He's falling, and fire is raging below. Toothless is roaring overhead, a desperate and scared sound, and the heat under Hiccup is unbearable; he's falling, and he's not going to be caught, this time.
He falls, and falls, and falls, and finally lands on something...
...soft, with a full-body jerk that jars his bones. He opens his eyes, and sees a familiar ceiling above him, one he’s seen every night for the last fifteen years. Everything is dark and hazy and quiet, and his body is burning, but he can't see any flames.
Astrid's cleaning her axe, sitting cross-legged at the head of his bed. She looks at him and smiles, gently. Softness looks weird and somehow wrong on her face.
"You're at home, the big dragon is dead, everybody else is alive. You still have a fever.”
"What?" Hiccup croaks. Astrid sets her axe aside and puts a mug of something against his lips. It’s water, and it’s the only thing that makes sense, now, so he sucks it down greedily, afraid it will vanish.
"You're asking the same questions every time you wake up, so I figured I could save you some time. Everything is alright, Hiccup, you just need to rest.”
"Outside, getting some air. I kicked them out, they were annoying me with their fretting.”
He tries to say something else, but his tongue is thick and unwieldy in his mouth, and the air tastes like ash. There's something wrong, something hovering just on the fringe of his consciousness - something lacking -
- Astrid kneels on the edge of his bed, then crawls over, leaning over him to kiss him, slow and sweet and sure, and says, "Sleep.” He sleeps.
High time, Hiccup thinks, that they be done with that. He clears his throat, pretending not to see his father twitch guiltily, and says, "Wow, you guys sure made friends while I was asleep.”
Stoick visibly steels himself - and if there's one thing you can always rely on with his father, Hiccup thinks, it's his bravery - and turns around, comes to sit by Hiccup's bed. Toothless bounds after him, making a nest for himself at the side of Hiccup’s bed, one green eye watching them curiously. Stoick breathes in deeply, face grave and sad. He says: "He followed you into the flames, and carried you out, alive. Turns out he knows more of loyalty than I ever did, this beast of yours. And how can I not respect him?”
Hiccup starts saying, "Dad", and Toothless growls softly in affront, but Stoick keeps talking over both of them.
"I cast you aside, disowned you, and almost destroyed us all, I - I am ashamed to show my face to you, son. I don't know why you want to call me your father, still, if not out of kindness.”
It's something straight from Hiccup's deeply buried, half-smothered fantasies. His father ashamed, apologizing, finally admitting he was wrong about Hiccup. Hiccup has craved this moment for years, spent many sleepless nights longing for it. It turns out to be the most awful thing he has ever experienced, worse than looking into the great dragon’s dead beady eyes, worse than falling down into flames. Hiccup wants nothing but for this feeling to go away.
His father looks old.
Hiccup says, "Dad, dad, no - you - you came for us, under the water, you already - we already - there's nothing to, you know there's nothing to forgive, you're..." They never did well with words after his mother died, him and his father, why should it change now?
So he makes his body move, lunges forwards to hug his father, and Stoick hugs him back, holds him so tightly Hiccup's bones creak. It is as if he's six again, as if there's nobody but him and his father left, as if his father can make him feel safe, cherished and protected.
"Your mother," Stoick’s voice is soft, almost soundless, "your mother would've met you in Valhalla with a horn of finest mead, and you'd sit at her right hand at the highest table of heroes. But I could not have borne burying you, son.”
Hiccup nods into his father’s shoulder, swallows. They stay in the embrace for a while, allowing each other the courtesy of pretending they're not crying. The air is dusty, that’s all, Toothless sure keeps the room in fine state of disarray.
When Hiccup's sure he can control his voice, he pulls away a little, says: "Good thing I really hate mead, isn't it?”
Stoick roars with laughter, and claps his back so hard Hiccup almost chokes. Toothless takes it as a signal to pounce on both of them energetically. Everything is well.
They're flying now, circling around the field of high grass they found earlier. The grass is going brown now, with autumn fast on summer's heels, but apparently it’s still alluring enough for Toothless to swoop down gleefully and without much prompting. Hiccup laughs and disentangles himself from the saddle. He takes the whole harness away, so Toothless can writhe on the ground happily. Hiccup flops down on his back with a relieved sigh, arms flung outwards. The sky above him is autumn-clear, startlingly blue; somewhere to the right, looking smaller than a sparrow in flight, a dragon is circling.
Hiccup hopes it's Stormfly bearing Astrid. He has barely caught glimpses of her for the last two weeks; she's been holed up with the Elder for hours and hours every day. It's tacitly understood by the whole village that she's being groomed as the Elder's successor.
It's daunting to think that she might have to don the mantle so soon, that the Elder needs to start intense instruction now, but Hiccup is relieved to know Astrid will be there to grab the reins. His father might lead the warriors when they go viking, and be responsible for the defense of the village, but he's not the one who makes the important decisions. Hiccup's glad to not be the one people will expect to make them, when… later. Much later, yes.
The black dragon-shaped dot overhead turns into a bigger dragon-shaped dot and then into Stormfly's brilliant colors, and soon enough it's Astrid jumping down and Stormfly is joining Toothless in a spirited tussle amidst the grass. Astrid smiles at Hiccup, exhausted and warm at once, and he smiles back. His breath catches when she lies down next to him, and rests her head on his shoulder.
