Six young Vikings stood on the overlook above the docks as several longboats set sail toward the horizon. Their faces were impassive as they all had at least one, if not both, parents on a vessel bound for another dangerous search for the dragons' nest. They were all twelve years old – except for Snotlout who had just turned thirteen the month before – and had all been deemed old enough to fend for themselves for the week or more that the older Vikings would be gone, rather than having to stay with relatives as in years past.
In quiet each one contemplated the great responsibility laid upon them and how they would strive to serve the village as productive members.
"Woohoo!" Snotlout exclaimed breaking the calm, lifting his arms overhead. "I'm in charge! All you losers better do what I say or else."
"And who says you're in charge?" Ruffnut asked under heavily lidded eyes.
"Since both the chief and my dad are on the hunt that makes me next in line."
Hiccup made the slightest shake of his head. By all rights he was the next in line, being the son of the chief and all, but no one was going to ever listen to anything he said, so he was better off just not making an issue out of it.
Unfortunately he had Fishlegs to do it for him. "Uh, wouldn't that be Hiccup?"
Hiccup's face burned hot as Snotlout, Ruffnut, and Tuffnut swiveled their heads toward him, and then as one burst out laughing. "Yeah, good one, Whalebutt!" Snotlout said, slapping Fishlegs on the shoulder. "I knew there was a reason I keep you around: you're always good for a laugh. Well, you losers can stand here like sissies, but I'm going to break into my dad's secret ale stash!"
He took off running towards his house.
"Hey, wait up!" Tuffnut cried trying to chase after him, but Ruffnut tripped his foot.
"Not before me, mungpie!" she yelled, flipping his helmet off and causing him to chase after it with a yelp of indignation.
"I'll get you for that, goat breath!"
"You'll have to catch me first!"
And then the two were nothing but a blur of flying blonde hair.
Fishlegs glanced at Hiccup with an apologetic smile and a shrug of his massive shoulder before turning and toddling off after the other three. They had once been friends many years ago until Snotlout had suddenly declared Fishlegs "cool in a nerdy sort of way" and started including the large boy in any activities the small crowd got into. Hiccup suspected it was more about stripping him of a friend than any real interest in Fishlegs, but he would never say that to the other boy's face.
Sighing, Hiccup was about to turn around and head to the blacksmith's shop, where he had a very strict set of chores he was expected to complete with Gobber gone, none of them including the forge or anything with a blade. He paused, however, when he heard a low snuffling sound to his left. Shifting his eyes ever so slightly, he noticed that Astrid was still standing next to him. Already his heart started palpitating painfully as he watched her lift a small, perfect hand to her nose. He found it difficult to look her directly in the face at such close range, like how staring directly at the sun would blind you for a few moments. She sniffled again and took a ragged breath, and he began to wonder if she were crying. That seemed like an illogical assumption, but there she was, head bent, sniffling, breath hitching…
Hiccup started at the unexpectedly loud expulsion from the slender girl next to him, but he recovered enough to put his hand out when she tottered unsteadily. "Whoa, there, uh, Astrid. Are…are you, um, sick?"
She swiveled her face to him with an expression of surprise, as if she didn't even know he was still there, just like all the other times that she simply looked through him. He didn't exist in her world, why would she be expected to notice him?
"Sick?" she repeated, and now he did note the bloodshot and puffy eyes, and the red nose that was leaking fluid like a mountain stream after a big storm. "I'b not sick!" This was followed by a hacking cough that doubled her over and caused her to stumble against him.
"Okay, sure, you're healthy as a Gronckle. Let's get you to the healer so she can look after you."
"No!" Astrid shouted and then blinked rapidly. "I'b a tough Biking warrior and tough Biking warriors do not get sick!"
Hiccup took a deep breath, weighing his options. He could just leave her on her own, but his heart nearly ached at the sight of her obvious discomfort, especially as she placed a hand to her mouth and sneezed cutely against it, followed by a decidedly unladylike snort.
