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Eret III

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This is Berk. Normally it’s an idyllic wet rock surrounded by sweeping frigid beaches and covered with generally soggy pine forests, but right now, it’s on fire.

I guess it’s sort of to be expected, with four hundred Vikings cleaning up after four thousand dragons, but that doesn’t make the towering flames any less thrilling. My noble steed doesn’t agree, and Bang is so bravely flinching his tidal class belly away from the rising flames even as I’m trying to get a good look.

We’re Vikings, aggressive by nature and prone to taking idioms about fighting fire with fire to a dangerously literal extent. From the edge of the blaze furthest from my mother’s terrifyingly long-reaching gaze, I can see a half dozen Monstrous Nightmares flapping and blasting flames inwards, aided by two looming and massive Typhoomerangs.

The chief zooms through on his nearly invisible night fury, blasting a burning tree to burning dust and I roll my eyes, ducking alongside the fire low enough to avoid detection. As showy as fire and of course plasma is, I’ve got a better idea.

A Thunderdrum’s concussive blast can kill a man at close range, or as Bang has demonstrated many times, blow off a few shutters and give everyone in the vicinity one Hel of a headache. If he aims it at the fire, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be Midgard’s largest puff on a giant candle.

I know, I know. Air feeds fire. I’m a blacksmith, I don’t need reminding before my arm hair grows back. I’ve pumped the baffle a few thousand times this week. But we won’t be giving the fire air, not really anyway. If Bang is really angry, as angry as his uneven wingbeats are suggesting, then he’s going to unleash all that pent up rage in a blast so big that it takes the air away.

In theory.

I pull back from the fire a bit and steel myself, because it’s now or never and even Arvid can only keep Mom stalled for so long until she’s out here with a pent up decade of shield-maiden rage, dragging me home by my ear. This is it, this has to be the day when one of my ideas works. The first time.

And people will start listening to me. And I might get a date.

And everyone will stop going conspicuously silent when I enter the room in my perpetually bigger than me brother’s shadow.

Today is the day.

No turning back.

I tighten my grip on the wide leather strap around Bang’s head and nudge him with my heels. He snorts, ornery as always, and I tell him again, gritting my teeth and blinking ash out of whining, stinging eyes.

We soar up above the highest flames, arcing halfway back to the ground in the boiling air and I press myself flat against that wide Thunderdrum back, waiting for the gust. It comes, a ripple of scales and muscles and fins beneath me, and I don’t even have time to appreciate the near perfect circle of bare, charred dirt that it leaves behind before realizing that I forgot the sound.

My ears ring like a bronze bell and I slip, clutching the sooty side of my face just long enough to lose my grip entirely and tumble over Bang’s head, a hard-falling thirty feet onto the still sizzling circle of scorched earth.

Even without the overwhelming smell of my burning hair, it’s not exactly where I’d build a summer cabin.

I’m alive, at least. For now.

I scramble to my feet, brushing hot coals off of adrenaline numb hands and whistling for Bang. I can still see him orbiting above the flames, panicky and flailing.

That’s the things about Thunderdrums. They’re the most superior dragon on the island. The small, wet rock adrift in thousands of times more ocean. But they aren’t the dragon of choice if you’re someone who spends a significant amount of time dive-bombing into forest fires.

Still growing forest fires.

“Odin’s saggy left tit,” I flinch away from a shower of sparks and pat out an eager blaze uncomfortably high on my thigh. The fire is a wall around me, curling and creeping back into the shrinking circle of safety, drowning out Bang’s panic with a crackle and a roar. “Ok, ok, ok. Think!” My boot catches on fire and I kick it off in a panic, hopping on one foot and tugging at my singed hair.

Of course I have a lot of options. Behind flame-door number one, there’s a heaping pile of burning alive. Door two is a real kicker, a brand new, fire-resistant dragon in Valhalla because I burned alive.

Door number three is just a slightly smaller dose of burning alive, accompanied by lots of yelling and screaming.

I’m four choice syllables into option three when the most hideous Valkyrie I’ve ever seen swoops down and digs claws into my shoulders, dragging me up into the inferno and catching my other boot on fire, the pain tethering me strictly to Midgard. I kick it off and hold my bare feet away from the flames, coughing miserably when it drops me a safe distance away from the flames.

I keep coughing until I puke and my hands start to hurt like I grabbed a red hot blade and held on for dear life. My mysterious savior snuffles at my back, murmuring almost familiar and I roll onto my seat to get a better look.

It’s the chief’s Night Fury and he licks my face with a fishy tongue before narrowing his eyes and stalking around me in a semi-circle to stand between me and fire that, thank Odin, doesn’t seem to be spreading anymore. I don’t feel particularly lucky with the Night Fury glaring me down.

He smacks me on the back of the head with his tail and warbles insistently, coming too close for comfort and nudging my hand. My palm screams at the contact, obviously more burned than I’d realized earlier and I wince. The dragon bumps his head against my back, herding me away from the fire.

“Alright!” I stumble forward and glare back over my shoulder. Bang isn’t appearing out of the gloom, meaning that he went home to tattle. I hope he got there ok. I hope that Mom doesn’t know what the Hel he’s talking about.

The Night Fury trills and headbutts me in the ass. I step on a sharp rock, wincing and glaring at the bottom of my bare, burnt and now bleeding foot. He chirps and sniffs at the blood, sliding into another strange lecture, flapping his frills indignantly against his neck.

He’s lecturing me. As if I don’t get that enough from everyone else.

“Hey!” I push his head away and put my foot down. Literally and figuratively. “Don’t dragon-lecture me. Thanks for saving me from the fire, but I can handle it from here. I don’t have any fish for you—ouch!” He thwacks me on the top of the head with a strange front paw. “Don’t hit me—and back to the lecturing. Seriously dragon, stop it.” He tries to do it again and I deflect the arm with my elbow.

He growls and rocks back onto his haunches like a bizarre person, slapping down with both arms. I duck out from underneath the blows and he drops back onto all fours, shoving his nose in my hair and snuffling before I can stop him.

“What are you doing? Stop—ouch—Gods!” I try to make out the blisters blooming on my palms, elbowing the dragon’s neck and escaping his damn Nadder-nose. “Are you tracking me? What’s your aim here—”

“Eret?” Someone is silhouetted against the waning fire, running towards us. It’s not my mom, thank the gods, and as an added bonus, the dragon backs off, sitting on his heels and mewling confused. “Are you ok?”

It’s the chief, and I’m more than a bit taken aback by how scared he looks. I’ve never seen the chief look scared before, not that I’ve seen very much of the chief, but it’s unsettling. Maybe the fire is out of control somewhere else, even if it’s backing off here.

“I’m—”

“I saw you fall, but Toothless was, of course, nowhere to be found.” The dragon warbles and winds around the chief’s back, staring at me with wide, harmless green eyes. He sniffs my bloody foot and nudges his rider’s knee. The chief starts patting my shoulders and sides, grabbing my wrists and wincing at the state of my hands before yanking me into a nearly oppressively tight hug. “But he got you. I’m so glad you’re alright.”

“Uh, chief?” I cough and sputter because the pressure isn’t so great for my charred lungs.

“Right! Smoke, tight hugs, not a great combination—”

“—great combination—”

The last words come out in unison but the chief doesn’t seem to notice, freeing a waterskin from his dragon’s saddle and holding it towards me. I fumble it open and chug the contents, wincing and near desperate, and by the time I’m handing it back, the chief is ready with a small clay jar of what I recognize as Gobber’s famously smelly burn ointment.

“I know it doesn’t smell great, but…” he takes my hand and swipes the grease across it, instantly soothing a good part of the pain.

“It’s the best,” I finish the sentence and he grins at me, disconcertingly familiar through the smears of soot across his face. When have I seen the chief smile? He’s always so…chiefly.

“The best.” He pulls a strip of linen out of the hand holding the jar and rips it in half, wrapping it around my palm and tying it in a neat knot. “It should calm down the blisters at least.” He does the same with my other hand and mutters to his Night Fury over his shoulder. “How are your feet? I’d give you my shoes but…” he scuffs that famous metal foot on the dirt and I snort, swallowing a raw throated cough.

“Better barefoot than lopsided.”

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” he smiles strangely again before his face falls back chiefly stern. “What were you doing out here anyway?”

“Uh Bang, my dragon—”

“I know who your dragon is.”

“I was thinking he could put out some of the fire with a concussive blast. And he did, that’s why I wasn’t instantly char-broiled—”

“Huh,” he cocks his head, curious and drawing a circle in the ash with his metal leg, fanning a few vaguely winged shapes around it. “That one didn’t work out so well, no offense…”

“None taken,” I shrug and pick a particularly large chunk of soot out of my singed hair.

“But what if I interspaced Thunderdrums between the Typhoomerangs instead of Nightmares? It might put the fire out without making the whole island hotter than Volundr’s asshole—” I laugh and he stops short, looking up from the plan embarrassed in a way chiefs shouldn’t be.

“I wasn’t going to mention the heat, but since you brought it up…” I fan myself with a freshly bandaged hand, glancing up at the nearby flames.

“Right, I forgot that your feet must be freezing.”

“Frigid,” I step up to the drawing and he laughs, watching me drag a still bleeding foot around part of the circle. “Also, I was thinking it’d protect the halls better if we thinned out this section of forest. It’s too easy for the fire to jump.”

“It’s too close packed,” the chief shakes his head. “You’re right but I can’t get Gronckles in there and if I clear cut it with a Timberjack, I’d risk taking out the halls I’m trying to protect.”

“You don’t—ah, crap,” I reach for my axe, but of course I left it at home earlier, “you don’t need dragons. A couple of axes could do it in a few days.”

“The only problem with that is getting Vikings excited about chopping something that doesn’t bleed to add onto wood piles that are already over capacity.”

“I’ll do it,” because this conversation is productive and he’s listening and I haven’t managed to silence him with my mysteriously offensive presence. “I’m going to need something to do while I’m grounded.”

“Grounded?”

“I flew into a forest fire after being expressly told to stay inside. And that’s not even getting into the fact that I blackmailed my brother into covering for me. I’ll be lucky to see the clouds again this season.” I bury my face in my hands and groan. The longer that I’m here, the longer that mom has to decipher Bang’s panic.

Gods, he must be terrified. I’ve got to get home.

“Maybe I’ll come break you out sometime.” I freeze at the bizarre offer and his metal foot scrapes harshly against the sharp rock that cut me. “If I need your help with another fire or…”

“I wouldn’t, unless you want my mom to mount your head on a spear.” His smile is disconcerting, like he somehow doesn’t remember that my mom was apparently even scarier when she was younger. “Seriously though, let me thin out those trees. I can use the wood.”

“I won’t stop you,” and he’s sad for a moment. “Just come tell me when you’re done and I’ll get you some silver for it.”

“Really? Thanks,” I raise my hand in an awkward half wave, flinching when the bandage digs into the edge of a particularly enthusiastic blister. “And uh, thanks for this,” the dragon steps forward to sniff me again, “and thank you, bud. Really.”

“Do you need a ride home?” The chief asks, swinging into his saddle and leaning forward to free up a foot of seat behind him. “Your feet look a little worse for the wear.”

“Alright,” I look both ways before climbing on, suddenly sure that Rolf or Arvid or Dad is going to see and ask or judge or be mad. Their comments about the chief make less sense than ever, and I get settled on the narrow dragon’s spine, gingerly setting my hands on his shoulders. “Don’t show off too much, I’m used to a sturdier seat.”

The dragon snorts, and his tail smacks me in the back of the head, again.

I’d flick him if I could move my fingers.

“And the burns can’t be helping.” He calls me out before urging the dragon into the air, practiced and smooth, arcing around the rapidly diminishing fire. Of course Mom is out in front of my house, halfway onto Stormfly when we land.

Bang nearly knocks me over as I get off of the Night Fury, sniffing my bandaged hands and pressing his face into my stomach. I hug him back and tell him I’m alright and he wraps his long, cool tail around my ankles.

Mom starts yelling and I flinch, but it’s miraculously not aimed at me.

“This is your influence!” She roars, stomping up beside the night fury and jabbing her finger into the chief’s chest as he dismounts. “You’re the only one dumb enough—”

“He doesn’t have any influence!” I interject and Mom looks at the chief, oddly smug, before turning on me. Her eyes catch on my bandaged hands before sticking on my bare, bloody feet.

“Where are your shoes?”

“Probably somewhere with the rest of the ash…”

“Do you have any idea how scared Bang was?” Mom points over her shoulder at the front door, blown clean off of its hinges and laying in the remnants of the dining room table.

“I’ll fix that.”

“You are grounded for the rest of fire season—”

“Mom!”

“At least,” she walks up and starts patting me down like the chief had, checking the knots on my bandaged hands and resting a relieved palm on my cheek for a second until she’s furious again and I’m wincing from the punishment that I haven’t even heard about yet. “And you definitely can’t have Bang sleep with you tonight. Someone has to guard the doorway.”

“You’re going to make Bang sleep in the barn with the other dragons?” I sputter, holding his broad head close to my side. “Look at his face—”

“Oh, he doesn’t have to sleep outside,” she shakes her head and points to the barn. “You do.”

“What?”

“Like you said, look at his face,” she pats his head, and I can tell she’s grateful beneath the fury. “He looks pretty happy about having your bed to himself.”

“But look at my face,” I try to wipe some of the soot away, but he’s nonplussed.

“Not doing much for me.”

“I think it’s alright,” the chief calls out and I’m startled because what kind of psycho would willingly stay through one of my mom’s famous reamings.

Maybe Dad’s right and the chief really is a nutjob.

“You, barn,” Mom points at me before turning to the chief with a scathing glare normally reserved for well…me, in situations like this, when I’m still talking and she’s done yelling. “Chief, get out of here. And next time send him home.”

Chapter Text

I wake up in the morning considerably more cramped than the night before, with Bang tucked tightly between my chest and Arvid’s Nightmare, Wingspark, with Stormfly’s big head resting on my hip. The air in the barn is unreasonably warm and I gingerly place my burned hands against Bang’s perpetually cool stomach. They’re better this morning, definitely, but I am going to face the always fun gauntlet of explaining to Gobber that I can’t work today.
He’ll have me sorting repairs into new piles for half the morning before letting me go home.

I sit up before Stormfly can tuck me even deeper into the cage under her wings to find a clay pitcher of water and a cup sitting at the base of the straw, just inside the wide barn doors. Skullcrusher grunts from his roost on the other side of the sparking, snoring Nightmare and I spring to my feet with a startled yelp. Dad is still here and my foot is bleeding again, and Mom is going to kill me for getting blood on the floor, but I’m never awake before Dad leaves.

He’s a fisherman, he inherited half of my mom’s family’s boats when he married my mom but he grew the fleet and now it’s the second biggest on the island. Of course, the chief still owns more boats, even if he doesn’t use them. Dad says it’s because he’s greedy, but I’d guess it’s an inheritance thing.

The chief didn’t seem greedy last night.

But I’m not going to bring up last night, because the longer I go without anyone mentioning it, the further I am from grounding. And I don’t want to explain everything to Dad anyway, he’s the one with the ‘warily disappointed’ face that makes me feel Terror tall.

I pick my way across brief stretch of grass, flinching as bang starts up snoring again and rattles the barn door on its hinges. At least that door still has hinges, the house’s front door is leaning haphazardly against the house and I slip through the doorway, waiting on the mat for my foot’s bleeding to subside. Mom comes down the hallway and smiles surprised before giving me a stern look.

“Did you drink that water? You’re probably all dried out from yesterday.”

“Uh no, I saw that Skullcrusher was still here—”

“And ran inside,” she slips back into that smile and walks over to the hearth, turning what smells like a fresh loaf of bread. “Dad’s not going out today, the water around the island got ashy enough to scare off the fish, at least for a couple of days. You can go get some more sleep before breakfast, if you want.”

“No,” I shake my head” you can’t make me go back to the barn. Never, I’ll hunger strike”

“Arvid will love that, should I go tell him the can have your breakfast?” My mom is secretly witty. It doesn’t come out much and even Arvid doesn’t believe me when I say she’s hilarious and Dad only agrees sometimes. I think it’s sort of our thing, she’s smart with Rolf and fierce with Ingrid, tough on Arvid and funny with me.

I’m lucky.

“Can I start my hunger strike after breakfast?”

She shakes her head, and even though I know she’s only five years younger than dad, it seems like more.

And even though my growth spurt isn’t quite here yet, I really don’t have too much to complain about. Best dragon, best mom, best house furthest from the village with the best view. And didn’t die last night.

“I meant in your bed,” Mom shrugs towards my loft. “I’m assuming you didn’t sleep so well last night.”

“Arvid needs to cuddle his dragon more, she’s deprived.” I look at the bottom of my foot and Mom comes to do the same, sighing at the shallow slice.

“Let me get this cleaned up, I should have done it last night but…”

“But you were too busy with the yelling,” I laugh and she shakes her head.

“I’m sorry. I never wanted to be so yell-y,” she walks over to the hearth and wets a rag with clean water before sitting down at the table. “Come over here.”

“I’ll get blood on the floor.”

“I don’t care, let me get your foot clean,” she pats the chair next to her and I hop over on my better foot, the one that’s only burned and scraped, stumbling just in time to fall into the chair.

“You don’t have to mommy me so much, it’s fine.” I laugh as she jerks my foot into her lap, almost dragging me off of my chair.

“I’m your mom, it’s my job.” She carefully wipes grime away from the wound. “And you’ve got to take good care of your feet.”

“They’re sort of expendable, aren’t they?” I joke to keep from wincing as she wipes directly down the gash. “Look at Gobber.”

And the chief. I keep coming back to him in a way I can’t quite explain.

“Not funny,” she sets my foot on her chair and stands to grab a roll of bandages. She always says that she only keeps them around for me and it’s probably true. All my siblings are graceful in a way that’s hard for me, but it’s probably just the growth spurt hitting feet first.

Mom sits back down and carefully wraps up my foot, two layers thick so that I don’t bleed through, and pulls my other foot onto her lap to check it for wounds. She cleans it quickly with the rag and sets it on the floor.

“Am I good to walk now?”

“If it feels alright,” she frowns, because she knows me well enough to know that I wouldn’t tell her anyway. “And I think I have an old pair of Rolf’s boots that should fit you. I’ll look after everyone’s awake.”

“Take your time, Gobber is never going to let me work without shoes.” I show her my hands, last night’s bandages surprisingly dingy compared to the fresh, white wrapping around my foot. “And I’m burned enough for the moment.”

“You’re still going to work today.” She grabs one of my hands and frowns.

“I can’t hold anything.”

“You don’t get out of work for being an idiot. And let me re-wrap your hands, those bandages are disgusting.”

I don’t get a chance to say anything before she’s tugging at the knots and frowning. “Why is he still doing it like this?”

“What?”

“Oh. Nothing. I just—Never tie bandage knots like this. You can’t cut them off without wiggling the knife underneath.”

“How are you supposed to get them off?” I hold my other palm in front of my face and look at the knot for a moment. “Try pulling on the loose end of the bandage.”

“What?” She leans over my hand, spreading it flat against her knee.

“Just tug on the end of the bandage that’s sticking out there,” I try to do it myself and wince when my fingers overtax the fragile, crackled skin of my palm.

“Eret, that’s just going to tighten it,” she shakes her head, giving the linen an experimental tug. The knot comes easily undone, revealing untarnished white underneath the first darkened layer. “Oh.”

“That’s—I’m going to have to ask him how to tie that,” I poke at the intact knot try to follow the end back through with my eyes.

“I’m sure Gobber knows,” she snaps at me, suddenly frigid, and for once I have absolutely no idea what I did wrong. “You can ask him later.”

“Ouch, do you have to do that so forcefully?” I tug my hand away from her with a frown, hissing as she swipes the sore skin with ointment.

“Stop being such a smart ass, Eret. It’s too early for that.”

“How was I being a smart ass?”

She glances up at me, “you were born a smart ass.”

“Better than a dumb ass,” I hiss as she tugs a bandage neatly tight around my palm.

“Not always,” she sighs and bandages my other hand in silence, scooting away with a purposeful sniff. “I think that the bread is burning. Do you mind pulling it out? I’m going to go see if your dad is awake.”

“Right,” I wave my hands at her, “built in oven mitts.”

“So help me Odin if you burn yourself again.”

“What’s Odin going to do about it?”

“Hold me back,” she rolls her eyes at me, one last small smile slipping through her annoyance as she turns and heads back down the hall.

I don’t burn myself, and I set the bread down on the heart as quietly as I can before sneaking down the hall, tucking close to the wall and peering through my parents’ cracked bedroom door. Arvid and I started doing this when we were little, not in a creepy way, although now I sort of wonder how we never saw anything we shouldn’t have. Arvid stopped a couple of years ago, making up some excuse about being able to get his own girls but I haven’t let go of it yet.

It’s nothing obscene or particularly interesting, I guess, just Mom standing by the side of the bed with her hand on Dad’s shoulder. They’re talking in hushed tones and she kisses the top of his head. He pulls her into a hug and says something that makes her smile, almost.

My parents have friends over occasionally. Not that often, they aren’t the most popular couple in the village and I don’t exactly know why, but Arvid dating everyone’s teenage daughter in the past couple of years probably hasn’t helped. But no one is happy like my mom and dad, their friends are always complaining, always joking about their marriages. I can’t imagine anyone else having a quiet moment like this, not talking, just hugging. Mom is never this still and Dad is always talking to one of us kids, if he can, but when they’re alone it’s peaceful. Stable.

Sure Ruffnut and Fishlegs love each other, but they’re so loud about it. There’s a couple that Arvid and I learned not to spy on. And young. Snotlout and his wife hate each other, political thing, and I don’t think I’ve met the woman more than a handful of times. Tuffnut and Finna get along, but not in any way anyone else understands. They’re always laughing over cryptic jokes that no one else gets and I doubt they’re quiet in private.

This is something magical. Like baby dragons migrating for the first time, like the snow finally melting away in the spring, like—

“What did you do this time, little brother?” Arvid whispers over my shoulder and I jolt, elbow flying back towards him. He dodges neatly and waves me back to the kitchen, pinching a corner off of the hot bread and popping it into his mouth. “Nice mittens.”

“What are you doing out here?” I look at his closed bedroom door and he grins.

“Mom was so busy shrieking at you last night that I snuck out to see Gangrene.”

“And you’re just sneaking in now?”

“Jealous?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, glancing at my hands again. “Any luck with the fire? Is Bang as beaten up as you are?”

“Bang is fine, thank you very much. And I’ll have you know that the chief liked my idea for putting out the fire.”

“Oh, the chief liked your idea? I told you it was stupid.”

I try and punch him in the arm and he catches my fist, twisting it around behind my back, but drops it instantly when I stiffen with actual pain. “What happened to your hands?”

“I got a little up close and personal with the fire. No big deal, I’m just…thorough with my research.”

“So that’s what Mom was screaming about last night. She woke up the whole island.” Arvid laughs, “she really made you sleep in the barn?”

“You heard that part, huh?” I glare at him, “you need to cuddle Wingspark more, man. She’s desperate, she and Stormfly played tug of war with me all night.”

“So you finally got some action then—”

“Hey!”

“—good for you. They’re both quite good looking if you’re into scales—”

“What are you two fighting about?” Ingrid slumps into the kitchen, wearing half her armor with her long blonde hair undone. She ruffles my hair and pinches off another corner of the bread, reaching for Arvid’s head and pinching his arm when he dodges her affection. “And who’s into scales?”

“Eret, he had Wing and Stormfly fighting over him last night.”

“Arvid wasn’t even here, he was with Gangrene last night.” I pause when they both laugh at me, “never mind. That was supposed to be an insult but—”

“What happened to your feet?” Ingrid frowns at me, crossing her arms and cocking her hip like Mom in a mood. “And your hands?”

“Oh, you didn’t hear Mom yelling at me last night? Apparently it woke up the whole island.”

“I left as soon as she started yelling, like a sane person,” she scoffs and starts combing her fingers through her hair, braiding it in a loose weave over her shoulder. “Spitleaf brought Smoke and Smog over and we spent the night tracking down some pirates.”

“Am I the only one who sticks around when mom starts yelling?”

They don’t answer and I roll my eyes. “Anyway, at least you can’t cram your half of that Zippleback into the barn. There was barely room enough for me as is.”

“Mom actually made you sleep in the barn?” She laughs, but it’s serious, it doesn’t quite unfurl the tired furrow in her brow. She really does look like Mom most of the time, but right now it’s all Dad. “She’s so hard on you.”

“Like I said, Eret was getting some tail,” Arvid drags me into a headlock and I shove him off, elbowing him in the ribs. “Mom’s worried about him, I guess. I have all of the girls on the island except Spitleaf, who’s yours—”

She shoves him, “Stop. She’s not my—You leave this house and she’s my friend, alright?” But her cheeks are red and it’s not entirely convincing. She wants to brag about it and I wish that she could. I nudge Arvid in the side hard enough that he coughs, and of course Mom chooses that moment to reappear.

“Really Eret? No roughhousing in the kitchen.” She waves a stern finger at me and Ingrid risks glaring at her. We all freeze when Mom doesn’t seem to notice.

“What’s going on?” Ingrid asks slowly, sitting down at the table and tugging her kransen down over her forehead.

“What do you mean?” Mom shrugs and starts cutting the bread with Dad’s dagger, looking pointedly at a canvas bag of yak jerky until Arvid catches on and sets it on the table. “Nothing is going on.”

“What do you mean nothing is going on?” Arvid laughs, “you should be bragging, Mom, what with the way you tore into the chief last night—”

“You aren’t the stealthy one, Arvid. Sneak out again and I’ll start talking to Snotlout about a contract with Smite.”

