

"Gobber told me what he saw," Stoick said, releasing Hiccup.  When Hiccup gave no indication he understood where this was going, he clarified, "This morning, when he passed the house."

Hiccup thought quickly.  This morning...shit.  "Astrid --"

"Exactly!" Stoick cried, thumping Hiccup on the back.  "I knew it didn't add up!  You and...but that boy's never been quite right in the head as near as I can tell.  I imagine he thought he was having a bit of fun with you."

"No, no Dad, wait," Hiccup said.  "That's not exactly --"

"I tore up all of Gobber's training dummies for nothing.  Well, I'm not complaining!"

"Look, that was out of context --"

"Although, Hiccup, you really ought to think about --"

"Dad, would you LISTEN?" Hiccup almost yelled, and Stoick stopped and looked at him.  "I thought we were past this."

For an instant Stoick looked uneasy, but then the cavalier expression returned.  "Past what, son?"

"The whole, talking over me and not listening thing.  Dad, Astrid and I aren't...aren't together anymore.  Exactly."  He swallowed and waited for his dad's response.

The uneasy looked appeared again briefly, but was soon gone.  "Come now, Hiccup, you don't have to hide things from your old man.  Why was she here last night then?"

"I mean, we're friends," Hiccup said, wondering why he was being so insistent on telling the truth.  Well, it was the truth, and that was a reason in itself, wasn't it?  "She just came over to talk."

Stoick looked at him doubtfully.  "And stayed all night?"

Hiccup had no good defenses against this line of questioning, and knew it.  Apparently he should have manned up about the whole breakup think sooner -- way sooner.  "Yeah," he said, "believe it or not."  Definitely not, he was guessing.

He was right.  "Well, call it 'talking' or whatever you like," Stoick said, and clapped him on the shoulder again, almost sending him to his knees.  "Just try not to get too loud, eh?  Now I've got a meeting with some of the men.  I'll see you this evening."

"So that's....yeah, okay, that's it, apparently," he muttered as Stoick closed the door behind him.  He sighed, and shrugged.  "Well, I guess that could've gone worse."  Toothless looked at him.  "What?  I'm not saying it couldn't have gone better.  Just..."  He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.  "...time.  I need a little time.  We'll figure it out eventually."

Toothless warbled and pressed his head to Hiccup's chest.


**********************


"I said I was sorry," Tuffnut said.

"And I said I don't care what you and the little fishbone do," Ruffnut replied, plucking an apple from the bowl on the counter.

Tuff frowned.  "And I said I don't believe you."

"And I said you can go get mauled by a Nightmare."

"When'd you say that?"

"Just now."  Ruff took a bite of her apple.  "Idiot."

"Seriously."  Tuff snatched the apple and bit into the opposite side.  "Yu uh-kay?" he mumbled around the fruit.

"I already told you I don't care about Hiccup," she said.  "Stop being such a woman about it.  You're already taking a cock, you don't want to push it."

"You're such a bitch," he replied, and tossed the apple at her.  She caught it and looked at it speculatively.  "And I'm not taking it yet."

"Do tell."

"Pass."

"All I'm saying is, be careful.  You don't even know if he really likes men," she said, and took another bite.

Tuff shrugged.  "I didn't really know I did either."

"Ah knew," she mumbled.

"You did?  Why the Hel didn't you tell me?"

Ruff swallowed and smirked.  "I didn't need the competition, bro," she said with a wink and a grin.  It was the cheeriest she'd looked in days, and Tuffnut smiled.

The sound of boots shuffling across the grass alerted the twins to their parents' return from whatever errands they had been on that morning.  Ruff looked at Tuff with an exaggerated expression of horror and silently mouthed, 'Run!'

'Weirdo,' Tuff mouthed back, and she stuck out her tongue.

"That was a chore," they heard their father say through an open window.

"Aren't they always?" their mother replied.  From the sounds of it they had stopped in the small garden.

"Aye, but Stoick was acting especially daft today."

"Oh, dear."

"From the sounds of it he didn't sleep a wink last night.  Kept going on about Astrid spending the night with Hiccup, and him spending it at the forge."

Ruffnut froze with the apple partway to her mouth and looked at Tuff, who stared back with wide eyes.

"I don't understand why it's worth remarking on, anyway," their father said.

"Maybe exhaustion loosens his tongue.  The children are the same way, you know."

"Now there's a scary thought.  Here, do you think we ought to harvest the cabbage today?"

Tuffnut swallowed, and Ruffnut tossed the half-eaten apple out the window.  "Well, there you go," she said.

He bit his lip.  "They're not --"

"You don't know that, remember?"  She headed back towards her bedroom.  "Good luck figuring it out though," she called flippantly behind her.

Tuff furrowed his brow.  "I will figure it out," he muttered.


**********************


Toothless suddenly hissed and reared, which was to be expected when a tall blond Viking appears in front of him out of freakin' thin air!  "Hey Hiccup," Tuffnut said sullenly.

"Gah!" Hiccup cried, trying to hold on as Toothless pranced restlessly.  "Thor almighty, Tuff!  H-how do you do that?  What're you, like magical or something?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Just...nothing."  Toothless finally called down, and Hiccup fixed his eyes on the other boy.  "Is there something I can help you with?"

"Maybe."  Tuffnut rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously, and Hiccup waited.  "My dad heard your dad saying' that Astrid spent the night last night."

"Aw...dammit," Hiccup said with a sigh.  "He's gonna spread that around the whole village now."

"So she did?" he asked flatly.

"Yeah."  Hiccup's eyes widened, and he quickly added, "But just because we were talking, and it was late, and she's still upset, you know this whole thing with Ruff..."

"Okay," Tuff said, looking at the ground

"I mean, we didn't do anything --"

"Whatever, man, I don't care what you do," he said, and stubbed his toe into the ground.

Hiccup paused, then shared a look with Toothless.  "We -- me and Toothless -- were thinking about going to Helheim's Gate later, maybe playing with the Terrors.  You want to come?"

"Really?"  Tuffnut beamed.  "Hel yeah!  Are we going right now?"

Hiccup shrugged.  "Might as well.  And...I'm really not doing anything with Astrid.  She's just my friend, and I don't like to see her upset."

"It's cool, I understand," Tuff said happily, and Hiccup considered not for the first time that he had a very short attention span.  "Ruff's been all pissy too."

"I may have noticed that."  Hiccup considered it for a moment.  "I haven't even thought about it, really, but I get why she would be upset too."  He frowned, then shrugged helplessly.  "But I guess it's not her fault she doesn't feel the same way."

Tuff opened his mouth to say something, then looked off to the side.  "I guess not," he said.

"Tuff?"

"So, like, should I go get Scabberdash?" he asked, and Hiccup allowed the topic change.

"You could," he said, "or you can just..."  He made to gesture to the space behind him on the saddle, and Tuffnut suddenly appeared there, grinning widely and wrapping his arms around Hiccup's waist.  "...do that."

Tuff bounced in excitement, and Hiccup smiled.  He patted Toothless's head and said, "Let's go, buddy."  Toothless crooned happily, and took flight.

Chapter Text

Astrid shifted her weight slowly, taking every care to keep as silent as possible.  Once in position, she raised her spear and took aim at the unsuspecting fox in front of her.

"You know what we should do?" Hiccup said.

The fox immediately fled, and Astrid sighed in exasperation.  "Hiccup, you're the worst hunter ever."

"What, are we really hunting today?  I thought we were just hanging out again."

"No, this trip was actually about food.  Not that it's going that well."

"Aw, and here I thought we were bonding."  He sniffled melodramatically.  "You only want me for my hunting skills."

"What hunting skills?"

"Touché," he said cheerfully.

Astrid smiled.  "You're in a good mood."

"Had a good night," he said, grinning back.

"Hm.  Let me guess: you weren't alone?"  She stood and began walking, and Hiccup followed her.

He shrugged.  "There may have been someone else there."

"I'm glad it's working out, really," Astrid said, nudging his shoulder.  "How's your dad been, though?"

Hiccup sighed.  "Way to bring down the mood, Astrid."

She winced.  "Sorry."