(He's spent so long being in - awe, lust, fascination - with the idea of her, shiny and perfect and untouchable, that it feels weird to be permitted to be in love with real Astrid, her sharp and angry mind, her unexpected sarcasm, her frustrations and imperfections and unbending will, and rare moments of softness, the ones that still have the power to make him breathless. He's not quite sure he's allowed, even now).
"So, what was it today? Harvest rituals or funeral chants?"
"Don't even ask. Endless sheep ownership arguments, but with added dragons, which makes it at least ten times worse.”
Hiccup winces in sympathy, because yes, it does. The dragons bring joy and companionship to the village, and people are elated over not living under constant threat anymore enough to smooth over some tension. But there's a whole host of unexpected problems that will probably take a lifetime to straighten out.
Dragons can be taught not to steal sheep, but slowly, and not all at once. Dragons are glad not to attack humans anymore, but there are plenty of people around the village who have lost their loved ones to claws or fire. Some people are excited and patient about the dragons, and some are still angry, or fearful, or both.
Dragons are huge, and occasionally clumsy and playful, bound to create chaos wherever they go. Hiccup loves them maybe more than he ever loved people. He just hopes the peace he helped create (by killing the biggest dragon of them all, his mind whispers traitorously, so they would finally respect you) will hold.
It seems like Astrid's reading his mind, because she suddenly rises on her elbow, looking down at him, and says seriously: "The most important thing to do here used to be fighting dragons. It's practically everything some people know how to do. And everybody's going to spend this autumn busy with the harvest, and then this winter busy with surviving winter, but what’s going to happen after that?”
"After that, they will get bored and they will… I don't know, Astrid, unless we occupy them somehow."
Astrid sits up, quickly, and says, sharply, her decision already made, "I need you to figure out how to get dragons and people to travel really long distances. We've always been trapped here, but we can go anywhere now, so much further than we ever could, and there - there will always be more space, for everybody."
Hiccup stares up at her and says, "Um. Can I kiss you? I know we usually have a system where you punch me and then kiss me and it works - it totally works for me, but right now. I'd like to. Can I -” She laughs and pulls him up easily, and her lips taste golden and light.
Fishlegs is listening avidly, but Ruffnut and Toffnut are already shoving each other, with Belch and Barf eagerly participating (Hiccup used to be pretty sure the twins would never acknowledge another living being long enough to accept them into their locked-in world, but apparently a ton of two-headed, acid-spitting dragon is too much of a reality to ignore, even for them. The fights are four-sided now, the participants inseparable. Twins look happier than they ever did before, and it's yet another thing that has changed for the better, something missing finding its place). Snotlout's eyes are glazing over, and Hiccup swallows the rest of technical explanation, because some things stay the same, life-changing events notwithstanding.
"Point is, the ships will carry our dragons, and we're going to be the ones scouting ahead for skippers to follow, so I want you to spend the winter getting ready to fly long distances, and learn to fish from your dragon's back. We need to be ready by spring, because that's when we're going to start.”
Snotlout says, "Yes! We're going to be the best scouts ever! And if I meet a sea serpent I'm going to smack it on the nose, and carry it back to the ship for Hookfang to eat!”
This sets Fishlegs on a long diatribe about the various characteristics of sea serpents and being able to fit one on the ship, and the twins stop the fight to turn on them both and insist that no, Toffnut will find the biggest one - no, Ruffnut - shut up, you - no you! - and Hiccup laughs until his cheeks hurt and thinks, "my people,” and for once the thought is familiar and fond.
Sometimes he misses the time when it was just the two of them being not lonely together, the quiet of the lake being theirs and only theirs. But his human doesn't smell sad so often anymore, with Loud-big-human clapping him on the back and rubbing Toothless' ears sometimes, with human children and other dragons keeping him company, with people not screaming in fear or trying to kill Toothless when they see him. Most of the winter is spent in meetings and plans, talking to all kinds of humans and flying around the island, with Toothless' human drawing and making things in the metal-and-fire place, with Shiny-sharp-human dragging them both away to chase each other over the island and laugh together. Things feel new, and things feel weird, but things feel good, overall.
Toothless got his old human-made tail back so he and his human could only fly together, never apart. Toothless is content.
Now the air is fresh and new, and the ice on the island's rivers is breaking. They're gathered on the beach to start what has been planned all winter. Toothless tries to be patient, bags with food comfortably strapped under his belly, familiar by now, his human's hand light and warm on his neck.
Shiny-sharp-human says, "And remember, you're just doing the first scouting round for the best direction for ships and dragons to go, and if you're not back in a week, I will find you and drown you.”
His human laughs and says, "I promise, I promise,” and they do the weird face-rubbing thing humans are so fond of. Toothless doesn't mind, usually, because it makes his human excited and happy afterwards, but he can smell the high wind already, so he paws the ground with his hind legs and huffs impatiently, loudly.
Finally his human swings into the saddle and leans down to Toothless' ear, whispering: "You and me again, bud, huh?"
Toothless roars, triumphant and free, and launches them into the sky.