“Oooh, lucky you,” I chime in, “I know you like them tall, dark, and hairy—”

“Eret!” Mom snaps, holding her hand against her head, knife rattling on the table where she slammed it. “Can you just stop with the snarkiness today? I’m not in the mood.”

“Thor almighty Mom, don’t be a dick to Eret just because the chief came around—”

I kick Ingrid under the table before she can finish that sentence, forgetting to flinch at the stabbing pain in the sole of my foot. No one talks to Mom like that. “N—sorry, Mom. I didn’t get much sleep, I—”

“Yeah, you were out with Spitleaf again. Seriously, you two, Eret is the sneaky one.” Mom sits down in her normal seat at the table, leaving Rolf’s empty seat like he’s going to stumble out of his room at any moment, bringing his book to breakfast. The house still feels bigger even though he got married and elected to move into the Ingerman lodge with his bride two months ago.

That’s probably why Mom is upset. Rolf hasn’t been visiting as much as he promised he would. “What am I doing? You three can cut your own bread.”

“Sure we can,” I slide the loaf and knife in front of me and set about gingerly cutting slices. Mom groans into the table, but no one else seems to hear it.

Chapter Text

It’s a busy day at the forge with plenty of half-melted and warped weapons to sort. I should be excited, I don’t get to work with weapons all that much and the fire did a number on the village’s armory, but I’d rather be on saddle duty or nail duty or anything but this. Gobber welcomed me with a slap upside the head that I probably deserved, and got me making piles. So many piles.

By mid-afternoon my hands are feeling better, or the part of my mind that cares is so bored and numb that I don’t notice the pain anymore, and I start reshaping hammers. They aren’t exactly precise instruments, so I’m not worried about my clumsy fixes. Gobber always checks my final balance anyway, even though there’s nothing much either of us can do about an amorphous, battle-hardened lump of iron.

Someone knocks on the open front counter and I turn to see Fuse Thorston, clutching a crumpled pile of drawings and smelling like black powder. I used to be afraid of her. She’s a year older than me, Arvid’s age, and he pulled one of her strawberry blonde pigtails when they were seven. She retaliated with a stink bomb through our front window, and I hid from her until I was ten.

“Hey Fuse, what do you need?” I set down my half-finished project and walk over to look at her drawings. Her commissions are always fun, different from everything else. She does explosives work for the chief, half because she’s talented and half to keep her from hurling stink bombs through random victim’s windows.

But reasoning aside, it’s always interesting and she usually overpays.

“What happened to your hands? You look like me,” she holds up her left hand with three bandaged fingers.

“Eh, forest fire. You might have seen it,” I joke, looking out at the bald patch of charcoal on the hill behind the village.

“I was over on Eel Island,” she shrugs. My joke falls entirely flat and I shake my head, gesturing towards her drawings.

“What do you need?” I pull the parchment towards me and instead of the normal egg-shaped or spherical container with some sort of latch, it’s a long fin shaped piece of metal, curving in on both edges. “What’s this for?”“Aim, I hope.” She cocks her head, rechecking the design. “I’ve got to vent another volcano, but this time the wall is a little more delicate.”

“Aiming an explosion?” I pick up the drawing and look at my newly made pile of weapons to be scrapped. “Sounds sort of impossible, but I can make the part in…three days? Maybe?”

“I’ll come back in four,” she places a small stack of silver on the counter. “Is that enough for the first half of it?”

I pluck two ingots off of the pile and hand them back to her.

“You don’t have to give me all the money you have, you know.”

“Eh,” she puts a coin back down and slides it towards me directly. A tip. “If I keep it, I just end up feeding it to Hotgut to see if I can make anything exciting.” She shrugs and gestures to the purple tinged Gronckle waiting patiently in the square behind her. “Anyway, I’ve got to go. See you in four days.”

“See you then,” I wave her off and walk towards the small back room that Gobber lets me use, pinning the drawing of the part to the back of the door so that it’ll flatten before I have to work from it.

I’m winding my way back around the scrap pile when tinkling laughter steals my attention. Aurelia Haddock is crossing the square, arm looped through a friend’s that I barely notice. Aurelia does that, she takes all of the attention in a room with that long red-brown hair and those sparkling green eyes. Gods, she’s…she’s coming over here.

Oh wow, she’s looking at me, and she’s walking towards the forge window. I trip over a warped sword and nearly take out the pile on the way to the counter and she laughs, whispering to her friend. The other girl disappears or something, because then she’s alone there, smiling at me, and my palms sting with blooming sweat.

“Can I help you?” I’m not quite sure what to do with my hands. It seems right to lean against the counter, but my bandages feel like they’ve caught on fire and—oh, great, my face is bright red.

“I was wondering, Erik—”

“Uh, it’s Eret,” I correct her and she looks at me uncomprehending. “Eret, my dad is Eret…son of Eret. But I guess I’m a son of an Eret too, so I’m Eret son of Eret son of—Never mind. Eret III. But you can call me Eret.”

“Right,” she looks at me strangely and takes a small silver ring off of her delicate third finger. “I was wondering if you could fix this, I dented it,” she shows him an almost imperceptibly small gouge in the band.

“That little thing? You want that fixed—” I stop myself, because this seems a whole lot like an excuse all of a sudden. An excuse like when Arvid’s saddle breaks right in front of his conquest of the week’s house and he has to knock on the door to ask for…a date? I’m not quite sure how that works, but it almost always does. “Yeah, I can fix that.”

“Thanks, Erik.” Her smile is so pretty that it takes me a minute to notice her mistake.

“Eret.”

“Huh?” And when she cocks her head, her hair falls in her eyes and I want to reach out and make a fool out of myself. I pick up a cloth and start polishing the ring, working on the deformity especially.

“You can call me Erik,” I try for a winning smile, and for someone making ridiculous excuses to come to the forge, she’s nonplussed. “It’s like a nickname.”

“It’s not a nickname if it’s your actual name.”

“Hey Honey!” The chief slides in out of nowhere, sooty from fire clean up and wedging himself between his daughter and the counter. She flinches away from him, dodging an ashy hug.

“Ugh, Dad, looks like washday is coming early this week.”

“What are you two uh, talking about?” He gestures between us, and something about his smile is forced. It’s nothing like the almost recognizable grin the night before, but no less familiar somehow.

It’s almost enough to pull my eyes away from his daughter.

“Nothing dad, I’ll see you at home,” she exits easily, thankfully ignoring me as my gaze slips habitually down to her—

“Eret?” The chief is still at the counter, staring at me like I’ve done something tremendously worrying. Aurelia called him ‘dad’ and right now he looks like one. “What were you guys talking about?”

“She wanted me to polish the dent out of this ring,” I hold the newly smooth band out towards him and he nods, looking behind me like he’s searching for something.

“And that’s it?”

“Is the interrogation really necessary?” I laugh, putting the ring back into my cloth and continuing to polish.

“Not this one. How are you feeling today?” And he seems so genuinely concerned that the conversation at breakfast ceases to make sense. Arvid supplied most of it, about how the chief liked my idea and that inherently means it’s shitty, and Mom looked at no one in particular, tapping her foot senselessly under the table.

“My pride is a little wounded,” I laugh, gesturing towards my new, slightly loose boots. “My brother’s from when he was fourteen.”

The chief’s lip quirks, profoundly sad.

And Mom says no one cares about my growth spurt but me. Of course, it doesn’t make any sense for him to care, but I’ll take the sympathy where I can get it.

“Your father was a bit small at your age. Smaller than you.”

I quirk an eyebrow at that tidbit of information.

“How do you know? He wasn’t on Berk back then.”

He frowns and it’s so familiar again. Maybe he looks more like Snotlout than I gave him credit for.

“Hearsay.” He drums his hands on the counter for a moment, looking at me like he’s expecting me to say something.

“Do you need something?”

“No, I just…Did your mother really make you sleep in the barn?” He smiles again, uneasy and glancing behind me. I look around the forge and don’t see anything out of the ordinary.

“It wasn’t so bad. Lots of straw, lots of dragons, nice and warm,” it feels weird telling him this, why would he want to know? Something is comfortable, and it worries me. The few minutes of pleasant chatting before Spitleaf Ingerman is giving me a wedgie and Ingrid is yelling through her laughter. “And she did let Bang sleep inside too, that was brutal.”

“That’s cold,” he snickers to himself and leans closer, silvery hair looking a bit warmer in the glow of the forge. He looks younger, and it can’t be Snotlout I’m seeing in his face. The resemblance is closer than a family friend, and I try and remember if he and mom are related somehow. It seems like half of Berk is clinging to one big old family tree, maybe he’s my distant uncle or something. Really distant, because my grandma would have said something, she’s not like Dad, she was a true, proud Berkian. “I’m surprised she didn’t bring him breakfast in bed and let you know out of the window.”

“Ugh, it was worse than that!” I complain around a stifled grin, bandaged hand dramatically against my forehead. “She was practically shouting in my ear last night ‘here’s your glass of water before bed, Bang-y, concuss if you need anything!’.” My hip falls into that familiar place and I plant my hand on it, cuing off of the chief’s widening smile. “I’m pretty sure he got the whole spiel, ’Dad and I will leave the door open if you need anything, we love you’.”

The chief’s face falls and he stands up away from the counter, older in the sunlight. He runs his hand back through his hair and I almost just come out and ask if he is my distant relative, because something about the way he looks is strange and alarming and I know I’ve seen it before.

“That’s…”

“Not as dead on as I thought? I’m a little rusty. The impression got so good during that blizzard last winter that it went from funny to creepy and I had to put it away for a while.” My hand is still working, rhythmically polishing that shallow groove in the ring.

“I’d say it’s pretty dead on,” the chief shakes his head like he’s trying to clear it and I frown.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, I just—I should probably get going before Gobber gets back…and you—you should probably get to work before Gobber gets back.” He points at the piles of weapons behind me with an animated arm and I shrug. He flinches and sighs, and I look around to make sure that nothing is on fire.

“You don’t look so good, chief.”

“Lots of smoke in the uh…lungs. Chest.” He coughs, and it doesn’t sound real, but I would swear on the Book of Dragons that I’ve heard it before somewhere.

“Take my mom’s advice and drink some water.”

“Will do,” he nods, and this feels strange again. I don’t know him, but he’s not silent and he’s almost familiar. Maybe those speeches left a bigger impression on my snoring self than I’d guessed. “Oh, Aurelia’s ring?” He holds his hand out towards me and I freeze.

“I was thinking maybe I could bring it to her…after I get off of work, you know—”

“I’ll bring it to her.” He’s the chief again, firm and solid, and I hand off the ring reluctantly. Just when I was starting to think I had Aurelia’s father’s approval. “It’s just easier. You get it. It—yeah.”

“Alright chief,” I set the cloth down and take a small backwards step towards the anvil where that half-forgotten hammer is still half finished.

“If you wanted, you could call me Hiccup.”

“Chief Hiccup, maybe.” I laugh to cover up the strange feeling welling in my chest. “Hiccup just feels too informal, I hardly know you.”

“I hope to change that.”

00000

I slump home after work, crashing through the front door with a stretch and a groan. The house is quiet and I look for Mom, but her boots are missing from the floor by the door.

“You’re home early,” Dad sets a piece of parchment down with a rattle and I jump.

“Didn’t see you there,” I laugh and blink so my eyes adjust to the half-darkness, strolling over to sit on the edge of the hearth. Normally, that chair is mine, but it fits Dad better. Just another case of a Viking sized house reminding me that I’m not quite there yet. “Did you have a nice day off?”

“Nice enough,” he shrugs, heavy feet thunking onto the bear skin rug. “Trying to get this map sorted out but something looks wrong.”

“Want me to have a look?” I stand and walk over to him, accepting the sheet of parchment and bringing it up to my face. “What part of it?”

“Oh, the channel near Eel Island, something about that current line is funny. But I’m not the most talented map-maker in the family,” he praises and I peek back over the map at him, raising an eyebrow.

“Why aren’t you mad at me?”

“Should I be mad at you?” He laughs, “Isn’t your mother mad enough for the both of us?”

“No, I’m glad you’re not mad, I was just wondering if you’d heard or…”

“Eret, you don’t need to confess everything, you know. Unlike your mother, I assume you’re going to get into trouble sometimes, I’d rather that you didn’t plunge into forest fires, of course,” he gives me a look and I duck back down behind the map. “Don’t tell your mother, but I think being so hard on you is going to make you rebel.”

“What are you talking about, Dad?” I turn and sit on the arm of his chair, holding the map so we both can see it. Something does look funny about the channel but I’m not quite sure what. “I’m not a rebel. I still use Arvid’s fists to fight my battles.”

“You aim Arvid’s fists.” He rests a hand on my shoulder and I shrug, clearing my throat and peering closer to the map.

“I think this island has a peninsula here? Maybe? And that would possibly have a rip current coming out and—maybe we should just go take a look at it. It’s not a long flight.”

“Let’s take the boat. I could go for the walk through the village.”

“Yeah?” I cock my head and roll the map up. Dad normally avoids the village, he says it’s because he didn’t grow up here and it never quite started feeling like home, but I think it has something to do with the chief. Arvid didn’t get his voice from nowhere. “Why?”

“Skullcrusher deserves the day off, he went straight back to sleep after breakfast.”

“Ok…but can Bang still come?” I grin hopefully. “He’d probably like to go on a flame free adventure.”

“Fine,” Dad shakes his head and holds a hand out for the map, taking it from me and waving me towards the door. “I’ll meet you outside.”

We chat about fishing on the way down the hill, about his new reels and nets and the possibility of building a few new ships this winter, maybe even with some of the wood I cut down for the chief. He doesn’t seem too terribly excited about my new job, but he doesn’t tell me not to do it and I file it away under the good old Hofferson-Haddock rivalry.

I’ve heard it goes back to dragon training, back when they used to kill dragons and the chief decided not to. Mom was going to be a great dragon killer, but I’m glad things went the way they did. And given how much she loves Stormfly, she’s probably glad too. I don’t really know what else would have happened afterwards, it’s not like the chief is that much better with dragons or anything. His Night Fury doesn’t even listen to him, he runs off after strange kids in forest fires, thank Thor.

It’s probably just one of those competitive things. I’ve never really been as bad about that as my siblings, especially Arvid. Ingrid has the competition bug too, but she already won years ago when she pummeled a grown man in the ring for badmouthing someone. Maybe Spitleaf? I don’t know. I just know that she could have killed him, but settled for yelling at him instead, and she was only fourteen.

Rolf doesn’t really have it, I guess. And we should probably be closer. It’s probably something to do with the age difference, he’s seven years older than me and married and always spent all his time in the library. I swear, it’s like my mom had a weirdo lovechild with Fishlegs.

Which is impossible. There’s a reason that my mom and dad didn’t get married until they were older. It was perfect, they had to wait for it.

Dad wraps an arm around my shoulders as we walk through the square and I smile, scratching the top of Bang’s head as he pushes his face against my leg. I rarely get enough time alone with Dad, and I wonder if Arvid is somewhere being jealous when the back of my neck starts to burn. I look around, ready to stick my tongue out at my brother even if it means he’ll come follow us but I make eye contact with the chief of all people.

He looks mad, but as soon as he sees me he puts on a smile, raising his hand in greeting. I return it unthinking, a lackadaisical half wave before going back to stroking Bang’s scaly head.

Dad mutters something about it getting late and rushes me the rest of the way to the dock.

Chapter Text

I leave Bang next to the barn and jog up to the house. Dad is still with the ship, taking the longway back, but one of his oars isn’t looking so great so I offered to run back and grab him a new one. I think there are some in Ingrid’s room, Dad and I were working on them last weekend and there’s one close enough to done to use, isn’t there?

I’m lost in my thoughts and almost don’t notice the yelling. It’s enough to make me pause, and something pounds on the wall before Mom starts getting loud.

That’s the thing about strong silent types, when they yell, they really yell.

I don’t recognize the second voice right away, but an uncomfortable sense of familiarity swirls in the pit of my stomach. I press my ear against the door and try to glean more, but it doesn’t help. Don’t most screaming men sound the same anyway? Why is mom screaming at a random man?

They’re really going at it, but Mom’s winning, louder and crazier than I’ve ever heard her. The man booms something in response and I swear I recognize it from somewhere. They…they’re preoccupied enough that they won’t notice me, right? I sneak forward and crack open the door, peering through the inch wide gap and wincing when the axe strapped to my back knocks against the door frame.

Mom doesn’t notice, she’s red in the face and screaming, holding onto the back of one of the wooden chairs like she’s going to beat someone with it. Go Mom.

“—have to drop this, chief. You aren’t a part of his life—” Chief? Sure enough the chief stalks into view, pounding a furious fist on the hearth and whirling on my mom.

“Whose fault is that?”

“Don’t go blaming this on Eret, he’s my husband—”

“Don’t remind me!” The chief clutches his head and groans and Mom shrinks back slightly, leaning on the chair instead of threatening to use it as a club.

“Are you really going to start that again?”

“I haven’t stopped, you know we should be together—”

“I don’t know anything like that.” The chief turns to my mom and advances into her punching range like an idiot, but she doesn’t hit him.

I’m hearing what they’re saying, but it doesn’t seem to make any sense. All of the words have lost their meaning, they might as well be howling at each other.

“You know we’re meant—”

“I can make my own decisions! I have made my own decisions.”

“Look at our son, Astrid. Look at him and tell me we’re not right together!”

I can’t breathe.

Their son? They have a son?

I stumble and the door swings open, and Mom looks at me like she’s seeing a draugr. The chief freezes too, clearing his throat.

“You two have a son?” My voice is louder than I expected somehow, echoing off of the walls. Their silence is answer enough. “I have a half-brother I’ve never met?”

Mom freezes and I look to the chief. “Where is he?”

“Not far away at all,” the chief stares at me, mouth gaping open halfway. I curl my lip.

“Well thanks for your clarity.”

“Glad I could help.”

Mom looks between us and glares briefly before sobbing, crumpling alarmingly and burying her face in her hands.

“Oh Mom, don’t cry—”

“Astrid—”

We move towards her at the same time, both resting a hand on her shoulder. She shrugs the hands off and growls through a sniff and the chief is back to staring at me.

“What?” I snap, combing my hand back through my hair. Mom sobs again and I look back at the chief, who is so conveniently still staring at me. “What?”

The man sighs and clutches a handful of his hair. I freeze, looking between him and Mom.

The freckles on my nose. My chin. All those things that aren’t quite Dad or Arvid or Rolf.

“Eret,” Mom looks up, red eyed and earnest as she rests her hand on my arm.

“Are you seriously—What are you saying?” I laugh because it has to be a joke. There’s no other explanation. A really stupid, unfunny joke. I half expect Arvid to jump out from behind a corner and laugh at me. “You’re kidding me. You’re—Dad is always saying that the chief is a nut, he must be right. You don’t have a son at all—”

“Eret,” Mom repeats, looking between me and the chief again. “Why don’t we sit down?”

“No!” I stare back at the chief and his gray streaked hair and his narrow face and I can see it. It’s—“You lied to me! That growth spurt is never even coming, I—How could you do this to Dad?”

Mom looks at the table and takes her hand off my arm. I want to apologize, but I don’t.

“Eret—” The chief steps towards me.

“Don’t talk to me! Don’t you ever talk to me.”

I look between them one last time before running out of the house. Bang is already waiting, concerned and primed to fly and we take off.

00000

It’s the middle of the night by the time that the Nightmare appears on the horizon, silhouetted against the stars. I’m half tempted to get up and fly away, because I don’t want to talk to Arvid and I don’t want confirmation, I don’t want this to be real yet.

Or ever.

He lands next to me on the sea stack and greets Bang with a pat on the head before sitting down beside me on the rock. He nudges my shoulder with his.

“Everyone is out looking for you.”

“Does everyone include the chief?” I sneer at the dull white topped waves below, curling my knees up towards my chest.

“Why would everyone include the chief?”

I blink at him and it all comes rushing out, “I caught Mom and the chief arguing and…and I—I’m not Dad’s kid. I’m the chief’s kid.”

“What?”

“Now’s not the time to be slow on the pick-up,” I slap my hand on the rock until it stings, chewing on my lower lip. “I’m the chief’s kid. Somehow. I caught them arguing about having a kid and it’s me.”

“No shit,” Arvid flops back on the sea stack with his arms folded behind his head, and I’m still shaking. I stand up and start pacing, my new old boots scuffing along the granite.

“No shit.”

“The chief is your father?” My brother—half-brother, he’s my half-brother—looks at me for a moment before shrugging almost appraisingly. “I can see it.”

“Yeah, me too. It’s pretty damned obvious, isn’t it?” I tug at my hair. “Just cut off my foot and call me mini-chief.”

“I wouldn’t say mini-chief. I’d say you already caught up to him.”

“How are you so calm about this?”

Arvid shrugs and I can see his brain trying to drift away, trying to categorize this new information. When he hates the chief is he hating me? Am I hating me? Do I hate the chief?

“You walked in on them yelling at each other?” He asks and I shrug. “You were eavesdropping again, weren’t you? What exactly did you hear?”

“He…” I think back and try to remember back to that other life, before the big secret came out. “He was saying he and Mom are supposed to be together because their son is—because of me. I guess.” I frown and try to make sense of it all.

Mom and the chief. Mom and Dad. The chief and me. Dad and Arvid.

Me and Dad.

“Now you’re just shitting me. He didn’t say it was because of you. He has two kids younger than you, he has heirs—”

“Augh! Eww!” It hits me like a brick and I shake my head. “That’s disgusting. That’s even worse than the lying!”

“What is?” Arvid sits up, looking at me like I’m going to explode.

Frankly, I won’t be exploding for a while.

“Aurelia is my half-sister,” I gag a bit and Arvid laughs so hard he has to hold his stomach. Too hard. A last hurrah. “The theatrical laughing always feels so fantastic. Thanks for that.”

“You—I can kind of hear it now, you know?” He’s still laughing as he stands. “You kind of sound like him when I piss you off.”

“I do?”

“Yeah, like when he snaps at Snotlout.”

“Congratulations on naming yourself our generation’s Snotlout.”

He blinks slowly, “that’s—that’s actually uncanny. How did I never see it before?”

“Tongue too deep in some girl’s throat?”

“Ok, that’s just weird,” Arvid steps closer and hunches down in a way that’s absolutely wonderful for my ego, staring too closely at my face.

He looks like Dad—like his dad—no chin tattoo’s obviously, because he’ll never be big enough to stop being afraid of mom. Blue eyes and a different nose, but he’s dad. We always used to joke that he could pick up girls by pointing at Dad and telling them that’s what he’ll look like in thirty years.

I tried the same line once and got laughed into the street. Maybe I should point to the chief next time and win some pity attention.

Come here ladies, come be the first one to love the chief’s forgotten bastard.

Loki’s balls, I’m a bastard.

“Did you find your dignity yet?” I snap and step away, resuming my pacing and he shakes his head.

“Now that I heard it, I can’t stop. It’s like the chief just asked about my dignity. I wouldn’t—Oh Gods, this is why Dad hates the chief, isn’t it?”

“No shit.” I frown at the ground, “everyone must know if it’s this obvious. This…this explains all the rooms I’ve silenced over the years.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Arvid pats my shoulder and I shake it off. “It’s just your face.”

“Exactly, it’s my face.” I stare at the waves for another minute and look up at him. Something about what I’m going to say feels irreversible. “Do you realize what this means? Mom slept with the chief while she was married to Dad.”

“Yeah.”

“When you were just a few months old.” My hands are shaking slightly and I shove them in my pockets, exhaling. “She—with the chief.”

“Yeah. With the chief.” He gestures towards the dragons. “Home? Or are we going to keep flying?”

That’s so tempting. Just climb on Bang and go. Everyone has heard the chief’s stories, even us, trickled through so many speakers that we don’t know what the truth is anymore. But no matter how much I want to see the mainland, I can’t run from this now. I have to stay, I have to try and help, to try and hold this together.

“Home. I just—I’m just going to stay here a little longer, alright?” I sit back down and he joins me, Wingspark moving to curl up behind us, a warm wall against the wind.

00000

Rolf is sitting at the table, taking up half the space in the room like he always used to before he got his new family lodge right across the path from the Ingermann’s. I pause in the doorway and Arvid runs into me, swearing at the back of my head and shouldering me out of the way, like everything is normal.

“Hey Rolf,” I test the water. As a kid I was always annoying, always loud. Rolf is the smartest guy I know, but he never really had time for me, he was always so busy with his job at the library or research.

“So, you heard.”

Arvid stops dead in the middle of the room, hand lingering on the back of his chair at the table. “You knew?”

“Everyone knows,” Rolf runs his hand back through his short, honey blonde hair and looks around the room. “Nothing has changed around here. The house still looks exactly the same.”

“You could have stopped by and visited,” I sigh and chew on the inside of my cheek, but I can’t stop the rest of my thought from spilling out. “Told me who my father was, played some catch. Normal big brother stuff.”

“I always knew,” he looks at the table. “The chief used to be around all the time, when you were a kid.”

“You remember that?”

“I was seven. I remember him standing in the living room with your mother like he belonged here. Holding you. Drinking tea. And there were strict instructions for me and Ingrid not to tell Dad.” Rolf shakes his head again and looks at me, “he had a baby, but he was always here holding you.”

“Good—” I swallow hard, “good to know that I’m interchangeable with any other baby.”

“Is it time for that right now, Eret?” Rolf spits my name, and the sweet smell in my nose makes sense as mead. I look at Arvid and he shrugs, eyebrows furrowed in my direction.

“What is it time for? Are you going to lecture me for being a bastard?” My voice dips, and I’m mad. I don’t care that he smells like honey and liquor and that I haven’t seen him for more than five minutes since helping him move. “Because I chose this, absolutely. I made some decision before I was fucking born to—”

“Eret,” Arvid rests his hand on my shoulder, holding me back like I’ve done a million times to him. I try to shrug him off and he talks over my low growl, “So this is why you never really liked him. No, it makes sense,” a squeeze that tells me he’s calming Rolf down. Calming that Berserker trait so rarely seen.

