Hiccup and Stoick have both learned a lot about dragons since Hiccup and Toothless brought down the Red Death. Since the peace with, no, the partnership between dragons and Vikings began.
Most importantly, they've learned that Toothless needs to sleep on the ground floor, since his weight makes the upper level creak threateningly. Which means that Hiccup's things have likewise moved to the ground floor, since they've also learned that Toothless refuses to allow Hiccup more than 10 feet away from him. A nervous dragon is a dangerous dragon, after all, so they make changes.
Hiccup apologizes to his dad for the sudden rearrangement of living conditions, but Stoick shakes it off and, in typical Stoick fashion, goes further than he really needs to, tearing a hole in the side of the house and building a Toothless-sized addition (now without blankets, after Toothless nearly set the whole house on fire with his nightly settling-in routine). He even widens the entrance to the house, and even though he claims it's to accommodate his own (increasing) girth, Toothless whuffs in disbelief, and Hiccup can't hide his grin.
It's a good arrangement for all of them, really. Even if Toothless didn't insist on staying by Hiccup's side all the time, stairs are harder to manage than they used to be. Going up is one thing. Going down when one foot no longer responds the way he expects it to is harrowing. He doesn't need to break a limb, or worse, not now that his injuries from the battle with the Red Death have finally healed. Well. Y'know. Mostly.
So if the rafters groan with discomfort when Stoick settles down each night, and if Toothless snores when he's dreaming, and the light from the fire just on the other side of the supporting pillar sometimes keeps Hiccup awake thinking about things he'd rather not remember, it's not really a problem. It's just something to get used to.
Kind of like he has to get used to the fact that he never gets to sleep in anymore. Not that the early morning, enthusiastic, fishy-smelling dragon-pouncings are bad, exactly. They're immensely better than early morning dragon attacks, after all. They're just constant and. And early.
Before sunrise early.
But he gets used to that, too, the same way he's gotten used to everything else around him changing. (“Hiccup the Flexible,” Astrid sometimes calls him, with a look in her eyes that makes his words catch in his throat and his face turn redder than his hair.)
So when he wakes one morning to the glow of sunrise inching in through the skylight and the soft crackling of a dying fire instead of to Toothless' nose in his face, Hiccup's first reaction isn't relief, but fear. Toothless hasn't broken his routine in months. Toothless wouldn't break his routine without good reason. And Hiccup can't think of a single good reason for there to be no Toothless annoying him awake right now. So he rolls onto his side, sits up, and plants his feet (one flesh, one metal, and he'll never get used to that) firmly on the ground. Two breaths later and he's up, and he considers it a personal triumph that he only trips once on his way into Toothless' addition.
There's no skylight in the addition, the the dying embers in the fire can't cast their light this far. There's no movement in the darkness, but Hiccup thinks he can just hear quiet, even breathing. The shape of the sound is right, but the size is all—all wrong.
“Toothless?” No answer. He tries again.
This time, there's a response in the form of movement. Looking carefully, Hiccup can almost make out something in a far corner shifting. The shadow feels right, somehow, so he chances it, braces himself with a hand on the wall, and takes several steps closer. The shadow mimics the movement, slow and just as unsteady. He can hear the rustle and chime of leather and metal close by, and the shadow flops to the ground near his feet, stumbling over something on the floor.
“Hey, buddy,” he says and kneels by Toothless carefully. “You feeling okay? I didn't get my usual morning greeting today.” Hiccup reaches out to rub his partner's nose and stops, his eyes finally adjusting to the barely-there light.
“Oh gods,” says Hiccup.
“Wurrrr,” says Toothless, and buries his face in Hiccup's neck. His breathing evens out into sleep, and all Hiccup can do is sit with him, back to the wall, a hand in his hair.
When Toothless wakes again, it's far less gently than before. The head on Hiccup's shoulder lifts, and even if he can't see clearly, he can feel the sharp movement of Toothless looking around. The arms curled around his waist tighten; he can almost feel the sudden waves of anxiety coming off his partner. Close as they are, he can feel Toothless tensing, the same way he does before taking flight.
Toothless lunges to his feet before Hiccup can stop him. There's a panicked howl in the darkness, and the dull thud of Toothless stumbling into the wall. Going from four legs to two is no easier than from two to one.
“Toothless!” He tries not to sound scared, but it's obviously not working, because Toothless shrieks again, and Hiccup can hear nails clawing at wood and packed earth. They're feeding into each other's fears, and Hiccup knows it, but he can't seem to calm himself down, much less his friend. He wishes suddenly that he'd brought a torch or something for light, and squashes the thought just as fast. He's not sure how Toothless will react once he can see himself properly. He's not sure how he will react.
In the end, it's Hiccup's prosthesis that saves them both, sharp metal jabbing into still sensitive flesh. Hiccup yelps, pain stabbing all the way up to his hip, and his leg gives out under him. Toothless' reaction is predictable and immediate; Toothless wraps his arms around Hiccup and falls with him, rolling so Hiccup lands on top, with no injury other than a slight ding to his pride (and by now, he's pretty used to those). Hiccup lies there for several long heartbeats, eyes squeezed tightly shut. When he finally gathers the nerve to open them again, Toothless huffs. A hand pats him on the back, warm, reassuring, and unmistakably human; he can feel nails catching on wool and wonders just how much Toothless has changed.
“Okay there, buddy?” he asks.
“Whrf,” says Toothless. He sounds exhausted.
Hiccup laughs, breathless. “Yeah, I know just how you feel.”
They stay where they are, sprawled on the floor, for a few minutes more, until Hiccup's curiosity finally bests his fear. Getting up isn't easy, though, not when Toothless growls and yanks him back down every time he tries.
“C'mon, Toothless, let me up. I'm fine, and I want to make sure you're fine, too.” The “rrrr” that answers him doesn't sound convinced, but Toothless lets him up at last.
Getting to his feet is a struggle. Toothless may have let him up, but he hasn't let Hiccup loose, and trying to stand while Toothless sits, clinging to his arm, is awkward, to say the least. When he's finally up, he still feels less than stable. Toothless, it seems, is worse off. They suffer several false starts trying to get the dragon up, and after a while, he resists Hiccup's efforts with a frustrated hiss.
Hiccup shakes his head. “Don't give up now. It's just standing up. You've done harder things.” They both have, but Toothless still seems reluctant. Hiccup thinks for a moment. “...There's fish out there. Cod. Salmon. There might even be some snapper left.”
He can almost see the shadow of something on Toothless' head lift, and the movement is familiar. Now he has his partner's full attention. The mention of fish is enough to get Toothless to try once more and this time they manage to get him to his feet. He wavers and chirrs, uncertain, and leans on Hiccup a little too heavily, but he's up and that's what counts. Hiccup grins; somehow, he has the feeling Toothless can see it.
It still takes them a full candlemark to get from Toothless' addition back into the house proper, but they manage. Slowly. Hiccup glances at the hands curled around his arm, and can't help but marvel at the ink-black skin, the spots of tiny, shining scales covering wrists and finger-joints. He feels like he should be more unnerved by Toothless' sudden change than he is. Maybe he's just getting good at getting used to things. Riding dragons instead of killing them used to be out of the ordinary, too.
“Wrrr,” says Toothless, looking toward the stairs. Hiccup is suddenly glad that his dad is an even earlier riser than the dragon and has been gone hours now.