"No, it's okay."  He hesitated, rubbing the back of his neck.  "He's...I mean...he's not happy.  He's calmed down, I think, but neither of us are really talking about it, at least directly.  I think he's just pretending like it doesn't exist.  Like, he thinks maybe if he ignores it it'll go away.  He ignores me when I say I'm going out with, well, anyone, and I ignore him when he asks about you.  No offense."

"None taken," she said softly.  "What else can you do?"

"Yeah."  Hiccup ran his hand through his hair.  "Actually, I think maybe you shouldn't come over anymore.  Just so we don't give him the wrong idea."

"All right.  What's Tuff think about all that?"

"Well, when I told him, he said, 'How am I not dead yet?'  Which is actually a fair question.  Suffice to say, he's kinda avoiding my house too."

"Sounds like your parties are going to be pretty boring from now on."

"Yeah, no kidding.  We'll just have them at your place, how's that?"

"Sure, as long as you don't mind my mom playing hostess," she said with a smirk.

"Ooh.  Maybe we'll just stick to the Great Hall."  Hiccup sighed again, then got a dreamy look on his face.

"I recognize that look," Astrid said.

"What look?"

"That's your 'I totally have a major crush' look."

"What?  It is not."

"It so is.  Trust me, I put up with that look for years.  Aw!"  She pinched his cheek.  "You two are adorable!"

He swatted her hand away.  "You're the weirdest ex-girlfriend ever, you know that?"

"Could be worse," she said with a shrug.  "I could be one of those crazy stalker types and planning to kidnap Tuffnut as we speak."

"Why would you be the crazy stalker?" Hiccup asked.  "You broke up with me."

Astrid frowned in thought.  "Oh, right.  I almost forgot."

"You forgot?" he said with a laugh.  "How'd you forget?"

"It just doesn't feel that way anymore.  Maybe because you're the one who's already moved on."  She shot him a doleful look.

"Oh well," he said.  "Don't worry about it.  We'll find you a nice girlfriend one day."  Astrid abruptly stopped, and Hiccup took a few more steps before noticing and looking back at her.  "What, what'd I say?"

"It's not what you said, it's...how you said it," Astrid said slowly.

"How'd I say it?"

"Like...normal."

Hiccup looked around in confusion, then shrugged.  A broad smile tugged at Astrid's lips, and she felt lighter than she had in ages.  "Come on, loverboy, let's see if we can't kill something yet."


**********************


"What am I thinking?" Tuffnut said in a panic.

"You?  I'm guessing not much," Ruffnut replied.

"I'm serious!  Last night, I didn't put the moves him on at all.  I'm losing my focus!"

"Oh wah, you're not getting laid fast enough.  Meanwhile, I'm in perpetual pissed-off mode, and it's getting really old."

"Like, this is not what I was expecting.  I just kinda wanted to bed him, you know?"

"I swear to Odin, I'm this close to flipping out."

"What happened?  And when did it happen?"

"How many people have I been with?  Why the Hel am I freaking out over this one?"

"I can't even tell what he's thinking -- and I actually want to know!  When did that happen?"

"She just abandoned me -- gods, get over it already!"

"I want to see him right now.  Would that be weird?  That would be weird, wouldn't it?"

"What am I going to do?"

"What am I going to do?"

They stopped and looked at each other.  "We're not getting anywhere fast," Ruff said.

"No kidding," Tuff replied.  "You got a better idea?"

Ruff pursed her lips in thought.


**********************


"Don't hurt me!" Fishlegs cried.

"Quit yellin' and maybe we won't," Tuffnut said as he and Ruffnut dragged Fishlegs into an abandoned storage shed.  Once inside they forced him to sit on an empty crate, and stood over him, frowning.

"Okay guys, let's just stay calm here," Fishlegs said nervously.

"We need some help," Ruffnut said.

Fishlegs's face scrunched up in confusion.  "Help?  What do you need help with?  Because honestly, a lot of my skills only exist on the character sheet."

"Girls," Ruffnut said.

"Boys," Tuffnut added.

"Um..."  Fishlegs looked back and forth between the twins, then made to stand.  "You know, I'm not really an expert on either of those things, so if I could just..."  Tuff shoved him back down.

"Sit tight, fat man," Ruff said, taking a seat across from him.  "We got a couple problems, and we're being kinda useless for each other on the advice front, so congratulations, you're on deck."  Tuff sat next to her and nodded solemnly.

Fishlegs nodded vaguely back, and decided to go with it.  "Okay, is it any boys and girls in particular, or...?"

"Astrid," Ruffnut growled.

"Hiccup," Tuffnut said, looking bewildered.

"Okay."  Fishlegs waited a few beats, then said, "You're really going to have to explain this to me."

So they did.  Ruffnut went first, since her story was longer and spanned a lot more history.  Tuffnut's was shorter, but he kept getting distracted by wayward descriptions seeing Hiccup working at the forge or riding Toothless with him, and Ruff had to punch him to get him back on track.  When they were done Fishlegs blinked several times, then said, "That actually explains a lot of stuff.  But I still don't get what you need help on."

"What's going on with us?" Tuff blurted out.  "Why are we freaking out about sex?  Or, you know, not having sex."  Ruff  punched him again.

Fishlegs looked back and forth between them, then said, "Seriously?  You don't get it?  I get it, and I spend most of my time in my parents' basement."

"Of course we do, we're just here because we enjoy your company that much," Ruffnut said sarcastically.  "But feel free to share anyway."

Fishlegs flushed.  "It's not just the, uh...sex you're freaking out about," he said.  "Have you guys considered that you might actually be, you know, in love?"

"What?!" Tuff cried, rearing back, but Ruff just rolled her eyes, leaned forward to drop her head into her hand, and said, "I already thought of that, and it doesn't work."

"You thought of it?" Fishlegs asked curiously.

"Seriously, love?" Tuff asked.

"Yeah, I did, and it doesn't work, so try again."

"No way, it's too soon, right?  Isn't it?"

"Well, what do you mean, it doesn't work?"

"Although man, maybe that's why --"

"Shut up, Tuff!  We're focusing in my problem right now."  Ruffnut looked back at Fishlegs.  "I mean, when I realized Astrid wanted to get all lovey-dovey, and she was serious about it, I thought maybe she's onto something.  Maybe it goes both ways.  But I thought about it, and it doesn't."  She shrugged, then seemed to realize both boys were staring at her, and sat up self-consciously.

"How do you know it doesn't?" Fishlegs asked.

For a fleeting instant Ruffnut looked annoyed, but then she seemed to gather herself to soldier on.  "All that falling in love crap, that's something you do, right?  Like, you're not in love, then something changes, and you are.  Nothing changed between me and Astrid.  Oh no, wait, a while back it got a lot worse," she muttered bitterly.

"Well, maybe it wasn't recent," he said.  "I mean, I'd guess Astrid was thinking about what she wanted to tell you for a long time before she actually did it.  Don't you think?"

Ruffnut shifted uncomfortably.  "How should I know?  I can't tell what the Hel she's thinking anymore."

"Okay."" Fishlegs rubbed his jaw contemplatively.  "As far as emotions and stuff go, love's got a pretty high stealth rating.  At least that's what my mom says.  But you're the only one who knows for sure."

"Well..."  Ruffnut bit her lip, and said, "Why do you think that, anyway?"

"I mean, I don't have a ton of experience.  I'm mostly going from the handbook for the 'Island of Aphrodite' campaign.  But you miss her..."

"Of course I do, she's my best friend!"  Ruffnut frowned.  "Or, was..."

"...and you're upset you can't see her..."

"So?"

"...and you're jealous of Hiccup even though..."  He trailed off and gestured to Tuff.

"Everyone thinks that's still going on," Ruffnut said, then added, "And I'm not jealous!"

"Okay," Fishlegs said again.  "If you're really sure, there's not much you can do.  I guess the best thing to do is just leave her alone for now.  If you're really sure," he added.

Ruffnut worked her jaw, then abruptly stood up and stalked out of the shed.

Tuffnut watched her go, then turned to Fishlegs.  "So, what do I do next?  I need flowers and chocolate, right?  Do guys even like flowers?"

"Um, I don't know, but I know girls don't like dice, even if they're colorful and multi-sided."

