The scent trail veered north of Berk, to one of the small, marshy islands that marked the perimeter of the bay. The morning fog had burned off, and the rain storms of the night before had gone to sea, and so the day promised to be clear and bright, painfully so. One of the few treed ridges of the small island caught Stormfly’s attention and she turned, circling it. Astrid cupped her hands over her eyes and peered through the piercing sunlight, to the little clearing—only a splotch from such a distance—amidst the trees. If Stormfly had traced them here, then they were here. She just had to find them.
“There!” She pointed and Stormfly started, following the line of Astrid’s arm. “Good girl, Stormfly—down.”
Stormfly sleeked her wings back and dropped, neat as a stone. The shadow Astrid had spotted resolved into detail: Toothless, cocking his head now to look at them. Another dark shape moved, darting for the shelter of Toothless’ wings, and Toothless jumped. His wings spread. The deep barking sound Toothless made carried from the trees.
Nearly to the ground, Stormfly banked her own wings, slowing their descent so that they landed smoothly. Toothless spared them a brief glance and then went back to nattering at Hiccup, hidden behind him.
“Good girl,” Astrid murmured again, and she scratched at Stormfly’s chin. Stormfly twittered, pleased, and shook her head.
More loudly, Astrid said, “I know you’re there,” and slipped from Stormfly’s back. The ground squelched tremendously beneath her feet. Mud squirted up the sides of her boots. “You can stop hiding from me now.”
“I’m not hiding,” Hiccup called. “I’m trying to fix a little, uh—kind of a problem with the stirrup—”
The far side of Toothless was the left side: the specialized stirrup made for Hiccup’s prosthetic. She started forward.
“What kind of problem? Are you okay?”
She offered Toothless her hand and he sniffed perfunctorily at her. He certainly wasn’t upset, as she’d expect had something happened. Rather, Toothless looked annoyed: half-lidded eyes, his jaw working; he stared at the trees.
“Ohhh, it’s, it’d be really hard to explain,” Hiccup blurted, “it’s all technical stuff, you wouldn’t want to hear any of it—”
“I’d like to hear it,” Astrid said, ducking under Toothless’ head as she circulated. “I haven’t seen you in three days. Or heard you babbling.”
“And I’m fine, by the way, as you can probably guess from the total lack of panic—and I don’t babble,” he said, indignant.
She bent to slide beneath Toothless’ wing. “You babble constantly. You—”
Hiccup had slipped away, vanishing around the back of Toothless. The metal leg flashed; then even that part of him was gone, hidden from her again.
“Are you seriously doing this again?” she demanded. “Avoiding me?”
She turned to step back out, but the thickness of the mud held her a moment; it grabbed at her boot. Frowning, Astrid stooped to yank her leg free. Toothless grumbled, a powerful vibration low in his chest; that was her warning. The shadow lifted off her: he arched his wings. Astrid was left blinking furiously into the too-sharp light of the early afternoon sun. Then her hair, kicked up by Toothless’ stroking wings as he took off, whipped into her eyes.
“I’m not avoiding you!” Hiccup shouted. Toothless spiraled around the swamp-y meadow, and Astrid combed her bangs away from her eyes.
“You are too!” she shouted right back. “Where do you think you’re going now?”
“I’ll see you later!”
She got her hair scooped back from her brow, finally, and by then the two of them were already a distant splotch of black against the blueness of the sky.
“Stormfly!” Astrid yelled. She spun violently, or she would have had the mud not clutched her so tightly still. Instead Astrid tripped and fell face-first into the marsh.
From the copse of thin and weedy trees, Stormfly chirped her question. Gasping, Astrid shoved herself up out of the wet grass and the mud. Directly across from her Stormfly sat nestled between two trees with a third, snapped low on the trunk, splintering between her teeth. Stormfly tipped her head to one side and blinked three times in quick succession. She chirped again.
“Forget it,” Astrid said. She struggled to her feet and stomped wetly over to Stormfly. “I’ll catch him later. And then I’ll make him tell me what it is he thinks he’s doing. Like I won’t catch him. I always catch him.”
She plopped down in the shade. Stormfly’s flank was sun-warm and vast, and Astrid leaned against her welcoming bulk.
Stormfly hummed and, by way of consolation, left off her new-made chew-toy to preen very delicately at Astrid’s hair. She left chunks of spit-moist wood in the mud already there.