“You were just a kid, but you were already so like him.”

“What…” I shrink back slightly, “what if I was just like you? You were the only other one around here who made things. That’s obviously in there, somewhere. It could be Mom…”

“She’s out looking for you. Everyone is.” Rolf shakes his head, “I’m supposed to be but—but I thought I’d just enjoy the quiet. My wife is pregnant, all her sisters are clucking around like hens—”

And he’s changing the subject again. Because the house or his baby or the chief, there’s always something more important than me. I remember being five years old with a skinned knee, Rolf trying the whole time to show Mom his rock collection.

“Are you sure it’s yours?”

Arvid’s hand claps down on my shoulder and he pulls me back, already trying to mollify the situation, “Let’s talk this through—”

“Scared him off!” Mom’s voice reverberates through the walls and we all freeze, staring at the still open door. “…never come around! Why the hell—”

“Should have done this years ago!” A man’s voice returns and Arvid’s hand leaves my shoulder, tightening into a fist.

It’s the chief.

The pair of them—and they’re walking shoulder to shoulder. A legitimate pair—walk up to the doorway together, pausing immediately outside. Mom’s eyes widen and she rushes inside, throwing her arms around me before I can move, squeezing me until it hurts.

“…so worried. So incredibly worried,” she smacks my back, not hard enough to hurt, “what the Hel were you thinking? Running off like that?”

“Is he alright?” The chief’s voice cuts through the room like a knife and Rolf slams his hands on the table, swears mounting in a growl. A caged gronckle, pushed to fight and determined to destroy.

“Rolf!” Mom pulls half way out of the hug and shouts, but he doesn’t hear her, and we’re all left staring at the chief, two steps inside the door, silver hair shining in the candle light.

Arvid moves first, fists balling by his sides as he steps forward, snarling. Mom hugs me again and glares at him, “Arvid, no.”

“What?” Arvid turns back, obviously astounded that he doesn’t have free reign on the chief’s face.

“Is he alright?” He asks again, and I shrug Mom’s arm off of my shoulder, stepping towards the neutral center of the room.

No one answers. Arvid stares at the chief and back at me, thick brow deepening over his eyes. I stare at my feet. My feet in Rolf’s old boots.

“Leave.” Mom tells him, voice low and deadly.

“I just want to know if my son is alright!” The chief roars, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III noble and present in our humble living room.

“I’m not your son.” I look up at him, clearing my throat. “I’m not your son. I’m not your anything. I don’t even know you—”

“E-Eret,” he stumbles over my name, his hand stretching across the place between us, and we’re lined up, flanked by Mom and Arvid. Matched in the center.

“Not your son.”

“Get out of here, Hiccup.”

I’ve never heard Mom say his name before, not like it’s a word instead of a slur. His first name, and it strikes me that he has one. It’s not a title, it’s not inscribed on a page of a Berkian history book in Rolf’s Thor-damned library. It’s a name that his family calls him, that my own fucking mother calls him.

“Astrid…” It’s a plea, and he’s barely even a chief. He’s just some weirdo checking out my mom at the market, Snotlout when he’s had too much to drink.

“Get out of here!” I echo. The chief looks at me like I’m not speaking plain Norse. Like I’m not making any sense. “Get out of my house. I don’t know you, get away from me.”

Mom hugs me and I let her.

The chief lingers for a moment and I can feel Arvid sizing him up. That brother to brother telepathy bouncing off of me unheard. Should we take him? Can we take him? Arvid’s toes squeak on the floor and I wait for him to pounce, for this to become a brawl, something I understand.

“I’ll…I—”

“Go, Hiccup.” Mom’s voice is unbearably gentle and her arm is suddenly cold. Hard. Uncomfortable across my shoulders.

The chief leaves and Arvid shuts the door behind him.

I throw Mom’s arm off and start pacing, tugging at my hair and dodging Arvid’s arm as he tries to stop me. Mom’s voice breaks my trance, “Honey—”

“Do you call the chief Honey?”

“I—”

“You fought with him like—like an old fucking married couple.” I start pacing again, “Is that what you do when we’re not around? You fight with the chief?”

“When she’s not fucking him,” Rolf rolls his eyes, too casually leaning on the table. Like he belongs here.

He does. I don’t.

Did I kick him out? Did he leave because of me? He’s all dad in his chin, in his shoulders. I’ve got nothing.

“Rolf,” Mom growls, and all three of us freeze, even Rolf, suddenly keenly aware of the line that just lapsed. He wilts like a fawn, faced with a Rumblehorn on a rampage.

“I’m going to bed.” I announce and stalk off towards my loft, scrambling up the stairs and flopping onto the furs on my bed, cold and neat, unslept in. The last time I slept in this bed, everything was normal. Everything made sense.

A clatter downstairs, Bang’s familiar toenails on the floor, and someone opens the door for him. He bounds in and curls up around me, beside me, halfway on top of me so that I can barely breathe. I wait for the door to close.

It doesn’t.

“Eret…”

“Go away, Mom.” Any other day, saying anything like that would be a death wish. It’d land me in the barn for the night. I can’t quite bring myself to care.

She doesn’t say anything. The door shuts behind her and it’s quiet.

Chapter Text

I sleep late. If staring at the ceiling while Bang snores can be considered sleeping. Arvid says my name when he gets up but leaves me alone when I don’t answer, unusually somber as he closes the door near silently behind him. Mom knocks on my door sometime past breakfast, long after my stomach starts growling, but she doesn’t pry and I accept the silence, head nestled against Bang’s cool side. He’ll be too big for my bed soon.

Mom leaves eventually, I hear Stormfly squawking outside and take the chance to dash out, to get down to work before someone shows up to remind me of last night, as if I need reminding.

There’s breakfast on the table at my usual spot. More than usual. A whole apple tart from the bakery, the kind that Arvid and I usually have to fight over. It makes me nauseous and I try to feed it to Bang, but the dragon seems to have lost his appetite too. The food ends up on top of the ashes in the hearth.

I push out of the front door and stop for a second, just a damn second, to adjust Bang’s saddle, and my spine tingles. Someone’s watching.

I turn around and of course it’s the chief, leaning against the side of my house, pushing to his feet and dusting off his clothes. I sneer at him.

“Eret! Good—good morning. How did you sleep?”

I don’t answer, stalking off towards town as fast as I can on foot, Bang’s loose saddle jingling beside me. The chief falls into step beside me, his Night Fury curious at his heels. The black dragon sniffs my hand and I bat it away, ignoring them both as completely as I can.

“I didn’t sleep, I—there’s something I want to talk to you about.” He says urgently. I still don’t look at him and his metal foot scuffs against a rock like punctuation. “Now that…now that you know about me being your father, I wanted to talk to you about—You’re great. You’re a great kid. And I want to think about you—I want you to think about what all of this—Ok,” he reaches out and sets his hand on my shoulder.

I shrug it off without looking at him and walk faster, urging Bang between us in the middle of the path. The treacherous Thunderdrum accepts the assholes scratches but acts as a barrier between us anyway and I pat his nose, searching for the forge on the horizon.

“Let me start over. I’m chief, and you’re my first born. And I’m not as young as I used to be, I’m starting to age—that sounds horrible. I rehearsed this all morning and it’s horrible. It’s not going well. You aren’t even listening to me—op, you’re walking faster, you must be listening.”

I take a sharp right, and he jogs to keep up, that foot scraping and scraping on the stone so distinctively. I wonder if mom would recognize it. I wonder how the hell she even knows the chief, no one in my family knows the damn chief. I know that she knows Snotlout from when they were kids, but still, that’s just a loose—such a loose—family connection with the chief.

How am I even here?

“Chief. I need an heir to be chief. Aurelia…she’s heir, but she isn’t heir. She’s not—She’s my daughter and this isn’t some boy-girl thing, it’s just—you have Bam—”

“Bang.” I correct him quietly, eyes narrowing on the forge ahead of us.

“Bang?”

“His name is Bang.”

“You have Bang, and you’re so—you’re your mother’s son. And I—She’s not my best friend at the moment but I trust her. And I trust…I want to trust you. I want to talk to you about being chief after I retire. I want to start giving you some training and seeing how it might go.” He pauses and I ignore him completely, eyes hard on the forge in front of me.

“Chief training. I want to start training you to be chief. After I retire. Or die.” A heavy sigh that I want absolutely nothing to do with, “I want to make you my heir, Eret. You’re my first born and—” Bang trots ahead and jumps onto the forge roof like he always does, curling in the sun and I walk with a little more purpose, batting the Night Fury’s head away again, wiping its hot breath on my pants. “I want you to be my first born officially.”

Finally. I step through the back door of the forge and turn around, slamming it in the chief’s face.

The door opens not a damn second later and the chief is smiling. Smiling at me and waltzing into the forge like he owns the place. He rests his hand on a saddle rack and it’s too much, too close. This is my turf, he can’t just—

“No,” I turn around towards him and shake my head, puffing out my chest. He’s really not that much bigger than me, probably not bigger than me at all, just a few inches taller. I’m probably heavier than him, to be honest, my dragon isn’t so damn dainty.

“No what—”

“No. You can’t be in here, you can’t be back here, you don’t even fucking work here—”

“I used to work here, with Gobber. When I was your age.” And it’s the start of a gods-damned story, one of those stories that Dad is always joking about. The chief’s gods-damned sagas, like he was the first gods-damned asshole to do anything exciting.

“Is this bonding time?” I scoff and clench my fists, facing off with him. His Night Fury peaks his head around the doorway and Bang coughs on the roof.

Bang and I, standing up to the alphas. “Because I’ve got work to do, I don’t have time to talk to your pretentious, lying ass right now.”

“Hiccup!” Gobber barks from behind us and I step aside, scowling at the chief one last time and stomping to the other side of the forge, scratching Grump’s head as he flops down in his normal place and stoking the fire. “Haven’t ye done enough?”

“He’s my son, he knows he’s my son—”

“Ye made a million and one mistakes with his mother, that doesn’t give you a right to be in his life.”

“He’s my son.”

“He’s here to work, Hiccup. Ye can talk to him on his own time—and if you’re smart ye’ll wait until Astrid is around. He’s a boy—”

“Gobber,” the chief feels fucking at home here, doesn’t he? Standing by that saddle mold and chatting with Gobber, pleading. I can picture him at sixteen, wishing for a day off and looking like—like a skinnier, more pathetic version of me.

“Get him out of here.” I cut him off and Grump snorts, warm almost snore wafting over my knee.

“Hiccup, leave.” Gobber sighs, and he sounds like he does when he’s sick of my unique brand of bullshit.

Less unique than I thought.

“I was just trying to talk to him,” the chief begs, “talk to him about having some sort of relationship, about being chief.”

It sinks in this time, that he’s serious. That it’s not just some bribe to get my attention. Even if it is some dimwitted bribe, it still includes chief and me, and those people outside who’ve never been my biggest fans.

“And ye think Berk will accept him as chief just because of you and Astrid?”

You and Astrid. The chief and my mom.

Like…like the village will easily accept the news of the chief being my father, like it’s obvious that great chief Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III had a bastard mistake with Astrid Hofferson, village outcast.

“Everyone knows.” I mutter, staring into the simmering coals, crackling in the hearth. “Everyone knows, don’t they?” I whirl on the two men and they both stare at me, Gobber’s gray, golden tipped moustache the only movement between them. “It was bad enough when it was just Rolf keeping this from me, but it’s the whole fucking village?”

It turns into yelling at some point and Grump shifts, Bang’s feet clicking on the roof, as worried as I feel.

“Why don’t…why don’t ye take the day off.” Gobber sighs.

The chief is still here. For some reason. Lurking in the corner like he’s been for my entire life, apparently.

My growth spurt is probably a pipe dream.

“Right. And I’ll go into the village instead, where everyone has been lying to me for sixteen years. Or oh! Brilliant idea, I can go home and talk to my mother, who’s been lying to my face every single day of my damned life.”

I hate this. I’m screaming at Gobber and he doesn’t even care, ducking his head and letting me. Nothing is the same anymore, nothing is ever going to be the same. I’m going to be fucking chief and everyone is going to listen unflinchingly to my obnoxious fucking stories like I’m so gods-damned interesting, just because I’m that asshole’s bastard.

“Eret, if we could just go somewhere and talk—”

Gobber sighs and grabs the chief’s shoulder, shoving him towards the open back door, the accusatory Night Fury eyes staring me down. Asking me why I’m yelling, why I don’t love his so-praised rider like everyone else. That dragon is spoiled, that dragon has always been spoiled. It’s ridiculous.

It’s almost human, that green eyed disappointment. Probably so similar to what the chief might look like sitting next to Mom at the table and lecturing me because Bang got into the shed again.

I bail out of the front window, swinging my legs through the gap and thanking whatever gods aren’t against me when Bang reads my mind, jumping down off of the roof and meeting me in front of the forge. I swing onto his back and click him into the air, headed nowhere as fast as I possibly can.

00000

My axe isn’t big enough. These trees are too big. Nothing is fucking working.

I whirl and toss the axe into the pulpy trunk in front of me as hard as I can, yelling when it sinks in. Sweat is running down my forehead, the back of my neck, and I push my soggy hair away from my face, stomping up to the tree to retrieve my weapon.

“Stupid fucking—thinks he’s my fucking dad—”

I yank my axe out with a scream, because I’m the only human on this whole island and Bang is used to noise anyway. I scream again, for the Hel of it, and Bang groans in my general direction. Worried.

“I’m fine boy, I’m—Everything is so messed up.” I start pacing, twirling the axe slowly, like Mom when she’s just thinking about killing something. Like she used to when she told me and Arvid stories of her crazier days, with Snotlout and Fishlegs and the twins, fighting the Berserkers. “Everyone knows! Apparently all of fucking Midgard knows that I’m the chief’s mistake. That my mom—that she—”

I yell again and the axe sticks into the pulverized trunk. The tree creaks. For a second I almost hope it falls. Leave my shirt here and fly away, trick everyone into thinking I’ve been horribly crushed in a freak lumber accident.

Arvid would hunt me down. Mom would hunt me down. I think of Stormfly’s stern, almost motherly face, lecturing me about being out too late when I stash Wingspark for Arvid in the barn in the early hours of daylight.

I have to go back at some point, don’t I?

I’m not like the chief, I’m not going to go have a horde of adventures and live the rest of my life basking in their supposed glory. I wonder if I’m still a fisherman, if dad is still planning to give me and Arvid the fleet, like he always talked about.

Thinking about Dad makes this all worse. Because he’s my dad, he’s the one who checked under the bed for Visigoths when Ingrid told us pillaging stories that were too scary. He taught me how to fish and how to steer a boat and how to haggle those rare weekends we went down to the market. He’s the one who still hugged me even after Arvid said we were too big and hugging was for pansies.

I throw the axe again, crying out as it wrenches its way from my grip, more raw power than finesse.

Mom would call it sloppy.

Mom is sloppy. I’m a whole average sized heap of proof that Mom is sloppy.

“I thought you were a dying animal.”

The last thing I expect to hear out here is another human voice and I spin towards it, fists raised. Fuse is standing by Bang, Hotgut at her heels looking as bored as she normally does. She quirks a strawberry blonde eyebrow at me and I deflate, clearing my throat. It’s sore. I yelled too much.

“I swear too much to be a dying animal.”

“True. Dying animals are usually less articulate.”

I can’t tell if it’s a joke or not. Fuse isn’t normally one to joke. I laugh anyway.

“Sorry you had to witness my tantrum. I’m sure it was…something.” I walk back towards the tree and jerk my axe free with loose shoulders, checking the blade for nicks and wondering when the forge will be chief free so I can get back to sharpen it.

Maybe I shouldn’t count on that. Ingrid would help me break into some other island’s forge, she likes that kind of reckless shit.

Or maybe she wouldn’t help me. Maybe that’s the kind of thing you only do for your little brother, not your mother’s little mistake.

“I heard.”

“I’m sure every dragon on the island heard.”

The axe is heavier than I remember somehow and I walk over towards Fuse, strapping my weapon back into its familiar holster on Bang’s saddle. “I thought I was alone.”

“No, I heard about you learning the chief is your real father.”

“Does everyone fucking know? Was Arvid faking shock last night?”

“I doubt that,” Fuse rolls her eyes and scratches Bang’s nose again. “I figured it out myself. Arvid couldn’t figure out the runes if you wrote it down and handed it to him.”

I almost jump to Arvid’s defense. I don’t have it in me to fight about nothing, “how obvious is it?”

“I always knew you weren’t vain,” she smiles, “have you looked in a mirror lately?”

“It’s not—I look like my mom. I’ve always looked more like my mom—” The retort dies in my throat when I remember it was Mom’s assurance. “She always told me that I took after her Uncle Finn.”

“Fearless Finn Hofferson was blonde.”

“Yeah, and hair color isn’t the only way you can look like someone. You look like Tuffnut but your hair is pink.”

“Did you get that one from Arvid?” Fuse shakes her head and adjusts a bag I hadn’t noticed before. It’s sealed tight with oilskin and I take half a step back, remembering that it’s likely something highly explosive.

“It wasn’t an insult. What’s in the bag? Should I be nervous?” The nerves fall away to the same reckless curiosity that had me staring at a creaky tree a few minutes ago and my hand gestures aimlessly towards the satchel. “Is it something for the…explosion aiming thing I’m supposed to making you?” I frown, “shit, I’m probably not going to have that done.”

“I figured,” she shrugs and pats the bag, gingerly. “Stinkweed from the bog. I’m almost out of stink bombs.”

“Can you do me a favor?” I lean against Bang, forehead against his hide so all I see is blue. “Can you keep them away from my house? I’m not in the mood to scrub the floors with Arvid while he whines.”

“Sure.”

“Really?” I look up, narrowing my eyes, “is this the start of you being awkwardly nice to me like everyone else because I’m the chief’s bastard child?”

“I would have done it before if you just asked. Arvid’s my favorite target, but I never realized you had to help clean it up.” She adjusts the bag again, like it’s heavy and I look at the forest floor, covered by soft pine needles.

“I think—I think I’m done with my tantrum if you wanted to hang out for a bit. As long as the stink bombs aren’t urgent or anything…”

“I do have to get the stink weed back before it putrifies—”

“Oh yeah, makes sense. Don’t let it putrify around me,” I hold my hands out like I’m repelling the smell and she cocks her head, one of her long pink braids pooling against her shoulder.

“If you wanted to help me, I’d give you a few of the finished products.”

“I—I don’t really want to go back to Berk right now. The chief is…I think he’s sort of stalking me. He was outside my house this morning and he followed me to the forge and—”

“Here,” she pulls something out of her pocket, two small, clay capsules with waxy wicks sticking out. “Take the rest of what I have. You can help me out some other time.”

“Oh no, you don’t have to give me these,” I say it out of obligation, but my fingers curl possessively around the soothingly warm clay. I can think of a couple of chiefly windows I’d love to chuck these through.

I won’t even get Fuse in trouble, I’ll make it fucking clear who did it.

“I’m going to make more right now. I never tip you enough at the forge anyway.”

“No one else tips me at all, Fuse. I’m an apprentice, I get paid in experience.” I laugh but it slips off of my face. Bang snuffles against my leg, quietly comforting. “At least that’s what Gobber used to yell at me. Back when he yelled at me. I screamed in his face this morning and he didn’t say anything.”

“Maybe you should stop screaming at people.”

“That isn’t sarcasm, is it?” I frown at her and she shrugs.

“It’s not Gobber’s fault.”

“The whole village kept this secret. Everyone knows and no one thought to tell me. You know and—and why didn’t you tell me?”

“It never came up.”

“You couldn’t make it come up? How hard would it have been to just throw it out there, ‘here Eret, I have this crazy plan and guess what, I think the chief is your father’.” I’m panting and I don’t know why. This is more scalding than facing the chief, of course the chief knew, but right now Fuse is all those villagers who gossiped behind my back all of these years and never said anything.

They never said anything when I talked about having a rumblehorn someday, when Bang has to leave for the ocean. They never said anything when I suggested additions to the dragon barns that the chief built when he was my age. They never said anything.

“It’s not my business.” She looks upset though, freckled cheeks flushed. “You probably shouldn’t come help me today anyway, you’re too shaky, you’d kill us both.”

Again, not joking.

“Thanks for these.” I wave the bombs at her and she shrugs again.

“My brothers say I’m a good listener. It’s probably because they talk to me while I’m working and I’m not really paying attention but anyway—just let me know, alright?”

“Why are you being so nice to me?” I shake my head. “Just because I’m the chief’s kid—”

“This has nothing to do with that. This is the first time I’ve seen you outside the forge without Arvid in years. I just don’t want to be nice to him.”

“Oh.” I’m not quite sure what to make of this.

“Anyway. I’ll see you later, I hope. You have fun throwing those through the chief’s windows. Make sure Stoick isn’t inside first though, he’s skittish enough without being bombed.”

“Right, good point.” I nod, and it hits me that the chief’s skittish little waif of a son is my half-brother. I can feel the family resemblance in the ache for a growth spurt that’s not coming. Fuck. “Wait, how did you know I was going to throw them into the chief’s house? I never told you that.”

She climbs into Hotgut’s saddle and shrugs again, adjusting the bag of deadly cargo. “You aren’t that subtle.”

“Is anything subtle to you?” I tuck the bombs into my own pocket. A promise.

I should go home and try to figure this out, this new world I’m living in where my family is full of practical strangers. They’re still the people I grew up with and that should count for something, right? I hope it does.

“I’ll see you around, Eret.”

She lifts off, vertically like gronckles do, Hotgut’s stomach shockingly purple against the green of the trees. I turn to Bang and pat his head.

“Let’s go talk to Dad.”

He lifts his wide head in alarm and I flick his nose, “no, real dad. The one we like.”

Chapter Text

Dad is where I first look for him, cruising around that badly rendered shoreline and messing with his map. I take Bang above the clouds in a moment of caution and circle the ship, peering down at those familiar blue sails, the still slightly ashy ocean. My hands don’t hurt much today, and I hate the fact that I have the chief to thank for treating them so quickly.

Dad is alone. I was half expecting Arvid to be with him, but Arvid is useless with maps anyway.

I stroke Bang’s back and linger in the sky for a moment because what if he doesn’t want to see me? He had to know before today, didn’t he? If the chief knew and the whole village knew he had to have known.

Fuse knew. It’s obvious.

I steel myself. Worst case scenario?

Worst case scenario I get on Bang and leave. If Dad—If he’s not my dad anymore, if he hates me, then it’s not really family on Berk anyway. I know Ingrid has been talking about leaving soon and maybe I could tag along until I was somewhere new, somewhere else.

In the moment, that sounds horrible.

Bang lands by the bow of the ship like he’s done a million times and I slide down onto the deck, trying my best to smile. Dad sets down the map and looks at me for a second like I’ve got a second head before pacing the length of the boat and hugs me.

“Oh. Ok.” I return the hug and he thumps the center of my back, too hard, like he always does.

“I was out all night looking for you, and when I got back this morning you weren’t at the forge—”

“Gobber sent me home early,” I sigh and stare at my feet, wondering if it’s even worth saying what I need to, or whether I should just accept the hug and fly back home before dealing with anything.

That’s the coward’s way out. Dad would hate that. “The chief followed me down there and he wouldn’t leave me alone.”

Dad sighs and pats my shoulder, again, just like he always does. It makes me nervous, waiting for the shift.

He opens his mouth like he’s going to say something and pauses, frowning. Here it comes, I can feel it, welling like a huge dangerous wave in the middle of a storm.

“Dad? Can I still call you dad? Is that—Let me start over.” I step away from him and start pacing, feet pounding on the wood like it’s hollow, and I can feel how light I am compared to the heavy, steady shifting of his feet as he watches me. “I get it that I’m the chief’s—No, I’m not the chief’s anything. I’m—I still want to be your son. I mean—”

“Eret,” he cuts me off with that calm voice, the doldrums to Mom’s storm, and it just amps me up further because I don’t have any of that. That—all of my dad. All of him. I’m none of that.

I don’t even know what I am anymore.

“Son of Eret. I’m Eret, son of Eret, and I—” I sigh, because this isn’t an argument I can win. I’m not going to convince him in either direction, am I? I’m just here to learn if there’s half a fucking chance of maintaining this. What I thought was a father-son relationship and now just seems strange. Strange and so far away. “Son of Eret, reporting for duty. If you still want me, that is.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m—the chief and Mom say I’m their son, and it makes a whole lot of sense.”

"Obviously,” he laughs, but it’s a sad laugh. “I said we should have told you years ago, it’s a damn miracle you didn’t guess before now.”

“I hate this.”

“That’s better than the alternative,” Dad leans back against the deck railing, crossing those arms I’m sure as Hel never going to grow into. “You could have spent the last sixteen years feeling like a reject and be absolutely thrilled to learn I’m not your real father. That would be worse.”

“You’re still my dad, if I can say that.”

“Of course I’m still your dad. And you’re still my son, you got that?” He points at me, a barely smiling accusation and I nod.

“ Yeah. I’ve got it. That’s—that’s the best news I’ve had all day.” I frown and look back at my feet, “the chief was asking me about being chief. After him. Like I could be his heir or something because I’m…freckled.”

“I can’t say anything about your freckles, but I will say that any son of mine wuld be a better chief than the one we have now.”

“Really?” I look at him, taking a deep breath like I’m planning to inflate myself and letting it out without fanfare. “I—I don’t even know what we’re talking about here. I don’t know what to think of the chief after me and…I don’t know, Dad.”

“And you don’t have to, not right now.” He steps forward and rests his hand on my shoulder. “But if the chief is asking you to be his heir—”

“Telling me. It was definitely telling.”