"How does that help me with Hiccup?"

"It doesn't really, but that's all I got."


**********************


"Okay, wait," Tuffnut said, and stopped Hiccup.  He ran ahead a few steps and looked at something Hiccup couldn't see.  Hiccup blew out a break and looked up.  From the color of the sky -- what parts of it he could see through the thick canopy -- it was just about dusk.  He wasn't particularly familiar with this part of the forest, although he was beginning to realize that Tuff probably knew the woods better than anyone.

"Okay," Tuff said, grabbing Hiccup's wrist and yanking him forward.  They were suddenly standing at the edge of a clearing.  In the middle of the clearing an old blanket was spread out, and on that was a picnic meal that, judging by the smell, Tuff had almost certainly bullied Fishlegs into making for him.  There were even a few strategically placed candles, despite the fact that there was still enough sunlight to see by.

"Here!" Tuff said, and pulled a bouquet of flowers from behind a bush, thrusting it into Hiccup's hands.  Then he stood and waited.

Hiccup looked at the flowers, looked around the clearing, and said, "I'm not a woman."

"I know," Tuffnut said, looking confused.  He had a burst of inspiration and added, "That's okay though, I don't mind!"

Hiccup gave him a look.  "I mean, I don't need to be treated like one.  This is nice, but it feels like something you'd do for a girlfriend.  If that makes sense."

"Oh.  I guess."  Tuff rubbed the back of his neck.  "So, what're two guys supposed to do together then?"

Hiccup blinked.  "Uh...I don't know."

"Then how do you know I'm doing it wrong?"

"I guess I don't," Hiccup said, and Tuffnut grinned triumphantly.  Hiccup smiled too, and held out the bouquet.  "I still don't like flowers though."

"You and everyone else in the village," Tuff said, grabbing the flowers and tossing them carelessly away.  "Now c'mon, let's eat."

Hiccup took a seat on the edge of the blanket.  Tuff dropped down next to him, so close their legs touched, and quickly fixed Hiccup a heaping plate.  They ate in silence for a few minutes.  "This is pretty good," Hiccup said.

"Thanks."

"I'm not sure it's actually you I should be --"

Tuffnut kissed him.  It was not technically the first time he had done so -- Hiccup's mind quickly flashed back to their earlier, aborted encounter -- but it was much gentler and more careful than those first rushed attempts, almost achingly so.  A few seconds later Tuff pulled back.  "I've been wanting to do that," he said in a husky voice.

"Oh," Hiccup said, and leaned towards him, starting the kiss again.  Oh, yes.  He had been missing this, more than he had realized.  After several minutes Tuffnut pulled away and gave him a wolfish smile.

"Eat," he said, nudging Hiccup's plate.

"What?  Oh."  Hiccup looked downwards.  "Can't we do that later?"

"We could, or we could get it out of the way now, and have all of later for...other stuff."

"You are a smart man," Hiccup said, picking up his bread.

"And don't you forget it," Tuffnut said happily.


**********************


"Mom, wouldn't you have better luck if you took that home?" Astrid asked as her mother studied a spool of yarn by torchlight.  "It's getting dark."

"I suppose you're right, dear," Bertha said.  "But I don't want to lose my place..."

Astrid shook her head and looked around the marketplace, both her mind and her eyes wandering idly.  Her thoughts were so unfocused, in fact, that it took her several seconds to realize she was staring at an oblivious Ruffnut.

She jerked instinctively, but after the initial shock she realized she felt oddly...okay.  Not great -- her heart thumped harder than usual and there was a knot at her stomach that she recognized as regret -- but she didn't feel like she was about to fall apart.  Then again, she had already done that, hadn't she?  She had hit the lowest of low points; it's not like it could get worse.  The thought was strangely liberating.

She had told Ruffnut that if she wanted to be Astrid's friend to leave her alone.  Taking advantage of the strange moment of internal peace, Astrid considered whether she really could ever be just friends with Ruff again.  She had been avoiding thinking of any of her ideas and plans that involved the other girl, but now she carefully pulled them out of their mental storage place and tried to re-imagine them with the two girls as friends again, and only friends.

No, it still didn't work.  Not yet.  Even putting the romantic feelings aside, Astrid couldn't imagine interacting with Ruffnut without remembering how weak Ruff had made her, how badly she had been hurt.  And how ashamed she felt on top of that, because she was supposed to be the strong one.  She bit her lip and looked away.  Was that going to be the legacy of their relationship?  Ruffnut angry and Astrid ashamed?  Even if they never spoke again, Astrid didn't want it to be like that.

Unable to help herself, she looked at Ruffnut again, and found Ruffnut looking back.

Neither girl moved.  Ruff's face was unreadable.  Astrid wanted to run, but she didn't know where.  Then Ruff made a minute movement that could have meant anything, but for some reason made Astrid's heart race.

"Astrid?"

"What?"  Astrid whipped her head around, feeling very disoriented, and saw her mother looking at her.  "What is it?"

"Are you ready to go dear?  I want to get this started tonight.  You're free to help me, aren't you?"

No, Astrid wanted to say, and she wasn't sure why.  She looked around the marketplace again, but Ruffnut was gone.  "I...yes, of course."  Her eyes still wandered restlessly, and she forced them to meet her mother's.  "Let's go home."


**********************


There was a strange stain on Tuff's ceiling.  There was also a series of cracks the looked oddly symmetrical, and in one place the knots and veins in the wood made what looked like an angry troll.  There was probably a lot more interesting stuff a little lower, but Hiccup was currently lying askew on the bed with his head hanging off the side, and he didn't feel like moving yet.

He tried to remember how he got here, but honestly after the picnic things got a little fuzzy.  That whole careful and gentle thing had gone out the window pretty quick, but Hiccup was strangely okay with that.  They hadn't even managed to get his prosthetic off, and it jutted out at a right angle to the rest of his leg.  He should probably redesign the attachment straps, because that would be really inconvenient if he were trying to walk.  Not that he could remember how exactly it got like that anyway.  He thought of asking Tuff to recreate whatever he had done, and smiled.

The door opened.  "What're you thinking about?" Tuff asked.

"Apparently I'm a lot easier than I thought," Hiccup said, sighing.

"S'not your fault," Tuffnut said with a grin.  "You could only resist me for so long."

"You're going to be insufferable now, aren't you?"

"Probably."  He dropped a plate on Hiccup's chest.  "Here, I brought you some meat."

"What is it with you and feeding me?" Hiccup asked, lifting the plate and carefully pushing himself upright.

"I want to make sure you keep your energy up," Tuff said, waggling his eyebrows.  Hiccup laughed.

"Hey, do you need to get home?  Like, for your dad?"

Hiccup paused, then shook his head.  "I'm not worried about it.  If he's going to freak out, he's going to freak out.  It doesn't change anything."

"All right, if you say so."

"I do."  Hiccup stretched.  "We can take our time."

"Awesome," Tuffnut said, smiling.

Chapter Text

Tuffnut was sure he had woken up in a good mood that morning.  He was in a good mood a lot recently, for one very specific reason.  But being around Ruffnut had steadily wiped the smile from his face.  Apparently being pissy was catching.

"Did you take care of the dragons today?" he asked as they wandered through the village.  He didn't think she had any real destination in mind, but in a fit of brotherliness he had decided to go with her anyway.  He was regretting that.

She just grunted at his question.

"You check out the herds at the arena yet?"

She grunted again.

"You wanna go shopping or something?"

Another grunt.

"...you gonna say actual words anytime soon?"

She pushed him, and he shoved her back.  "Charming," he said sarcastically, then sighed heavily.  "Frozen Hel, I wish you would just get over it already.  Or do something.  You're being damn hard to put up with."

"What am I supposed to do?  It's not my fault things got messed up.  I'm not doing shit."

"Howzabout if you won't do shit, you stop complaining about shit?" Tuff said, frowning, 'cause sister or not he was tired of this.  "You don't like things?  Well do something about it!"

"I didn't do anything in the first place!" Ruff insisted.

"No, Astrid did, and maybe that makes it your turn!  You're being all pissy, but I don't really see where you get off.  She's done everything so far, hasn't she?  Maybe you didn't like it, but at least she did something."