“It's okay, buddy.” He reaches up (up! Shorter than everyone!) to rub Toothless' forehead and tries not to laugh at the disheveled mess of hair on his head. Toothless' ears lift, and he huffs, his pupils wide. “Dad's been gone a while. You know that.” The light coming in through the skylight is bright enough that he suspects it's late morning at least, which means Stoick will be coming back soon, if only to see that his son is awake. Which in turn means they can't stay. Not when Toothless looks like...this.
Toothless is sniffing at the air now, not paying attention to Hiccup. There are still some fish on the small table near the fire after all; Toothless trills, low in his throat, and heads for it, two quick steps and a stumble, but he makes it. Watching him pick through the slimy carcasses, Hiccup realizes it's not only the shift in balance that has Toothless so unsteady. Three of the toes on his left foot are conspicuously missing. Hiccup feels his heart constrict. There's guilt there, mixed with fascination. Toothless pauses mid-bite and peers over his shoulder at Hiccup, one ear sticking straight up, quizzical. Hiccup waves him off.
“I'm okay, I'm just gonna get a few things.”
The answer seems to be good enough for Toothless; he goes back to the fish, tearing at it noisily. It's enough to make Hiccup's stomach turn.
Fortunately, Hiccup finds a spare set of his dad's trousers downstairs. They're clean, at least, and Toothless looks tall enough that they won't drag on the ground too much. Not enough to trip on anyway. He hopes. He gives up on the idea of a tunic. Anything Stoick wears is large enough that Toothless will swim in it, and Hiccup doubts anything of his will fit over Toothless' arms. It figures that his dragon-turned-human is built more like a Viking than he is. He stuffs a few more things into a basket, his notebook, a few sticks of charcoal, a blanket, and turns back to Toothless who has, by now, finished off a second and third fish.
Toothless whuffs at him, licking his fingers clean of congealed blood and gods only know what else. He cocks his head and the motion makes his ears flop to one side. Hiccup offers him the pants.
“We're going outside, buddy, and you can't go out like that.”
To his relief, Toothless doesn't fight it, though he takes the trousers and holds them upside down thoughtfully for a while. Hiccup can hear him sniffing at the hem, though he can't see it, hidden as Toothless is behind the swath of wool. Toothless sneezes, the same, unimpressed sneeze Hiccup has heard a hundred times before, and wiggles awkwardly into the trousers. He falls over once in the process, and growls at the offending floor, but manages eventually, though he has to hold the pants in place until Hiccup loops a belt around him. As he thought it might, the material puddles around Toothless' feet, and the trousers are baggy enough to look completely ridiculous, but it's better than nothing. The weather's still warm enough that the lack of a tunic won't make a difference.
Dragon mostly clothed, Hiccup peers out the back door. Behind him, Toothless warbles at something, and there's the clatter of wood on wood as he knocks something over. “Toothless!” he hisses over his shoulder. “Stop it!” There's an insulted sniff, but no more noise.
Hiccup doesn't see anyone outside, which is a relief. Even if everyone in the village should be working, Hiccup included, doesn't mean everyone is. At least if anyone is skipping work or training, they're not doing it anywhere near the chief's house. Small mercies. They might as well leave for the cove now, while the coast is clear, and before Stoick shows up.
Toothless peers out over Hiccup's shoulder and huffs. Hiccup grins at him. “Yeah, we're going. C'mon.”
The trek up the hill behind Hiccup's home is harder than he remembers it being in the past. He feels like he's fighting with his prosthesis every step of the way, and Toothless stumbles with the effort of balancing on a set of unfamiliar, compromised legs. By the time they're comfortably inside the forest, he and Toothless are both panting, and Toothless' ears are laid flat against his head. He whines at Hiccup, and Hiccup has to fight the urge to whine back. Instead, he sits on the nearest, lowest rock he can find. Toothless settles behind him and rests his chin on Hiccup's shoulder, purring. His breath tickles. Hiccup bats at him to make him stop; Toothless ignores him.
“Halfway there,” Hiccup says, as much to himself as to Toothless.
Toothless growls and shoves him off the rock.
The second half of the journey is just as slow as the first, and more than once Toothless flops gracelessly on the ground and hisses at Hiccup. He's tired. Hiccup can read it in the slump of his shoulders and the way he pants, open-mouthed, his tongue and sharp, white teeth standing in stark contrast to the rest of him. Hiccup checks the trail; they're not far from the cove, but daylight is fading fast. He wishes, not for the first time, that Toothless still had wings.
When they finally do reach the cove, Hiccup's legs are aching and the only thing he wants is to sit down, but he doesn't dare, not yet. Spending a night here with self-heating Toothless-the-dragon is one thing. Spending a night here with less-self-heating Toothless-the-human is something very different. So while Toothless strips off his too large trousers and hisses alarmingly at his bare-arsed reflection in the lake, Hiccup gathers a good pile of tinder outside a rocky lean-to they've used before and digs his tinderbox out of the traveling basket.
The tinderbox is uncooperative, of course, so Hiccup is forced to squint to see what he's doing, fighting as much with the thin light as with the tinder and flint. He's so focused on it that he jumps in surprise when Toothless “wrrrs” in his ear (where'd he come from?).
“You don't happen to still have fire breath, do you?”
“Hrruff,” says Toothless, and he retreats to the back of the little cave, limping slightly. Hiccup takes that as a no.
Hiccup fights with the tinder a little while longer, until he's completely lost the light, but he's forced to give up in the end. Blankets and body heat will have to do for tonight.
He stumbles through the darkness (and isn't this familiar?), trailing blankets behind him, using the sound of Toothless purring as a guide. A hand grabs his and tugs. Hiccup yelps and stumbles, falling onto Toothless, sending the blankets flying. Toothless curls around him, helps him arrange the blankets over them both, and huffs in his ear. He doesn't sound apologetic in the least for the scare he gave Hiccup.
It's been long enough since he stayed in the cove that he's almost forgotten how quiet it is. But it's nice, really, to doze off with a familiar presence at his back and the quiet chirp of birds settling in for the night in his ears.
If sleep comes easy, though, it doesn't stay that way. Hiccup dreams, dreams in a way he wishes he couldn't, with the heat of fire in his lungs, wind ripping at his hair, and Toothless howling, trying to catch him, save him--
He wakes, screaming, hands grabbing at air, and it still feels like he's falling, and he can feel teeth--teeth--sunk into his foot, his left foot, the one that isn't there anymore--
And then Toothless is on top of him, flattening him into the earth, grounding him, petting at his shoulders, so frantic that Hiccup feels a stab of guilt break through the blind panic that woke him. He reaches out, buries his hands in Toothless' hair, his face in Toothless' throat and just--
They stay like that until Hiccup's breathing goes back to normal, and Toothless' heart stops rabbiting in his chest, and dawn peeks hesitantly into the little cave.
It's not the easiest nightmare he's been woken from, but it's not the worst, either.
Astrid finds them late the next morning. Or rather, Hiccup thinks it's not so much that she's found them as she's waited for them to settle in before showing up.
Hiccup is happy to see her. Toothless' reaction, on the other hand, is less than stellar. There's a brief, mad scramble, with Toothless planted firmly between Astrid and Hiccup, snarling. His ears are flat against his head, vibrating slightly in time to his growl When Astrid makes the mistake of taking a half-step forward, Toothless drops a little lower. It's a clear warning.