“This is Hi—the chief we’re talking about. Right, if he’s trying to tell you to be his heir, it’s because you’re the best man for the job.” He squeezes and lets go, “which you probably are.”

“Such confidence,” I roll my eyes but smile anyway, pulling the two little clay balls out of my pocket and holding them up. “Fuse Thorston gave me these.”

Dad gets the look in his eyes like he’s about to parent, confiscate them or something. “Stink bombs.”

“Oh, I recognize them. Arvid’s been trying to nick these for years.”

“Is it…is it horrible if I go chuck them through the chief’s windows?”

Dad shrugs, thinking for a minute.

“Let your brother help. Don’t tell your mother.” He looks towards the nets hanging off of the ship, “but before you go, help me reel in?”

It’s such a normal request, such an everyday sort of thing that I jump on it, nearly jogging to the side of the boat. I reach the net before him and start pulling and Dad stops, hands frozen on the railing for a quiet moment.

“I thought you wanted help.”

“Just a second,” he pulls his silver wedding ring off of his hand and tucks it into his pocket.

“Why are you taking your ring off?”

He’s never taken it off before, the skin underneath it bright white in the sun against his tan.

“Just—I just got a feeling. Some men’s rings get caught, you know. I met a fisherman on outcast island, his ring snagged and ripped his whole finger off.” His smile is a little too wide. Smug, Mom would say. Stop being so smug. I get it to sometimes, along with a flick to the ear.

“You don’t want that.”

“No. No, I don’t.” He yanks at the net, “shall we?”

00000

“I can’t believe Thorston gave you stink bombs.” Arvid says too loudly, standing behind me and holding one in his hand, pinching it alarmingly hard.

“Hey Magni, ease up. I want both of these to blow inside the chief’s house.”

“She just gave these to you?” He shakes his head, looking up towards the chief’s house. “And you’re wasting them on the chief’s house?”

“I’m not wasting them,” I scowl. “This is the best possible use of these little beauties.”

“He’s not even in there,” Arvid scuffs his boots and takes a practice throw.

“I know. He’s out with Stoick. I didn’t want to do it with Stoick here.”

“Caring about your brand new brother already?”

“What?” I glance at him and he’s pulling flint out of his pocket, sparking it experimentally.

“Are we doing this or what?” He hands me the flint and gestures towards the wick of his stink bomb, holding it out for me to light it.

“Yeah. Of course,” I spark the flint a few times until one catches the dot of black powder at the end of the short fabric wick and lights it with a fizzling burn. “My turn.”

He sets his slow burning bomb worryingly on the ground while he lights mine and we both hold them, waiting until the putrid green smoke starts to ooze out.

“I’m taking the upper window,” I call it and Arvid laughs, again too loud.

“Isn’t that the princess’s room?”

“So?”

His bomb starts to ooze and I take my cue, holding my breath and hurling it as hard as I can with tantrum sore shoulders, smiling for a second at the shattering glass before turning and dashing away from the puddle of stink where the first little bit of gas leaked out. Arvid destroys the lower window and follows me, grinning and flinging himself into Wingspark’s saddle. I follow, glancing over my shoulder at the sickly green smoke pouring from the chief’s broken windows.

00000

Arvid and I spend the afternoon showing off, avoiding Berk and skipping rocks on a calm pond we find in the woods. I want to stay and lure out a few terrors from the shadows but Arvid is restless, turning to chuck fist sized rocks into the woods and laugh as the trees shake slightly.

We head home before sundown, and he’s so natural about it, so comfortable that I manage autopilot behind him, drifting through the still warm late summer air and staving off squirming nerves until we land in front of the house. Immediately, I cue on the yelling inside, recognizing the chief almost immediately this time.

“—just want to talk to him, Astrid!”

“I’m not surprised, if you sprung chief on him when he was alone!”

“That’s the chief again, isn’t it?” Arvid growls, Wingspark butting her head comfortingly against his.

“Sounds like it,” I sigh and take a determined step forward. Arvid doesn’t move. “Aren’t you coming?”

“I don’t feel like dealing with him right now. For all he knows you threw both of those bombs.”

“I fully intend to tell him I threw both of the bombs, I want all of that credit.”

“I’m going to sit this one out, little—Eret.”

“You were going to call me…” Little Brother. Like always. “Never mind. Where are you going to go?”

“Somewhere I can’t hear her yelling.”

“—the Hel, Hiccup?” Mom must pound on the table inside, really hit it. “You can just waltz into his life like this!”

“I’m his father!”

“Yeah, I’m really not in the mood to deal with this shit tonight. I’m going to go see if Gerd Johansen is interested in a little night flight.”

“Don’t you mean Greta?” I scoff, because he can’t even remember their names anymore.

“Whatever.”

“Don’t make me do this alone, Arvid.” I try it, despite my better instincts and he pauses for a moment before shaking his head.

“I’m not—If…we can talk when I get home. Maybe. I just—I can’t, Eret. Not right now,” he shakes his head and Wingspark grumbles, quiet dragon conversation with Bang.

“Fine. Have fun with Gerd—”

“Greta—”

“Whatever, Arvid!”

He flies off and Bang dashes ahead of me, jumping onto the roof of the house and curling up, worried eyes gleaming in the sunset glow. I have to go in, don’t I? Everything that happened today, all of those chances I could have run but didn’t—I catch my breath and open the door.

My mom and the chief are on opposite sides of the table, his hands braced on the chair in front of him while she yells. Really yells.

“—can’t do all of this—any of this without talking to me first, Hiccup! He’s my son—”

“And mine!”

“Is that really as far as you two have gotten in this argument?” I announce my entrance and they both turn to look at me, red-faced and shocked, like I snuck up on them or something. “Yes, I’m apparently your son. I’ve got that, can we move on from there?”

“You threw stink bombs through his windows,” Mom turns on me, and it’s not even an accusation. Something falsely disappointed glints in her eyes and I feel for a second like she might laugh. “Eret—”

“I’m not mad—” The chief interjects and Mom cuts him off with a glare. “I just want to talk to you, Eret, I realize—This morning I was wrong, I shouldn’t have asked about chief when you were alone. I should have done it with your mother there—”

“Or his fa—dad. His Dad,” Mom sighs, almost a growl.

“How about we leave Dad out of this?” I set my jaw, “this is shitty enough to Dad already, isn’t it?” A glare at the chief and he looks at me like I’m familiar. I curl my lip at him.

“What do you think about chief?” Mom asks me, ignoring the chief’s presence entirely. I’m not that talented.

“Can we talk about this later? Some other—I’ve had a long day, I haven’t eaten anything—”

“We could go down to the mead hall and grab something,” the chief jumps on my words, over-eager, like a dragon grasping for a treat.

“Leave me alone.” I do my best to ignore him, to not look at him, like he’s not even fucking there.

“Get out of here, Chief.” Mom points towards the door and rests her hands on my shoulders, straightening my shirt. I can’t bring myself to bat her hands away, or point out that she calls him Hiccup when she’s screaming.

“Astrid—” And there’s something about the way that he says her name. Something unfamiliar that sounds too much like Mom and Dad in their bedroom together, when I’m not supposed to be looking. My face screws up for a second but then flattens, accepting.

I can’t fight this. This is an enemy I can’t fight. Dragons don’t resist their alpha if they can cooperate.

“Let’s talk about this tomorrow chief,” it’s an insult. Not a title. “I need to sleep, I had a long day of yelling and shattering your windows.”

“Tomorrow Chief,” Mom echoes me. I stand up a little taller, adjusting the hem of my own shirt. “I’ll get you some food, there’s fish leftover.”

The chief stares me down as he leaves, almost tripping over a rag that ended up on the floor at some point during their fight. I stare right back, trying to look as foreboding as possible. This isn’t going to go away, I’m not going to wake up tomorrow with a strong chin and a few inches of growth. It’s never going to go back to normal. Normal is gone.

Chapter Text

Gobber is quiet. Gobber leaves to go ‘pick up a delivery’ before I can say two words to him. That’s always a bad sign. I get to work on the pile of fire-mangled weapons, yanking half a warped sword from the stack and sticking it into the hearth to melt down. It’s absurd to be in the forge like it’s any other week, going through the same motions. I sigh, half-heartedly picking up a hammer and knocking it against the anvil.

“Eret,” someone snaps at me, and I’ve never been more glad for the interruption.

“What?” I turn around to Aurelia on the other side of the counter, arms crossed. Looking like the goddamned chief. Looking like me. My stomach churns as all the unchiefly thoughts I’ve had of her flash through my mind.

“You threw a stink bomb through my window.”

I smile, “Is that upper window yours, princess?”

“You knew it was my window.”

“I can’t say I did, I’ve never had much reason to learn the chief’s floorplan,” I bang the hammer against the anvil as hard as I can, because I’m angry and I want to look busy so she’ll leave me alone. My arm throbs from the thud and I do it again, the clang ringing in my ears. Bang shifts on the roof, his webbed claws scratching at the wood and I will him not to come down here.

Contrary to popular belief, dragon-y interruptions are the opposite of helpful for sibling arguments.

“I should have known you were related to my dad,” she rolls her eyes and leans forward on the forge counter, anything but the flirt she was a few days ago.

Gross. Flirt. Blech.

“I’m not anything to your dad,” I grit my teeth and pick up a sword, laying its warped blade across the anvil and smacking it. Maybe if I hit it hard enough, it’ll shatter. Maybe I can break it up into more pieces than I can count, metallic gravel all over the floor of the forge. Gobber would be pissed, maybe he’d even yell at me.

What I wouldn’t give for someone to yell at me like I’m still annoying little Eret.

“You’re his bastard,” she doesn’t say it like an insult and it cuts all the deeper for her simplicity. “What do your other siblings think? Did they know?” And her smile is something I’d dreamed about for years, back in the before. I wanted her to smile at me like that but now it’s a threat. “Oh, sorry, your other half-siblings.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a raging bitch?” I whirl on her, hammer trembling in my hand, and I can’t help but wonder what she’d do if I came at her. The whole village knows that Aurelia Haddock is as bad in a fight as she is on a dragon, and in this little slice of Hel I want to see her scared more than I’ve ever wanted anything.

“Your sister Ingrid doesn’t seem to think so,” her smile becomes a sneer. A snarl, and she looks so much like me that I don’t know how I didn’t see it before, “I’m exactly her type, aren’t I?”

“Shut up about my sister.”

“What? I’m just saying that it runs in your fucked up half of the family, your flannfluga sister also thinks I’m—”

“Take it back,” I roar, and from the way her eyes widen, I believe the rumors about her cowardice. I drop the hammer, I don’t need it for this fight.

“It’s just true, the whole village knows,” her lips trembles, I wish I were bigger or scarier, that I could stop her from talking. “They probably care a lot more about that than the fact that you exist.”

“Aurelia!”

I roll my eyes at the interruption, and the chief appears from nowhere.

“Come on! Are you stalking me or something?” I turn back to the anvil like he’ll disappear, trying not to listen to his lies.

“I just wanted to make sure you were ok—”

“Oh? You’re checking to make sure he’s ok?” Aurelia is downright shrill, “you’re here to check on him? You’ve known him for less than a week, I’ve always been your daughter—”

“Aurelia! Come back here—”

“Fuck off,” she stomps away like a terrible terror, tiny feet light and mincing across the square.

The chief sighs, the counter creaking when he leans his weight on it.

“Do you see why I interrupted the other day?” He laughs, a dry, breathy sound like he’s in physical pain and I resist the million cheap insults run through my head.

“Maybe you should listen to your daughter and fuck off.”

“If I listened every time someone told me to—aren’t you a little young to be using that language?”

I glare at him over my shoulder, hands clenching around the lip of the anvil. It wouldn’t do anyone any good if I choked him, not really. It might be fun, but I don’t think it’d actually help anything.

Then Snotlout would be chief.

I wish I’d strangled the chief before I knew, back when I could have just gone on thinking that my dad was my dad and everything was fine.

“What? Are you going to wash my mouth out with soap?” I laugh, a deep, belly shaking laugh that couldn’t be more fake. “I’d love to see you try.”

“Gods, you sound just like your mother,” he groans, and I look at him again, slumped over the counter, the top of his silvery head aimed towards me.

That’s probably in my future, isn’t it? Scrawny and gray-haired and chief. He wants me to be chief. Odin’s balls, that’s terrifying.

“Why do you want me to be chief?”

He looks up at me and frowns, “I’m not supposed to talk to you about that without your mom here.”

“You’re not supposed to talk to me at all without my mom here.”

“There,” he smiles, “that’s why I want you to be chief. Your legislative mind. I used to be like that, finding the way around any rule someone tried to make.”

“Gobber will be back soon, I can’t imagine he’d be happy seeing you here.”

“Can…Yeah. Yeah, we’ll—I’ll see you later.”

“I really hope not,” I don’t really try to keep it under my breath as he shuffles away.

00000

“The chief says he wants me to be his heir because of my legislative mind,” I huck a flat rock as hard as I can, watching it skip twice across the lagoon before sinking through the clear water to the bottom.

Arvid throws a miniature boulder the size of his head, splashing the leaves above us.

“Are you going to do it?”

“Way to take the meandering route to the meat of the matter there, brother. No need to jump right in to the big questions—”

“You’re being weird,” he accuses, sitting down on the ground and leaning against Wingspark’s side.

“I’m not being weird,” I shuffle along the edge of the pond, turning over pebbles and looking for another skippable rock, “I’m making big decisions.”

“Right, I forgot my little brother has all the big, important decisions to make now.”

“Don’t sound so…it’s not deciding to train some cool new dragon or—it’s chief.” I stop and stare at him. “It’s—you know how Dad feels about the chief, how he’s always felt about the chief—”

“And now we know why my dad feels that way.”

“Chief doesn’t mean I turn into Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III—” I stop short, tongue too dry in my mouth.

Maybe it’s just me latching onto the idea that I might not be grey haired and pathetic as soon as I’m crowned, but well…well, maybe this isn’t so unspeakably horrible. “Wait. Being chief doesn’t mean I turn into that asshole, I could be chief without being an asshole it’s not…it could happen.”

“Oh really,” Arvid laughs.

“I’m trying to be optimistic.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“I never said I wasn’t,” I quip like I always do but something about Arvid’s tone sits strangely in my chest. Either he’s adopting my famously confusing deadpan, or he isn’t joking.

“Well, I guess all you’d really have to do to be a better chief than the one we have now is not sleep with married women. And stay on the island instead of showboating around the archipelago at every opportunity.”

“One out of two,” I smile as this starts to sink in, the fact that chief doesn’t necessarily mean the chief. It’s a title, not a pair of shoes—or in this case one ill-fitting, out of fashion shoe—to step into. “Hey, if I were chief, maybe I could cut a deal with Dad. The chief has all of those unused ships sitting in the harbor, maybe I could turn fishing over to you guys entirely, if the title means a chunk of the Haddock inheritance.”

Arvid frowns, “we—Dad…” he falters and scowls at me, standing and pacing across the shore, “My dad and I don’t need your charity.”

I swallow, my heart throbbing in my chest.

“You…you keep calling him…you keep calling Dad your dad, like he’s—”

“Well, he’s not your dad.” Arvid crosses his arms, “he’s just your step dad, or…or the loser that got screwed by the chief.”

I think Mom is the loser that got screwed by the chief.

Isn’t Mom really the loser who got screwed by the chief?

I’m fucking evidence that Mom got screwed by the chief.

I’m evidence.

The chief screwed Mom.

None of them are right. They’re all something that I would have said last week, last month, last year, crass humor to cover just how uncomfortable this situation is. A week ago I would have said it and Arvid would have scowled and laughed and thumped me on the back like he was trying to break my ribs.

I would have made some joke about how he won’t be able to bully me when I outgrow him, when I finally catch up. I’m never fucking catching up, it’s never going to fucking happen. I look at Arvid and see my dad scowling at me through my mom’s hard, blue eyes, and it strikes me that maybe someone is about to yell at me.

It’s further from normal than I could have imagined.

There’s never been anything Arvid and I couldn’t share, anything we wouldn’t talk about. I almost ask if he’s had any hot dates lately, and if he dives in with his usual exhaustive detail, maybe I can pretend that something is still alright.

I could lighten the mood in a million ways but I don’t.

“Is that what I am to you? Am I just…Mom’s mistake?”

“You are Mom’s mistake,” Arvid spits, glaring at me for a moment before sighing, his eyes barely softening. “And…And maybe I’m not adapting to this like you are, alright? You’ve always been weird, you must be so happy to finally know why you’re so weird but…but I’ve spent my whole life best friends with the chief’s son.”

“I’m still just Eret.” I almost expect some sort of grandiose impact. I want his eyes to open and for him to realize that I’m his brother and I’ve been his brother this whole time and I…I…

He stares at me.

“I don’t know how I didn’t see it. I just…I feel stupid.”

“You aren’t stupid.”

He kicks a rock into the lake with a splash and Bang chirps, his thick belly dragging across the pebbles behind me.

“I should have seen it, Eret. You look like him and you talk like him and you…whenever we explore, you’re always further and faster and higher and—and I’m not like that. I thought you got it from my Dad, ironically, because he always told us his stories about everywhere, but…but he landed and the chief didn’t and you aren’t going to either.”

“You’re upset because you think I’m going to leave?” I ask, looking towards the horizon and wondering just how easy running would be.

Surely the chief would come after me. Mom might let me go, she doesn’t worry how she used to, and for all of Dad—Arvid’s Dad’s big talk, I can’t help but doubt what he thinks of me. I can’t help but feel like I got slipped into his nest somehow, a sneaky whispering death dropping its eggs into another dragon’s clutch.

No one ever figured out how Night Furies mate. Maybe this is why.

Maybe all the dragons took care of the imposters.

“I’m not going to leave.”

Arvid shrugs and sneers, turning back towards Wingspark and shaking his head. “Let’s get home.”

“Yeah.”

And the imposter returns to the nest.

00000

“I just think, Eret,” the chief glances at me, his eyes flicking almost immediately back to Mom’s face . He’s been staring at Mom all night, it’s disgusting. “Maybe you should follow me around the island for a few days—”

“And just live the dream? I can’t believe you’d make such an alluring offer,” I lean my chin on my hands and dare him to laugh, glaring at the faltering line of his jaw.

“Eret,” Mom thumps my shoulder and I shrug her hand off.

“And what would I learn? Following you around. How to run an island? Because I’m not imagining much diplomacy, I’m imagining you being super nice to everyone about everything and trying to impress me.” I roll my eyes and the chief looks serious for a brief second before he glances at my mom again. “Look, I’m a teenager, she doesn’t know how to talk to me either. What did you come here to say?”

“It can be like an apprenticeship,” the chief starts over, pitching the offer to my Mom more than me. She looks away, drumming her fingers on the table and staring past the top of my head.

“I already have an apprenticeship with Gobber.”

“Temporarily, if you don’t like it,” he frowns and leans his elbows onto the table, and I hate the way he looks there, like he thinks he belongs. Like that’s not…Eret Sr.’s seat in Eret Sr.’s house and Thor’s balls, I need to visit the fishing boat tomorrow when Arvid isn’t around and get a clear title. He said it was Dad but I can’t—I need him to say it again.

If he’s really Dad he’ll say it again.

“And all I have to do is follow you around?”

“And help with dragons and buildings and people and…I think you might like it. It’s logistics, it’s—”

“Stop selling him on it,” Mom snaps, her grip tightening around the edge of the table as she glances back at the door. The chief looks at her, and it strikes me for the first time that they really are the same age. They grew up together, I know, I’ve heard about the chief’s stringier younger years from a still bitter Snotlout. Apparently Snotlout had the whole village in the palm of his hand until the chief trained Toothless and everything changed.

Mom always scoffs at that story, cutting it off before Snotlout can embarrass himself.

“Logistics, huh?”

“You know, it’s…I mean, think about the forge, Gobber tells you to have two projects done by the end of the day, you have to think about what to do first, you have to think about what’s going to be on the fire, what’s going to be on the anvil. It’s like that, but on an island-wide scale, it’s management, it’s—”

“And what makes you think I’d be good at this?” I sit up straight, wishing I had the comforting weight of my axe against my back. “You’ve never talked to me…it’s like you’re basing this all on the fact that I unfortunately inherited your looks.” I let it sink in, I wait for him to squirm, to show the arrogance I’ve always heard about.

He shrugs.

“Either that or you’ve been stalking me from afar, and that’s really creepy.”

“I’ve seen you with Bang—”

“At least you got his name right this time.”

“I’m sorry about that, I didn’t know him as Bang—”

“Oh, so now you don’t just know me, you know my dragon too?” I stand halfway, hands clenching into tight fists against the table, and Mom’s hand clenches on my shoulder.

“Eret.”

It hits me that the only way I know she’s talking to me and not the man I really wish was my dad is her tone, the disappointment in her voice. She always expects better of me, I’m never enough, I’m…I refuse to be like the chief. That decision stands and I sit back down, folding my hands together and shaking my head.

“I’m nothing like you.” I have to say it.

The chief’s hand slides over his mouth and he nods slowly.

“I’ve talked to Gobber. I’ve talked to Fishlegs, I’ve talked to everyone who’s ever taught you at the academy. Gustav said a lot of great things, I think you have a job with him at the dragon barn if you hate this. I just…I just really think you should give it a try.”

“Stop selling me on it.”

Mom snorts, still pointedly staring at the door, and I wonder again just how this situation exists. I feel…I feel impossible. It’s so obvious, no one is lying to me, I’m the chief’s bastard and I look like it, but my parents can’t even look at each other. My mom yells or ignores him and he just…

Oh fuck, he’s staring at her again.

I clear my throat and he looks back at me.

“Would it be a permanent thing, if I like it? Or would I keep working at the forge?”

“Is that a yes?” He looks at Mom for an answer and I sigh loudly until his attention is back on me. It’s like he’s obsessed with her or something, maybe he was stalking her and saw me accidentally. “I mean, that could be up to us—you! That could be something you decide later, I definitely have enough to keep you busy all the time, but if you wanted time at the forge, I understand that—”

“Maybe…maybe if I do like it, Smitelout could have the apprenticeship back.” I shrug, “it could be my first logistical decision.”

“Yeah, that’s—that’s good, you—I’m sure Gobber would be happy to have her back.” The chief nods too vigorously, “and we have a few itching to take over her job at the academy, she’s not the first choice with the little kids anyway, yes. Good. You’re—I knew you’d be good at this, I just—”

“He hasn’t even started yet,” Mom turns to the chief, and it’s an odd, stiff little dance, the way she makes eye contact with the chief and glances away, staring obviously above his head with her jaw set like she’s going to punch him. I wish she would. That’s a fight I’d pay to see.

Maybe that’s how I exist. She was beating him up and—

Nope. Not going there. I don’t want to go there.

“He hasn’t started yet,” she repeats, her hands pressing flat against the table like if she picks them up, she’ll hit him. “Can you stop inflating him? Let him prove himself first.”

“I just—” the chief shakes his head and runs his hand through that gray hair, and it’s my own frustration painted on his face. Bang senses my discomfort and presses his claw up against my tapping heel and I’m glad Mom made Toothless wait outside. I don’t know if I could take watching the chief’s dragon do the same thing. “Yeah. Sorry. Ok. I’m deferring, I’m not going to…your rules.”

Mom nods.

“So tomorrow morning?” The chief drags his eyes back to me, “let’s meet at the great hall a little after sunrise for breakfast and talk about the day.”

I look at Mom, because I’ve always eaten breakfast here, and she pats my shoulder like she understands. I haven’t seen Arvid at all today and breakfast tomorrow was sort of a far off hope.

Then again, bonding over the chief being his obnoxious self might be a good way to come home.

“Sure. I’ll meet you down there. I’m bringing Bang.” I don’t ask, I announce, and it helps me feel like I have some sort of power in this situation.

“Of course. Toothless will love that.”

He tries to say goodbye to Mom but she freezes him out, staring straight ahead until he shuts the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Mom wakes me in the morning more gently than she used to andI never imagined I’d be pining for the old days of her throwing clean laundry at my head and barking about breakfast. Rolf’s old boots are still depressingly too big and I tug on an extra pair of socks before slumping into the hallway. Arvid’s bed on the opposite side of the room is empty, the covers in a tangled mess and I wonder if he even came home last night.

I almost run into him in the hallway, combing his fingers through salt-crusted hair and he pauses.

“I heard you’re going around with the chief today.”

“Where’d you hear that? From the lucky lady that kept you out so late?” I laugh and he scowls at me, crossing his arms.

“I was out on the boat with my dad.”

“Oh.”

“I kept falling asleep though, so he sent me home.”

“You…I mean, if you wanted, you could come to breakfast with me and the chief. I need someone to stop me from strangling him.”

“I don’t think I’d be any help with that,” Arvid frowns, “if he wants you to be chief, why don’t you just kill him now?”

“I think he needs to sign something first to make me his official heir.” I laugh, “but I don’t know, I’m sixteen. Maybe I don’t want all the chiefly duties at once.”

“I can’t believe he’s thinking about making you chief.” He shakes his head, and I can’t help but be jealous of his fish smelling clothes. I never got to go out early with Dad.

Back when he was my dad.

“I can’t believe you’re out on the boat before sunrise.”

“It’s called growing up, Eret.” He spits at me, shouldering past me towards the bedroom. “I’m thinking about going up north and getting my tattoos.” He points to his chin and I think of my own unshaven red stubble, chewing on my lower lip and laughing nervously.

“Mom would never let you.”

“I don’t care what she thinks. My dad thinks it’s a good idea.”

“It’ll still never get past Mom,” and it won’t. If I know anything with any sort of certainty it’s that Mom will stab that horrible idea in the foot.

“Give the chief Hel, alright? And remember all of it, I want to hear about it later.”

“But of course.”