Astrid patted Stormfly on the breast. “Good girl,” she said.
“Punch him in the eye!” Tuffnut hooted. He socked his palm to demonstrate.
“This really isn’t how you’re supposed to arm wrestle,” Fishlegs said.
“Cram it, Fishlegs,” Ruffnut grunted, “or I’ll cram my fist into your eye.”
Astrid kicked the table, hard enough to jolt them all. Snotlout slammed Ruffnut’s hand down, nearly throwing her over with it. The plates rattled; a knife clattered to the floor. Ruffnut stared in open-mouthed horror at her hand, pinned.
“Hey! No fair!”
Tuffnut started laughing.
“Oh, my bad,” Snotlout said, gesturing with both hands to his chest, “did I just win? ‘Cause I just won.”
“I’m going to take my spear,” Ruffnut said, crawling on to the table like a particularly unwelcome spider, “and I’m going to cram that—”
“Has anyone seen Hiccup?” Astrid demanded.
“Babe, any time you want to cram something in me,” Snotlout leered. He squinted. “Huh. Wait—”
“No,” Ruffnut said, grabbing him by the shirt and showing her teeth, “we’re gonna do that right now—”
“Wait, wait,” Tuffnut said, “let me go grab my bat—”
If Hiccup were here he would have rolled his eyes and said something snotty under his breath; but he wasn’t there, so Astrid just grabbed the largest food tray on the end of the table and whacked both Ruffnut and Snotlout across the head with it. Ruffnut yowled. Astrid tossed the tray, festively dented, onto the table between them.
“Are you guys done?”
“Astrid,” Snotlout said, clutching his brow, “babe—I had no idea you still felt that way about me—”
“Why can’t I ever kill anyone I want to?” Ruffnut moaned, clutching at her own head.
Tuffnut snorted and glared at Astrid. “Ugh. Well, now that you’re here ruining everything. What do you want anyway?”
But, diverted, Astrid asked, “Were you taking bets on this?”
Fishlegs shoved several cards and tokens of different sizes and shapes into his belt pouches. A button slipped free and rolled across the floor; it ran up against Astrid’s foot and stopped there, clattering to the boards.
“No,” Fishlegs said, and he dropped his eyes.
She kicked the button at Tuffnut, who jumped and clasped at his calf.
“Whatever,” Astrid said. She set her hands on her hips. “Have any of you seen Hiccup anywhere?”
“He’s probably hiding from you,” Tuffnut snapped, still rubbing his leg, “since you’re so mad. What, is it your time of the—”
Ruffnut picked up the dented tray and slammed Tuffnut across the face with it. “Idiot,” she said. “Astrid’s always like this. Duh.”
Snotlout stretched, widely so his shoulders popped forward and his biceps tightened. “Why—having a little trouble in paradise? That why you came looking for me?”
“We haven’t seen him,” Fishlegs said quickly when Astrid took a step toward Snotlout. “We figured he’s been with you.”
Tuffnut popped up, fingering at his nose to test it for breaks. He snorted. “Maybe you figured. I don’t waste my time thinking about your touching love story.”
“Ugh, gross,” said Ruffnut, shuddering, “touching. Gag me.”
Astrid huffed through her nose. “Well, thanks anyway,” she grumbled, turning.
“No problem,” said Snotlout breezily, “always happy to help a beautiful maiden.”
“Fishlegs,” Astrid finished, and Snotlout deflated.
“Hey,” Tuffnut said, “Fishlegs—did I win the bet or not?”
“Well, technically, neither of them won,” Fishlegs hedged, “since Astrid did interfere—”
“Hey, you bet against me?” Ruffnut snapped.
“I want my money back!”
“If you can’t find him,” Snotlout shouted after Astrid, “you can come find me!”
It was her own fault, really, she supposed, for thinking Hiccup might have showed his face around them. If he was hiding from Astrid, when she was his—something or other, then why wouldn’t he be avoiding their friends, too? Unless, of course, he wasn’t hiding at all, but then she would have seen him at dinner this evening, or either of the two evenings before. Except for that moment in the clearing she hadn’t seen him once in the last three days, and then she’d only caught a glimpse of his leg, and his shadow from the air.