"I wish she hadn't," Ruffnut muttered.  "Things were fine the way they were."

"How fine could they be if Astrid wasn't happy?" he asked, and she frowned.  "You need to get your head out of your ass and actually think about things for two seconds."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded.

"Look, this whole mess started because you didn't want to stop having sex with other people, right?"

"There isn't anything wrong with that!"

"Naw, there isn't, and I'm not about to judge who you sleep with.  But is that really what it was about?"

"Oh, don't start that again!" she cried, stomping her foot.  "You and Hiccup can do whatever you want, but that doesn't have anything to do with me."

"No, it doesn't," he said, rubbing his chin.  "But seriously Ruff, when was the last time you actually had sex with anyone else?"

Ruffnut opened her mouth, closed it, then dropped her jaw.  "Yeah?" Tuffnut said.  "It's been a while, huh?  I know you got a reputation, but I think you were buying into your own hype with that one."

She gritted her teeth, and looked at the ground.  "You and Hiccup and Legs can think whatever you want," she said in a low voice, "but it doesn't change anything."

"I guess not," he said, shoving his hands in his pockets.  "Look, I wish I could help you, but if things aren't gonna change...I can't do anything else, Ruff."

"I don't need your help," she spat.

"Sure."  He looked at her, and sighed.  "Listen, I'm gonna have dinner with Hiccup and Astrid."

"Like I care what you and your little boy-toy do," she said, balling her hands into fists.

"Right.  Well, I'll see you at home."  He took one last long look at her, then left.

Ruffnut Thorston did not cry.  But she went home and closed the door to her room very tightly anyway.


**********************


"Astrid!" Tuffnut called a couple days later.

She turned around and smiled.  "Hey Tuff," she said, waiting for him to catch up to her.  "Are you going to see Hiccup?"

"Yep!"

He smiled widely, and she returned it.  "I'll leave you two to it then," she said, stopping.

"Naw, we can share."  He clapped her on the back to get her moving again.  "You're pretty cool, and we haven't been hanging out nearly enough.  Well, besides when we both hang out with Hiccup."

"Isn't that what we're doing now?"

"I guess so.  Well, we'll just have to make the walk count!"

She laughed, then carefully considered her next words.  "I guess we didn't have much in common besides Ruffnut," she said, and it wasn't difficult.  Apparently casual mentions were okay.  She was still testing her tolerance for certain things.

"We have something else in common now," Tuffnut pointed out, and Astrid smiled sweetly.

"Yeah, I guess we --"

"We've both had Hiccup's cock inside us!"

Astrid promptly stumbled to a halt and started choking on air.  Tuffnut stood with his fists planted on his hips, looking exceedingly pleased with himself.  "Oh, gods!  Why did you do that?" she gasped.

"Because I could," he said, rocking on his heels.

"What's wrong with you?"  She closed her eyes and grabbed her head.  "Great Odin, now there's these images in my brain, and they won't go away!  You-you're evil!"

"Glad I could help."  He shot her a shit-eating grin.

"Okay, you're dead.  C'mere," she said.  He waggled his eyebrows, then took off, and she gave chase, laughing.  He had the advantage of longer strides, but Astrid was nothing if not persistent.  She finally lunged forward and managed to collar him.

"No, not my beautiful face!" he cried, ducking.

"Your what?" she asked, laughing so hard she almost lost her grip.  "I don't think there's much more I can do to that mug."

"Hey, that's hurtful," he said, trying to push her away.  "There's no need to..."

He trailed off, and Astrid looked up to see Ruffnut standing in front of them.  The shock hit her as always, and her smile faded as she dropped her arms from Tuff's neck.  But her face was still relaxed and happy, and even the lingering negativity couldn't take that away.  She felt like she should say something, realized she had no idea what that was, and kept quiet.  Ruff stared at her for a few long, silent moments, then brushed past them and walked quickly away.

Astrid let out a long breath, and glanced at Tuff, who looked slightly spooked.  "Well," she said, feeling shaky but determined to work past it.  "She looks..."

"Yeah," he replied.  He stared after Ruff, working his jaw, then seemed to come to some kind of resolution.  "Come on, let's go find Hiccup."


**********************


The door to his workshop swung open, and Hiccup looked up from his desk to see a figure standing in the doorway.  "Hey Tuffnut," he said, and leaned to look at the shape behind the other boy.  "Astrid."

"We have discovered that Astrid does not, in fact, miss your cock," Tuffnut said, and Astrid punched his back.

Hiccup blinked.  "That's...good to know.  Um.  Why were you talking about this?"

"She doesn't even want to talk about your cock," Tuff continued, and Astrid hit him again.  "In fact, she punches me every time I bring it up."  Another hit.  "Penis."  This time Astrid shoved him into the workshop, and Tuffnut laughed as he dropped onto the bench next to Hiccup.

"I think I remember why I don't hang out with you now," Astrid said, sitting on a stool across from the boys.

"I'm beginning to figure it out too," Hiccup said.

"You guys are mean," Tuff said, leaning his head on Hiccup's shoulder.  "You need to loosen up.  Just 'cause me and Hiccup are having mind-blowing sex is no reason to go all prude on me."

"Just stop, please," Astrid said and covered her face with her hands, "I don't need to hear this."

"Aw, what's the matter, Astrid?"

Hiccup laughed.  "Don't tell anyone, Tuff, but I think she might've given up on man-sex."

"No!" Tuff cried in mock surprise.  "Well don't worry Astrid, I'll take care of this," he patted Hiccup's thigh, "so you don't have to."

"If this is what you two are like when you're getting laid regularly, I regret encouraging this at all."  Astrid glared at them, but couldn't completely suppress her smile.  "Could we do something beside talk about sex?"

Tuffnut pursed his lips thoughtfully.  "Hm.  You know, just talking about it isn't as fun as..."

Astrid quickly stood.  "Wait, wait," Hiccup said as he and Tuff laughed.  "We'll behave."

"I'm not sure you can," she pointed out.

"She might be right," Tuff said.

"We can," Hiccup said firmly.  When Tuff pouted, he added, "I'll make it up to you later."

Tuffnut beamed, and Astrid rolled her eyes, but sat back down.  "So what else has been going on?"

"I tried out some new gears this week.   They look promising," Hiccup said.

"My boot was stolen by a pack of marauding Terrors, while I was wearing it," Tuffnut said

The other two looked at him.  "Tuff wins," Astrid told Hiccup.

"Yeah, no kidding," he agreed.  "How did you manage that?"

"It's a skill.  I've got a way with 'em," Tuffnut said proudly.  "They can't get enough of me."

"Fair enough," Hiccup said with a smile.

All three started when the door suddenly swung open, and Tuffnut actually leapt away from Hiccup so that he was sitting on the far end of the bench.  Astrid saw why when Stoick blinked at them.

"H-hi, Dad!" Hiccup said nervously.  "Uh, what're you up to?"

Stoick looked around the room, eyes briefly landing on both Tuffnut and Astrid in turn before apparently deciding it was safer to focus on Hiccup.  "I...I was coming to see if you were having dinner at home tonight, or if you were working."

"Oh.  Well.  I'm not working on anything, so...I'll be home?"

"Good.  Good."  Stoick's eyes roamed restlessly around the room again, then landed on Astrid.  Her stomach dropped.  "Astrid!  Why don't you join us?"

"Oh, um."  She glanced at Hiccup in a panic, but he didn't give her any cues.  "I appreciate it, really, but I was planning on going home myself."

"Ah, you won't be missed for one night.  I insist!" he said heartily, and Astrid didn't know how to decline without making an awkward situation worse.  Dammit.

"Dad, can Tuff come too?" Hiccup suddenly asked, and both Astrid and Tuffnut whipped their heads around to stare at him in shock.  Astrid worked quickly to make her expression as neutral as possible.  Tuffnut didn't seem able to do the same, but since Stoick seemed to be doing his best to pretend he wasn't in the room it didn't much matter.

"I thought he'd be going home to his own family," Stoick said gruffily.

Hiccup looked at Tuff, whose eyes widened.  "Uh, no," he said, and laughed nervously.  "I mean, they won't miss me or anything.  I can come."  He swallowed.