I fly down to the hall, avoiding the stares of the village that I’m still not ready for and land right out front, patting Bang and walking inside. The chief is sitting at the opposite end of the building, staring at the door like he’s forgotten or something. He half stands and waves me over and it’s so tempting to just leave, to just turn around and leave and go back to the forge.

But that’s what the chief would do, isn’t it?

I stalk across the room and sit down across the table from him grabbing a chicken leg from the center of the table.

“Good morning.”

I grunt.

“How are you?”

I grunt again and wipe my mouth on my sleeve, as rude as I can manage.

“Oh, you’re hungry. Apparently.”

“I’m always hungry,” I set the first bone aside and pull the whole platter towards me, glaring at the gaping couple to our right. “Actually I just might eat all of this.”

“Wow,” the chief looks around awkwardly and I take another bite, stripping a chicken wing in a single mouthful and swallowing it back. It’s so much better than fish for breakfast, not that I’d ever say anything to Mom.

The chief owns all the chickens anyway.

The thought should make me stop, it should make me stop eating the chief’s food.

But then again, if I eat enough, I could eat all of the chief’s food.

I dig into a thigh and elbow my growing pile of bones out of my way.

“You definitely didn’t get that from me.”

“No kidding,” I swallow hard and look him up and down. “Not much eating going on over there.”

“Well, looking at you I don’t know if it would have made much of a difference.”

“Oh, so we’re doing size jokes? That’s where this is going?” I wave a chicken bone at his face like it’s menacing before scraping the last piece of meat off of it with my teeth and reaching for another wing. “Because I don’t think you could even lift my arsenal of size jokes with your puny ass arms.”

The chief laughs, a nasal laugh that I recognize all too well, my own laugh echoing off of canyon walls.

“You’re funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny.”

“Ah, then you’ve transcended my wall of banal humor.” The chief picks at a roll, his fingers long and covered in burn scars. Forge fingers.

“So what’s on the agenda for today?” I change the subject, staring down at my own hands, the palms still pink and shiny from their most recent burn.

“I’m glad you asked,” he pulls a pad out of his pocket, a charcoal stick out of a special slot in the sleeve of his armor and starts reading a list of runes in neat handwriting. It’s strange, the chief doesn’t seem like someone who would have neat handwriting but I like it, because my own is a scattered mess. I’ve always been better off drawing to communicate something, my runes look like something a toddler drew in the dirt. “I’ve got a naming ceremony for the new Sigurdarson baby, I’ve got a catastrophe in wood storage, apparently half of it is in the ocean and the building is falling down. I have about fifteen terrors to send to neighboring tribes, and then there’s a fleet of war ships I need to get repaired.”

“Busy day.”

“Eh, it’s pretty typical. Maybe a bit on the busy side.”

“Should we get started?” I finish another wing and push the significantly dented platter away from me and looking around.

Half the people in the hall are staring, hands cupped over their mouths as they whisper back and forth. Like we’re putting on a fucking play.

“I’m…the village has heard.”

“I’m pretty sure the village heard us yelling.” I shake my head and lean my elbows on the table, “The village always knew. I don’t know how I didn’t figure it out, it’s…it’s obvious.”

“It’s…I wanted to tell you.” The chief leans towards me, like there’s any sort of privacy here, “I wanted to tell you when you were younger, I tried, I—”

“I came to learn to be chief, not to have some heart to heart with you.” I stand away from the table and shake my head, “let’s get going.”

00000

It’s not as bad as I want it to be. Nothing goes horribly wrong. The chief never stops looking at me like I’m back from the dead, but he stops acting like everything I do is fantastic or completely novel. It’s fun work, it’s fun interacting with the village more completely than I ever have. It’s fun having people look me in the eye, even if they immediately turn to whisper to their friends.

Vikings have never been quiet before, I try to focus on the fact that somehow my presence is powerful enough to shut them up.

“…and that’s why the law is based on dragon per doorway, rather than dragon per person in a house or something. It’s all about evacuation time in case of a fire.”

“Huh,” I kick a rock ahead of us and the chief smacks it with the side of his metal foot. I try not to stare. “It makes sense, it’s just…it’s just funny how people are putting in more doorways to get more dragons, that must make it horrible to heat a house in the winter.”

“That’s why I’m starting to encourage people building second or third stories onto their houses, it makes the laws a mess, but they can call it a roost and keep as many dragons as they want up there, when it’s actually a livable loft.”

The chief isn’t so bad when he’s just talking about the village. Not my place in it, not me in general. He’s sort of funny, sort of thoughtful, smart in a too familiar way I’m not used to listening to, and there’s something comforting about our twin pace through the village. In another world, where I’m not his messed up little mistake, maybe I could like him.

If I didn’t know about his reputation, maybe I could forgive him.

“That makes sense.”

“Try explaining that to the tribe in general,” he shrugs skinny shoulders and strokes the Night Fury’s head. I want to ask him why we aren’t flying, his limp has gotten worse as the day goes on and I know he usually flies around the village.

It’s probably so that we can talk without shouting.

I don’t want to talk to him.

“You do know I’m part of that tribe, right?” I shake my head and kick another rock, snorting as Bang nudges the flat of his wide nose against my hand. “I’m not some…ally in the denial of your Viking-ness. I’m full Viking. All Viking, all the time.”

“Is that your mother’s old axe?” He gestures to the weapon across my back and I shrug.

“One of them. She said it was her favorite.”

“I made it,” he nods slowly. “It’s a little small for you now, but…but it’s a good weapon.”

The cool metal of the blade feels like it’s burning my shoulder, suddenly imbued with the chief’s touch all over it. I try and rationalize the face that I’ve touched most weapons in the village dozens of times, between sharpening and repairs, and that doesn’t change them. Not really. And 20 years of mom’s meticulous handling must have diluted the chief’s influence on my best weapon to almost nothing, right?

“I’m planning to lengthen the handle soon. And I was going to weight the blade a bit more, I was thinking sort of a bronze relief in the center, a couple of big, heavy Thunderdrums bolted on there.”

“If you can get the metals to bond well enough, yeah.” He glances at me, “That would suit you. I mean, it already suits you, it’s your mother’s axe and the fact that she gave it to you and…and taught you to use it, and…”

“Are you going anywhere with this?” I cross my arms and chew on the inside of my cheek. I could take his head off, I could take his head off before the Night Fury had time to blast me, probably. Of course Toothless would be on me before his head hit the ground, but…but Arvid would be proud. Arvid would think it was awesome.

“Probably not.” He glances at me, his eyes lingering strangely on my profile for a moment. “You look like your mother, you know.”

“So I’ve heard.” The truth spills out in a burst before I can stop it, scalding and accidental. “That was everyone’s favorite lie. Arvid is running around, looking like a clone of our—his dad, and I was jealous and everyone just told me I looked like Mom. Like it was some sort of consolation prize, like—and it was a lie, obviously, it was just supposed to keep me off of the scent.”

“No, you really do look like her.” He’s quiet enough that I find myself drifting closer to him, a few steps between us on the road. “It’s a—it’s more obvious in profile. Your nose looks like hers from the side.”

“Oh.”

And there’s a million things I want to ask him. How does he know so much about my mom’s nose? How does he know my Mom? Were they just childhood playmates? How did that lead to me? How the Hel did anything lead to me?

A small ginger dart shoots out of a building on our right and attaches itself to the chief’s leg with a shout of ‘daddy!’

“Hey bud,” The chief laughs, hopping on one foot for a moment and catching his balance with a hand on the boy’s head. Little Stoick is hiding halfway behind his father’s leg and staring up at me with one huge, brown eye. “Say hi, this is Eret.”

The chief gestures towards me and the boy hugs his leg more tightly. The chief smiles at me next, like it’s up to me to charm the kid.

“Um, I’m not really a kid person…”

“Just say hi,” he laughs and I raise my arm in an awkward wave, taking half a step backwards.

“Hi, Stoick.”

“Hey,” the kid mutters into his dad’s leg, peeking a little further out at me. He doesn’t have the chief’s freckles, Aurelia’s freckles, my freckles, and from the way he’s hiding from me when my axe isn’t even out, I wonder if it’s just because he doesn’t go outside.

“Don’t be shy, kiddo,” The chief musses the kid’s head. “It’s just Eret, remember what I told you about Eret?”

“He’s my big brother.”

The words ring in my head, impossible and terrifying and my eyes widen. Big brother.

“I don’t know about that…”

“So you aren’t my big brother?” Stoick takes a tiny step sideways, leaning his head against his dad’s hip and narrowing his eyes at me.

“Uhhh…technically?” I laugh and look around, and of course there are people watching, a dozen peppered around the square. I wonder if I’m ever going to have privacy again, if I’ll ever go back to the pleasant feeling of being ignored that I used to so stupidly complain about. “I don’t—I’m not—I’ve got to go, if we’re done for today.”

I take another step backwards and wave my arms, like I can banish the rest of the day’s tasks. “I’ve got to go talk to my dad about something, umm, he’s—are we done today?”

“If you need to talk to your dad about something,” the chief starts, wrapping his hand around little Stoick’s shoulder, unbelievably tiny, little Stoick, and it hits me that I must have looked about like that next to Arvid when we were kids. It must have been so obvious, a runty little twit in a family of model Vikings. “You know you can—”

“I don’t know you,” I bark, flinching when one of the random onlookers gasps. “I really don’t know you, I don’t have anything to talk to you about, I want to talk to my actual dad.”

“Oh well,” the chief looks down and I can tell that he’s hurt, badly trying to pretend he’s not. He’s a horrible actor, he wears all of his emotions like a mask, and it makes me wonder if that’s what Mom means when she calls me a horrible actor. “I guess we can finish the rest of this up tomorrow, um but…but is everything ok?”

“No, everything isn’t ok,” I glance at the kid, again cowering behind the chief, and try to ignore him. “My dad isn’t my dad, my brother isn’t my brother and I’m not their family. I’ll see you tomorrow, chief. I’ll be eating breakfast at home.”

I swing onto Bang without another word and take off, ignoring the chatter on the ground behind me, ignoring the crowd coming forward. I can’t help but wonder what they’re saying, what they think of me. It was easier when they didn’t think of me at all, when I was one of those rowdy Hofferson boys, but now I’m a potential heir and I’m running away and…and…

I urge Bang higher, above the clouds, and start to scan the horizon for Dad’s—Arvid’s Dad’s—my fucking namesake’s ships, hoping that he stuck close today, that the ash from the forest fire has dissipated enough for the fish to come back. Because it’s so much easier for the wild parts of the island to go back to normal, the ocean will be fine within a week while everything on the shore will be demolished forever.

Even the trees will grow back before things return to normal. Nothing is ever going to be normal again. I remember being so excited about meeting the chief, about the prospect of a little extra silver, and it makes me nauseous. He was bribing me before I even knew, wasn’t he? It was because I was his son. He probably didn’t like my ideas at all, he just wanted to endear me to him before…

I direct Bang down over the ocean so that the frigid waves will splash my face and wake me up.

I can see Outcast Island on the horizon, a little rocky blip, and I think about running. I could trade a dagger for some gold and head East, I could head to the mainland. I could go anywhere.

I could go and meet everyone who saw the chief running twenty years ago, they could see him in my face, tell me that I remind them of another traveler with a dragon. I lean over Bang’s side and retch into the ocean, the chief’s chickens burning my throat.

I finally find Dad’s ship, lonely on calm seas, Skullcrusher chasing fish with deadly focus off of the bow, and land on it without asking first, only questioning it after my feet are on the deck. Dad looks over at me and smiles, and I run to the railing and puke again, dry heaving into the foam. Bang nuzzles my calf, crooning worriedly in the back of his throat.

“Eret, are you ok?” Dad thumps my shoulder and I stand up, wiping my mouth on my sleeve.

“I was with the chief today, and we were doing all of these little tasks and—and for a while, I could almost forget how fucked up everything is. And we were talking about laws and why they’re there, and little tiny Stoick runs out of nowhere and he’s like hiding from me, like I’m so scary,” I gesture to myself, and Dad must see how not scary I am. How skinny and unintimidating and shamelessly scared, I am. “And then apparently, apparently the chief told the kid that I’m his big brother, like I’m ready for that sort of responsibility, like I already agreed to be a part of the chief’s big fucking happy family.”

Dad nods, like he’s still listening, and that’s why he’s a better dad than the chief ever could be. He listens to me even when I’m prattling on about nothing, and the chief can barely show up when I fuck up like him.

“And then this kid, and this kid is eight or something and he’s barely eh high,” I hold my hand at my hip, and I know I’m exaggerating, but not by much and I think I might have to puke again. “And he starts asking if I am his brother, and I didn’t know that kids that little could even talk, you know? It’s like a tiny little troll or I don’t even fucking know, and I don’t know how to be a big brother or a chief and—and Arvid keeps on calling you his dad, like we don’t have the same dad, and we don’t but…but…But you used to be my dad.”

“I’m still your dad. Or…you’re still my son, I thought we talked about this.” He smiles, a sad sort of smile I’ve never seen before. “See, I’m having to remind you. That’s some of my comparatively dumb influence in you.”

“You aren’t dumb. You’re the smartest.” I nod emphatically, leaning back on the railing and trying to ignore the way that my lower back is trembling against the wood.

“Son of Eret.” He rests his hand on my shoulder and shakes me. Not hard, but hard enough to remind me that it’s easy for him, that he can move me like that without even trying. “I knew when I named you, you know. I knew then and it was still true.”

“Gods, it was that obvious?” I laugh even though it’s not funny, leaning my head backwards over the ocean and contemplating tipping backwards. Bang would save me. Bang would dive in before I hit the water, but there would be something delightfully dramatic about the fall.

I remember thinking up all these plans to get noticed, to make the village see me as someone important despite my name, despite my family. It turned out all I needed was a good old fashioned dose of nepotism.

“You were born with this shock of bright red hair, and at first I was just hoping, so desperately hoping that it was blood or it’d fall out and grow back blonde or black or something. But we sort of knew, it was—it still is the exact same color as your grandfather’s. Your actual grandfather.”

“The chief’s dad?” I nod slowly. “Stoick the Vast.”

We’ve all heard the tales and wondered if they were embellished or not. It’s hard to imagine the man any smaller than the statue along the back cliff, it’s impossible to think that once upon a time he was just a man, a living, breathing man that could be taken out by a dragon, even a Night Fury. It strikes me that I’m related to him, a quarter of my blood is his and that’s more inspiring than sharing half my blood with the chief.

“Stoick the Vast.” Dad nods and smiles to himself, “I don’t think we’ve ever told you this, but Skullcrusher used to be his dragon.”

“Really?” I frown. “I…has anyone ever told you how messed up this whole situation is? How the Hel did you end up with my actual grandfather’s dragon?”

“The chief asked me to look after him, once upon a time.” Dad shrugs, “I want to answer your questions, Eret. I never—I never liked how much we lied to you. Now, don’t take this out on your mother, she had her reasons and they…I understand them even if I didn’t always agree. But I’ll answer your questions.”

And I have questions. I have questions about Mom and the chief and me, and him and where he fits in, where I fit in. Nothing makes sense and there’s a million questions I could ask but I’m scared of the answers. What if it’s simple, and Mom and the chief got caught up in some feeling and I happened. What if it’s horrible and she was coerced.

The second seems more likely and the thought makes me sick. I’ll ask tomorrow, when I feel more stable.

I glance at him, at all of those things I’m not, at the understanding I don’t have, the stubbornness covering up any trace of what he managed to teach me. My eyes catch on his hands, still bare, the white line of his wedding ring almost entirely faded.

“You still aren’t wearing your ring?”

“The ash,” he waves towards the ocean, “it made the water sticky, somehow, I’m just…waiting for the sea to clear.”

“I was…I was just thinking about that earlier. The sea is going to be fine, the trees are going to grow back before I figure out this family bullshit.”

“Son,” he wraps his arm around my shoulders and it’s not so cold anymore. “The sea will swallow Berk whole before anything in this family makes sense.”

“Thank Thor for tidal class,” I scratch Bang’s concerned muzzle and stare out at the greyish tinged sea foam, still tarnished by ash.

Chapter Text

Normally, I groan when I see Ingrid cooking but today? Mom’s absence is welcome. She waves, soot smeared across her forehead and a general look of panic in her eyes, and no matter how many times I see it, it will always be funny to watch my sister square off with her eternal nemesis. It’s worth eating charcoal for dinner.

“What did you burn this time?”

“Myself,” she flashes her hand at me, bright red and shiny with Gobber’s salve and I sit down at the end of the table nearest the fire. “How was your day with the chief?”

That’s the thing about Ingrid, she’s the most straightforward person I know, there’s no nuance in her question, no ‘are you alright’ hidden under ambivalent tones. It makes it less invasive somehow, less like she’s grilling me and more like she wants to talk about anything but her losing battle with dinner.

“It was alright,” I shrug, picking up an apple from the neat stack in the center of the table. “How long have you known that the chief is…who he is?” Calling him my father is impossibly blunt and I skirt the issue, half expecting Ingrid to call me out on it.

She turns a loaf of bread and stands up to lean against the brick. Ingrid looks like Mom as much as I don’t look like Dad. Her hair is longer and blonder, she’s a little taller, a little stronger, and she’s got Dad’s eyes and Dad’s strut, but she’s Mom. She fits with the family as much as I stick out.

“Rolf told me when I was maybe 6?” She frowns and nods, as if checking the fact. “Yeah, it was when you were so sick and everyone thought you were going to die. I was crying and he told me that you weren’t my real brother, anyway.”

“So Rolf has always had a way with words,” I take a bite out of the apple to give myself time to think. I could ask anything and she’d tell me the truth, and somehow that’s more appealing than the same offer from Dad. No matter what gets said, Ingrid and I still have commonality, we’ll still be the best axe-people (Ingrid’s word) on the island. We’ll still share a Mom. “I’m not crazy then, Rolf really doesn’t like me.”

“He doesn’t like y—the chief. He never got to know you.”

“Wow, are you mincing words? I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say the nice thing,” I tease her and she flicks a piece of bark at me. “Dad says he’s still my dad. Arvid…Arvid doesn’t agree.”

“Arvid is an asshole,” she shakes her head, “he’s our asshole, but he’s still an asshole.”

“Was…” I pause. Do I really want to know more? Will it actually soothe the raw ache in my chest? Is this curiosity or something more ominous? “Was the chief ever around?”

“I mean, I remember a couple of Night Fury rides way back when. Probably before you, I was really little, but he does that for all the kids.” She kneels back down next to the fire and pulls out a pot of something that almost smells like stew. “And Dad got really weird about it when you like…nine? Maybe? He started asking me all the time if I saw the chief or talked to the chief. I told him your sire was nowhere to be found. He didn’t appreciate that much.”

I snort, “my sire. I like that.”

“Dad didn’t know that I knew before that, which is shocking, given the trail that I left over the years.” She numbers on her fingers, “broke Smitelout’s arm when we were eight for calling you the chief’s reject. Buried my axe in Darren Thorston’s saddle when he joked about telling you—and no, the saddle wasn’t on a dragon, so don’t get all preachy on me.”

“I’m not preachy.”

“You’re sort of preachy,” she grins, “remember when you laid into Arvid for fucking with that nest of Fireworm eggs?”

“He tried to take one home.”

“And you knocked out four of his baby teeth,” she laughs and puts on a high pitched voice, “sissy, sissy, he hit me!”

“Gods, I think that’s the only fight with Arvid I ever won,” I wipe my face and take another bite of the apple, speaking out of the side of my mouth as I chew. “I peaked at age six.”

“I think you’re going to make a great chief someday, I really do.” She avoids eye contact like she always does when she’s being nice. “The chief didn’t reject you, he probably just knew he couldn’t handle you.”

“Hey, maybe when I’m chief, I can marry you and Spitleaf and Darren will leave you alone.”

She flushes and rolls her eyes, “let’s not feed the idiot’s wet dreams.”

“I’m just saying, I could.”

“Gods, you’ve been apprentice chief for one day and you’re already power crazed.”

“Ingrid.”

“But at least you haven’t forgotten the little people,” she gestures to her chest, oblivious to the thick, black smoke billowing around her feet.

“Ingrid, the bread is burning.”

“Fuck.”

00000

By my fourth day as the chief’s apprentice, I’m comfortable with the routine. Mom wakes me up like I’m an adorable baby terror, and then I make awkward small talk with Arvid, who gave up on fishing with Dad after two rough mornings. Then I scarf down breakfast, fly across the village, say something nasty to Aurelia as she’s on her way out of the door, awkwardly smile at Stoick, show no emotion to the chief.

It’s only really bad in the mornings though, I don’t…I don’t hate the way that the village looks at me anymore, I don’t hate how they listen to me.

Yesterday, there was a weird blip, a woman I’d never met before practically dragging me home with her for dinner. Like I’m long lost family or something. I guess everyone likes me more than Aurelia.

I should tell her that. It’s mean, it’s petty, but I can’t help but blame her for walking around her brother in those short little skirts. She didn’t know either, she couldn’t have.

Maybe I’m blaming her like Rolf blames me.

The chief and I go around the village, and check in on things. On things they’re building, on rules at the academy, on family disputes and divorces and babies being named, and it’s…there’s so much of the village I’ve never seen, so many people I’ve never met, it’s exploring in a completely different way and I find myself liking it. I liked the forge, I liked being Gobber’s apprentice but this is better, more fulfilling.

I follow the chief most of the way home at the end of a long day of everything, pausing when the crowds dissipate and we have a moment of privacy.

“I…I think that I could get used to this chief thing.”

“Yeah?” He lights up and looks boyish for a second. How did I not see it before? How did everyone see it before me?

“Yeah, I think…I think that I want to do it. If—I mean, yes. Yes, I want to be chief,” I shrug and step backwards, leaning against Bang and resting my palm against his calming, cooling scales. “When you retire. Or die.” I say it because he did, but it feels strange and clunky on my tongue. I smirk.

“That’s…news.” The chief laughs, pushing his hand through his hair, silver in the sun.

That’s probably in my future, isn’t it?

“I thought you wanted me to be chief.”

“I do, I do. I just—you bluntly faced me with my own mortality there. That was bracing.”

I shrug. “We’re all going to die eventually.”

“My dad died when he was my age.” The chief goes a little pale and I almost feel bad for him. He should have someone to talk to about that.

Someone who’s not me.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s…thanks.” The chief shakes his head and looks at his toes, and I wonder if the whole village knows how plain he is, how small he seems. There are moments where he’s not really a chief to me, not even the despicable chief of my childhood, of my birth, he’s someone else. Just a man, and if it weren’t for familiarity, I don’t think I could pick him out of a crowd. “I’ll start drawing up the documents, I’ll review them with your parents and they can sign and…and we’ll keep doing this.” He gestures between us, and there’s something worryingly hopeful in his eyes.

“Wait, what do my parents have to sign? I thought this was about me being chief.”

“I have to adopt you.”

My heart lurches. Bang chirps worried behind me and even Toothless seems to notice my distress, staring at me with big, green eyes.

“What?”

“That’s the most logical way to do this.” He laughs like this is all so obvious, like this all makes so much fucking sense, “I adopt you as my heir. It’s how they did it in Rome.”

“This is Berk.”

“It’s…It’d be seamless in the records, you’re already my son, no one would question it—”

“I’m not your son!” I blurt, shaking my head, “I have a dad. I have a real dad, I have a family and…and you’re not a part of it? You can’t adopt me. This doesn’t…” I cradle my head in my hand and sigh, struggling to draw a deep enough breath.

“Well…how else did you think this was going to work?” He laughs a nervous, high pitched laugh, the kind of laugh that’s going to echo in my nightmares about this, and steps forward, trying to rest his hand on my shoulder. I stumble backwards over Bang and catch myself on his head, looking anywhere but at the chief. “Did you think I was just going to, I don’t know, marry your mother and pretend all my other kids are illegitimate?”

“That’s not funny! Don’t talk about my mom!”

And it occurs to me that he’s probably talked about and to my mom plenty. How else did I happen? I’m fucking proof that something happened between my mom and the chief, and the world turns upside down again. Like it always does as soon as I’ve managed to right it.

“Eret—”

“You can’t just adopt me. What? Would I come and live with you? Would I sit across your table from Aurelia and act like this is all normal? Would I be a big brother to that kid I barely know?”

“Ideally—”

“No!” I shake my head. I stomp. I feel like I’m a kid again, shouting so that someone hears me. “No, you can’t just—No! That doesn’t—No!”

I turn and run before I can think about acting like the chief, before it can sink in that this is pathetic. Before I can swing my leg over Bang. He flutters over me, shade in the sky, worried croons taking over everything, drowning my ears with their echoing vibrations. Thunderdrums are the best mufflers on the planet, if I could have Bang living inside of my skull, I would. I’d use the gurgling support to drown out everything else.

I’m halfway home, dashing around the outskirts of the village and trying to avoid the stares when an arm catches my shoulder out of nowhere. I throw the arm off and stumble backwards, suddenly aware of angry tears streaking down my cheeks.

It’s Fuse. She holds her hands up in surrender.

“Whoa, Eret, I didn’t realize—”

“What? What do you want?”

“I was just wondering if you’re still working at the forge,” she says it too quietly, but the words resonate with a normal I can barely remember. “I need that baffle, thing, and I went by and you weren’t there and I was hoping I’d run into you—”

“Are you nagging me right now?”

“Sort of.” She winces at the words, tucking a strand of strawberry blonde behind her ear. “And I know you’re dealing with the chief, but—”

“No, no. No one has nagged me in—since everything made sense. Tell me more,” I laugh, wiping my eyes on my sleeves. I feel crazy, unhinged. Like I’d run at the drop of a hat and not notice, I’d be halfway to the mainland before I even noticed I’m not on Berk.

“You keep interrupting me.”

“Sorry.”

“I really need that baffle,” she continues, her voice more stern, like she’s trying to lecture me. “It’s important. I’m trying to blow up half a mountain and I need to aim my explosion.”