Hiccup thinks it's to Astrid's credit that she doesn't seem to be intimidated by the threat of attack from a tall, angry, very naked man.
Still, it won't do for Hiccup's girlfriend to be mauled to death by his dragon. He grabs Toothless by the hair and yanks down. Hard. Toothless yelps and falls, shaken out of his protective rage by the tumble. Hiccup ignores the hiss that follows.
“You brought it on yourself, you know. Don't complain.”
Astrid blinks, looks back and forth between them. Her ax thunks to the ground. She points. “...Toothless?”
Hiccup laughs nervously. “Y-yeah. You caught us. Say hi to the uh. The new and improved Toothless?”
It's also to Astrid's credit that she doesn't faint. Hiccup wants to.
“He looks different,” she says after a while. Leave it to a Viking to state the obvious. She steps closer and crouches by Toothless. He huffs and turns up his nose at her. Hiccup's just relieved he's not snapping. “When did this happen?”
“Yesterday,” says Hiccup. “At least, I think so? He was still. Y'know. Normal before that.” Well. As normal as Toothless ever gets.
Astrid watches Toothless waver to his feet and wander off. The dragon seems satisfied that Astrid means Hiccup no harm. Astrid seems...confused. Not that Hiccup can blame her for it, of course. Even he's still reeling, and he likes to think he's better at taking things in stride than most.
Hiccup can see Astrid mulling over possibilities in her head, her nose crinkled just so. He braces himself for the inevitable--
“Why is he naked?”
“Wow. That's not really the question I was expecting first.” He laughs, nervous, and hopes she can't tell. “I uh. I had to borrow some of Dad's clothes. He didn't really like them.”
“Oh. That makes sense, I guess. Bet they didn't fit.” What an understatement. Across the lake, Toothless has a stick in hand and is poking at something neither of them can see. “So my next question: how did it happen? And how do you fix it?”
There's the question he was waiting for. And there's no good answer to it. Hiccup drops to the ground heavily and buries his face in his hands. “If I knew that, do you think I'd be out here?”
Astrid frowns. He knows that frown. He hates that frown. It's the disapproving/concerned/oh-look-Hiccup's-a-moron frown.
“So you're running away,” she says.
“No! I'm not--” and he stops, because what's about to come out of his mouth is such a lie that he can't say it. “Fine. Fine, yes, I'm running away. I'm running away and I took Toothless with me because that's what I do. I run away from things.”
“Does your dad know?”
Hiccup laughs, but it's strained. “If he knew, do you think we'd be out here?”
“I guess not.”
They fall into an uneasy silence for a while. Hiccup fidgets with his boot. Astrid doesn't look at him. Instead she watches Toothless, bare-arsed and strange. Hiccup glances up. Behind Toothless now, and in proper light, he can see the mottled patches of lighter grey on blue-black skin. It's...pretty.
“What are you gonna do?” Astrid asks finally, breaking the silence. Her eyes are still following Toothless scrambling over rocks after birds. “You've got to tell your dad about this eventually, you know.”
That's not something he really wants to think about. “I know! I just. I just can't. Not yet.”
“You saw how he was last time!” He shakes his head. “And anyway, he's finally starting to get used to having dragons around. How do you think he'll react if I bring Toothless in and tell him oh, by the way, this one's human now! ...Mostly. I can't!”
“Well, you can't lie about it, either. You're lousy at it.”
“Thanks. Thanks so much for that.” But it's true. Unfortunately.
On the other side of the lake, Toothless loses his balance and tumbles, squalling, into the water. Hiccup laughs at the loud, violently insulted noises that erupt from the water when Toothless drags himself out, shaking his head. Even Astrid can't hide her smile, and just like that, the tension is broken. Astrid scoots closer to Hiccup and covers his hand with her own. Toothless trills at them from where he's squatting on a rock. His tumble into the water wasn't entirely fruitless; he's caught a fish and is holding it up by the tail, apparently unsure how to deal with living prey with fingers instead of claws.
“Seems like he's adapting pretty well,” Astrid says, her tone casual.
Hiccup sighs, remembering. “Yeah. Now. He was pretty bad at first. The toes thing. It screws up his balance.”
“Worse than you when you first got your new foot?”
“Hey, that's not very nice.” He's less annoyed than he sounds, and they both know it.
So they talk about everything and nothing and things that don't matter. Eventually Toothless joins them, sprawling across Hiccup's legs and resting his head in Astrid's lap. By now he's mostly dry, at least. Astrid pets his hair and his ears and he purrs at the attention. The three of them stay like that for a long time, basking in the air and the sunlight and the comfortable silence between friends, until the sun finally begins to set.
“I should go,” Astrid says, though she sounds reluctant. “Are you gonna stay here tonight, too?”
“Yeah.” He still can't go back. Not yet, anyway. “Toothless and I will be fine. We've done this before.” He hopes he sounds more confident than he feels.
Astrid looks a little doubtful, but Toothless “wrrrs” at her, upside-down and sleepy-eyed, and she relaxes visibly. Hiccup feels like he should be insulted by that somehow, but he's not. “Okay. Do you...do you want me to tell your dad anything?”
Hiccup chews on his lip, unsure. Looking at Toothless doesn't give him any answers, either; he's rearranged and seems to have gone back to sleep, using Hiccup's hip as a pillow. Hiccup can see his eyes are only mostly closed. He's still listening. Astrid clears her throat. She's still waiting for an answer. “Tell him...tell him we're training, I guess. It's true enough.”
She nods. “I'll let him know. And I'll come back as soon as I can.”
It's a relief to hear, which isn't so strange. It's also a relief to see her disappear around the rocks and into the forest, which is.
Toothless lifts his head and yawns pointedly in the cave's direction. Despite himself, Hiccup laughs. Amazing how after napping most of the day, Toothless still wants to sleep. He shoves the dragon off his lap and points toward the rocky shelter near the cove's waterfall. “Okay, buddy, let's go.” Toothless growls and shuffles to his knees. They help each other stand, and retreat to the little shelter just in time for the sun to disappear entirely.
Toothless' breath is warm on his neck. Hiccup doesn't dream that night.
~ ~ ~
Hiccup spends the next few days discovering just how much, and how little, Toothless has changed. The suddenly human thing is a pretty obvious change. There's no avoiding that one, like there's no avoiding the way Toothless walks with his left foot rolled slightly in, or how he limps visibly by the end of a day. It reminds Hiccup of his first few weeks with his new, metal foot. The shift in balance. The shift in gait. His nonexistent ankle aches in sympathy.
The love of fish is the same. He regurgitates part of one for Hiccup once and exactly once, and looks so sick after that Hiccup laughs. Toothless shows his teeth and hisses and skips dinner that night.
He still enjoys chasing birds, and tackling Hiccup awake before the sun has had time to properly rise.
After a sudden rain shower, he spends half a morning playing in the mud, to Hiccup's chagrin. Cleaning him up after, Hiccup learns that Toothless still hates getting his head wet, and pays for this knowledge with a lungful of water. Toothless spends the rest of the afternoon basking in patches of sunlight scattered around the cove, and when he yawns, wide and lazy, Hiccup notices his tongue is split.
Astrid brings clothing for Toothless later. “My dad's,” she says. “I figured they'd fit better than. Well. Better than your dad's.” As if that would take much.