Astrid stormed out of the great hall. The door banged behind her; she didn’t bother closing it. Folding her arms, she stalked toward the chief’s house, set nearest to the mountain, looking out across the village. If he wouldn’t come to her, she’d come to him, again.
“Stormfly, no,” Astrid whispered as loudly as she dared. “Not now—I don’t want to play.”
Stormfly nattered in her throat and dropped the bucket she’d carried over from—somewhere. Bending, she nudged it to Astrid, and then she tipped her head and keened softly once.
“Stormfly—” Astrid massaged her forehead. “Stormfly, I’m not mad at you.”
She nudged the bucket again.
“I can’t play with you right now,” Astrid protested. “Hiccup’ll be home any moment. And I’m not going to miss him.”
Stormfly rested her chin on the bucket and keened again. Twice, Astrid tapped her fingers on her hips. Then she groaned and stooped to grab the bucket. In a moment, Stormfly was up on her feet and wobbling from one foot to the other, her wings fluttering out then sleeking against her sides again.
It took a half hour of throwing the bucket, and peering up at the night sky for any signs of Hiccup or Toothless, before Stormfly was satisfied that Astrid’s poor mood wasn’t her fault, or that it would prove lasting.
“So now will you go?” Astrid whispered. She scratched Stormfly’s nose for her, and Stormfly chirruped and nuzzled at Astrid’s face. She snapped at Astrid’s hair, drawing it through her mouth and leaving it hanging limp and wet against Astrid’s cheek. But she did go.
Sweeping the soggy hank of hair up and grimacing at it, Astrid found that the night was far lonelier without Stormfly. The bucket sat upside-down in the dirt, and Astrid set it right. Her cheek was slimy, and she rubbed at it with her shoulder, trying to get the spit off before it dried. A cool wind had come down off the north mountain. Astrid hunched against it. Her upper arms, bare, ran over with goosebumps. Leaning against the sturdy wall next to the steps, in the little shadow there that the moon cast, she waited; and she waited alone.
She’d patience enough that when they did at last show—a great shadow moved across the pale half-moon and then descended in an arc toward the foot of the hill—Astrid was still there. She rose from the crouch she’d settled into and winced; the muscles in her calves pulled tight. She shook her legs out and then she stuck her chin out.
Hiccup’s voice, hushed, drifted to her. “Stop worrying. I just need to make some adjustments.”
Toothless’ growl vibrated heavily.
“Shush! You’re gonna wake my dad up. And you know he’s going to want to know where we’ve been if he sees us coming in like this—”
Astrid stepped out of the shadow. Toothless spotted her first. The flaps along his cheeks fanned out then eased, and he smiled gummily. Hiccup’s head was down; he didn’t notice Astrid. He had a large satchel slung over his shoulder and he was fussing with the stays of his shirt, a red one that was too small for his shoulders now that he’d grown again. He’d started shooting up when they were sixteen and here, two years down, he was still growing like a vine. Skinny like a vine, too: all his clothes hung off him.
“It’s a good question,” Astrid said, and Hiccup jumped back into Toothless and nearly fell to the ground. “Where have you been?”
“Astrid,” Hiccup gasped. He grappled at his chest. “Ohhh, my gods. Why would you hide there?”
The rock-strewn dirt crunched underfoot. She crossed to Hiccup, sauntering so he’d know precisely how serious she was about this.
“I’m waiting for you.”
“In the shadows?” Hiccup glanced at Toothless for support, but Toothless looked away and smacked his gum. “At night? I almost choked on my heart.”
“But you didn’t.”
“That’s why I said ‘almost.’”
“So,” Astrid said, coming to a stop before him. She tipped her face up. “Answer the question, Hiccup. Where have you been?”
He drummed his fingers on the satchel’s strap. “Out. Flying. I really need to get in and wash up—”
He did: he was sweaty, though much of it had dried, and he smelled strongly of it. As he made to duck around her, Astrid caught him by the breast of his shirt and yanked him to her. He drove his prosthetic leg into the dirt, for balance, and only swayed into her a little. The sweat-clumped mess of his hair brushed her face. She caught his gaze, though a moment later his eyes dropped and he turned from her. She smoothed her hand out across his breast, wiping the wrinkles from the shirt.
“Why are you avoiding me?” she asked him.
“I’m not,” he said, and then he sighed and dipped his head. “I’m not avoiding you.”