“I’m sorry I let you down.” I nod, and I mean it. She smiles and waves an arm towards me, like she’s going to touch or comfort, but then pulls back. Normal. Not touching me is normal.

“I already paid you.”

“I’ll get it done. I want to do it,” I laugh to myself, “your plan has been hanging up for so long it’s probably flat enough to be readable.”

“You can’t read my plans?” She looks genuinely hurt and it takes my mind off of my own issues for a blissful second.

“They just need to unwrinkled first.”

She pats the pockets of her always overloaded vest, cautious like it might explode under her fingers. It might. It is Fuse afterall, “efficiency, Hofferson.”

“The chief wants to adopt me,” I blurt. “Then I wouldn’t be Hofferson anymore. I’d be Eret son of Eret, Haddock. Eret Haddock. I think it sounds stupid.”

“It’s just a name,” she shrugs. “I’m shocked he wants to adopt you after his house took two of my finest stinkbombs.”

“I’m really charming. I guess.”

“When can we go to the forge? I want to see these plans you can’t read.”

“We can go now,” I look around, “as long as I don’t have to see the chief. Hide me.”

“That’s pathetic, hiding isn’t going to help anything.” She fumbles in her pocket for a moment and holds a small, black ball in her hand, faking tossing it to me like she doesn’t trust me to catch it. I wouldn’t trust myself to catch it either.

What a way to go, explosion in the middle of the village. Poof. Boom goes the heir. I’m an heir, my parents could sign a piece of paper and I’d be an heir, but I wouldn’t be theirs anymore.

I was never theirs to begin with.

She tosses the bomb at me and I catch it, swirling it between my fingers and smelling it, soot and something dangerous.

“Smoke bomb, if you’re really so scared.”

“How many bombs do you carry at one time?”

“Enough,” she shrugs. “Now can we go check out the baffle situation?”

I nod too eagerly and she smiles, snaggletooth peeking over her lower lip, “or I’m going to take back my tip.”

“Yes. Mean. Continue.”

Bang trots after us, sniffing at my heels like he’s as worried about my emotional state as I am

Chapter Text

“Maybe you should let him adopt you.” Arvid leans against the barn, arms crossed, avoiding eye contact like I got the last bit of honey.

“What.” It’s not a question, not really, I heard him but I’m hoping if he says it again, it’ll sound different, make sense in a different way. Maybe the words went into my brain in the wrong order.

“Maybe you should let the chief adopt you.”

“What the Hel are you talking about?”

“Maybe you should let the chief adopt you.” The emphasis is different but the words are the same and he glares at me, pushing off of the barn with his elbows and stalking towards the house.

“Come back here, I’m trying—”

“You aren’t chief yet, Eret, you can’t order me around.” He whirls on me, fists clenching and I appreciate for the first time how big he is. Maybe it’s late onset acceptance that I’m probably topped out, but I can look at him with something other than envy.

I couldn’t take him. But he wouldn’t be ok afterwards.

“I’m sorry.” I apologize even though I don’t mean it, shoving my hands in my pockets and shrugging. “I was just hoping we could talk about this.”

“There’s no we in this, Eret.” He shakes his head, deflating back into my brother, instead of the monster of a teenager that used to be my defender. “Ever since you learned about this, it’s been you, you, you. Whether you’re going to be chief or not, like being a fisherman isn’t good enough for you all of a sudden—”

“I never said that.”

“Because you’re Eret the special, Eret son of fucking Eret, and you can just do whatever you want to feel special—”

“Are you accusing me of having my name?” I laugh, because it’s ridiculous. I can’t help but imagine little baby me naming myself.

Little baby me was an ironic little shit.

“I bet Mom thought that was really funny. I bet she had a good laugh thinking about the chief—”

“Don’t say that about Mom.” I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to have that fight, I don’t want to live in a world where that fight exists and I change the subject, getting angrier than I want to, “and I’m allowed to want to do something more than fish, Arvid. Maybe I don’t have the same dreams as you—”

“Oh, so it’s about your dreams. You don’t have anything but dreams.”

“Right, because I’m not content with making the rounds of Berk chasing tail—”

“As if you could get any.”

“What? It’s not like the chief ever had a problem.” The words tumble out before I can stop them and Arvid’s fist collides with my jaw before I can apologize.

I deserve it, I deserve the flash of sparkling pain, the grinding of my teeth. I hit the ground, hard, crawling backwards and apologizing. “Sorry, that wasn’t—”

“What the Hel is going on out here?” It’s Ingrid, and I’m glad even though I shouldn’t be, even though I would have hit myself twice as hard if I’d been in Arvid’s position. She grabs Arvid’s arm and he glares at her, trying to shrug her grip off. He winces. She offers me her other hand and helps me up.

“My fault,” I blabber, rubbing my jaw and laughing when it hurts, laughing because Thor he’s strong, and the rush is blasting through my veins. I feel like I could fly. “It’s my fault, he said—I said—”

“I seriously doubt that it’s all your fault,” she glares between us, holding us both at arms’ length and softening only slightly when she sees my jaw. It’s going to bruise. He might have cracked a tooth back there or something.

Ha, the chief might have two Toothlesses running around.

My stomach churns and I probe the inside of my cheek with my tongue, tasting blood and spitting out a mouthful of pink saliva.

“Are you ok, Eret?”

“See? This is the whole problem!” Arvid shrugs her arm off and clenches his fists, red in the face. “It’s always ‘is Eret ok?’ It’s always Eret, it’s always been Eret because he’s the chief’s chosen brat—”

“Are you jealous or something?” Ingrid spits, holding my chin with bruising fingers and looking at my jaw before looking me in the eye. She lets go with a less than gentle pat on my undamaged cheek and I take it to mean I’m fine.

“No.” Arvid’s face darkens, almost purple, and it’s nearly impossible not to roll my eyes. “No, I’m not jealous, I’m—”

“Being an ass,” Ingrid shakes her head, “what’s the matter with you? He’s tiny, you’re going to snap his head off.”

“I’m not that tiny,” I cross my arms, “Look, Arvid, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said what I said—”

“You’re going to let the chief adopt you.” There it is, sadness beneath Arvid’s anger and I sigh.

“Didn’t we go over this? Just because I’m the chief’s kid doesn’t mean I’m going to act like him. I’m still the same guy, Arvid. I’ve always looked like this, we were both just too boneheaded to figure it out.”

“Dad says he’s still your dad.”

“He said that to me too.”

“Because it’s true,” Ingrid steps in, and she says it in that way that means it’s fact. There’s no questioning her tone and I don’t shrug her off when she wraps her arms around Arvid and my shoulders. “You two need to calm down, alright? When I’m gone there’s going to be no one to pull him off of you, Eret. And Arvid? The village is starting to like this kid, killing him would start an honest to Odin riot.”

“What do you mean when you’re gone?” Arvid looks at her. “Are you actually leaving?”

“Yeah,” she nods, “I was just talking to the chief about it actually. He’s not Surtr, you know, he’s just a guy—”

“Hasty,” I cut her off. “When are you going?”

She’s been threatening it for years, just the casual little ‘when I’m gone who will save your ass’ from some random, probable incident. It was practically a joke, and I can’t…I can’t imagine Berk without Ingrid. Stable, steady Ingrid.

“So Rolf is supposed to be the voice of reason now?” Arvid laughs like the reality of that statement hasn’t quite sunk in yet.

“Guys,” she sighs. She’s serious. I feel like a brat for fighting with my brother while my sister is packing up to leave.

I probably ran her off, with all my drama. And Gods, there’s so much fucking drama. “Look, the last thing we need right now is some asshole getting pushy with a contract.”

“I don’t care. You’re my sister, they’d have to go through me,” Arvid shifts, his arm wrapping possessively around her waist. My jaw sings, I feel bad for the imaginary pushy asshole.

“Yeah, and that’s not a fight we need to have. No one likes us, anyway. Except this twerp,” she flicks the back of my head and I roll my eyes. “I just…it’s time, you know? I don’t need to stress anyone out more than they already are, alright?” She thumps both of our backs, sharp enough to be a clear warning.

“The chief was here today again.” Arvid glowers and I look at him.

“I was with the chief all day, except—”

Right. Fuse. That’s a can of dragon bait I don’t want to open right now and I shrug. “Except when I ran off into the forest like the twerp I am.”

Ingrid gives me a strange look. Arvid is nonplussed.

“Mom was pissed, he must have been telling her about the adoption.”

“What adoption?” Ingrid frowns and looks between us, “does—is that how you’re going to become chief? He’s going to adopt you? I wish I’d known that when I was just talking to him—”

“You were talking to him too? Am I the only one who remembers what side I’m on?” Arvid cradles his head in his hands and I almost ask him if he wants a bruise to nurse.

“It’s not about sides, I’m leaving, I wanted advice from someone who survived and came back.”

“Because we had to be so lucky,” I sigh, letting myself lean on Ingrid for a second, trying to memorize what that feels like.

Arvid laughs and pats me on the back, and it feels like normal might still exist

Three days later, three days without an answer, without a final decision on the adoption I’ve refused to talk about, and I’m walking home from the forge after dark. Fuse’s project is better than going home, it’s better than the tense dinners with Ingrid, wondering when she’s going to leave, how many more days I have with her. Mom and Dad are acting strange. Distant. They communicate in stares and whispers and glancing touches that never turn into held hands. The forge is nicer. It’s better than chatting with Arvid, too loud and too happy, with too much back thumping. My jaw has gone all green now, but it’s still healing too slowly.

I shut Bang in the barn for the night, because it makes it easier to sneak out in the morning without waking Arvid, and he curls up with Stormfly in the corner. She’s irritable, shifting from foot to foot, grooming Bang obsessively as soon as he’s within reach. My stomach churns.

The distinctive yells in the house catch my attention and I sneak up to the door, pressing my face to the half-closed shutters and peering in at a sliver of half-lit room.

“I’m just reminding you not to spring any more life altering news on him when he’s alone.” Mom snarls, and it’s not a reminder at all, it’s a threat.

“He was with me, he wasn’t alone—”

“He should have been with family if you were going to drop that fucking bomb, Hiccup—”

“I’m his father, Astrid.” The chief slams his hand on the table and my fist tightens around the edge of the window, white-knuckled and nervous. I shouldn’t be listening to this, I can’t tear myself away.

The chief leans towards her, the torchlight flickering off of the silver in his hair and I wonder if something is about to happen. The room is too silent, almost peaceful, and for a blinding second, I can see where I came from. I can see something in the room that’s uncomfortable and wrong.

“Maybe…maybe I should talk this over with Gobber,” the chief starts, voice low like he’s talking to a wounded dragon. Like I talk to wounded dragons. “Gobber knows Eret, Gobber doesn’t want to kill me quite as much as you do—”

“If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead.” Mom snarls and I look over at her, eyebrows raised. Impressed.

“Go mom.” I mutter and no one hears. No one ever hears.

For all of Arvid’s talk about me being the center of attention, I’m invisible. I wonder if I could barge into the room without them noticing. Whip out a piece of parchment and start drawing the conflict.

Mom shakes her head and steps towards the table, closer to the chief. “You aren’t getting at my son without me there. You aren’t getting into his head and pumping it full of more idealistic bullshit than is already there. I’m not giving you a chance to charm him, to trick him into being your heir, to get him to choose some big dream over his family. If he decides to talk to you, it’s his damned choice, and I’m going to be sure he knows what choice he’s making.”

“Our son.”

“If he wants to be your heir, he’ll be your heir. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that he gets what he wants out of this.”

“He wants to be heir, Astrid!” The chief pounds his hand on the table, “he told me himself, it’s just this whole adoption thing—”

“You aren’t taking my son!”

The chief grumbles under his breath and Mom swears at him, her face bright red and fuming.

“What about the village?” The chief asks and Mom shifts, shoulders tensing as she leans onto her side of the table. “He’s obviously the best choice for the village, look at him—”

“You don’t even know him!”

“I know him better than you think.” The chief is someone else, someone wholly different from the meek, excited man who seemed almost intimidated by my tough guy routine. “He needs someone to help him, sure, but—but ever since I met him as Eret not your forbidden baby, not my—all my mistakes,” he’s almost choked up and it hits me in a way that it shouldn’t. Grown men shouldn’t cry, but he doesn’t seem any weaker than he already was. “He’s been nothing but bright and helpful and motivated and—”

“And you didn’t have anything to do with that,” Mom growls, edging between me and the table.

“And the village needs him. I—we all need him.”

“And we all know how that pressure fucked you up.”

“Do the honors,” I toss Fuse’s smoke bomb to Arvid, gripping Bang’s scales as the wind gusts. We’re over Chief Dagur’s house on Berserker island, hoping that his insane daughter is close to the fireplace.

“Are you sure?” Arvid shouts over the wind, clinging more tightly to Wingspark’s neck and leaning over the chimney beneath us.

“Of course. Go for it,” I laugh hoping I sound earnest as I lie through my teeth. “I don’t mind, really. Watching it is the fun part.”

It’s a small price to pay, I tell myself. It’s a small token of my future chiefdom that I can give Arvid. Our shenanigans will still exist, and they’ll be bigger and better than ever before. I’m sure I’ll figure out some way around the adoption, I’m oddly at peace with the whole thing.

The calm before the explosion will do that.

“No, I meant are you sure about starting a war,” he laughs, like war isn’t a big deal, and maybe it isn’t. Our dragons don’t even seem to notice the threat below, tugging ardently North, towards home, as soon as we stop directing them. They’re bored.

“Do it,” I laugh, “maybe if we have to go to war the chief will make me general. And if he dies, I’ll just take over.”

“We can hope,” Arvid shrugs, floating lower to ensure his aim and tossing the smoke bomb to himself once before chucking it neatly down the chimney.

Silence.

“Maybe Thorston gave you a dud.”

“Fuse doesn’t do duds,” I narrow my eyes at the chimney and Bang shifts, keening in the back of his throat and thrumming like a drum. “Wait, something is—”

BOOM!

Smoke spews out of the chimney as it crumples sideways to the ground, the whole side of the house melting and caving against the blow. Arvid swears.

“Thorston said that was a fucking smoke bomb?”

“Well, there’s a lot of smoke,” I wrap my arm over my mouth and cough into my elbow as it billows towards us, my ears ringing in time with the lapping of the waves. “We should get out of here.”

“Right behind you,” he yells back and I swoop low over the water, steering Bang towards home and ducking through the sea spray until I can’t taste the thick black smoke on the back of my tongue anymore.

It’s like stinkbombing the chief’s house, but better. More satisfying. It’s stinkbombing the chief’s job. It’s a public act this time, sweet and public and wonderful. I like public more than I ever thought I could.

Plus, that took down half of the Berserker chief’s house, and I won’t lie. It was really cool.

We get far enough from the island that I feel comfortable peeling away from the ocean and soaring in a warmer air current above, lazily pointed towards home and counting the stars as they start to crop up over the horizon. We’ve been gone all day. The chief gave me the day off yesterday, apparently today is all paperwork and he’s barely smart enough not to quarantine himself in the same room with me all day.

Arvid leans back on Wingspark’s shoulders, stretching his arms over his head.

“How much trouble do you think we’re going to be in.”

“Tons,” I laugh, sitting cross-legged on Bang’s back and rolling my shoulders.

“Unless they blame Thorston.”

“I won’t let Fuse take the blame for this,” I frown at him, “I’d call it a decisive act of war.”

“I don’t think you’d be too shit at being chief, little brother.” He shouts it like a declaration and I cup my hand to my ear.

“What was that? I think you need to say it again. I need witnesses.”

He laughs. I’ll figure out the adoption, I’ll figure out a way around it and everything will be ok.

It’s long after dark when Berk appears on the horizon and the dragons seem almost shocked at our location, chirping to each other before speeding up. Bang dips down to butt his nose into the waves before gliding back up and over the cliff nearest our house. As soon as we land, I know something is wrong. It’s not logical, a kid being scared of non-existent monsters under the bed, but the dread settles heavy and nauseating in the pit of my stomach. Arvid looks at me, slinking to the ground and patting Wingspark’s side.

I point towards the house, the dark house with dark windows and no smell of dinner.

“Should we go inside?”

“Obviously.”

I wait for him to move first and he doesn’t, so I take a cautious step towards the house. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so quiet. It always used to be full of laughing and yelling and Rolf’s obnoxious commentary. Me.

Lately it’s been full of the chief, who doesn’t seem to know how to be quiet.

I open the door and it creaks like it never has before, like the house is aging faster in all of the chaos. Dad is sitting alone at the kitchen table, and he doesn’t seem to notice us, his whole attention is fixated on two small silver glints on the table. Two small silver circles.

One slightly larger, both worn smooth.

Wedding rings.

I can barely identify them, separated from my parents’ fingers, they’re disembodied and strange, scales from some foreign dragon I’ve never seen before. Dad’s hands are shaking, his hands never shake.

Arvid speaks first, “Is that…are those your rings?”

Dad smiles, a cruel crooked smile I’ve never seen before, and in that moment the steady rock of my childhood is gone. Absent. Probably stuck in that ring, a spirit haunting the object. The symbol of all the good times. The loud times.

“Your mother and I are getting divorced.”

Chapter Text

When I knock on the Thorston’s door, it’s not anywhere near dawn. Fuse’s strange part is heavy in my hands, cutting into my still fragile palms and so much has changed since I burned them. So much has changed.

Tuffnut comes to the door in a fur robe with groggy eyes that narrow in some sort of recognition.

“It’s you. What are you doing here?”

“Is Fuse here?” My voice is absurd, throaty and wispy and stupid sounding, like I’ve been gargling mead until my insides went soft.

“Why wouldn’t Fuse be here? What do you know?” Tuffnut points his arm at me and I blink itchy eyes.

Gods dammit, I’m pathetic. This is all so pathetic. The fact that I’m leaving his pathetic. I’m just like that asshole, tearing things apart and running away.

“I brought her this,” I hold the part up, grunting a little from hefting its weight. Tuffnut takes it and squints at it, and I wonder if he understands his daughter. I wonder if anyone really understands anyone or anything.

The day my parents get divorced is fucking Ragnarok. The end of days is upon us and I’m running away from the epicenter, like the cowardice is palpable in my blood.

“And why can’t this slopey thingy wait until morning?”

“Adventure awaits,” I croak, waving at the black horizon. “Can I leave it with you? I have to get going.”

“And she paid you for…this thingy?” He drops it on the floor behind him, and I’m glad its calibration isn’t anything special.

“Yeah. Overpaid, she always overpays—can you make sure she likes it? Gobber can make her another one if it works or if it doesn’t work, I’m—I have to go.”

“Thor’s balls, did I wake up thirty years ago?” He rubs his eyes and looks at me again. I sniff.

“No. Today. It’s today, it’s today and—it’s today and I’m out of here.” I wave and stumble backwards, back towards my empty fucking house where my mom and dad aren’t talking and Ingrid is loading Bang with bags full of the chief’s travel supplies. I wonder if Arvid stuck around, I hope he didn’t. I swear to Odin I hope he ran like I did, then maybe it’s just natural and not some fundamental flaw in me.

I’m halfway down the path to the main road when a blip of torchlight shines over my shoulder and someone is grabbing my arm. I turn and it’s Fuse, groggy but worried with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

“What?”

“My dad dropped the baffle in my room, he said you’re leaving. Something about adventure.”

I open my mouth to make some stupid comment about how she’s filling me in on what her dad said and I don’t care, but it dies in my throat.

“My parents are getting divorced.”

“Gods, Eret, I’m so sorry,” she leans in to give me a hug and I flinch away, crossing my arms and looking anywhere but right at her, staring into the base of the torch like I can excuse my tears on the bright light.

“It’s fine. It’s…It’s just the end of the fucking world as we know it, and the whole island is fucked and I’m leaving. Ingrid is leaving, and when we got the news she said she’d stay but…but I need to leave and I’m going to leave with her.”

“Is it…I’m…normally I have something to say.” She’s standing like she’s afraid I’m going to explode, like I’m some experiment of hers gone wrong, and I wish I’d never bombed the chief’s house. I wish I’d never retaliated. I wish I’d run after that first afternoon I saw Fuse in the woods. Maybe Arvid would have come with me. We could be living large on the mainland, pretending that everything back home was fine, that we’d come back to the same thing that we left.

“Normally you think you sound all wise, but there’s nothing to say, Fuse. Anyone trying to be wise is kidding themselves, this kind of shit doesn’t happen,” I stomp like the toddler I feel like, excited for the freedom of the air, for the weight of this cursed chiefdom off of my shoulders. “No one is just happily married for twenty five fucking years and then just…falls apart over nothing. Some big fucking bomb went off and it’s—”

“Eret,” she reaches for me again and I flinch.

“It’s me. I messed everything up. I messed everything up before I was even born, and there’s no false wisdom that can fix this!”

A torch flickers to life on the second floor of her house and I must have woken her parents. For a second I’m sure they’ll threaten to walk me home, they’ll drag me over the hill by my ear and see the shambles, the still burning flames of my former life and it’s too horrible to think about. I step back, away from her, away from her hair glowing strangely pink in the light of the torch.

I’m hallucinating. I’m going crazy. Fuse doesn’t glow, she destroys too. But she can aim hers, she aims hers and avoids the aftereffects entirely. She’s never caught up in the middle of it, smothered by her own flames.

“I don’t think I’m wise,” she tugs the blanket closer around her shoulders. Her torch dims. It’s a windy night for flying, but we can be out of the worst of it by morning, if we hurry.

“Most of the time you are.”

“You’re leaving?” She steps towards him like he’s fizzling, like she can’t decide whether to help or put him out of his misery. “How long are you going to be gone? How…What is Berk going to look like without you?”

“Simple. I was never really a part of the island anyway, and…these last two weeks were a fluke.” I shake my head, “and it’s going to be a lot fucking easier if I’m not around. Everything is going to be really easy.”

“But—”

“I’m sure Gobber will make you whatever bizarre thing you want!” I snap, yanking on my hair until it hurts. “I have to go, Fuse. I hope the thing works out for you.”

I stomp home. I’m an idiot. I hate how I talked to Fuse, I hate how I’m acting now. I break into a run up the final hill, ignoring when I trip and stumbling up to the barn. Ingrid is tying a final bag onto Bang’s saddle and I don’t break stride, swinging my leg over his saddle and wiping late falling tears on my sleeve.

“Eret,” Ingrid rests her hand on my shoulder, “you should go say goodbye—”

“I said goodbye in my head. It was touching, we hugged, we cried, they gave me a bag of imaginary silver to spend on things they wouldn’t buy me themselves. It was beautiful. Let’s go.” I nudge Bang’s sides, he groans and shuffles his feet, looking worriedly at my sister.

“We can’t go until you say goodbye.” Her voice wavers and I feel bad for a second, because this is her family, her real family, the place where she could belong, and it’s all falling apart because of me. Then I remember what happens to bombs during the explosion and lose myself, flinging myself back off of Bang and stomping towards the house, “fine, you want me to say goodbye? I’ll say goodbye.”

Arvid comes out before I can go in, and I can tell he’s been crying, blue eyes rimmed with red in the moonlight. His hands are shaking.

“Dad…I couldn’t talk him out of it, Eret. They’re really doing it, he’s already talked to the chief—”

And there’s something so absurd, so impossible about seeing my big, brave, strong older brother collapsing in front of me, under the weight of my fuck ups. And I see my Dad, crying and crumbling in his face. I see everything I’m not, everything I couldn’t ever be. Rage swells like a swirling storm in my chest and I narrow my eyes.

“You were never good at convincing anyone though, were you?”

“What?”

“You’ve never been good with words, have you Arvid? You’re quicker to beat someone up than talk to them. Diplomacy isn’t a thing with you, you’re all hit now and think later.”

“What are you talking about?” Arvid wipes his eyes, he’s pouting. I want to stop, but I can’t, words I didn’t know I’ve been holding back spilling out.

“I’m saying that you’re a thug. You’ve always been my muscle and you just don’t know what you’re going to do with yourself if I’m not here.” I flush, my hands clenched tight in fists by my sides. “And you know what? If I hadn’t put this whole fucked up mess together, you never would have, you’ve had a year more time with this than me, and it never dawned on you. You would have died without figuring it out. You couldn’t find sand on a fucking beach.”

“Shut up,” he grumbles, and I can tell that he’s shocked, that this is as surprising to him as it is to me.

“You’re stupid, Arvid. I’m not like you? Maybe you’re not like me, maybe there’s a reason I was going to be chief, not you.” It’s something I hadn’t even been sure he was jealous about until he erupts like a volcano, stepping forward and screaming in my face.

“I’m stupid? You’re saying I’m stupid? You’re boring,” he roars, “you’re a boring souvenir of a boring mistake with a boring, useless chief. You blather on about the same three things all day.” He curls his lip, “and now you’re running away like the chief at the first sign of anything rough.”

“Arvid. Eret, break it up.” Ingrid calls from behind us, dragon saddle straps slapping together as she drops them.

It stings. I edge closer to him, inhaling and narrowing my eyes.

“You’re the boring one, brother. Maybe if you were more interesting, Mom wouldn’t have had all that spare time to fuck around with the chief. Maybe if you weren’t already such a disappointment, she wouldn’t have—”

He punches me in the stomach, harder than he’s ever punched me before, and the world swirls before my eyes, unfocused. Loud. He punches again, same spot, before yanking me up by my hair and cocking his fist. Ingrid grabs me and tries to pull me away, but Arvid follows, landing another solid punch to my chest.

Ingrid grabs his fist and shoves it back at him, hauling my arm over her shoulders.

“Arvid, knock it off!”

“Did you hear him?” Arvid stomps. It echoes in my head and I clutch my stomach, coughing, and I can’t breathe, I can’t fucking breathe. “Did you hear what he said?”