Getting Toothless into the tunic is easy enough. Astrid is right; it fits him well. A little too well, but Hiccup bites his tongue. Best not to look a gift dragon in the mouth, after all. Boots take a little more coaxing (and Hiccup suspects they'll go flying into the lake the moment Astrid is out of sight again). Toothless flatly refuses to have anything to do with the trousers, darting out of the way every time Astrid or Hiccup offers them up.
Not surprisingly, Astrid loses her temper first. She leaps at Toothless, a flying tackle Hiccup's been on the wrong end of several times before, and he goes down with a shriek. Astrid sits on him, pulling the trousers on forcefully. If the flailing limbs are any indication, she's having as much trouble getting them on as Toothless is having keeping them off.
Hiccup, wisely, decides to stay out of the fray.
By the time the fight has ended, they're both a complete mess. Astrid's hair has mostly come loose from her braid, and there is a set of thin scratches on each arm and one thigh where Toothless' claws caught skin. Toothless has suffered a bloody nose. He skulks behind Hiccup to nurse the insult to his face and to his pride.
“Aw, c'mon, it wasn't that bad, buddy,” says Hiccup.
“Your dragon is crazy.” Astrid wraps her hair back into its braid with such force Hiccup worries she'll rip it clean out of her head.
Hiccup opens his mouth to say something to mollify her, but Astrid cuts him off before he can begin. “No—no, he's crazy. So are you. But he's worse.” She huffs. Hiccup's struck by how much it reminds him of Toothless in a sulk. He has to bite his lip to try and avoid smiling. She catches the twitch of his lips anyway.
Hiccup's arm throbs where she punches him (to be fair, he's pretty sure he deserved it). It takes half a candlemark for Toothless' nose to stop bleeding.
They don't see Astrid for a little while after that.
At least they still have each other for companionship, Hiccup thinks, even if Toothless is flightier without wings than he ever was with them. Hiccup finds himself spending hour after empty hour sitting by himself, sketchbook in his lap and charcoal in hand. After several days to themselves, he's nearly filled it with doodles and notes. Toothless-the-human makes as good a subject to draw as anything else, though at the moment, he's crouched nearby, back to Hiccup. Hiccup can see the shift in muscle as Toothless moves his arm in small, repetitive ways. The movement seems more human than anything else Toothless has done since changing.
Hiccup watches for a while until at last his curiosity gets the better of him. He's never seen Toothless focus on anything other than flying with the sort of intensity he's displaying now. So he hops off the boulder he's been using for a seat (and doesn't even stumble today) and joins Toothless, peering over his friend's shoulder to see what, exactly, is so interesting.
He's not sure exactly what he expected-- a trail of ants, maybe?-- but what he sees doesn't fit into anything he could have imagined. All around Toothless, shaky, childish, and occasionally backwards or upside down, are runes.
Or what are clearly meant to be names.
As he looks at the scrawled letters of his name, stunned, Hiccup realizes that everything-- everything-- he knows about dragons is wrong.
Taking advantage of his new realization is harder than Hiccup anticipates. The copied runes are exactly that: copies. And though Hiccup does his best to determine if Toothless actually understands what he's writing, the dragon is as stubborn as he's ever been and refuses to give up his secrets. If he indeed has any. But Hiccup perseveres, because he's stubborn, too. It finally pays off when he catches Toothless scratching out Astrid's name. There's no hiding after that.
Hiccup spends several days teaching Toothless how to write runes properly, and by the end of the week, Toothless is able to write them all with relative ease. And although the dragon shows no interest in reading them, it seems clear enough that he's elated by the newfound knowledge. Hiccup, in a fit of pure insanity, decides that if his dragon won't read, then it's time for Toothless to learn to talk.
They work out a rudimentary sign language, though their first conversations are punctuated mostly by Toothless' frustrated snarls. Hiccup can't help but imagine that his dragon probably thinks he's a moron. But by now they're both too invested in the effort, too stubborn to quit. Slowly, slowly, it begins to pay off.
Unsurprisingly, the first “word” they agree on is “fish.” The second, “flight.” But for every word they agree on, they disagree on three. And disagreeing with Toothless, Hiccup discovers, ends just about as violently as disagreeing with Astrid, with one notable exception.
Toothless fights dirty.
Hiccup yelps when sharp teeth sink into his wrist. He retaliates, pulls hard on Toothless' hair until the dragon releases him with a pained hiss.
“No biting!” he snaps.
“Bite,” signs Toothless, punctuating the word with another snap of teeth.
This time, Hiccup manages to jerk his hand away. Barely. Toothless hisses again, ears flattened against his skull, clearly still angry. Hiccup is, too, even though he can't remember what set them off this time. He's about to tell Toothless exactly how ridiculous he finds the whole situation when Toothless tackles him, pins him to the ground, and sits on him, still growling, his eyes slitted, triumphant. There's something in his expression Hiccup can't identify, but there's no mistaking the sharp “I win.” that Toothless signs to him.
Hiccup gives in.
When Astrid comes again, the weather is turning properly cold, cold enough that Toothless wears his trousers and boots without complaint and stays out of the water entirely. Astrid, with her arms full of blankets and furs, is a welcome, beautiful sight. Hiccup greets her first and is rewarded with a quick kiss and a heavy, woolen cloak.
Toothless whuffs at them from inside the cave. Astrid laughs.
“Is that a come in?”
“Yeah, he's not gonna come out if he doesn't have to.” Hiccup can't blame him, really. It seems that even in a human body, cold weather makes Toothless lethargic. “Come in,” he says, sweeping his arms wide, dramatic, “and take a tour of our lovely home.”
“Very impressive,” says Astrid, dryly. Toothless purrs at her from the back corner of the cave. She unloads her stack of blankets on Hiccup (“Oof,” says Hiccup.) and sits by Toothless, petting him. “Sorry about last time. Are we okay now?”
“Okay,” signs Toothless, and Hiccup is weirdly relieved when she doesn't seem to notice it. Toothless buries his face in Astrid's stomach. He inhales, slow, and exhales, just as slow, and settles comfortably, his arms wrapped snugly around her waist.
“Sorry. I don't think you're going anywhere for a while.” Hiccup tosses a blanket loosely over Toothless. The dragon doesn't even snort. Hiccup shrugs and sets about arranging furs and blankets comfortably around the area.
Astrid smiles up at him, one hand buried Toothless' hair, the other rubbing one of his ears. “That's fine. I was hoping to stay for a bit anyway. If you don't mind.”
Hiccup can't think of a reason for her not to. Toothless obviously isn't even trying to. So Hiccup nods and hopes he looks more nonchalant than he feels. He settles near Toothless and Astrid, content to watch them both. It's not an unpleasant sight. He could get used to it.
“Your dad's worried, you know,” Astrid says abruptly, startling Hiccup out of his reverie. “Everyone is. You've been gone a while. And winter's almost here. You can't stay out here much longer.”
Hiccup sighs. He'd been hoping Toothless would have changed back by now. “I know. I know, but I can't--”
“Can't go back. Right.”
He feels weirdly like he's letting Astrid down. “Sorry.”
She ignores the apology. “Your dad might understand. You could try. He's changed a lot lately. The whole village has. And anyway, winter is almost here. You don't have any kind of food stored up, you don't have any kind of supplies, you don't know when-- or if!-- Toothless is going to change back.”