“Oh,” said Astrid, nodding. “So that’s why I haven’t seen you anywhere? For three days? Because you’re not avoiding me?”
“It’s—I can’t really explain it,” Hiccup said. He covered her hand with his own.
“So?” She thumped him on the chest. His hand fell from hers. “Try me.”
He sucked in his lip and darted a look at her. Her fingers curled in his shirt.
“We’re a team,” Astrid said. “Remember? You and me.”
She’d set her hand on the right side of his chest, and so she could not feel his heart beating. She saw, instead, his pulse as it fluttered in his throat. He glanced at her again and this time it held.
He sighed, drooping. “I remember.”
Astrid smiled thinly, pleased. She leaned in to look sharply up at him from very close, so very close his breath caught. The moonlight illuminated half his face; the other half stood in shadow. His eyelashes were a dark spray around his eyes. One showed pale green, the other dark: a trick of the light. They stood very near to each other. She took a step, closing what distance remained. Their chests nearly touched; their knees.
“Good,” she said, lowly. He swallowed. “Are you going to explain it now?”
Hiccup brushed the outside of her upper arm with his knuckles. His skin was sticky, faintly; she didn’t know how he’d managed to work up a sweat flying and at night.
“Not right this second, no,” he said. He stepped back, away from her hand, and bumped again into Toothless, who grumped. Hiccup patted Toothless’ leg.
“It’ll be easier to show you.”
The chill worked its way back in, and Astrid crossed her arms. The wind pricked her nape. It would have been very easy to step to him again, to hook her fist in his shirt and pull him down. She tightened her arms.
“Every time you show me something,” Astrid said, “I wind up wanting to punch you.”
He smiled. His cheeks creased. “Not every time.”
Astrid arched her eyebrows.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll show you tomorrow morning. Before I go to work.”
She uncrossed her arm and, reaching across the little distance he’d made, jabbed him in the chest. “You’d better.”
“I will!” He ground the heel of his hand against his breast, right where she’d poked him, and frowned. His nose wrinkled. He looked, as he always did when he made fussy expressions like that, like something she wanted badly to tease.
She settled back and squared her shoulders. Stuck her chin back out, too, so he wouldn’t think she’d wanted for even a moment to flick his nose.
“Good,” Astrid said again. “So I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow morning,” Hiccup repeated. His eyelashes dripped: he was hiding something, all right. He glanced off, and some dirty hank of hair tumbled down his cheek. The freckles there were like spots of copper, lit like that by the moon.
She unfolded her arms. Her finger caught in the half-done stays of his shirt. His head came up, his eyes wide. His lips were parting. The two crooked front teeth on top peeked between them. Astrid leaned close once more, this time to kiss him softly, fleetingly.
“Don’t forget it,” she said, her lips brushing his. She let him go.
“Right,” Hiccup said. He blinked. “Tomorrow.”
“Good night,” Astrid said. She turned.
Hiccup held his hand up to wave good-bye.
“Toothless,” she added, and she grinned at the look on Hiccup’s face.
Toothless yodeled a farewell of his own, and Astrid left them there, Hiccup scolding Toothless for “waking the whole village up!” and looking after her, watching her go.
Stoick had gone out for the morning; she’d passed him on the way up. He’d nodded to her as she slowed and tried not to look as though she were going to his home, especially at such an early hour; especially when Hiccup was there alone. Alone, of course, but for Toothless, and clever though Toothless was he was no real chaperone.
“The lad’s still in bed,” Stoick advised her as she walked vaguely around him on the path. “Don’t be too rough on him, eh?” And he’d clapped her shoulder in a friendly sort of way.
Red-faced, Astrid bolted for the safety of the next turn in the path. Stoick had never minded the change in her relationship with his heir; rather, he seemed to approve and heartily. She wished he would approve less heartily. Her ears burned. Astrid kicked a rock into the grass, frightening a Terrible Terror out of their morning nap. The little dragon squeaked and then ducked back down into the undergrowth; the grass shivered as it ran off. She took a deep breath and stood there till the heat in her face had gone.
The door was unbarred. Toothless, coiled around the great central hearth, uncurled just enough to lift a wing and peer at her. His warning growl drifted into something more of a question, and she stopped on her way to the stairs to rub his face. He snuffed at her fingers. His tongue slipped out, just the tip: he licked her wrist.
“Good morning,” she whispered, and Toothless wiggled forward to set his chin on her cupped hands.