“I destroyed everything,” I moan, leaning harder on Ingrid, gasping when her hand lands on the tender spot on my torso. “You should just let him hit me again,” coughing feels like fire, “I deserve it.”

She drags me backwards, my feet scraping too loudly along the gravel.

“What the chief wants—”

“I’m never going…to be chief,” I groan, “ ‘M leaving so that everything goes back to normal. I’m sorry, I—”

“Let’s go, Eret.” Ingrid snaps at me, grabbing me more firmly like she knows that it hurts and she doesn’t care.

“I should have left as soon as I learned,” I wipe my hair off of my suddenly sweaty forehead. “It’s my fault.”

Ingrid tosses me over Bang’s saddle like I’m luggage and I groan at his cold skin, an ice block on the wound. It takes me an embarrassingly long time to swing my leg over the saddle and sit up half straight. I should go apologize. I can’t take another hit like that. Arvid hits like a fucking war hammer, it’d be impressive if it didn’t hurt so bad.

We take off. I don’t look back.

00000

“Bang, come on, bud.” I wince as I nudge Bang’s head forward with a knee, my whole midsection tenderized like a tough cut of meat. If I pull up my shirt, I know I’ll see red skin, blooming blue and black in the center, and there’s no point in dwelling on it. I just wish that Bang wouldn’t pick this particular instance to be a brat. “Buddy, straight ahead. Follow Ingrid.”

My sister’s Zippleback rears back, Spitleaf’s head arcing through the sky as it spews a shower of sparks.

“Hey!” Ingrid shouts, the bags on her dragon shaking and rattling with overloaded packs. “Calm down, you’re fine, just—” The gas head shakes, a dagger falls from Ingrid’s waist into the surf below.

Bang dives, splashing against the surface and flinging me against his back. I yelp and clutch my side, the handle of my own knife digging into my stomach.

“Bud, up. Go up,” I pat his neck and nudge him with both knees. He booms into the surf, crashing through the wave it creates, the cold water blinding me momentarily, the cold water shocking on my battered chest. “Come on.”

He turns East. A hard east. Jerking and bucking and writhing like a Thunderdrum shouldn’t be able to, his back twisting underneath me. I hold on with tight, salty fists, and this is what it’s like to be truly out of control. This is what it’s like when the world fully spins out of control, when Arvid beats me up and Bang doesn’t listen to me and my parents are getting divorced.

“Eret?” Ingrid calls from above me, white faced and stiff with her ankles locked together under her dragon’s neck. “There’s an island up ahead, we’re going to land. I don’t—” She yelps in a way Ingrid shouldn’t yelp, because everything is fucked and nothing can stay the same, “A minute ahead. Maybe.”

“Come on, Bang.” I grit my teeth and force myself to sit up straight. Authoritative. “Follow Ingrid. We need to land.”

The Zippleback roars, Bang slaps his stomach against the waves, baying like a dying bear.

We make it to the island somehow, a soaking wet spike of rock with barely enough room to land, but it might as well be a pleasure palace, considering the ache in my chest, the throbbing in my tired brain. I fall off, the exact definition of graceful, and flip over to lean back against the wet rock, curling my knees to my chest. Bang…

Bang is a dragon possessed. Ingrid’s dragon calmed down as soon as we anded, begging Spitleaf for attention, but Bang is charging at the waves, blasting from the edge of the rock again and again, looking back at me with panic in his eyes, his scales raising from his back and slapping down with a menacing click-click-click.

“What’s he doing, Eret?” Ingrid asks, kneeling next to me and rubbing my hair with a dry rag.

“I have no idea, I’ve never seen him act like this.”

Bang rears and jumps, taking to the sky and flying a small lap above my head, bellowing at nothing and flapping like it causes him physical pain.

“We’ll stay here for the night,” Spitleaf tosses a blanket at me. “Maybe he’ll calm down by morning.”

Bang booms above us, a stormless thundercloud in orbit.

00000

“Come on you big baby,” I nudge Bang’s flank with my knee and stand up, groaning when my stomach quakes, like it’s actually falling apart under the force of Arvid’s punch. I gave up on sleep hours ago because my dragon wouldn’t calm down, eventually settling for curling next to my leg on the wet rock, shivering. I don’t get what his problem is, Ingrid’s half of her zippleback is ten feet away, and they’ve always been good friends before, but he’s nervous and everything about this is starting to feel wrong.

I love my sister. I love the sea stretching out ahead of me. I hate what I left behind, I hate how I yelled at Fuse and Arvid. I hate the empty severed state of my childhood home. I sigh and stand up, yanking crucial bags of supplies from Bang’s saddle and dropping them when they make my bruised chest ache.

“You headed out little bro?” Ingrid asks from behind me, and I’ve never seen her up this early. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she looks nervous, perched on a salt crusted boulder and sharpening her axe.

“Yeah, I think I’m going home. Bang is a wreck and—”

“And you have a chief to sass?” She fills in the rest of the sentence with a grin that’s definitely nervous.

“Something like that. I’m hoping to get back before he wakes up and steal his leg.”

“I bet he has extras.”

“Are you…” And suddenly it’s sort of lonely, thinking about swinging my leg over Bang and flying away to an island without my sister on it. “I mean, are you coming back.”

She looks guilty, another thing I’ve never seen from her, and she bites her lip and shakes her head, setting her axe down on the rock beside her. “I think…I think I’m going to keep going, you know? It’s…leaving was the hard part and—Mom is going to hate me.”

“Mom couldn’t hate you,” I scoff, and she looks so much like Mom that I have to look away, because it reminds me so much of how I should be leaving while she stays. How my family could be perfectly happy and stable and conjoined without me in it. I should have let the chief adopt me when he asked. I could be Eret Haddock, heir to the throne right now, my dad smiling proud of me on the other side of the island.

Bang bellows at nothing in particular and I scratch his neck, attempting to sooth him but running out of patience. My head throbs from lack of sleep and I stare out at the horizon in the direction he’s transfixed, searching for anything that might disturb him. It’s vaguely towards Berserker island, and I wonder if they’ve attacked Berk yet. That seems like months ago, letting Arvid drop the bomb down the chief’s chimney. Years. Lifetimes.

“I won’t be back before spring.”

“I’ll hold down the fort,” I nod, like I’m in a position to make such lofty promises and she smiles to herself, standing up and knocking her fist against my arm.

“I know you will.”

“Do…do you think Mom and Dad…” I don’t even know what I’m asking. Whether they’ll work it out, whether they won’t, whether they’ll start an angsty band together with Gobber on flute.

Ingrid reads my mind and shakes her head, her hand cupped over my shoulder.

“Dad put up with a lot, you know?”

I look down at my scrawny chest and sigh, “Mom put up with the chief.”

“I don’t…All I’ve heard is rumors. I don’t—Look, I don’t know how any of this happened, and I know it must suck beyond all belief for you and—” She sets her jaw and pats my shoulder too hard considering the beating I took the night before, “I’ll come back, I should come back, I should…”

“I don’t know what you could do to help,” I laugh. “You know, maybe it’s good. One less brat for Mom to scrape out of bed in the morning. And don’t we have enough on the family plate without you killing anyone?”

“You’re…I really think you could be a good chief, Eret. Really.” She ruffles my hair and I let her, pulling back when she licks her thumb and goes to wipe something off of my cheek.

“None of that.”

“You’re filthy.”

“I’m an adventurer now, remember?” I push her off, nodding to myself. “I—I think I’ll take my time getting home, you know? Maybe check out what Bang was going so crazy over last night.”

Ingrid isn’t pleased about the idea but she doesn’t try to stop me, Dad’s faith and Mom’s overprotectiveness warring in her expression.

“Be careful. If you die, I’m not apologizing to Arvid for you.”

“Thanks for reminding me of all…that,” I gesture to nothing and wince, pulling up the hem of my shirt and looking at the blue green bruise on my stomach, turning black in the shape of Arvid’s knuckles. “Do you think he got his revenge?”

“I think you need to apologize.”

“Thanks, Mom,” I roll my eyes and swing my leg over Bang’s saddle, nearly tumbling off when he lurches immediately, desperately East. “I’ll—you take care of yourself, Ingrid.”

“And you take care of everyone else.” She waves me off and I let Bang loose, leaning down close over his head to avoid the blustering wind.

Chapter Text

He flies faster than I can remember, closer to the water than I’d prefer, but it’s all I can do to hold on as the salt spray tacks my hair back against my scalp. We fly for an hour, just Northeast of Berserker Island, and I see the smoke rising over the horizon before I see the island. Bang starts rumbling when we get close, his whole body shaking like an earthquake, trembling beneath me as his wingbeats falter, the speed finally wearing him down.

The island is mostly volcano, steep cliffs and a scant beach, and I wonder if it’s erupting, because the ground seems to flow, the water around it churns like it’s boiling.

“Whoa, bud, let’s scope the place out a bit before…no way.” I sit up, ignoring the pain in my stomach, the sea spray stinging and soaking the front of my shirt.

The island is covered with dragons.

The biggest nightmare I’ve ever seen perches on top, its scales dusty gray, but it’s quickly overtaken by a massive hobblegrunt. The hobblegrunt stumbles, then falls into the volcano with a growl and a sputter. I look closer, and—oh no. Among the dragons swarming over the island like ants on an apple tart left in the summer sun, there are dragon bones. Dozens of skulls, bigger than I can comprehend, crumbling white sending clumsy, sluggish dragons falling down the slopes, into the waves.

The ocean isn’t boiling, it’s full, Thunderdrums the size of houses school around Scauldrons the size of the chief’s gaudy lodge, all of them dingy and strange looking beneath the ocean, bubbles pouring from their open mouths.

Bang flies around the island in sort of a trance, close enough that I can feel the heat of the smoking volcano on one side of my face, booming at the water and shaking with what can only be fear. The dragons look sick, all of their scales dusky and flaking, dusting the bones beneath their feet with muted jewels.

I wonder what could be going on here, what’s luring all these dragons to this spot and it strikes me that the only person who might know is back on Berk, probably figuring out some way to ruin my life from a few hours’ flight away. I need to tell the chief.

“Come on, bud, let’s get home. We have to tell someone about this.”

He bellows at the water, more of a sob than a concussive blast and I scratch the back of his neck.

Is he drawn to the island too?

I cringe at the thought as an old, slow gronckle tips over the lip of the volcano and falls in, wings failing it. It never reappears.

Is this where old dragons come to die?

But Bang isn’t paying attention to the volcano, he’s just scanning the waves, dipping close to big groups of Thunderdrums. Family maybe? He doesn’t seem to recognize any of them, each passing crowd making him more and more anxious. I pat his neck and look around, trying to figure out what’s causing this.

Then I see it. The cave in the side of the mountain, gushing lava into the ocean. It looks like the lava is a new development, the rock around it still solid and worn smooth by the sea. A scauldron that’s an unhealthy color of gray, flecks of blood leaking between its scales and staining the water around it dark purple, seems to give up with a squeal, diving into the stream. I look away.

I can’t convince Bang to leave until sundown, my entire body aching from a day perched in the saddle. His wings are trembling when we land on an island an hour towards Berk, and he whimpers, pressing his face into my side. If a dragon could cry, this would be it.

We camp, my stomach rumbling all night as I shiver under the seal skin in my saddle bag, staring out at the dim glow of that lava flow on the horizon. I try to think of how I’ll phrase this to the chief, try to think of how I can make it clear that I don’t want to talk to him while seeking him out.

Bang sobs beside me, his chest echoing the sound like a drum and I scratch the soft scales behind his front leg.

“For you, bud. I’ll talk to him for you.”

00000

I get back to Berk around mid-afternoon, Bang’s wingbeats slowing from exhaustion and something else as we drift around my house, my silent, dark house. No one is home, the barn door left open and I think about landing and going inside. About laying in my bed and sitting at my seat at the table, sitting on Dad’s chair and imagining how comfortable it’ll be when I grow into it just a little bit more.

That dream is gone, just like the rest of them. Inheriting boats, growing up with Arvid, raising his little bastards together, going on adventures. Fuck, marrying Aurelia and having kids of my own—this whole life, the only life I’ve ever thought of is gone and I might as well bury it, because it’s rotting in the corner of my mind and depressing the Hel out of me.

I land when I see Toothless, trotting at the chief’s heels, that red fin a beacon glaring up at me. The chief turns around to see me and his face lights up, and he’s the guy whose stupidly bossy dragon pulled me out of a forest fire, and he looks like he wants to hug me. I swing off of Bang and ignore the pressure on the bruise in my gut, standing up straight and crossing my arms.

“Eret, thank gods you’re ok, your mother and I have been—”

The phrase makes me cringe, the implication that he and my mother are anything but…but well, an old mistake. A sixteen year old mistake.

“There’s something going on with the dragons,” I clear my throat and wait for him to argue, to fuss, to play dad like I’m a toddler that needs coddling. He nods at me to continue, “When I was heading out with Ingrid, Bang started going crazy, both the dragons did. And on the way back I found this…” I look for the words, my hands drawing a volcano in the air in front of me. “It’s an island. An island with a volcano in the middle and it’s covered in dragons, swarming with them. And they looked…they were in the sea too. Hundreds of them. Thousands.” I’m light headed, out of breath, because what if Bang is next? What if Wing is? What if this is all somehow my fault too? What if the world is so cosmically upset by my stupid, impossible existence that the dragons are falling apart just like my family?

“There are plenty of islands inhabited by dragons, Eret.” The chief laughs, waving a small crowd along and reaching out to pat my shoulder. I step away from him and cross my arms again, my hands drumming against my sides.

“These dragons were different. They were—they were sick or old, their scales were all mottled and a few—a hobblegrunt jumped into the volcano right in front of me. They were fighting to get closer to the top of it. I—It’s something serious, chief.”

He stares at me for a moment before nodding, a serious, leadership-like look on his face, and he looks more like a chief than I want to give him credit for. He nods and reaches for Toothless’s saddle, “show me.”

“It’s most of a day’s flight away.”

“That’s fine,” he smiles through that chiefly expression, “we have a lot to talk about anyway.”

“What? Do you want to gloat about my family falling apart?” I laugh, and I’m glad for the audience that has pooled around us yet again. I’m glad for the pain in my stomach, the bruise reminding me of how messed up this is at every turn. I can’t afford to forget, I can’t put down this pain and blame and risk everything I still have going the same way as Arvid.

I should go find him. I should let him finish the beating I deserve. “Because I’d rather skip the love-child-sire discussion.”

“Sire?” The chief laughs, looking around again at the crowd that pretends to be busy. “Did you come up with that?”

“Ingrid did,” I swallow too hard, because she’s gone, and I pushed her over the edge, I turned her big talk into a big leap of faith.

“It would be good to talk about the wedding in private.”

“What wedding?” My stomach drops. “I thought all you had to do was sign a few things to make a divorce permanent.”

The chief looks guilty. And I recognize the expression too well, my own looking back up at me the whole flight back. He hems. He haws. And then he says it, the phrase I should have seen coming, I should have felt deep in my chest. The inevitable “your mother and I.”

I don’t think. I don’t reach for my axe, I don’t clench my hands into proper fists. I fly at him, my nails digging into the sides of his neck as I knock him flat, my knee digging into his stomach. He tries to push me off and for once I’m the strong one, I’m the burly one, I have every fucking advantage in this fight and I take them, fisting my hand in the front of his armor and punching him, reveling in the thump of his jaw underneath my knuckles.

Toothless bellows, famous blue flames crackling in the back of his throat. Bang’s concussive blast knocks the chief and I sideways as he jumps onto the Night Fury, clawing and snarling, all teeth and wails I can see but can’t hear through the ringing in my ears. I punch the chief again before he manages to shove me off, stumbling to his feet and shouting, his voice snapping my ears back to life.

“Whoa, whoa buddy. Hey, whoa,” he holds his hands up and runs between Toothless and Bang, holding the Night Fury off with outstretched hands. “Easy bud, easy, he’s—”

Bang claws the ground, preparing to charge and I roll to my feet, throwing my arm across his wide head, “hey bud. It’s ok. Thank you, thank you,” I mutter against his scales. “Hey, you got him bud, calm down.”

“Did…did that blasted beast just attack Toothless?” Gobber asks from the crowd, and I wonder how much he saw. I’m suddenly ashamed, wiping a trail of blood away from my ear and staring at my feet. Bang tucks his head into my side and croons, nosing at the bruise underneath my shirt.

“Hey, this is all a little out of hand,” the chief raises his voice, wiping blood away from the corner of his mouth. “Eret, let’s just take this somewhere private—”

“Ye didn’t answer my question, lad.” Gobber hobbles out to stand between us, “did Bang just attack the Odin-damned alpha?”

“He did,” I stand up straight, “and so did I. And there’s something wrong with the dragons, and you need to check it out, chief. We need to take care of them, they’re…” Bang nuzzles at my hip, “they’re the only family I have left. And we need to take care of them.”

00000

The chief is quiet, to his minimal credit. He flies ahead when I wrestle with Bang at the outskirts of the island, Toothless soaring forward eerily silent amongst the din of a thousand anguished dragons. He shakes his head, confused, looking to me for answers that I don’t have.

When we get back to Berk, beyond the middle of the night, I peel off without saying anything and land in front of my—the old Hofferson house’s—empty barn, patting my leg for Bang to keep up and stepping inside. The fire in the fireplace is burned down to coals and I spook when someone moves, a pale flash looking up at me from the rug in front of the hearth.

It’s Mom, red eyed and tired, her hair hanging over one shoulder as she tugs a wool blanket tighter around her shoulders.

“Eret, you’re home, you didn’t go with Ingrid?”

“I—you’re marrying the chief?” My knees shake when I ask her, the words echoing in my mind, bouncing off of my still stinging inner ear.

“Of course he told you,” Mom shakes her head and nods towards the counter. “Hand me that jug of celebratory mead and sit down with me for a while.”

“Isn’t it a little early to be celebrating?” I can’t quite hide the anger in my voice but she doesn’t seem to expect me to,

“Gobber brought it by yesterday.”

I pick up the jug and sit down on the hearth in front of the coals, wincing when the bruise on my stomach flexes. I take a swig of the too sweet liquor and she doesn’t say anything, holding out a silent hand. And this is different too, it’s no longer Mom’s chiding while Dad gives us sips of ale behind her back.

“Why is Gobber giving you mead?”

“Do you want to be chief?” She asks after a long pull, and I take in the shallow wrinkles at the outer corner of her eye, thrown into stark relief by the glowing orange embers behind me. She adjusts the blanket around her shoulders and I recognize axe blisters on her fingers, remember her wrapping mine up with bandages and salve.

“I…I think I’d be good at it.” I answer honestly after a long, silent moment, reaching for the mead and taking another sip because it makes me feel like an adult, like an equal. It’s too sweet, coating my tongue, and I swallow against it. “I think…I don’t know why he’d choose me. But I know that I care about the dragons and I care about the people, and I’m not a war monger and…and I like it better than the forge.”

“I think you’d be good at it too,” Mom reaches out and pats my foot, awkwardly, like she wants to hug me but knows I’d shrug her off. “I…My first loyalty used to be to Berk. Then…then I became a mother, and my loyalty was to…my children. And then Rolf and Ingrid grew up and my loyalty was to you and Arvid and…well, Berk too.”

I purse my lips and take another sip of mead, cringing against the accumulating sweetness in the back of my throat and handing it back to her, “and now…now that allegiance to Berk has something to do with me being chief.”

“You’re smart, hun. You’re smart and brave and…we can say whatever we want about the chief, but…but the parts of you that are like him are the parts of him that make him a good chief.”

“You think he’s a good chief?”

“I…this is hard for you.” She curls her knees to her chest and hugs them, and I want to ask her to read me a bedtime story. I want Ingrid to comb my hair and Arvid to lay back on my stomach, a comfy pile of family. Bang slinks from the kitchen and rests his chin on my knee, curled carefully not to break anything. I stroke his nose.

“You’re marrying the chief.”

“I want…I want you to be able to be chief. If that’s what you want, if that’s…you’d be good at it and if I don’t marry him, it can’t happen.” She sets her jaw and nods, her blistered hands clenching around the hem of the blanket. I take a chug of mead like it’s water, biting my lower lip to avoid hissing when my throat stings.

“You’re doing this for me.”

“I’m doing it for Berk.” She shrugs. “And for you, and Hel, for myself because I live on Berk. I…I trust the chief’s judgement,” she shakes her head, tearful and younger than I’ve ever seen her. “This is the best option, alright? I don’t have any proof, I’m not going to pull the stupid ‘I’m your mother card’ but…but this is the best option. I’m leaving all doors open for you.”

“And closing them on yourself.” I scoff, rubbing Bang’s head and searching for a pattern in his scales.

Mom snorts, “they’ve been closed for a long time.” She takes a long sip of mead and crosses her legs, running a blistered hand through the fur on the rug. “I should tell you to go to bed, you know. I’m not supposed to know that you drink.”

“It’s not like it’s habitual.” I scratch Bang’s chin, “Dad just let Arvid and I have a sip every now and then.”

“No one in this family is very good at keeping secrets.”

“I think you guys did a bang up job,” I laugh even though it’s not funny, running my hand back through my hair and slumping forward. My stomach hurts less after a few gulps of mead and I think of my bed in spite of myself, the soft feather mattress and the blankets that smell like another era. “I never even guessed that I’d cause all this trouble.”

“Don’t lie to me,” she smiles, and I wonder how long she’s seen us as equals, how long she’s looked at me as a person rather than a child. “You were planning to cause trouble, you just didn’t know what kind.”

“Trouble sneaks up on me,” I laugh, looking around the room like it’s the last time I’ll see it. “And I really hate it this time.”

“Me too, kiddo.” She knocks her knuckles against my chin, hitting a bruise I didn’t know that I had and sending my toes tingling. “Me too.”

Chapter Text

My shirt itches.

It’s crisp and new like none of my things ever have been growing up in a house with near unlimited hand-me-downs that I never really grew out of. My boots hurt my feet, the first shoes I’ve ever had that aren’t already broken in. They pinch and rub, hot around my heels, and Mom said that’s how new shoes fit, but I hate it.

I hate everyone. I hate how they’re all smiling and drinking like this is a normal wedding. I hate how they all feel entitled to clap me on the back, like I’m joining some massive Berkian family. I hate the way that they drunkenly babble that I look just like my father, the chief, like it’s supposed to be a compliment. I hate the way that Rolf glares at me from across the hall, held back by his patient, pregnant wife’s hand on his arm, and I want to scream that I didn’t want this. Not like this.

I should have let the chief adopt me and left everyone else out of this.

“What’s up, Big Brother?” Aurelia leans against the wall next to me, smiling like she knows she’s won something.

“What are you so happy about?”

“You know, it’s not every day that a girl’s biggest admirer moves in with her,” the smile turns malicious and she seems to grow, her dress seeming more like armor. “This is fucked up, you know.”

“You think I don’t know that this is fucked up?” I laugh. “I do have a brain.”

“You and your Mom just stepping all over everything,” she continues like she didn’t hear me, “My dad getting his happy fucking ending with the brand, sparkling new golden boy in tow.”

“What right do you have to be so angry?” I shake my head, “you…you’re such a princess. You just don’t want to share your big house and—”

“Share?” She laughs, a cruel laugh I couldn’t have imagined coming out of her mouth a few months ago. “That’s hilarious. You think this is sharing? This is him handing it all over.” She leans away from the wall and looks me up and down, nothing like how I used to imagine. Her lip curls, “stay away from Stoick, alright? He’s just a kid, he doesn’t need to know how fucked this all is.”

“What? Do you honestly think I’m going to explain this situation to an eight year old?”

“You had a crush on your sister,” she shrugs, “I don’t know how much faith I put in your judgement.” She grins again, like she knows she’s beautiful, like she could read my mind all those years I was thinking about it.

Rolf sneers at me from across the room. I run outside, breathing in the cooling late summer air and put my head together. I sniff and pound my fist on the outside of the hall, thinking about kicking it and destroying these stupid boots that don’t fit right.

“Hitting things that don’t hit back?” Arvid’s voice appears out of nowhere, mocking me so articulately that I almost don’t believe it’s real. It must just be a figment of my imagination, because everyone needs to join the We-Hate-Eret party. I turn around and he’s standing there the expression on his face somewhere between haughty and scared. I want to tease him about it, to punch him on the shoulder and make a stupid joke and we’ll laugh until everything is ok again.

I don’t have anything to say.

Arvid didn’t go to the wedding, and now, outside the hall, he’s covered in mud. It’s smeared all over his face and arms like it was on purpose and it makes me feel even more out of place in my new tunic that mom didn’t sew and my boots that never fit Rolf or Arvid’s feet. We’re supposed to be muddy together, but I don’t bother asking what happened.

“Looks like you had a better day than I did,” I finally manage, clearing my throat and shifting from foot to foot.

He snorts and crosses his arms. Someone stumbles out of the great hall behind us, hurling into a bush.

Arvid curls his lip like he didn’t do the exact same thing last Snoggletogg.

“It looks like fun in there.”

“It’s not.”

“You look just like him,” Arvid sneers and I look down at my green tunic.

“I didn’t—Mom picked it out.” I wonder for the first time if it’s on purpose.

“Of course she did,” he spits it out and I wonder if he just came to yell at me and if I deserve it. “Now she doesn’t have to hide that you look like him.”

“You’re blaming Mom for this?”

“It’s her fault!” The mud on his face cracks and he yanks at his hair. “I was a baby and she was sleeping with the chief. I was three months old.”

I don’t have anything to say, because just knowing that my brother wishes I didn’t exist is bad enough without hearing it out loud. “And she was fucking the chief.”

“Don’t talk about Mom that way.”

“She’s not my mom,” Arvid glares at me and it’s even worse, because they’re Mom’s hostile eyes, my eyes.