"All right, then, no healer, but at least let me help you get home. Okay?"
"I can find home," she said indignantly as she teetered dangerously towards the edge of the platform.
He grabbed her arm and steered her gently back toward the village. "Yep, you sure can. You're Astrid the Mighty. All us mere mortals tremble in your wake."
This elicited an unexpected giggle from the girl. "You're kind ob funny, you know that?"
"That's right. Hiccup the Hilarious. Don't you forget it." They shuffled on for a little while in silence until he steeled himself enough to say, "I can't believe your parents would just go off and leave you like this."
"I'b perfectly capable ob taking care ob byself! I'b twelb years old!" Her free hand swung wide toward him, but he ducked it easily. However the momentum spun her completely around and she cried out dizzily. Hiccup grabbed her around the waist to stabilize her. Surprisingly he didn't immediately faint from the intimate gesture, though he did notice the enticing scent of honeysuckle drifting from her hair.
"Yeah, you're doing just fine on your own," he replied putting her back on he right direction. "I'm just here to make sure you don't faceplant into the gutter and drown yourself. Then who would protect us from all those nasty dragons?"
"Exactly," she said agreeably. "Just like you; without you who would….what do you do again?"
Hiccup sighed. "Sharpen those pretty weapons that kill the dragons."
"Right!" she said lifting a finger into the air. "Sharp weapons are important! Blunt weapons are pretty goob too."
Hiccup nodded automatically as she started rambling about various weapons, their speeds and weights, and why she liked them or not. Amazingly, she began to sound like Fishlegs spouting off random facts. He made mental note never to tell her about that comparison in his lifetime.
They finally arrived at the Hofferson homestead and Hiccup paused outside the door, feeling hesitant to simply open it and walk in. He looked at Astrid, but she was staring at her feet relating the time she tried throwing her father's hammer only to have it drop on her foot.
"…couldn't walk for two weeks. Neber using a habber again!"
"Um, Astrid, we're here. Should I, uh, just, um, you know…"
"So open it."
"Um, okay, that's fine. Sure." He lifted the latch and swung the door open, then sidled through, his arm still wrapped around her waist. Once inside, he felt reluctant to remove it. They stood side-by-side for a moment as he looked around. The single ground floor room looked familiar, being that it shared the same general floor plan of every other domicile in Berk, but there something else about the cozy home that struck his memory. "Have I been here before?" he asked out loud, though he wasn't specifically addressing Astrid.
"Ob course you were," she answered anyway. "Your mom brought you here to play almost ever day until she died." With that pronouncement, she shifted out of his arm and walked to the water barrel and lifted the scoop out of it, taking a long drink. "I'b so thirsty," she announced, wiping the corners of her mouth.
Hiccup glanced away and saw the large battleaxe displayed predominantly on the wall. He recognized it with a small smile. The Hofferson's had commissioned Gobber to craft it for Astrid's twelfth birthday. Hiccup had eagerly hovered around the master blacksmith offering his services in any way possible, though he had only succeeded in angering Gobber enough to get kicked out of the stall altogether for the afternoon. Someday, he thought, I'm going to make her an even better axe, a perfect one.
"Hiccub?" He turned to see her standing at his elbow.
"Hey. Astrid. Hi. Um." He was suddenly confused and unsure. His original plan – Get Astrid Home – had been completed, and now he didn't know what he should do. He noticed her eyes drooping even as she lifted a hand to rub across her ever-dripping nose. He thought of the old days, the ones when his mother was still alive, and the things she would do when he didn't feel good. It was long ago, but he was pretty sure she would have sent him to bed right away. "You should, uh, you should probably get to um, you know, bed?" He winced at the last word, expecting another attempted blow.
She sighed and glanced around. "You're probably right." But she remained stationary, wavering slightly on her feet. Suddenly she grabbed hold of her arms and shivered. "So cold." This was followed by another round of coughing.