She got her nails in under the tightly laid scales back beneath his chin, near to his throat. Toothless lidded his eyes and rumbled.
“Shh,” Astrid said. “Don’t wake him up.”
Sleepily he winked one eye then the other at her, and then he yawned, showing off his gums. She relented and gave him another scratch right on the end of his chin.
“Quiet,” she reminded him sternly. “This is a surprise.”
He still huffed when she stood, a low and disapproving noise.
At the foot of the stairs, Astrid called, hushed: “Stop complaining! Like he doesn’t spoil you.”
Toothless huffed again. No one had ever loved him. Now even Astrid abandoned him.
“Go back to sleep,” she suggested.
He yawned again, his tongue roiling. Sleep was a good idea after all. He’d be up again shortly, wanting to fly.
Astrid crept up the stairs, twenty all in a row, though she skipped over the fifth and twelfth steps; they liked to creak. The loft was dimly lit. Hiccup had left a candle burning some few hours ago, and it went on burning though little wick was left to it. He’d stayed up to the wee hours yet again, and while he’d made it to bed he’d taken a journal and a stick of charcoal with him.
She bent over Hiccup, tracking the dark smudges on his nose, his cheek, the line running from the corner of his mouth to his chin. She thought he might have tried to eat the charcoal in his sleep. Holding her breath, she managed not to laugh. He’d fallen asleep like that, the journal open and mashed under his shoulder, the charcoal trapped now under his jaw, one arm flung off the edge of the bed and the other tucked under his belly. His foot stuck off the end of the bed.
The candle guttered. Astrid crossed to the foot of the bed and considered his foot. He shifted some in his sleep, but he only stuck his leg out further. He was too long for this bed now. Astrid ran her fingernails from his heel, down the arch, to his toes. His foot curled, and he grumbled, so she did it again, wriggling her fingers as she tickled at Hiccup.
His toes spread. She caught the big toe and squeezed it.
Hiccup stilled. She brushed her thumb along the wide pad beneath his toes. His head popped up. He’d washed his hair before bed; that was obvious. Drying as he’d slept, his hair had grown wild, half of it flat and the other half sticking in all sorts of directions. He squinted at her. Creases lined his cheek.
“Good morning,” she sang at him. “Do you remember what day it is?”
He squinted more intently.
“Tomorrow,” she corrected. She shook his foot for emphasis.
“Tomorrow?” he echoed. He frowned blearily. “That doesn’t make sense. Tomorrow is—”
“Today,” she said.
His squint grew so severe she thought he was about to fall back to sleep. Then, abruptly, he sat up. The journal’s pages crinkled. He fumbled for it, snapping the book shut.
“Tomorrow,” he said.
“You didn’t forget, did you?” Astrid tickled the undersides of his toes.
He fell back against the bed. “No.”
She waited for him to work through it. Mornings could be rough. From downstairs, Toothless barked. Hiccup passed his hands over his face.
“Could you hand me my, um—that—” He pointed generally.
The false leg and its cuff sat on the bedside table. She squeezed his foot in parting and went to fetch it. Sitting up, he rubbed at his face again, and then he twitched the fur blanket back and swung his legs out over the edge. The truncated leg ended just short of halfway down his calf. He’d gone to bed in just the nightshirt, and that ended at his thighs, and so his knees jutted out, bony and freckled.
Hiccup reddened. He laid his arm across his lap.
“Sorry,” he said. “That’s not—it happens, in the morning.” His freckles were dark in the blush.
“It’s not the first time I’ve seen it,” Astrid said, but she was red too. She brushed her hair back from her eyes and lifted her chin. “Here’s your leg.”
Hiccup took the prosthetic from her. The straps of the cuff flapped. He fixed the leg in place while she waited, purposefully not looking away. The leg didn’t bother, nor did his morning’s erection; it was the thought of Stoick’s amusement, as they passed one another on the path, that had her bothered and needing to show she wasn’t bothered.
He braced his leg on the floorboard and stood, testing it. The fit was right. He pulled at his nightshirt’s collar and peeked at her.
“I need to change.”
Astrid stood there a moment, frowning at him, or really not at him at all, but at the likelihood that his father had an idea of the sort of things that crossed her mind now and then, like when she saw Hiccup strapping his leg on in nothing but a nightshirt with most of his thighs sticking out from under the hem, and spread too.