"Well..."  Stoick looked conflicted, and Astrid braced herself for some kind of blowup, or at the very least a refusal.  But then, to her surprise, he said, "Let's get going then."

They filed out after the chief, Astrid and Hiccup walking together and Tuffnut lagging behind.  Astrid looked at Hiccup, who kind of shrugged helplessly, then tilted his head backwards minutely.  She nodded, and took a couple quick steps forward to catch up to Stoick while Hiccup fell back next to Tuff.  Stoick's eyes were fixed resolutely forward, but he met Astrid's gaze briefly as she pulled next to him.  He looked...not happy, not at all, but there was none of the anger Hiccup had described to her.  She thought about what Hiccup had said about Vikings having the ability to adapt, and wondered if it was true.


**********************


Fishlegs shuffled some of his scrolls, then looked up.  "Can I have my bed back?"

"No," Ruffnut said.

"Okay.  Let me know when you're done."  He pulled out another notebook and began marking in it.

Ruffnut was lying on her stomach, her chin propped up on a pillow.  It was probably really pathetic -- she was hanging out with a nerd, basically -- but she didn't know where else to go.  She didn't want to go home and risk seeing Tuff, and she didn't want to go anywhere else and risk seeing Astrid.

So she was lying on Fishlegs's bed, and she was thinking, which was something she generally avoided, but she couldn't put it off any longer.  She was no good at this emotional stuff, and she knew it, but didn't she even know what was going on in her own head?  She had been telling the truth -- nothing had changed between her and Astrid.  Astrid had changed, maybe, but Ruff hadn't.  And it took two to do the horizontal tango or whatever.

Sex, to Ruffnut, had always been fun.  Not much more than that, but the fun had seemed like enough.  With Astrid...of course Ruff cared about her, deeply.  She had never linked it to the sex like Astrid had apparently been doing, but that didn't mean she didn't care.  But caring and sex, that wasn't really the same as love, was it?  That was the whole problem; Astrid wanted more than just that, and Ruffnut didn't know if she could give it.

Maybe she didn't know her own mind after all, because she still felt confused and angry.  So instead of thinking about what she did or didn't feel, she thought about the hundreds of other little details that had been plaguing her more and more frequently over the past few weeks.  Like how her earliest memories were with Tuff, but Astrid came in a close second.  And the hours they used to spend playing games none of the other girls wanted to play.  The day she had gotten her long hair tangled in some branches and Astrid, who was all of eight at the time, had carefully untangled it and then pulled it back in a messy braid so they could keep playing.  Ruffnut's mother had been trying to braid her hair for a long time, but she had never had the patience to sit through it until Astrid did it, then she insisted her hair be like that all the time.

Their first kiss.  Ruffnut had started it (of course), but the simple fact that Astrid had let her when, despite her show of confidence, Ruffnut had no idea whether she would or not.  She had been scared, hadn't she?  She was almost able to forget, after years of seeing Astrid delight in her touch, but once she had been scared, and then so happy.  When had a kiss made her that happy before or since?  When had she forgotten that?

She had felt a lot, now that she thought about it.  Happy when Astrid let her kiss her; ecstatic when she let her touch her.  Scared when Hiccup came onto the scene, and she thought things might end; relieved when they didn't.  And jealous, gods, even though she didn't want to admit it and knew now it wasn't true anyway, when she thought Astrid was still with Hiccup after all.

Even besides all that, just hanging out with Astrid had always been...Tuff was her brother, yeah, and that was special and all, and she put up with him.  The boys were amusing at best, and usually mostly annoying.  And most everyone else in the village was boring to the point of pain.  But Astrid had always been there, and more to the point Ruffnut had always wanted her there.  She had been relying on that, apparently more than she had realized.

Nothing had changed.  She had always liked being with Astrid, always wanted to kiss her, always wanted to touch her, always hated the thought of her being with someone else if she wasn't with Ruff, and had never, never thought it might be any other way.  She had missed the forest for the trees.  She had been waiting for a lightning bolt, and never realized the sun was already shining.

"Shit," she said, "you were right."

Fishlegs looked up at her.  "Hm?"

"I'm in love with Astrid."  She rubbed her face with her hands.  "Also, I may be an idiot."

"'Love makes fools of us all,'" Fishlegs quoted, fiddling with on of his figurines.

"We been doing so good, Legs, don't make me hurt you."

"Sorry."  He put the figurine down.  "What are you going to do now?"

"I don't know.  Go home.  Sleep."  She carefully pushed herself up and climbed off the bed.  "Figure out what comes next."

"Good luck."  He gave her an encouraging smile as she headed for the door.

"Thanks.  Tell anyone about this and I'll kick your ass."

"Got it."  She slipped quickly out the door.  She didn't really feel that much more resolved, nor did she know what was going to happen next, but she knew she had to do something.

Chapter Text

"Hey, you.  Nadder-girl," someone said, and Astrid looked around curiously.  Sure enough, there was the barmaid scowling at her, which was irritating on multiple levels, not the least of which was the fact that Astrid knew she knew their names perfectly well, she just refused to use them.  Although to be fair, Ruff, Tuff, and Lout called her a wench all the time, and they were the ones who started bringing dragons into the bar, and it was usually someone from their group who had to be dragged out of the bar at the end of the night...

Shit.  Astrid suddenly realized why the barmaid was calling her.

"Come get your friend," the barmaid said, and Astrid's stomach sank.  "I'm not putting up with her today."

"It's barely noon," Astrid protested.

"Yeah, well that's the problem, isn't it?"  She turned and walked back into the bar, leaving Astrid standing outside.  For a moment she thought about just walking away, because of all the possible scenarios she could think of for reinitiating contact with Ruff, babysitting the other girl because she was drunk in the middle of the day was far and away one of the least desirable ones.  But even now she couldn't abandon Ruff, so she squared her shoulders and stepped inside.

Ruffnut was sitting by herself at the end of the bar.  She looked quiet and thoughtful, which made Astrid think the barmaid was full of it, because a drunk Ruffnut was loud and boisterous.  She walked over to her anyway, feeling tense and on edge.

When Ruffnut noticed her, she jerked so hard she almost fell off the bar stool.  Astrid was reaching for her before she could help it, but Ruff managed to right herself at the last minute and looked at Astrid with eyes that were, admittedly, more than a little bleary.  "How'd you get here?" she asked.

Astrid sighed.  "The barmaid called me in here.  She says you're drunk."

"Oh."

She cocked her head and looked at Ruff curiously.  "Are you?"

Ruff shrugged and fiddled with her tankard.  "Maybe."

Astrid sighed again and looked around the mostly empty bar.  "Can you walk?" she asked, having already determined that if she couldn't, someone else was going to have to help her home.  Astrid was being as strong as she could, but there was no way she could touch Ruff.  Not like that, not now.

Ruffnut nodded, and stood, carefully but not shakily.  She followed Astrid outside the bar.  "Do you need help getting home?" Astrid asked, already hoping the answer would be no.  The other girl certainly looked steady enough.  But Ruff nodded again, and Astrid gritted her teeth and led the way.

Astrid grasped desperately for the strange peace she had achieved yesterday when she had seen Ruffnut across the market.  It was much harder with Ruff right next to her, looking almost vulnerable.  Astrid found herself getting inexplicably angry because she thought she had finally found her strength, and mere moments in Ruff's company made her feel weak all over again.  It wasn't fair.  Astrid didn't want to feel weak anymore; she just wanted it to be over, by Thor.  That wasn't too much to ask, was it?

Ruffnut was being very quiet, which was uncommon whether she was sober or not, and the silence was almost painful.  "Why are you drinking the middle of the day anyway?" Astrid asked almost without meaning to.

"Seemed like a good idea at the time," Ruffnut mumbled.

"How could that seem like a good idea?"

"Wasn't planned.  I was walking," she gestured vaguely forward, "'n I saw the bar, 'n I thought maybe I should do that."

"Get drunk?"

Ruffnut nodded, the frowned and shook her head.  "No, not-not drunk.  I thought...I was scared, 'n I thought the mead would make me feel better.  But it didn't, it made me feel worse."  She sounded so utterly miserable that Astrid was almost moved to pity.  Almost.