Hiccup can feel himself weakening. Astrid must be able to sense it, too, because she follows up with a killing blow.
“Hey. I'll go with you.”
Hiccup whimpers. One of Toothless' ears perks and just as quickly flops back down again. “Fine,” he says after a while. “I'll go. Tomorrow.” With a little luck, tomorrow he can stretch it out a little more. The smug look on Astrid's face tells him that's pretty unlikely.
“Good,” she says. She pushes Toothless off her lap and he growls at her sleepily. “You coming?” Her armor thunks to the ground nearby.
He's too gobsmacked by the sight of Astrid rearranging blankets so she and Toothless are comfortably covered to say anything at first. When he finally manages, all that comes out is a remarkably clever “...Huh?”
Astrid rolls her eyes. “I'm not going back now. I'd never make it before the sun sets, and unlike you, I don't have a handy guide who can see in the dark.”
“Well...well, there's Stormfly,” he says, lamely.
Toothless snorts. A black hand snakes out from under the blankets and grabs Hiccup by the foot, yanking him forcefully closer. Hiccup yelps.
“Exactly,” says Astrid, and she rewards Toothless with a pat.
Toothless purrs and shifts. There's a brief confusion of limbs, and Hiccup gets tangled in the furs before everything is sorted out, but eventually he finds himself tucked securely between Toothless and Astrid. He tries to protest (it's not right, and besides, Astrid's dad will kill him!), but by the time he gets the words out, Toothless is asleep and there's no moving a sleeping dragon, even a human-shaped one. Astrid smiles at him in the fading light. The kiss she gives him makes his lingering worries vanish.
“Tomorrow, okay,” she says. It's not a question.
Hiccup nods. Behind him, Toothless wrrrs and curls closer. No backing out now.
It's weird. He's more scared of facing his dad than of anything else he can imagine. But right now...he's not scared of anything at all.
Morning is a different story. It starts out well enough, warm and comfortable. Something whumps into Hiccup's stomach, which is significantly less comfortable. He cracks his eyes open and sees Astrid, still sleeping and beautiful. His hand is tangled in her hair. He should have done this sooner. There's a weight on his ribs. It shifts, and he turns his head to see what's on him.
“Up,” signs Toothless. He's straddling them both. It looks awkward, to say the least. “Get up now.”
Hiccup groans. Getting up is the last thing he wants to do right now, not when the furs are so soft, and the blankets so warm, and Astrid so...perfect. He's decided. He's not going anywhere today. He's just going to nap. With Astrid. And Toothless. That's a nice thought. He wants to hold onto it for a little while.
Toothless bites him.
“Ow!” Hiccup flails his way upright, dislodging blankets in the process and knocking Toothless over. Toothless nearly falls on Astrid. “What is wrong with you?!”
Toothless hisses and props himself up on one arm. “Get up,” he signs again.
“I'm up. What do you want?” He'd been warm under those blankets. And now he's not.
“Home,” signs Toothless, and Hiccup suddenly remembers what he'd agreed to yesterday. His heart sinks. “Going home. Today. Yes?” Toothless ears are perked and he's purring.
“No, we're—” He stops. Hedges. He can see Toothless wilting. The dragon flops behind Astrid and curls around her with a whine. It's a miracle she hasn't woken up yet. Hiccup sighs. If only he weren't so susceptible to guilt trips. He feels...terrible. “I mean, we're going, buddy. Just...not yet. Later. Maybe tomorrow.”
The only answer to that is a growl. Hiccup can practically see Toothless' disappointment. Toothless hugs Astrid's sleeping form closer and buries his nose in her hair. The shift in position must be enough to nudge her out of her dreams, because she stirs and stretches against Toothless, arms over her head. Toothless purrs, one hand flat on her belly. Hiccup's heart flies into his throat.
“What's going on?” asks Astrid, her words still sleep-slurred. “Who're you talking to?”
“Nobody,” says Hiccup. “I was just. Thinking. Out loud! I do that sometimes.”
Astrid reaches behind her head to scratch at Toothless' ears. Toothless wrrs and leans his head against her hand, the picture of contentment. Hiccup settles in, elbows on his knees, chin in his hands. If he's honest with himself, he could stay here all day, watching his best friend and his girlfriend nap. But the moment doesn't last, can't last, and Astrid stretches again and sits up, leaving Toothless to flop on the ground, complaining quietly. She ignores him. It's Hiccup who gets her full attention instead.
A good morning kiss is a hundred times better than good morning fish breath. Hiccup thinks he could get used to it.
“We should get going,” Astrid says, reaching over Toothless for her discarded armor.
Well, damned if that doesn't ruin the mood. Hiccup has a hard time not sulking, but there's breakfast to be made and Toothless to clothe, and these things distract him nearly as well as the sight of Astrid stretching in the early morning light. Toothless bumps against his shoulder and wrrrs in his ear. The jolt startles him back to attention just in time to save the fish from burning.
Astrid helps him pack after breakfast. It doesn't take long. They leave the blankets. Just in case. It's Astrid's one concession to Hiccup's nerves. Climbing out of the cove takes longer. The air frosted overnight, and the stones are slick. Toothless manages better than Hiccup for once, Hiccup's metal foot making any kind of proper traction nearly impossible. Astrid supports him much of the way. He's tempted to say they should stop, turn back, try again later, but climbing back down the frost-covered rocks is probably more treacherous than climbing up them was, so he bites his tongue. The rest of the trek through the forest is relatively easy anyway.
He knows Toothless is picking up on his worries, his fears, his nervousness, but he doesn't realize just how strongly until Toothless doubles over in the middle of the trail and vomits, the remains of his breakfast coming back up violently. Hiccup has to cover his own mouth and swallow hard to keep bile from rising. Even Astrid looks faintly ill through her concern.
“Maybe we should--”
“Yeah.” Astrid already has her arms around Toothless' shoulders. Holds onto him until he stops shaking.
Hiccup pulls loose the scrap of cloth he keeps tucked in his belt. He's used it to clean Toothless up before, just never like this. Toothless whines. He's drooling a little. Who can blame him?
They take their time, breathing, collecting themselves, getting settled. The distraction, gross as it is, helps Hiccup gather himself, too. He still doesn't feel any better about going back to Berk, and he definitely doesn't feel any better about having to face his dad, but he does feel a little more determined. Hiding out really isn't fair to anyone, least of all Toothless or Astrid.
“Come on, buddy,” he says, and he makes himself sound relaxed. “Let's get home so you can rest.”
It seems to work, because Toothless heaves upright again, and takes a few shaky steps forward.
The look on Astrid's face says she's proud of him. It makes him feel better. Among other things.
The rest of the walk back to the village is easy enough, though the closer they get, the more Hiccup struggles to keep his anxiety under control. He can feel his heart beating faster. He's surprised it hasn't jumped clean out of his chest. Astrid talks enough for both of them on the way, her voice the only thing keeping him moving. She keeps telling him that everything will work out, the way it always does. He's having a hard time believing her, but he tries.
Unfortunately, his fears are realized the moment they start down the hill behind his house, because Stoick is there, and Stoick sees them, and Stoick comes walking toward them and Stoick--
He sees Toothless.
Thinking about it later, Hiccup decides that his father's reaction was not entirely inappropriate. But at that moment, he's too concerned with what's happening in the here and now to think about much of anything at all.