“What?” she said.
The flush spread to Hiccup’s ears. Again, he pulled at his nightshirt.
“It’d be easier for me to change if you weren’t in … here.”
“What?” said Astrid, and then she stiffened. “Oh,” she said. “Right. I’ll be downstairs.” Then carelessly she added, “Take your time.”
She wanted to swallow her tongue. Spinning on her heel, she walked calmly to the stairs; she walked as calmly down the steps. Toothless lifted his head at the first creaking step, and his cheek flaps fluttered at the second creak. He hummed.
Astrid offered Toothless her hands again. He was more than happy to accept any attention that meant he got scratched under the chin and behind the flaps. The smoke of the evening fire lingered in the scent that clung to Toothless, and his scales were warm. Pressing her hands flat on either of his cheeks, she pushed the cold out of her fingers. He grinned at her and shook his head so she scratched at his eye ridges.
Her thoughts circled like sea birds, disturbed from their nests. It was embarrassing, to be embarrassed. Worse, to think she’d wanted to wrap her arms around Hiccup’s waist and walk him backwards, into bed. Toothless bumped her with his nose. Absently, she petted him.
“Okay,” Hiccup called down at last, his voice muffled. “Don’t look until I say so. All right?”
“When I said take your time,” Astrid said, “I thought…” Likely it was for the best that she never got the chance to finish.
Toothless looked over Astrid’s shoulder at the stairs. His flaps sleeked, flattening along his neck. He growled.
Astrid was turning as Hiccup said, “Toothless, come on—don’t be like that—”
The seventh step down from the top creaked. Their eyes met. Astrid clapped a hand over her mouth.
“I said don’t look!” Hiccup said, but the high, wide collar that fanned up around the lower half of his face weakened the panic in his voice.
Astrid clapped the other hand over her mouth too, but the laughter got out anyway; it leaked around her fingers. She turned her back to him and doubled over, trying desperately not to laugh. Her eyes burned. Toothless nudged at her, his breath hot on her cheek. She shook her head—no, she was fine—but she needed another moment before she could breathe again.
“See,” Hiccup grumbled, the fifth step from the bottom creaking, “this is why I didn’t want to show you.”
She took one deep breath; she took another. She took four, all told, before she’d the control to face him, and even then it was a near a thing. She had to wrinkle her nose hard to keep from bursting out.
“So,” she said, tremblingly, “what exactly are you wearing?”
Toothless leaned over her shoulder and whuffed, disgusted.
Hiccup tried for dignity. He stuck his nose up and brushed at the sleeves: black leather, tailored tightly to his arms. Leathery things draped from his arms, things with bones set in them, like wings. Those were black, too. Well, Astrid thought, no wonder he’d been so sweaty last night.
“It’s a flight suit,” he said, pulling the collar down. He scowled at Toothless, who had whuffed again. “Well, I know you don’t like it, you big baby, but this is going to be a huge help.”
Toothless glared and then looked sidelong at Astrid as if to say, Do you see what I have to put up with? She patted Toothless’ nose.
Hiccup was checking the front of the suit: lots of straps, all of it leather but for the metal buckles, and even more things she didn’t know why he’d put on it. She’d a sudden memory, very sharp, of discovering Hiccup at the cove, and he’d that bizarre leather harness on, the iron ring at the center of his chest. She hadn’t known what to think then, except that he was up to something even stranger than what she’d nebulously suspected. Taking one last deep breath, she held it and then let it out. The worst of the impulse to laugh went out with it.
“Okay,” she said. “It’s a flight suit. What’s a flight suit, exactly?”
His eyelashes rose. He met her gaze. His mouth turned up; his face lit.
“I’m still working on it,” he hedged. “It’s not really ready yet…”
“So?” she said, matching his smile. There was some relief in her own. So, so: it had only been that he’d a project.
“Well,” Hiccup said, and then the urge to show off overcame whatever perfectionist’s recalcitrance he held onto. He held his arms out as she circled him slowly. “If Toothless and I get separated when we’re flying, that’s real bad news—”
Astrid nodded and reached for his shoulder, testing the strength of the guard there. Hiccup turned his head, following her. The line of his jaw had sharpened in the last few months. His lips curved.
“So I thought, if I could fly, too—”
“If you could fly?” Astrid stopped, holding on to his shoulder.