"Funny how that works," she said instead, and didn't ask any more questions.  She wasn't Ruff's confidante anymore, or her lover, or even her friend, really.  She just had to hold on until she got Ruff home, then she could get back to healing at her own rate.

Of course Ruff couldn't make it easy.  She suddenly stumbled, and Astrid instinctively put her hands out, but also stepped away so that they weren't in danger of actually touching.  Ruffnut righted herself and staggered over to a barrel set against a wall, sitting down heavily.

"Are you okay?" Astrid asked, and Ruffnut shook her head.  "Okay," she said with a sigh, "you stay here, I'm going to go get some help."

"No!" Ruffnut suddenly cried.  "I, I can walk."  But she made no move to stand.

Astrid rubbed her eyes.  "Look, Ruff, I'm not going to stand here all day."

"I know," Ruffnut said, and then, "I hung out with Fishlegs last night."

"Okay," Astrid said, blinking.  "And?"

Ruffnut licked her lips nervously and opened her mouth, but then seemed to quail.  "What'd you do last night?" she murmured.

"I was at Hiccup's."  Not that it was any of Ruffnut's business.

If it were possible, Ruff seemed to shrink even more.  "You were?"

"Yeah.  He invited me and Tuff for dinner."

"Oh.  Right.  Of course."  She ran her hand over her face.  "Um."

"Why does it --"

"He thinks I love you," Ruffnut suddenly blurted out, and Astrid felt as though she had been struck.  Then she felt the blood drain from her face, and merciful numbness set in, because there was no way.  There was no way she could deal with, with that, so close to what she had wanted so desperately but secondhand, from the wrong person.  It wasn't fair of Ruff to bring it up when she knew it didn't mean anything, and when Astrid had finally started to move on.  It just wasn't fair.

"So tell him he's wrong," she heard herself say.  "So what?"

"It's, I mean it's..."  Ruffnut around in confusion.  "He thinks..."

"Since when do you care what anyone thinks?" Astrid asked harshly, angry all over again because it was easier than anything else she was feeling.

"I-I don't, care," Ruffnut said, licking her lips again, "what people think.  I care..."

"Then why does it matter?"

"...I care what you think."  And she looked at Astrid.

"Since when?" Astrid said, surprising herself.  "You haven't cared in a while."

"No, look," Ruffnut said, almost desperately.  She gestured vaguely again.  "I was, I was walking, I was coming to see you, and I saw the bar..."

"And you decided to get drunk."  Astrid's body trembled with barely contained energy.  She wanted more than almost anything to run, to get away from here, because she had greatly overestimated her defenses, and if she didn't leave soon she was going to have to start from scratch.  She stayed, though, because some part of her that was stubborn and proud could still feel the hurt smoldering inside of her, and right now she was just angry enough, just tired enough, just frustrated enough to want to give some of that hurt back.  "That was brilliant."

"I was wrong," Ruffnut mumbled.

"Yeah, I'd say so."

"No!" she wailed.  "What-what I said, before...I was wrong, and I didn't know until last night."

"When before?" Astrid demanded.  "You're not making any sense."

"Before!" she cried.  "Before, when I...I-I love you!"

Astrid looked at her in confusion.  "What?  Fishlegs --"

"No, not Legs!  Just, just me.  Before, I was wrong, because...because I love you.  And I didn't know."  She stared at the ground.

Astrid almost opened her mouth to ask another question, before she finally figured out what Ruffnut was trying to say.  The idea of it -- even the potential of it -- disabled her completely.  "What?" she asked, her heart racing.  "You what?"  Her eyes flicked rapidly over Ruffnut, taking in the whole of the girl.  No, there was no way, not after all that...she couldn't believe it.  "Tell me," she demanded, testing Ruff's resolve.  "Say it again."

Apparently her resolve wasn't that strong, because she kept silent, and wouldn't meet Astrid's eyes.  Astrid leaned back on her heels, reeling.  Gods, this was even worse than last time.  To hear that, and knowing it came from Fishlegs, or the mead, or anything else that, that wasn't...

She took a step back.  Ruffnut suddenly looked up in a panic.  "Where are you going?"

"You're drunk," Astrid said, "and you don't mean that."

"No -- I mean yes, but I do, I mean it!" Ruffnut cried, and Astrid's heart clenched painfully.  "I'm sorry, I was scared, and now I don't even remember why, but I-I'm trying!  Oh gods, don't go," she said, and she sounded so lost Astrid's heart almost broke all over again.  But she couldn't stay; there was a maelstrom of emotions gathering inside her, very few of them good, and she knew if she stayed it would be unleashed on Ruffnut.  And that would be the end of everything.

"I have to go," she said.  She had to clear her head, to think about what had happened, and she couldn't think with Ruffnut there.  She could only react, only feel.

"Are you going to see Hiccup?" Ruffnut asked miserably.

"No," Astrid said, realizing it was true.  Part of her wanted to -- so much -- but he had carried her enough though this, and Astrid had to work through this herself.  She had to.  "I just, I have to think.  Okay?"  She knew it wasn't, really, but Ruffnut nodded anyway.  Astrid took another step back, and then, looking at Ruff, felt a sudden sharp pang of pity cut through the anger and confusion.  "Hey, I'll be back, okay?" she said, although she wasn't sure of that at all.

"Right."  Ruffnut rubbed her face.

"I just..." Astrid tried, and gave up.  The unspoken words hanging between them were suffocating, and she fled before she could say something she didn't mean.  Or worse, something she did.


**********************


"Come on girl, let's go," Astrid said as she walked into her backyard.  Valkyrie looked at her curiously.  "Let's, let's go fly, or something."  She reached for the bridle, but her hands were shaking so badly it slipped out of her grasp.  So she tried again, to the same result.  Before she could make a third attempt, Valkyrie crooned, and nudged her gently.  Astrid gave up and wrapped her arms around the dragon's beak.  "Oh, girl, what am I going to do?" she murmured.

"Astrid?"

She jerked violently, whirling around to see her mother staring at her in concern.  "Mom," she said, and turned quickly back around.  She wasn't crying, yet, but she didn't want her mother to see if she started.  "What, uh..."  She realized she didn't actually have anything to ask, and trailed off.

"Is everything all right, dear?" Bertha asked, and Astrid, to her great horror, whimpered.  Gods, no.  She couldn't fall apart, not again, not now.

"I, um..."  There was no lie to get her out of this, she knew.  Or if there was she was too raw and confused to think of it.  So she sighed, closed her eyes, and pressed her forehead against Valkyrie's.  "Ruffnut and I had a fight," she said.

"Of course you did, dear."

Astrid blinked her eyes open, and glanced at her mother.  "What?"

Bertha smiled kindly.  "Your old mother's not blind, Astrid.  You've been in a bad way, and there's only two people who can get you that worked up.  Since you seem to be getting along with Hiccup, it must have been Ruffnut."

"Well, it was," she murmured inanely.  She pulled back to stroke Valkyrie's nose, trying to find something between a lie and the truth to satisfy her mother.  "And I was getting over it, but I saw her today, and she apologized.  She said she wants to be friends again."  At the very least.

"Is that a problem, dear?"

"I don't know," Astrid said, hearing and hating the frustration in her voice.  "I was getting over it, but I think I'd only half-forgiven her, and I don't even know if I want to forgive her all the way.  And now it feels like I have to decide whether to or not right now."

Bertha was quiet for a moment.  Then she said, "I've never really understood the idea."

Astrid could almost hear her brain grinding to a halt as she tried to process what her mother was saying.  "Understood what idea?"

"Half-forgiving someone.  Forgiving means letting go of the wrongs they've done you."  She spread her open hands in front of her.  "Even if you're holding on to those wrongs with only half your strength, you're still holding on.  You can't hold on," she closed her hands into fists, "and say you're letting go.  It's one or the other."

No, Astrid thought.  It was so much more complicated than that.  There was nothing about this that was black and white.  It was all twisted together into shades of gray, where "friend" meant so much more than it should and boyfriend didn't mean nearly enough.  She had juggled two relationships, neither of them proper, neither of them complete or truly defined, and had found in her attempts at love either a deception or a rejection.  The person everyone thought would make her happy hadn't, and the person she needed to be happy made her miserable instead.  The only way any of it felt anymore was wrong, and she couldn't put it into words if she tried.