“Monster!” Stoick's voice is a roar to rival any dragon's. He lunges at Toothless, throws him bodily away from Hiccup and Astrid. And then he's on top of Toothless, has the dragon pinned with a knee, one huge hand wrapped tight, too tight, around Toothless' neck, and Toothless is howling and fighting and choking. “What devil is this?!”
Hiccup remembers then what he's managed to forget over the last weeks; he remembers just how drastically different Toothless is. And suddenly he is afraid, terrified that he's about to lose his best friend.
“Dad! Stop!” Toothless' struggles are getting weaker; he's stopped hissing entirely. Stoick doesn't seem to notice the bloody furrows the dragon has dug into his forearm. “It's Toothless, Dad, you have to let him go!”
“Toothless?” Stoick seems to hesitate for a heartbeat, just long enough for Toothless to suck in a desperate lungful of air. And then his face hardens again. It's the most frightening thing Hiccup has seen in his life. “Witchcraft!”
“No!” Hiccup grabs his dad, wraps both his arms around one of Stoick's, pulling, trying in vain to get his father off of Toothless. On Stoick's other side, Astrid mirrors the movement, her face white. “No, Dad, it's not, I swear!” His voice is cracking. He feels like he can't breathe. And he can't get Stoick to let Toothless loose. “Dad, please!”
Something in his voice must catch Stoick's attention, because his father glances at him, grip loosening just a hair. It's enough. Astrid lets go of Stoick's arm and grabs Toothless, dragging him free. Toothless wheezes, his eyes so dilated they look entirely black, and clings to her.
“Get him inside!” Hiccup hates how sharp his voice sounds. “I'll take care of Dad!”
Astrid nods and hauls Toothless mostly to his feet. For once, Toothless doesn't protest leaving Hiccup behind. Maybe he senses that Stoick, staring helplessly at his son, isn't a threat. If he senses anything at all. In the end, Astrid nearly has to carry Toothless up to the house. Hiccup holds his breath until he hears the heavy thud of the door being barred.
Hiccup and Stoick stay frozen where they are. All Hiccup can hear is the noise of blood pounding in his ears. Stoick shakes him off after a moment, as if flicking off a fly.
“Is this why you left? Is this why you vanished? This, and not some...some training?”
“Yes,” says Hiccup, and immediately corrects himself. “I mean, no! No, this isn't-- okay, maybe a little-- but I couldn't tell you!”
“You couldn't come to me? You're my son.”
Hiccup looks at the ground, scrubbing his hand through his hair. He hates the wounded tone in his father's voice. “No offense, Dad, but your track record with Toothless hasn't exactly...it hasn't exactly been real good.”
“I built him a nook!” Stoick's protest is strangely endearing. And true.
“Yeah. Yeah, Dad, I know. And we're thankful! Me and Toothless both!” He fidgets. He's not used to having actual conversations with his dad. “I just. This is. Look, Dad, I know it's hard to believe but...but if this is witchcraft, Toothless didn't do it. He just didn't.”
Stoick frowns, his brows knotted together, but it's not the threatening, angry frown Hiccup is used to seeing, not the threatening frown he wore when he attacked Toothless. Stoick is thinkingnow. He's concerned. “Can he change back?”
“I don't--” Hiccup stops. The commotion has caught the attention of several villagers. Still more are coming up the hill. An audience is the last thing he wants. “Can we...can we talk about this somewhere else?”
Stoick nods and claps his son on the shoulder, sending Hiccup stumbling. It takes a few tries to convince Astrid to unbar the door (“Locked out of my own home!” Stoick says, but there's no heat in it, not anymore.) but she lets them in eventually, just in time for the first villager to call out a curious “What's going on?” Hiccup shuts the door in their faces before anyone else can chime in.
The fire is stoked and burning brightly. Astrid must have done it while Hiccup and Stoick were still outside. Toothless crouches beside it, his head between his knees, ears so flat they've nearly disappeared into his hair. Hiccup can hear the rasp in his breathing, and his first instinct is to check on Toothless, be sure he's okay. It's hard to resist. Only the need to explain things to his dad and the fact that Astrid is sitting with the dragon stops him.
Stoick is sitting at the table. He looks at Hiccup expectantly. Hiccup takes a deep breath and makes himself stop fidgeting with his tunic and sits down to explain everything that's happened. Stoick makes for a reasonably good audience. His eyes widen at all the right points, and he “hmms” in response exactly where he should, and for once Hiccup thinks his dad might actually be listening to him. He tells Stoick about Astrid's help and about Toothless' adventures with water. Tells Stoick about drawing pictures and learning how to walk on two feet instead of four. He leaves out the sign language. He hasn't even told Astrid about that yet; lately it feels like he's been telling her about things first.
When he's finally finished, Astrid is shoving fish into Toothless, and there's bread on the table (gods only know where she found it, but she did, and it's the best bread he's ever had). Stoick stares past Hiccup for a long while, at the heavy tapestries on the far wall. It's as if he's turned to stone. When he finally moves, the bench groans and Hiccup, sitting on the edge of it, nearly falls from the sudden shift in balance.
Hiccup sees Toothless flinch when Stoick rises, sees him tense as Stoick steps closer, sees him draw his lips back in an unvoiced snarl when Stoick leans over. He can see the dragon keying up to bite, and Astrid glances at him once, quick, as if to ask “What now?”, and then they're both surprised when Stoick pats the dragon on the shoulder gently. Well. As gently as a man his size can manage. Toothless wobbles, lands on his knees and “whrfs” quietly.
“I'm sorry,” says Stoick, and nothing more. He nods to Astrid, nods to Hiccup, and creaks his way upstairs.
Hiccup stares at the empty space his father leaves behind. Beyond it, Toothless climbs back to his feet, tottering only slightly. Astrid offers him the last fish in her hands and when he rejects it, places it back in a bed of salt. She comes to stand by Hiccup, her booted feet making little noise on the floor.
“You gonna be okay?”
He's not sure. He's not sure and he doesn't know how to answer, so he just looks at her. Looks and wishes and wants this house to be his and Astrid to be his and everything to be perfect like it was at the cove.
Astrid must sense his distress, because she doesn't push him for an answer. Instead she kisses him, and he sinks into it, into the feel of her mouth on his. He can hear the creak of Stoick moving upstairs, and the gentle shuffle of Toothless reacquainting himself with the house, and he doesn't care. He doesn't care because neither of those things matters. All that matters is Astrid's hand on his cheek, and his hand on her waist, and the sound of her breathing when she finally breaks the kiss.
“You know where to find me if you need anything,” she says.
Hiccup nods at her, dumb, and watches her wish Toothless a goodnight. Toothless holds her face in his hands and stands with her for several long moments, their foreheads touching, hair tangling where it meets. That sight is better than the kiss, somehow. He doesn't question it.
Astrid backs away first, ruffling Toothless' hair a little. She smiles at Hiccup on her way out the door. And then the house is silent, save for the crack of wood in the fire and Toothless' hoarse purr. Hiccup finds that he's suddenly very sleepy. He shoos Toothless into his addition (with blankets this time), and curls up in his own bed.
He wakes, briefly, when Toothless joins him, and though they barely fit on the narrow bed, it's comfortable. He almost wakes once more, to the feel of a large, heavy hand on his head, but there's something so familiar in it that he doesn't quite manage. In his dreams, he's with Astrid and Toothless, back in the cove, and when he wakes the next morning, he aches.