“Well,” he said, catching her hand, “really it’s more like gliding; it isn’t really flying. Mostly it’s just a precaution, like, if I get knocked off Toothless then I can catch up with him better if I have the wings to help. But I need to figure out a spine fin, that’s important for steering I think—” His gaze drifted. He was thinking out loud again, as he tended to do when he got going.
Astrid fingered the drape of one of Hiccup’s wings with her free hand. The leather was soft, supple, well-worked. He’d been crafting this for some time, all of it in secret. She drew her hand free of his and whacked his arm hard with the back of her hand.
“Hey!” said Hiccup, affronted. He grabbed at his shoulder. His long eyebrows pinched together. “What—what was that for?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It isn’t ready,” he said, as if that were obvious.
Astrid threw her gaze to the ceiling. “So that means you have to run around ignoring me for three days?”
“I wasn’t—ignoring you,” Hiccup said, “I was just…”
“I didn’t want anyone to see it before it’s done!”
“You always do this!” Astrid said. “You get into some brain-y zone, and you forget about everything else.”
“I didn’t forget about you,” Hiccup said, and he flushed. “I just—sort of—didn’t tell you.”
“What,” said Astrid, “did you think I was going to laugh at you?”
“You did!” He gestured. “You did laugh at me. You just laughed at me.”
“Because I thought you were getting dressed for the day like a normal person!” she said, and she started laughing again.
“You thought it looked ridiculous,” he accused her. “You thought I looked like a dork.”
“You always look like a dork,” Astrid said, waving that away. “Did you forget? That I like you? So I must like dorky-looking guys?”
“Wow,” said Hiccup dryly. “That makes me feel so much better. Thank you.”
She set her hands on his chest, flat on either side. His breath hooked in his throat. Toothless, at Astrid’s back, stomped around the hearth and made another grumbling sound.
“Next time,” Astrid said, staring at Hiccup, “tell me. Do you know how awful it is? Feeling like you’re avoiding me? Like you’ve forgotten me?”
His eyes dropped. He was looking at her, all of her, from her brow to her chin and then her throat, then lower.
“Yeah,” he said.
She glanced to her hands on his chest, so she would not see the softness in his face. Clearing her throat, she said, “Not that I haven’t had fun watching Snotlout and Ruffnut try to break each other’s arms for the last couple of nights.”
“Ah,” said Hiccup, “that’s the kind of home grown entertainment you can’t find anywhere but Berk.”
He covered her hands on his chest, his fingers warm on the backs of her hands.
“I won’t do it again,” he said.
She tossed her hair back, trying for withering coolness.
“You’d better not,” she said, “or I’ll break your arms.”
Hiccup smiled. His eyes shone.
“You wouldn’t,” he said. “You know—I think maybe you even love me.”
She snorted and looked away. “I put up with you.”
“Oh, Astrid,” Hiccup said, “you’re so romantic. I can see why I love you.”
“Hm,” she said, “‘love.’ Fancy words from a guy who let me fall in the mud yesterday.”
“And if I tried to pick you up,” he said, “you’d, what—not take offense?”
“If you tried to pick me up,” Astrid said, making a show of thinking it over. “I think I’d be okay with that. Since we’re a team and all.”
He curled his fingers, clasping her wrists.
“I’m sorry,” Hiccup said.
“Making you think I forgot you,” he said shyly.
“Well,” Astrid said, “I’m sorry for laughing at you.”
Hiccup laughed at that. He stepped closer to her, close so their knees brushed, then their thighs. His metal foot clicked.
“I kind of like it when you laugh at me,” Hiccup said. The tip of his nose ghosted along her cheek.
“I’ll try to remember that,” Astrid said, “the next time you put this on.”
He bent his head. Her fingernails pricked at the leather of his chest piece. The wings hanging at his elbows rustled as he wound his arms around her. She tipped her head back and opened her mouth, drawing him in. He sighed and pressed nearer to her, and Astrid leaned up to meet him. Heat—hard heat—met her leg. She jumped, and he broke the kiss. His ears were red again.
“Sorry,” he fumbled. “I’m—it’s just the morning.”
She swallowed around the beating of her heart, thick in her throat. Breathlessly—just a bit—she said, “Are you sorry that it’s just because of the morning? And not because of me?”