Hiccup frowned at looked at the hearth that was still burning strong. The room was actually quite warm. "All right," he sighed to himself as he took her arm and maneuvered her to the stairs. He stood behind her and placed a hand on each elbow. "One at a time. You can do it."
"Why wouldn't I be able to do it?" she scoffed over her shoulder, even as her boot toe caught the rise of the next step and she pitched forward.
"That's why," he told her dryly as he caught her arms and steadied her. They mounted each step in tandem, though she managed to ascend the rest of the way without incident. "Have you really never been sick before?" he asked as they reached the loft.
"No," she said with what he suspected was a moan of frustration. It was…adorable, and he felt his stomach flip in response.
"I guess you're human after all," he whispered with a small smile, though if she heard him she gave no indication, and since he was still dangerously close to the stairs where one light shove could send him tumbling backwards, he counted himself blessed by the gods.
"That's my room," she said pointing in a vague direction. "I should probably…"
"Yeah. Um, I'll just wait out here, you know, in case you need, um, help, I mean not that you need help help, but if you fall or get hurt, or Ragnarok comes, or…"
"Shut up, Hiccub," she said and wandered into her room.
"Right, shut up, Hiccup!" he hissed to himself. His face was flushed and he raked his hands through his hair violently as he paced on the landing. He couldn't believe the situation he was in: standing outside Astrid Hofferson's bedroom, while she was removing…Oh! Don't think about it! He pressed fists into his eyes as punishment for even imagining what was going on in that room. She was sick, that was what was important, she was sick and vulnerable and he was the only one here to help her. He allowed himself a small chuckle of victory as he imagined Snotlout's face if he ever found out. Not that he would ever know. No, Hiccup had no intention of ever speaking of this to another living being, if he hoped to keep all limbs firmly attached to his body instead of being forcibly removed by a very large axe. He would carry this to his grave.
"Hiccub?" she called lightly from the room.
"Yeah?" he answered quickly.
"Oh you are still there. You can come in, if you want." She sounded…relieved. Had she thought he would just abandon her now?
"Okay, yeah, sure." The blood had completely drained from his face at the invitation, and he had to consciously remember how to move his feet, but finally he made his way into her room. It was very sparse, just a small cabinet for holding her garments, a polished bit of metal hanging on the wall next to it so she could see her reflection - he imagined her standing before it every morning plaiting her hair – and her carved wood bed against the back wall, near a very small window. A bear skin covered the middle of the floor.
She was in the bed now, a thick fur cover pulled up to her chin. He saw that she had haphazardly thrown her tunic, leggings, and skirt on the floor and automatically bent to tidy them up.
"You don't have to do that," she said to him.
"It's okay. I've pretty much been picking up around our house since…well since you know." He folded the garments and without thinking opened the cabinet and set them inside. He nearly blanched as he realized what he was doing and shut the door quickly, turning back to her while clearing his throat. She had released her hair and it spilled like sunshine around her face as her rheumy blue eyes regarded him. He stood uncertainly, completely at a loss for what to do now.
She lifted a hand from the covers and patted next to her on the bed. "Sit with me until I fall asleep?"
Now Hiccup was sure she was delirious, but he complied, sitting down on the edge of the bed fiddling his hands together nervously, while his eyes danced uneasily around the room and his heart made a solid attempt at breaking out of his chest. He nearly jumped out of his skin as he felt her hand slip over his. It was scorching hot, as if she had been working near the forge, but the grip was firm enough. He let his other hand fall over hers and she smiled as she let her eyes close peacefully.
"Thank you for taking care of me," she muttered, squeezing his hand lightly. Reflexively he squeezed back and just watched her and watched and watched long after she completely relaxed into sleep and started snoring as loud as he had ever heard from his father's room.
It was nearly dark before he eventually slipped out of the small home, but when Astrid finally awoke, she found a large simmering pot of stew waiting for her over the hearth.