"It's not that simple, Mom," was what she said instead.

"It never is, dear," Bertha said, and stood up.  She briefly rested her hand on Astrid's back again.  "But it's not usually as difficult as we make it either."  She gave Astrid a warm smile laced with more understanding than Astrid would have given her credit for, and walked into the house.

Astrid let out a shuddering breath, and closed her eyes.  She tried to think of something that made sense; so much of what was going on in her head didn't.  At least her mother was right about one thing.  No matter how weakly you held on, you couldn't claim to have let go until you released your grip.  It was either or; it was black and white.  Astrid used that simple truth as a baseline and pushed through the muddled, muddied thoughts clouding her mind, trying to find even one absolute.

She found one, buried under so much confusion and doubt that she had almost forgotten it.  One bright, shining thought that was almost blinding in its clarity.  It was all she needed.

"I'll be back, girl," she said, suddenly breathless.  She was running through the village before she knew it, and as she ran she finally let go.


**********************


Ruffnut opened bleary eyes.  She was hot.  Why was she hot?  Well she was sitting in the sun, for one thing.  Had she always been sitting in the sun?  She hadn't moved from where Astrid had left her.  Was she just now hot enough -- or maybe sober enough -- to notice the sun, or had she sat there long enough that the movement of the sun had taken her shade?  She had no idea.

Her mind was buzzing, and she tried to fill it with random things, useless things, anything but Astrid.  It didn't work, so then she tried to think of nothing at all.  That didn't work either, so she concentrated very hard on a small patch of dirt in front of her, and the shapes it made.  And the pair of boots that were suddenly standing on the dirt.  They looked at lot like Astrid's boots, but they couldn't be because Astrid had left her.  Again.

"Hey," Astrid voice said from above Astrid's boots.

"Hey," Ruffnut said, and finally looked up.  "What're you doing here?"

"I came to see you," she said, and Ruffnut studied the small creases around her mouth intently.  If she could look closely enough at those things -- Astrid's bangs, the tiny hairs that made up her eyebrows, the curve of her cheek -- she could avoid looking at Astrid, and maybe be able to breath.

"Great," Ruffnut heard herself say dully.  "Here I am."  She rubbed her eyes.  "Although if you're just here to yell at me again, I'd really rather not."

"I'm not here to yell at you," Astrid said.

"Then why are you here?"

"Why do you think I'm here?"  The look on Astrid's face could have been concern, but that wasn't right because Astrid had left.  Even if she had come back...

...she had come back.  The realization hit Ruffnut sharply, and she almost gasped.  "I don't know," she said, the words tumbling out of her before she could think about them.  "I don't know why you're here, and I hope you're telling the truth, because it's killing me to fight, and I know what I want but I don't know what you want, and I wish you would just kiss me or --"

Astrid kissed her.  They were kissing.  There was no space, no gap between Astrid being in front of her and Astrid being in her arms, which was good because Ruffnut knew suddenly waiting even one more instant for this would have killed her.  Gods, who had she been trying to kid before?  There was nothing -- no one -- more important than this.

"Don't do that to me again," Astrid murmured against her lips, and when had she even pulled back enough to speak?

Ruffnut let out a breathless laugh and said, "Really not planning on it," then closed the distance between them.  She didn't know what part exactly of this whole mix-up Astrid was talking about -- maybe all of it -- but damn if Ruff was going to do anything to mess this up.  Then she frowned into the kiss, and pulled back.  "I won't if you won't," she said, because yeah, she had screwed up, and she knew that now, but Astrid was the one who kept walking away.  Apparently neither of them were real great at this.  But Hel, if she had her choice of being confused with Astrid or being completely lost without her, it was an easy choice to make.

"Fair enough," Astrid whispered, and pulled her close again.  In some far away corner of Ruffnut's brain she thought maybe they should slow down, because this was too important to get wrong.  But Astrid was leaning into her and gods, it had been so long, and she couldn't fight it if she wanted to.  She had been fighting it for ages and had ended up here all the same.  So seriously, enough of that.  Ruffnut gave in, and let herself be carried away.


**********************


Tuffnut came to a sudden halt with a shriek, and cover his eyes with his hands.  "Ew, naked sister!"

The girls looked half-asleep, but Ruffnut was apparently conscious enough to shoot Tuff a rude gesture.

"Well," Hiccup said with a wide grin as he looked into the small clearing, "look who kissed and made up."

Astrid shifted slightly to hide more of her body behind Ruff's, and Ruff finally opened her eyes and looked at the boys.  "Is there a reason you're here?" she asked.

"Same as you, it looks like," Hiccup said, still smiling.  Tuffnut dropped his hands, and looked quickly at the sky, then the ground, then Hiccup.

"Yeah, well, this area is occupied.  Find somewhere else."

"Aw, but it's such a nice view," Hiccup said teasingly, and Tuff looked at him with an expression somewhere between horror and hurt.  "Do you come here a lot?" Hiccup asked quickly.

"Why do you want to know that?" Tuff demanded.

"So we'll know to go somewhere else."

"Oh."

"Yes, this is the usual spot," Astrid said, peeking over Ruffnut's shoulder.

"We're thinking of installing a mattress!" Ruff suddenly said, and giggled when Astrid poked her side.

Hiccup turned to Tuff.  "See, now we know.  Next time..."

"Don't come here," Tuffnut finished firmly.  "Come on, let's go up to that area by the creek.  You hear that?" he called to the girls as he began to lead Hiccup away.  "That's our spot, so don't bother coming by!"
 
"We'll try to resist the urge," Ruff called after him, rolling her eyes.  When the boys had disappeared from view, she pulled Astrid back on top of her and gave her a sly smile.

"We need to get dressed," Astrid said even as she began tracing the lines of Ruff's face.

"Oh, no we don't," Ruffnut said, running her hands up Astrid's sides and down her back.  "We need to stay here forever and ever."

"We might get hungry."

"I'm sure a wild animal will wander by eventually."

"Ruff," Astrid said with a laugh, "we're lucky Hiccup and Tuff were the ones who found us."

"Running into those two is never lucky," Ruffnut insisted.

"Come on."  Astrid made to rise, but Ruff quickly locked her arms around the other girl's waist.  "Ruff!  Seriously.  We have to get up."  She brushed Ruffnut's lips with her thumb, and said, "Or at least get inside."

"Fine," Ruffnut said with a sigh, moving her hands to the back of Astrid's neck and pulling her down for another kiss.  "I just need a few...more..."

It ended up being more than a few, but Astrid finally pushed herself up, and Ruffnut let her hands fall with a sigh.  She watched as Astrid gathered their clothes.  "What do you want to do now?" Astrid asked as she tugged on her shirt.

Ruff had a number of answers for that question, but Astrid probably wouldn't appreciate her clothes being ripped off right after she had put them on.  So she thought for a moment, then got a wicked grin and pushed herself up on her elbows.  "Where'd the guys say they were going?"

Astrid looked at her sharply.  "Ruffnut, that's your brother!"

"What're you...oh, gross Astrid, give me a little credit!  That's not what I mean!"

"Then what do you mean?"

Ruffnut explained, and Astrid smiled.


**********************


"You look ridiculous," Astrid said a little while later.

Ruffnut shrugged and tossed the leg of Tuff's pants around her neck like a scarf.  "I don't care.  Imagining the look on their faces whenever they finish makes it worthwhile."

Astrid looked at her appraisingly.  "I think you just have something against Hiccup."

Ruffnut shrugged again.  She had a Hel of a lot of things against Hiccup, but with Astrid by her side she could finally start to work through them.  And anyway...  "Then why were you the one who took his pants?"

It was Astrid's turn to shrug as she tied Hiccup's pants around her waist.  "I didn't want you have all the fun," she said with a mischievous smile.

Ruffnut laughed, grabbing Astrid and pulling her close.  She leaned in for a kiss, but Astrid suddenly pulled away with a little frown.  "What is it?" she asked, worry in her voice.