The pounding in her ears, that was her heart too. They stood, trapped together and against each other, so that she knew his heart thrummed too, as quickly as hers did in her chest and her throat and her ears. The quickness with which his heart traipsed steadied her.
“What?” said Hiccup. His fingers locked together at the small of her back. He had to duck his chin to his neck to look at her. “No. I mean, yes, it’s the morning, but it’s definitely also because of you.”
“Good,” said Astrid. She wondered if she’d another few inches left to grow, too. She’d like to tip her head back less to meet his eyes, when they stood flush to one another. Her lips brushed his chin, over the old scar still bright along his jaw. Hiccup shivered.
“Because if it was just the morning,” she teased, “I’d turn around and leave.”
“Then I guess fortune smiles on both of us,” said Hiccup, “because I would wager it’s probably sixty, sixty-two percent you. Yeah. That sounds right. Sixty-three percent for sure.”
“Oh,” she said, laughing, “sixty-three percent. For sure?”
“One hundred percent for sure it’s sixty-three percent,” he said, grinning.
Oh, forget Stoick, she thought. He thought they were doing things up here anyway, so what difference would it make if they didn’t do anything at all? She could hardly go up to him and say, “Chief, I want you to know, I didn’t fool around with Hiccup this morning.”
So she rose and kissed Hiccup, as gently as she knew how. He rested his brow against hers. His eyes closed, lashes dark against his cheeks, freckles dark too, his hair laced through with red.
“I did miss you,” he said.
She smiled into their next kiss, his lips warm as he moved to match her.
“I can tell.”
“No,” he grumbled, “not—well, yes, that too, but I missed—you—”
Her chest was warm, sweetly so. She dropped another kiss on the scar on his chin, and two more on the large freckles nearest to it, one to each.
“I missed you too. Dork.”
“I thought you liked dorks,” he murmured, nuzzling her cheek. His jaw, very sparsely hairy, scratched.
“Who told you that?” Astrid turned to kiss the corner of his jaw. “I love dorks.”
He exhaled shakily. “Also—maybe you could make some suggestions. I have to—redesign the wings—”
She drew his lower lip between her teeth. Hiccup’s hands fisted, low on her back; he pulled her to him, though he could only pull her so far when he’d that leather on and she’d her own day’s wear. She nipped his lip.
“Maybe figure out some—sort of streamlining the suit,” he said, winded, “if you’re—if you want to—you don’t have to—”
He dipped, tasting her teeth. Astrid twisted her fingers in his hair and tugged till he groaned. His head fell back, his long throat flashing. The knob in his throat bobbed.
“Sure,” she said, kissing the apple. “That sounds fun.”
Toothless warbled at them.
“In a minute, buddy,” Hiccup said, all in a rush, “I’ll take you outside in a minute—you can go out without me if you have to, uh, in the bushes—”
“Don’t go up the stairs backwards,” Astrid laughed, “Hiccup, you’ll trip—”
“I’ve lived in this house my whole life,” he said, “or, well, a series of very similarly designed houses in this exact spot, so I think I know my way around these stairs.”
He caught his flesh heel on a step and stumbled, and Astrid lunged to catch him. Giggling, they struggled up together, his arms around her, her arms around him. Astrid glanced downstairs, and Toothless was crouching at the foot of the stairs, his head tilted as he watched them. The flaps at the back of his head trembled.
Astrid waved at him over Hiccup’s shoulder. Toothless smiled gummily at her.
“Now where,” said Hiccup, “did I leave that bed?”
“I don’t know,” Astrid said, “you’re the one who’s lived here your whole life.”
“Oh, very funny! Ha! Sarcasm!” said Hiccup. “That’s good, that’s—that’s great, actually.”
“Stop talking,” Astrid told him.
She fumbled with the first strap around his chest. She thought it held the shoulder guard in place, but she couldn’t entirely tell: like many of his inventions in their early stages, this flight suit was needlessly complicated.
“You love it when I talk,” Hiccup argued. He got the buckle undone for her and then went to work on the rest. “You missed my melodious voice, admit it.”
“You’re right,” she said easily, “I did,” and she shut him up, or she tried to. No one could really shut Hiccup up. She supposed she loved that too. "You're still talking."
He said, "Ah, there's that exasperation I've missed so much," and then he ran his hands up her arms to her shoulders and they tumbled together to his bed.