They spend the next several days settling into a new routine. Stoick refuses to let anyone, least of all his own son, evade work, which means that Hiccup is sent back to the forge with Gobber to work on saddles and harnesses and whatever else needs making or mending. This, in turn, causes Toothless no small measure of distress, as Stoick flatly refuses to let him accompany Hiccup to the forge. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Toothless fights Stoick's orders at first, sneaking out to wait for Hiccup behind the forge or behind the house. When Stoick catches him at it, he brings his foot down. He corners Toothless in the nook, pins him to the wall and makes his expectations absolutely. crystal. clear. And though Toothless makes his own displeasure about the situation equally clear, by way of ragged claw marks on Stoick's biceps and a few broken pots that only narrowly miss Stoick's head, he finally starts staying inside. Reluctantly. After Hiccup begs him to, hoping to avoid another fight.
Hiccup responds to this badly himself. He's used to having Toothless around wherever he goes, and the lack of a constant, familiar presence at his back is particularly sharp after the past few weeks. Of all the changes in his life he's dealt with so far, the lack of Toothless at his side definitely counts as one of the worst. He takes to stealing catnaps with Toothless in the afternoons and sneaking away from the forge whenever the work there slows down to dig through old logbooks and tomes, increasingly desperate to find a way to fix what's happened to his best friend. Neither of these things really helps him feel any better. The lack of information on all things magical really only serves to make him feel worse.
“Maybe Gothi will know what to do,” Astrid says one night from her perch on Toothless' lap. She's rubbing one of his hands idly, her fingers neatly twined with his. Toothless' head is on her shoulder, and his breathing is so slow and deep Hiccup thinks he might be sleeping. “I mean, she's practically as old as the village itself. She's got to know something.”
Hiccup could slap himself for not thinking of it first. All that time in books and trying to subtly worm information out of Fishlegs without giving himself (or Toothless) away, when he could have just gone to Gothi and asked. If anyone knows what changed Toothless, it's the village elder. If anyone can fix it, it's her. “Fantastic. I feel like a moron now.”
“You are a moron.”
“But you're tolerable in other ways, so it evens out, I guess. Anyway, go see her before you go to the forge tomorrow.” She scratches gently at Toothless' wrist and he stirs, his fingers twitching. “Your dad won't mind. Not if it's for something like this.”
“I hope not.” Hiccup puts down the scrap of leather he's been fiddling with and just watches them for a while.
He can't see Toothless' face from this angle, but he can see Toothless' ears, down and relaxed. He can see the subtle shift in Toothless' shoulders as he breathes, and the smile on Astrid's face as she leans against him. They look for all the world like a pair of lovers, content to bask in each other's presence. Hiccup pulls his right knee to his chest and rests his chin on it. He'd be happy to watch them sit together all night.
Astrid breaks the silence. “Mind if I stay over?”
Hiccup's foot falls off the bench. “Uh,” he says, in a particularly spectacular display of wit.
“It's late. I don't feel like going home, we've done it before, and I doubt your dad will really care. He likes me.”
“Uh,” Hiccup says again.
“Oh, and my parents aren't going to mind. I mean, they pretty much figure you won't do anything to me-- as if you could, anyway-- so it's not like that's a problem. Honestly, we're old enough to get married if we wanted to, so what's a night over here and there?”
“Uh,” he says one more time. He licks his lips, trying to buy time to come up with a reasonable response to Astrid's arguments. While he tries to get his brain to work again, Astrid drops Toothless' hand into her lap and picks up the other one. For some reason, Hiccup's mouth seems to have gone bone dry. “Yeah. Sure.” Wait, that's not what he meant to say. “I mean, wait. What?”
Astrid looks at him like he's an idiot. Which he probably is. “I want to stay over. I figure we can sleep in the nook, the three of us.”
Toothless chirrs and nuzzles Astrid's neck. It's obvious he likes that plan. Hiccup does, too, but he--
“Quit it,” Astrid says. “I can see you trying to rationalize your way out of this. You think too much.” She climbs off Toothless' lap and into Hiccup's. “Relax, will you? One night together didn't kill us. What's another one gonna hurt?”
The Viking side of his brain says she has a good and valid (and attractive) point. For once he decides to listen to it. “I'll pull the blankets off my bed.”
Or so he says. Toothless does most of the work for him, relentlessly hunting down every possible soft covering on the lower floor, though Hiccup stops him before he can yank down the tapestries. Astrid helps Hiccup arrange the piles of gathered blankets and furs into something like a nest. By the time they're done, Hiccup has to admit, it looks pretty good.
Toothless, of course, dives into it immediately, ruining most of the cozy effect. But Hiccup has to admit, it actually looks more inviting than before with Toothless squirming naked on the furs (and okay, seriously, when did he strip down?), rearranging things to his own liking. Astrid laughs, pulls her hair loose from its braid, and joins him. It looks like fun. So Hiccup shrugs, tosses his boot and his vest and jumps in, too.
It's pure chaos. Astrid hits him upside the head (accident) and Toothless bites him (intentional) and he's pretty sure he kicks one of them (or both) with his prosthesis at least once, but it doesn't matter. Astrid kisses them both. Toothless whuffs in surprise and blinks twice, quick.
Hiccup surveys the mess they've made of the nook and decrees it “eh, passable.” Astrid laughs and shoves him. Toothless signs a quick “moron” and headbutts Hiccup, affectionate.
Astrid doesn't miss the movement of Toothless' hands this time. She puts two and two together fast, and comes up with--
“He can talk?”
“Yes,” signs Toothless at the same time that Hiccup says “Sort of.”
“Teach me,” Astrid says, her voice full of wonder.
They don't get much sleep, but Hiccup thinks it's worth it.
~ ~ ~
They leave the house before dawn, before Stoick is even beginning to stir, and even though Toothless is covered head to toe, Hiccup jumps at every little noise. Getting through the village without being seen, even in the pre-dawn darkness, is no easy task. More than once they're forced to stop and duck behind a building, waiting for a drunk Viking to pass by. Astrid proves invaluable in the process, as the sight of her sitting on a barrel, honing the edge on her ax's blade turns away more than one curious inquiry.
Hiccup almost balks when they reach Gothi's home. The ladders that lead up the tower to the entrance look unsteady. But then Toothless wrrrs and turns his head to watch a bird flying by, and his resolve strengthens.
“You go up first,” he says to Toothless. Miraculously, Toothless obeys, crawling carefully up the rickety ladder.
“Your turn,” says Astrid. It stings a little, knowing she's setting herself to go last in case he falls. He can't say anything about it; it's the same reason he made Toothless go first.
The ladder shakes under his hands, and his prosthesis slips more than once. There's a particularly harrowing moment making the transition from the lower ladder to the upper one when he nearly loses his grip (and what he wouldn't give right now to be just a little taller). He hears Astrid gasp his name below and Toothless' distressed squeal above him. Looking up is easier than looking down, so he does that, and smiles, a little weakly, at Toothless.
“I'm fine, buddy, see?”
Toothless, flat on his stomach on the landing, both arms stretched toward Hiccup, seems unconvinced.
“Keep going,” says Astrid, and when he glances at her, he sees she's nearly to the same junction of ladders he just passed.