Astrid gave her a warm smile.  "I can't take you seriously like that," she said, reaching for the impromptu scarf.

Ruff chuckled as Astrid unwound the leggings from her neck and tossed them to the side.  "Better?"

"Much."  Astrid leaned forward so that the whole of their bodies were pressed together, but she still didn't move in for the kiss yet.  Instead she studied Ruffnut's face intently, and asked, "You're...are you serious about this?" because she had to.  Maybe it wasn't the most romantic thing, but you couldn't building something real on a fairy tale, and Astrid desperately wanted something real, something honest.

"Absolutely," she said gently, brushing a strand of hair back from Astrid's face.

Hearing the conviction in Ruff's voice suddenly made Astrid weak, and she leaned heavily into Ruff.  "Thank the gods," she whispered.  It seemed like it shouldn't have been enough to erase the hurt and longing that had been plaguing her -- and it wasn't, really.  Words were only just words.  It was the emotion they conveyed, the intent behind them, the choice she had made, consciously, to accept them, when she understood all too well what the cost could be if her trust was misplaced.  She loved Ruffnut, and Ruffnut loved her.  It didn't make everything right; it certainly didn't mean everything was going to be easy.  But it was truth.  It was solid.  It was something she could stand on.  It was more than she had believed she could have.

Ruffnut ran her fingers through Astrid's hair, over her cheek, and gently cupped her face.  Astrid gave herself eagerly into the kiss. It was perfection.

"Whoa!"

The girls pulled apart and stared at each other with wide eyes.  "You have got to be kidding me," Ruffnut muttered, and Astrid groaned and let her head fall onto Ruff's shoulder.

"Hey," Snotlout said, "don't let me stop you.  Please, continue."  He watched them excitedly.

"Ruff," Astrid said, "I'm tired.  Kick his ass for me?"

"Yes ma'am!" Ruffnut chirped, and took off.

"Whoa, whoa, hey, not cool!" Snotlout yelled as he ran, Ruffnut literally growling and snarling in her pursuit.  Astrid watched them and laughed.  It was wonderful, and crazy, and somehow perfect.  Right now, she let go of any past hurt and lingering doubt, and just enjoyed the moment.

Ruffnut caught Lout, and smiled at Astrid.  Astrid smiled back.  Gods willing, they'd have many more moments to come.

Chapter Text

"We should do this more often," Ruffnut said.

"Agreed."  Astrid's eyes were closed as she enjoyed the secluded hot spring, but they blinked open as Ruff pulled her onto her lap and wrapped her arms around Astrid's waist.

"You know what I think we should do?" Ruffnut murmured, her fingers dancing on Astrid's thigh.

Astrid smiled.  "I think I can guess."

"Are you saying I'm getting predictable?  I need to step up my game."  She slipped her fingers down, and Astrid bit her lip.

"Wait, I think I hear them," Hiccup said from a little ways off.

"Seriously?!" Ruffnut yelled to the heavens, and Astrid let out a deep belly laugh.  "I'm going to kick their asses, I really am."

"Be nice," Astrid said through her giggles.

Hiccup and Tuffnut stepped around the natural rock barrier separating the spring from the forest at large, Hiccup with a sigh and Tuffnut with a smirk.  "Hello ladies," Hiccup said gamely.

"Thor's hammer, can't you two find your own places?" Ruffnut demanded as Astrid sank a few more inches into the water.

"Hey, it's not my fault you two," Hiccup gestured to Ruff and Tuff, "think alike.  I'm just along for the ride."

"And what a ride it is!" Tuff said, thrusting his hips.

"Oh gods."  Astrid covered her face with her hands.  "Don't start that again."

Hiccup smiled, then looked at the other boy.  "Tuff, should we --"

He didn't make it any further before Tuff's pants hit him square in the face.  "Cannonball!" Tuff cried, leaping to the spring and sending a large wave over the shrieking girls.

"What is wrong with you?" Ruffnut cried, spitting out water.

"Anything's more fun if I get to annoy you while doing it," he said with a grin.  Astrid laughed, and Ruffnut kicked at him futilely.

Hiccup, having disrobed, leaned his prosthetic against a rock and slipped in.  Ruffnut was glowering, and he made sure to give her a wide berth as he drifted over near Tuff.  "Well, isn't this homey," he said once he was well clear of the Thorston girl's reach.  Tuffnut snorted.

Ruffnut leaned her chin on Astrid's shoulder.  "You don't like them that much do you?" she asked.  "Like, if they were to suddenly turn up dead or something?  Hypothetically."

"I like them well enough," Astrid said, running the back of her fingers over Ruff's cheek.  "And we're all friends here."

Ruff groaned and tipped her head back.  "I know we're close and everything, but this is ridiculous."

Astrid laughed.  "Ruff, your girlfriend's ex-boyfriend is dating your twin brother."

"Yeah," Hiccup chimed in, "I think we've moved past close and right into incestuous."  Ruff and Tuff both made faces, and he smiled.

"So..." Astrid said, trying to ignore the fact that the twins were trying to kick each other under the water.

"So..." Hiccup replied, ignoring the same thing.

"How's your dad?"

Hiccup rolled his eyes.  "He brought out an axe when Tuff was over last night.  It was actually kind of funny."

"That was terrifying!" Tuffnut suddenly said, and winced when Ruff scored a hit to his shin.

"He was just messing with you."

"No way man, he's going to kill me.  Ruff's gonna come get me for breakfast one day, and all that'll be left is a bloody smear and maybe like, an ear."

"Works for me," Ruffnut said cheerfully.

"So he's..."  Astrid trailed off and gave a half-shrug.

"I don't know," Hiccup said with a sigh.  "He still won't acknowledge anything, but I think he's calming down.  Unspoken death threats aside," he added, patting Tuff's leg.  "I think he realized it could be worse."

"Whatever," Tuff said.  "I'm still giving it a few more days."

"If he hasn't killed you yet, he's probably not going to."

Tuff shot Astrid a doleful look.  "You'll check it out if I get murdered, right?"

"Sure," Astrid said, her lips quirking up in a half-grin.  "We'll have the ear for evidence after all."  Satisfied, Tuff leaned back.

"Well our mom loves you," Ruffnut said, giving Astrid a squeeze.  "She says you're a good influence on me or some crap like that."

"It's not like I could have inspired you to be any worse," Astrid said a laugh.

Ruff shot her a sultry grin and buried her nose in Astrid's neck.  "I dunno, Astrid.  You don't exactly inspire me to be good either."

"Call it even?" Astrid asked, a squeak in her voice.

"Fair enough."

"Control yourself, woman," Tuffnut said, turning up his nose.  Ruffnut scowled at him, and he stuck out his tongue.  Then he looked at the side of the pool where their clothes were piled with a thoughtful expression on his face.

"What?" Ruffnut asked, then her eyes widened.

Astrid was suddenly thrown across the spring as Ruff and Tuff both lunged for the clothes at the same time.  "Hands off!" Ruff snarled as they fought over a pair of leggings.

"We owe you for stealing our pants!"

"Well it's not happening today!"

"Wanna bet?"

Astrid shook her head and drifted over next to Hiccup.  He shot her a grin, and she rolled her eyes skyward, but her expression was affectionate as she watched the twins.  "I guess it all worked out," he said.

"I guess so," was all Astrid said.

He studied her face carefully.  "Was it worth it?"

This time Astrid dropped her head forward before leaning it back to look at Hiccup.  "Yes," she said with a sigh.  "I wouldn't have started it if it wasn't worth it.  But I may jump off the dock if I ever have to do that again."

Hiccup chuckled.  "Then I guess you'll just have to stick with Ruff."

"Damn straight," Astrid muttered.  She smirked as Ruff shoved Tuff under the water.  "At least it'll never get boring."

Hiccup nodded and looked back at the twins.  "Should we separate them?"

"I'm not getting in the middle of that, but feel free."

"...they'll work it out."

Astrid smiled as she watched her girl.  No, it hadn't been easy, any of it.  But there was easy, and there was right.  Sitting there now with her friends and her lover, Astrid knew there had only ever been one choice.  It hadn't been easy, but it had been right, and that made it worth so much more in the end.

Her girl.  Her lover.  Her choice.  She wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.