The moment he's within reach, Toothless snags him and hauls him bodily up onto the landing, holding him close, breathing hard. Hiccup suffers the attention for a moment, long enough for Astrid to finish making her way up to the top. Toothless whuffs at her. Of course he's not worried about her falling. Astrid lunges, grabs them both in a tight hug.
“We're finding a different way down.”
They don't question her.
The sound of a throat clearing startles all three of them. Astrid jumps away from Hiccup and Toothless, looking distinctly guilty. Hiccup can feel his face warming and he knows he's blushing. Gothi's eyes, however, are only on Toothless. That's when Hiccup realizes Toothless' hood has fallen away. His first instinct is to explain, to make excuses.
“Elder, let me--” A raised hand stops him before he can finish his sentence.
“Come inside,” she says to Toothless, and her voice sounds like water on rocks.
Hiccup helps Toothless to his feet and he thinks that Toothless looks as nervous as he feels. Gothi disappears back into her home. Toothless takes a hesitant step forward and stops, looking over his shoulder at Hiccup.
“It's fine, buddy, we're coming,” Hiccup says.
“No, you are not,” floats a gravelly voice from inside the house.
Hiccup and Astrid both start to protest, their voices overlapping; they aren't leaving Toothless alone, not after everything that's happened, but Gothi sticks her head outside and silences them.
“I know what you want,” she says, “and what you need. You have done your work. Leave me alone to do mine.”
She closes one wizened, bony hand around Toothless' wrist and tugs him inside. Hiccup is surprised when he doesn't protest. He's even more surprised when Toothless is the one to close the door.
After that, there's nothing they can do but wait. They try to make themselves comfortable on the landing. There's not much outside, only a few pots, one of which reeks of ammonia and makes Astrid gag when she peeks into it. They settle back to back for a while, then side to side. The sun rises slow and leisurely over the horizon. Astrid curls up with her head in Hiccup's lap, and he fiddles with her braid. A loud bang from inside Gothi's house startles them both into sitting upright, but though they stare hard at the door, nothing else happens.
The sun continues to rise, until it hangs high overhead and Hiccup's stomach growls, reminding him just how long it's been since they first arrived. Astrid shifts and retrieves bread and cheese from her bag.
“At least one of us is prepared,” Hiccup says, sheepish. He can't believe he forgot to bring any food.
Astrid shrugs. “You were distracted.”
More hours pass, and this time it's Astrid's stomach that growls. There's no bread or cheese left, so they laugh it off and lie down to watch the sun set. Astrid dozes off after a while, and Hiccup entertains himself by playing with her hair, tucking loose strands back into her braid, pulling them loose, tucking them back in again. Eventually even that loses its appeal, so he lies down, too, flat on his back beside her, head pillowed on his hands, and lets his mind drift for a bit.
When he opens his eyes again, Astrid is sitting up, and the sky is the brilliant red of dawn. There's no sign of Toothless, no sign of Gothi, and no sound coming from the house. Hiccup watches the door. Astrid watches Hiccup.
“I don't think he's coming out.”
“Gothi won't do anything to hurt him.”
Astrid sighs. “Let's go home, Hiccup. We can't do anything here.”
He nods, slow and uneasy. Leaving Toothless behind is the last thing he wants to do, but Astrid is right. He wishes she wasn't.
She heads down the ladder first. Hiccup slips again, in the same spot as before, and he clings to the ladder. There's no Toothless to catch him this time. Astrid yells up at him, encouraging, and it's enough to get him moving again, at least.
They're both quiet on the walk back to Hiccup's house. Astrid lets him think, for which he's grateful. Her only immediate intrusion into his thoughts is her hand in his, and he's so glad for the contact he almost kisses her.
Stoick opens the door to the house just as they walk up to it, and he seems as surprised to see them as they are to see him.
“Hiccup!” he says. “And Astrid. And...no Toothless?” There's a hint of irritation in his voice. Stoick the Vast is not a man accustomed to being disobeyed, except, perhaps, by his son.
“He's with Gothi,” is Hiccup's answer. Stoick seems to accept this and he nods, shoos the two of them inside, and continues on his way.
Astrid spends more nights with Hiccup than at home for a while. They burrow into the nest they built-- and destroyed-- with Toothless and try not to think too hard about how he's doing. He listens to her heart, and she listens to his breathing, and somewhere along the line they end up listening to a lot more than that and falling asleep sweating, despite the chill in the air.
Still, he misses Toothless, the way one misses a limb, or maybe a lover. Astrid understands, better than anyone else, but even she can't fully comprehend the blankness Hiccup feels every time he looks outside and up the hill to Gothi's silent house. He starts feeling like maybe he's lost his mind, like maybe he dreamed Toothless up in the first place, like maybe everything he remembers is just his overactive imagination at work. Astrid finally pulls him back into the nest before he can worry himself sick, and even tells Stoick in no uncertain terms the next morning that Hiccup is Not. Going. To. The Forge.
Remarkably, Stoick backs down.
They nap, Hiccup mostly because he's too tired not to, and Astrid because there isn't really anything else to do. Hiccup curls up at Astrid's side, his head on her breast, and soaks in the quiet, the feel of Astrid's fingers in his hair. It's almost perfect. The only thing missing is--
Hiccup jolts upright and stares. Rubs his eyes. Stares some more. Beside him, Astrid sits up more slowly, sleepy-eyed, holding a blanket to her chest.
“Wrrr,” says Toothless. “Sorry,” he signs.
Hiccup wants to cry and laugh and cry. Instead he reaches out, beckoning. Toothless comes close, flops between them, buries his face in Hiccup's neck and breathes deep. Astrid touches his shoulder. Hiccup hugs him tighter than he's hugged anyone else.
He's almost afraid to ask. In the end, he doesn't have to. Astrid does it for him.
Toothless doesn't move for a long time. Neither Hiccup nor Astrid has the nerve to repeat the question. After what feels like hours, Toothless rolls onto his back and sits up. “Too long,” he signs slowly. “In my bones now.”
Hiccup can't tell if the feeling twisted in his chest is relief or despair. Or guilt. Whatever it is, he knows, knows that this whole time Toothless had been holding out hope that something could fix him, put him back the way he was. The way he was meant to be. That hope is gone now, and it's Hiccup's fault, Hiccup's fault because he waited too long. Because he ran away. Because he trapped Toothless. Again. He pulls Toothless back down, and he and Astrid tuck close to the dragon, wrap themselves around him in a protective cocoon of arms. They stay that way, Toothless with his hands over his eyes, through the rhythmic thump of Stoick going up the stairs and down them again. Through the distant noise of a village waking up for the thousandth time.
Astrid dresses first. Hiccup follows. Toothless eats before he'll even consider clothing. It's a comfortable return to the same routine they've followed for weeks. Maybe longer.
And then they step outside, blinking in the bright light of morning.
Astrid fits her hand into Hiccup's. “Things will work out,” she says.
“Yeah. They will.” He knows she's right, even if it's a little hard to swallow.
He catches Toothless looking at the sky, watching other dragons in flight, and he knows Toothless now feels the full loss of that as surely as Hiccup feels the loss of his foot. But it's okay.
It's just one more thing to get used to.
“So, like, wouldn't it be weird if all the dragons changed into humans because a Zippleback would totally have two heads, and wouldn't that make it fall over, since human necks are really short and stuff--”
“Gods, Fishlegs, shut up.”