“Do you think she’s happy about this? She’s only doing it so that I can be chief, I should have just let the chief adopt me when he asked. It’s my fault—”

“It is all your fault.”

“As in it’s my fault Mom is remarried or it’s my fault I was born?” I snort, because this has to be a dumb joke. Arvid has never been the funny one, I’m the brains and he’s the brawn.

“Dad and I are leaving on a weeklong fishing trip.” And when he looks up at me, I guard myself. I’ve seen that dangerous face before, aimed towards my bullies, out at the world. “We don’t want to hear the bitch’s honey month—”

I fly at him, knocking him on his back and getting in the first two punches, pounding my fists against his face. He slugs me in the gut, still bruised and maybe he’s smarter than he looks, and pushes me off of him. Before I can scramble, he’s kneeling on top of me and digging his knee into my shoulder, punching me in the jaw. I groan and taste blood, struggling to buck him off and driving my elbow into his hip.

He hits me again and my nose bursts with fireworks in front of my eyes. It’s not a brother type punch, a brawl over some girl’s affection, it’s brutal and rough and I yank my hand free, landing a punch in his throat. He’s bigger than me and he doesn’t fall off, coughing and punching my temple.

I wonder if he’s picturing the chief.

I can’t really blame him.

“Arvid!”

Someone grabs his shoulder and drags him off of me and I groan, falling flat against the hill. Sticky, hot blood dribbles down my cheek and Arvid is yelling.

“Don’t touch me!”

“What the Hel are you doing?” It’s Mom and I lean onto my elbow, watching her get between Arvid and me like we’re on opposite sides. My head hurts.

I want to tell her it’s ok. It’s just a proxy beating of her douchebag husband.

“He started it! He attacked me—”

“So you attacked him back?”

“Because he’s your favorite son, the special one. Because you love him more, I shouldn’t defend myself?”

“I don’t love him more.” Mom tries to be calm and Arvid says nothing, “he’s your little brother, you’re supposed to protect him!”

“He’s nothing to me!” Arvid is crying now and it hits me that I’m the first break up he’s ever cried over. I want to tease him, but I’m scared to open to my mouth, like talking to him might let the pain hit.

Brothers can’t break up, but maybe half-brothers live by different rules.

“Arvid,” Mom says it gently, stepping towards him with her hand extended. He flinches away from her and wipes mud and blood and tears off of his face, leaving a dirty red streak behind.

“Neither are you.”

He stalks off the way he came and Mom kneels down beside me, long blonde hair sticking to the blood on my cheek.

“Are you ok?”

“I held my own,” I protest, batting her hands away and sitting up, cradling my head in my hands.

“I think your nose is broken,” she turns my face towards her and pokes the side of it. I flinch. “Let’s go home and get you cleaned up.”

“No!” I stumble to my feet and wipe the blood off of my chin with the sleeve of my tunic. It looks better in brown anyway, more like what I’ve always worn. “I’m not ready to go back to his house yet.”

“So you’re just going to stand out here and bleed?” Normally it would be funny, if Mom were Mom and home were home and everything weren’t so fucked up. She looks young and fragile, and there’s blood in her hair and on her dress, and it’s like Ingrid staring at me for help if Ingrid knew the word.

I have to help her. I don’t want to. I want to go and apologize to Arvid and show him his handiwork and get on that fishing boat with dad for a week so that I can pretend like this all doesn’t exist.

“Apparently.”

We stare at each other a moment longer, and my face is starting to hurt. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, it’s always been Mom protecting me, Arvid protecting me, and now I’m alone. And Mom needs me.

“Astrid?” I stiffen, feeling like a cornered dragon as the chief’s voice rings out around the corner. Mom shakes her head and takes a step towards the sound, everything about her gearing up for another fight. “I hope you didn’t run away,” he sounds nervous. Rightfully so. Mom is the one who should be going on a fishing trip with Dad, away from all of this, “because I always thought that was my job—”

“What the Hel?” I cut him off just as he comes around the corner, jaw dropping when he sees my blood covered face. What a pansy, can’t take looking at a broken nose without being shocked. All of the anger that Arvid didn’t really deserve comes back and I lurch towards the fight I can win, fists clenching and flying towards his face. “You think this is funny? You think this is something to joke about?”

One connects and it feels so good, but Mom’s hand clamps down on my shoulder and pulls me off, turning on the chief herself.

“Let me handle this.”

“Holy—whew, you’ve got an arm on you, kid,” he groans and cups his jaw, looking at me wearily.

“You want to feel my arm?” I try and jerk away from Mom’s grip and she clamps down. I back down just until she stops trying to break me. “What? I think he wants to feel it.”

Mom glares at me and the chief snorts.

“Shut up, Hiccup.”

“Why do you have to call him that?” I jerk my arm away from her entirely, glaring at the pair of them. They’re married, one step closer to being parents. I won’t let that happen, I can’t. “He’s still just the chief.”

00000

Stoick is smiling. A wide smile that shows off three missing teeth and a half-chewed ball of bread tucked in his tiny little chipmunk cheek as he prattles to Mom at a million miles a minute. He’s holding her hand in a white knuckled little fist and she seems happy to be held, focusing almost entirely on him and ignoring the chief.

Aurelia clears her throat on my left, her foot tapping a jittery rhythm against the leg of the table. “Can you pass the bread?”

I can’t take my eyes off of Mom and Stoick, wondering if I was ever that small, if I ever looked that much like the chief while I chattered through missing teeth.

“Oh big adored brother, pass me the bread.” She tries again, holding out her hand expectantly and raising her eyebrows. Gods, she looks like the chief too, her forehead wrinkling in that Haddock way when she frowns at me and I reach for the bread plate too quickly, groaning in spite of myself when my bruised stomach throbs.

“Here,” I drop it in front of him with a grunt and hold my gut, swallowing against the urge to puke and the fear of just how much puking would hurt Arvid’s handiwork. Next time I’m wearing armor.

“Thor, you need to work out,” she huffs, slicing off a piece of bread and nibbling at the corner of it, like she never wanted it in the first place, like she asked for it just to make me do her bidding. “Unless you’ve been using your right hand too much since moving in with me.”

Her lip twitches and it takes me embarrassingly too long to get it, but then I’m scrambling away, standing with a barely swallowed moan and holding my stomach like I can shove my misplaced guts back into their proper place. The chief catches on at the same second I do, snapping out of his generally irritating, mindlessly happy state.

“Aurelia!”

“I’m just saying,” she shrugs, taking a small bite out of the bread and swallowing it without chewing, “we don’t want our future chief to be blind. Maybe I’m the problem, like always—”

“Don’t you have to take your brother to the academy?” The chief snaps through gritted teeth, looking at me apologetically, like I’d accept his apology for anything, like I want it.

“Mommy said she’s taking me,” Stoick pipes up, oblivious to the tension in the room, to the headache that’s taken the place of my nose.

Arvid would say that it’ll make me look tough, that a crooked nose would make me less pretty. My new brother, my only brother, doesn’t notice the bruises, and calls my mom ‘Mommy’ with all of the innocence Arvid threw away.

“See? There you have it,” Aurelia pushes back from the table with a squeak of her chair across the ground, almost setting the bread down on the table before opting to take it with her, ignoring the crumbs as her fingers clench around the crust. “Stoick has a new mommy and I’m free.” She looks at me like a dragon in a cage, and it’s the first time she’s not Aurelia Haddock, the first time she’s not my unfortunate sister, the first time she’s a human being staring at me like a wounded dragon that’s afraid of everyone trying to help it. “But I’ll leave until Eret learns to contain himself.”

She stomps out of the room. She’s good at that.

I wish I could slam a door, but I can’t even shut my eyelids without my head reminding me that Arvid tried to cave it in.

“I’m sorry about her—” The chief jumps up, tripping like Aurelia didn’t, like I did.

“Apologize for yourself.”

My head feels like Gobber relocated the anvil on top of it and Bang warbles outside, nervous. “I’ll—I don’t have a snippy exit line, because my head hurts like Hel, but I’m leaving too.”

Bang meets me at the door, nosing at my stomach, and I pull my shirt down like the black and blue bruises are going to leak out and expose the mess that I am. I should ride him, but I don’t, because the idea of swinging my leg over his broad back hurts. I walk aimlessly towards the village, ignoring the people who wave at me because they’re waving at the chief’s mystical heir, not pulverized little Eret.

Someone touches my shoulder and I flinch.

“Guess Arvid did get his hands on you.” It’s Fuse, and when I turn around, the first thing I notice is the burn in place of her right eyebrow. Her hair is singed too, something like bangs tucked behind her ear and still tipped in black. I smell Gobber’s burn serum and my eyes sting.

“And a knee or two. I’m fine though, just…” I wiggle my shoulders and wince, “brushing it off.”

“Your nose is broken.”

“You’re so observant.” I snort, wincing, because apparently all of this takes away my gods-given rights to expressions. “I think it’ll make me look rugged.”

“You look like someone really big and really angry punched you in the face.”

“I almost forgot how blunt you can be,” I don’t smile because guess what? I can’t. “What’s up?”

“I heard there’s something going on with the dragons,” Hotgut walks up behind her, butting at her hand with a lumpy, purple face and she scratches the dragon’s cheek. “Something with a volcano?”

I’d almost forgotten.

It hits me like Arvid’s fists and my eyes itch in earnest, tempting me to rub them and jostle my nose and make this awful situation worse.

“A bunch of dragons—old and sick dragons—are flying around this volcano and falling in and the sea is full of them and—and I don’t understand.”

“How many?” She cocks her head, a long, pink braid falling over her shoulder.

“Hundreds. Thousands.”

“Can…can we go see?” She tucks her hair behind her ear with bandaged fingers, her vest whisking with the motion, heavy with bombs I can’t see. “Or are you too hurt?”

“Nonsense,” I bite my lip and swing onto Bang with a wince, letting out half of a sob and choking back the rest. Bang shuffles and snorts, concerned. “Let’s go. I just proclaimed I was running away. Let’s run away.”

“Let’s go see the volcano, you mean.” Fuse is graceful in a way that makes me feel creaky, settling into her saddle with ease.

“Of course. I meant the impermanent kind of running away,” I try not to look at the few villagers around us, the ones who might hear or see, the ones who might care about the rightful heir climbing onto a dragon and flying off into the unknown with another teenager. Tuffnut’s teenager, the one with the bombs. No one bats an eye. “The kind that lets me make dramatic exit statements while not making me stick to them.”

“You talk like I’m an audience, you know.” She narrows her eyes at me and clicks, Hotgut’s wings humming before she takes off, carrying Fuse straight up towards the clouds.

Chapter Text

Hotgut throws Fuse as soon as we get close to the volcano, and I nearly dislocate my last good shoulder helping her back on. She orbits the island silently, eyes wide as she takes in the destruction, the grey tinged dragons, the sea boiling with giant scauldrons and thunderdrums. Bang croons continuously, but doesn’t fight me, just staring at the ocean and shaking.

We get back just after dark and Fuse leaves with a distracted wave and hunched shoulders. I almost fly home to my real home, not the place where I’m sleeping on the floor to avoid sharing a room with a seven year old, not the place where my stuff is in neat stacks on a shelf I don’t recognize, and all the blankets smell like Night Fury and dust.

I go back to the chief’s house because I’m supposed to, and the last few decisions I made for myself covered me in bruises and embarrassment. The house is dark except for a front window, and I recognize the chief’s and Aurelia’s voice drifting out into the silent night.

“—your game, huh? How is being rude going to benefit you?” The chief struggles to sound level, his voice cracking across the question.

Aurelia laughs, a forced, loud laugh that’s more like a bark, “this is hilarious. You think I’m being rude to entertain myself? Wow. Stoick is the child, dad—”

“Well, he’s handling all of this a lot more maturely than you.”

“You can’t sign a few documents and get a perfect family, it doesn’t work that way—”

“Go to your room.”

“What? You haven’t given it to your favorite son yet?” She laughs again, and it’s a weapon.

“Go to your room.”

“How about I don’t and you pretend that I did?” She bursts out of the front door, slamming it behind her and walking purposefully to the far side of the barn. Bang lands on the roof of the barn and I watch her, sliding to sit against the wood and cradling her head in her hands.

“Aurelia?” The chief walks out of the house and looks around, and I tuck myself close to Bang’s neck, chewing on the inside of my cheek to keep from groaning as my bruised stomach folds over itself. “Aurelia, come on.”

The chief stands there for a moment before going back inside, quietly cursing to himself. Aurelia sits back, her head thumping against the side of the barn as she exhales slowly, her face shiny with tears. I nudge Bang off of the roof and he lands on the ground in front of her, and I don’t know what I’m going to say until she looks at me, wide eyed and terrified, no snarky comment in sight.

“I don’t want your room. It’s too easily accessible by stink bomb.”

“You heard that,” she sighs, rubbing her eyes too hard and leaving red marks on her cheeks.

“It wasn’t exactly quiet.”

Bang leans down and sniffs her boot and she jerks her foot back, curling her knees to her chest. “Get him away from me.”

“He’s just saying hi—”

“Yeah, and I don’t want to say hi to him, get him away from me.” Her voice is all venom but there’s genuine fear in her expression as she scrambles to her feet, sniffing and tugging on the end of her braid.

“He’s not—he doesn’t even breathe fire.”

“I don’t like dragons,” she sets her shoulders, “They’re big and unpredictable and I don’t like them.”

“You’re scared of dragons.”

She shrugs.

And like this morning, she’s not some mythical entity, teasing me or hating me or making my life Hel. She’s just a girl, a girl who’s been crying, a girl who is my sister, whether I like it or not. What would I do if I found Ingrid crying, if Ingrid knew how to cry? What would I do if I heard Dad yelling at Ingrid and then she was crying? What would I do if Ingrid looked so scared?

“Let’s get out of here,” I gesture to the house behind us and my newly injured shoulder throbs, reminding me of the island, of just how fundamentally messed up everything is. The dragons are sick and I’m heir of Berk and Aurelia Haddock is my sad sister.

“I’m not going to date you,” she’s sad. Her face crumpling. “I don’t—I was just being a bitch earlier, I’m—you’re my brother. Well, not—you’re related to me. I was just being a bitch.”

“I was just…If I found my sister, Ingrid, and my dad had just been yelling at her and she was crying, not that she cries, don’t tell her that I said she cries, she’ll kick my ass but—” I laugh, because we sound alike, don’t we? “If I found my sister crying, I’d try to take her mind off of it for a while.”

Her lips twitch and she wipes her nose on the back of her hand.

“I’m not getting on that thing.” She gestures at Bang and crosses her arms, shifting between her feet.

“I’m not leaving him here,” I shove my hands in my pockets. “We can walk, but he’s coming with us.”

“I guess I should have known you weren’t flirting with me,” she snorts, as far from ladylike as she could be. “Your type is bigger and bluer and scalier.”

“Plus,” I grin, “it was all narcissism, we both have that Haddock ass.”

“What?” She raises an eyebrow. “What are you talking about?”

“Come on, you’ve noticed,” I turn around and pat my ass, “identical.”

“You have the ass of a fifteen year old girl.”

“And you apparently share some facet of my sense of humor,” I laugh, pointing away from the house. “Let’s get out of here. Let the chief sweat over scaring his only daughter off.”

“I think we’ll be gone for quite a while then.”

“Well, if you’re expecting my bruised ass to walk anywhere, we’re automatically going to be gone for a while.”

“Well, let’s get your bruised Haddock ass moving.” She smiles at me, a drippy smile that might someday be a sister’s smile.

“You’re going to regret making that a running joke,” I point a finger at her, “because now I’m never going to let it go.”

“Whatever,” she rolls her eyes and starts walking. “I don’t think you’re going to carry any running jokes any time soon. You can’t even walk.”

“Funny,” I wheeze, falling into step beside her. “You’re funny.”

“Yeah, you don’t tell anyone I’m funny and I won’t tell Ingrid that you said she cries.”

“Deal.”

“This is depressing,” dust flies in my face when I open the door to my old house and find it empty. There’s a sprinkling of ash across the bare floor in front of the fireplace, the bearskin rug that’s been there my entire life mysteriously missing. Dad killed that bear himself.

“You were the one who wanted to come here,” Aurelia crosses her arms and flounces to the table, sitting down in the chair that used to be Ingrid’s. She kicks her feet up onto the table and Mom would yell at her for that if Mom still lived here.

“It’s the last place the chief would look.”

“True,” Aurelia bites her pinky nail, “he’s doing a damn good job of pretending that this place doesn’t exist.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, your mother’s previous marriage, her other three children. My mom. Me. Stoick gets a pass into the new, perfect life because he’s so cute, but I should probably just move in here to the land of discarded Berkians.”

“I didn’t realize I signed up to be your therapist,” I laugh, pulling out the chair across from her. Rolf’s chair, and sitting down. Her boots are tiny, small enough to make mine look genuinely big. Veritable snowshoes.

“What? Isn’t that what…isn’t that what big brothers are for?” She glares at me with narrowed eyes, chewing on her lower lip. “Because that’s what you’re supposed to be, right? My dad keeps on saying how I should welcome you to the happy family as my big brother.” She puts on a bright, falsely happy voice that makes it sound like she’s in pain before rolling her eyes and snorting.

I look at the grain of the wood underneath my hands, familiar but different from the other side of the table. Same tree, different branch.

“I’ve only ever been a little brother.” I sit up straighter, puffing up and putting on my best stern face. My gallant Arvid face. Just thinking his name hurts and I want him to come back. I want to apologize. I want to show him the bruises, I want him to feel bad about leaving them. “So what’s this big brother thing all about? Do I just walk around threatening to beat up all your boyfriends or something?”

“Right, all my boyfriends.” She rolls her eyes, “the ones besides you, you mean.”

I blush, the back of my neck heating up like I’ve been sitting in the sun way too long. I shrug.

“You know, most people are sort of afraid of dating the chief’s daughter. It’s intimidating. You were really the only one that flirted with me but there was always something off about you,” she fiddles with the end of her braid, untying and retying the leather cord around it. “Now I realize that I should have seen the family resemblance sooner.” She looks at the table. “Whose chair am I sitting in?”

“What do you mean?”

“You guys…I mean, for all that my dad talked about you, the Hofferson clan always seemed really normal to me. I’m assuming you did the whole family dinner thing every night. Who usually sat here?”

“Ingrid,” I clear my throat because it hurts that she brought it up, it hurts that I’m in Rolf’s seat and not his boots. I point to the seat next to her, “That seat was mine. Across from me was Arvid. I’m in Rolf’s seat. Parents took both heads of the table.”

“Gods, that’s normal.” She frowns, “when I was little, I wanted that. My grandma…our grandma, I guess, tried to teach me to cook but it didn’t work out so well. She wasn’t a good cook to begin with and we never really got along.” She sighs, “So Arvid sat there?” She points to the seat and I can just imagine him there, teasing me for getting Aurelia into the house.

‘The only thing between you and your wildest dreams is me, little brother.’

I sigh, “Yep. I bet he still will. When—if—he and my Dad get back.”

“He’s not your real dad.” She doesn’t say it like she’s trying to hurt me, but it stings anyway.

“At least he sat and had dinner with me.”

“True.” She’s constantly in motion, messing with her hair or her nails, smoothing wrinkles from her shirt or crossing and uncrossing her ankles. “So you and Arvid aren’t really talking, are you?”

Her eyes flick to the dark bruise on my face and I laugh.

“We’re brothers. We fight.” I run my hand through my hair, and it’s getting too long, red tips dangling just in front of my vision. It’s darker than hers. Halfway between her flame colored braid and Stoick’s auburn. Gods, I fit in with them. A third member of a miniature set. “But no, we aren’t exactly best friends right now.”

“Did he hurt his hand on your face?”

“You’re just hilarious,” I roll my eyes and it hurts. Bang impossibly picks up on it, thumping his tail against the wall, asking to be let in. “Why are you asking about Arvid anyway? He’s one of my two half-siblings not on Berk. I figured you’d care more about Rolf.”

“I know Rolf,” she smiles, a wry smile with only one half of her mouth and I’ve seen the expression before, reflecting back at me. “Rolf is a dick.”

“I guess you’re caught up on the Hofferson family mythology then. We had normal dinners together. Rolf was a dick, Ingrid never cried, Arvid was…and then there was me, the misfit. And everyone laughed about how I didn’t fit in and let me think I was just funny.”

“That’s just cruel.” Her feet slip from the table top. “How could anyone let you think you’re funny?” She wrings her hands together, “I should probably fill you in on the Haddock mythology. My dad—our d—”

“Sire.”

“Fine. He’s the great and powerful and magical and dragon charming chief. My mother was the foreigner who screwed him over and left him with two screwed up kids. Your mom is the magical fix for all of it. I’m the dragon-hating weirdo and Stoick is even smaller than I am, so…so all hope rests on the prodigal son’s shoulders.”

“We talk the same.”

“Do you want to hear something really messed up?” She laughs, tucking her hair behind her ear and leaning forward like she’s telling me a secret. “You know why I was always hanging around the forge? I was hoping Arvid would come by to see you and you know, notice me. But my reputation as a dragon-hating defect precedes me, I guess.”

“Wait,” I wince as my nose wrinkles reflexively. “You…are you saying you were waiting around to like—what? You were trying to flirt with Arvid or something? Nope. That’s disgusting. He’s my brother. Eww. Stop.”

“He’s not my brother,” she has the decency to look a little bit ashamed. “And it’s not like it matters, he never noticed me anyway.”

“I don’t think I can beat up Arvid.” I frown, “Like, physically. I don’t think I can do it. I was waiting on a growth spurt to help me catch up but that’s not happening any time soon.”

“You’re the first person I’ve ever told that to, by the way.” She shakes her head, “my big, stupid secret.”

That thought makes me feel warm, trusted. Strange. Big brotherly, maybe?

“If it makes you feel any better. You know all my big juicy secrets. I’m the chief’s bastard and have some crazy theory about dragons going psycho in the middle of the ocean.”

“Is that…is that true?” She looks up at me, “the thing with the dragons?”

“Yeah.” I sigh, “you know, it’s not that you’re not…I’m not going to go there actually given uh…yeah, but Arvid doesn’t like you because he doesn’t like the chief and you’re the chief’s daughter. It’s not personal. He’s just not a big fan of the chief’s family.”

“Cheers to that,” she holds an imaginary glass my direction and I knock my knuckles against hers.

Chapter Text

“When are you going to start chief training again?” Aurelia is impossibly familiar, sitting on a stone wall in front of my old house and kicking her heels against it. I’m rubbing down Bang’s stomach with an extra shard of wax and he squirms happily, scratching his back on the grass.

“I don’t know, probably whenever his face stops hurting.”

“You’re so full of yourself, you didn’t hit him that hard.”

“Oh, he felt it,” I smile when Bang purrs, a long, low sound of contentment. “You like that, bud? Yeah? Does that feel good?”

“He’s a massive reptile, not a baby.”

“He’s a baby, just look at that baby face,” I smile back at her and she’s cross-legged now, flinching back from Bang like he’s going to attack. “Come on, he’s not scary. He doesn’t even breathe fire. He’s just a big, loud baby.” I blow a raspberry on Bang’s stomach and he squirms away from me, rolling to his feet like he can regain some of his long lost dignity. I wipe the wax off of my lips with the back of my hand and stand up, brushing a few shards of grass off of my shirt.

An old shirt. One that used to be Ingrid’s I think. One that feels like home.

“A baby with a hundred daggers for teeth.”

“But a baby all the same,” I sit down on Bang’s back sideways, patting his head. “Here. I’ll hold him down. Come say hi. He likes you.”

“How could he possibly like me? I’ve never even talked to him.” She flushes and crosses her arms, looking even smaller for the defensive posture.

“He’s flirting with you. Look at him,” I gesture to his face and I’m only half lying. He’s been sneaking glances at Aurelia all morning. That telltale ‘why isn’t she petting me’ glimpse. “He loves me, but he’s really a girl’s dragon, you know. Given two random strangers, he prefers the girl.”

“No wonder he likes you so much,” she throws the words at me like a dart, sliding down from the wall. “I thought we were going to hang out, I don’t want to pet your lizard.”

“Aurelia,” I slide off of Bang’s back and jog up to her. “Just come and say hi. You’re making me feel bad bringing him into the house at night.”

“Well, you probably should feel bad. He’s going to piss Toothless off and Toothless is going to blow the house up.” She tucks her hair behind her ear and looks behind me, at my shoes, twitchy.

“Toothless isn’t going to blow up the house. He’s a brat but that’s his house too.” I rest my hand on her shoulder, “do you want to give him a treat? I have some fish jerky he’d love to accept. He even knows tricks, he’ll roll over or—”

“If I say hi, will you leave me alone?” She shoves me off with a push I pretend to feel, spinning away from her and gesturing towards Bang.

“Absolutely alone. You’ll never see me again.”

She rolls her eyes, “do I just…do I just go touch him or is there some process?”

“You have to bow, duh.” I bend forward, “Oh, Sir Bang, the Bangiest of all Thunderdrums, please take this lady’s hand as payment for your awesomeness—ouch!”

She slaps the back of my head.

Bang laughs, a throaty warble at my expense.

“He’s laughing?” She cocks her head, “he’s a dragon, he can’t…”

“He’s my best friend,” I scratch his head, “and as my best friend, he gets a real kick out of my superficial pain and those who cause it.”

She looks at me, narrowing her eyes before taking one more shuffling step forward and resting three tentative fingers on Bang’s head. “He’s cold.”

“Tidal class,” I scratch his back, “all sea water and sweetness.”

“And he’s smooth,” she rests her whole palm against his head, “I thought his scales would be rougher or something but it’s like…it’s like ceramic.”

“Hear that, bud? She likes you.”

“I didn’t say that, I just said he was smooth.”

“Well, one of us has to be,” I lay down across his back and scratch both of his armpits, laughing when she steps back. “Go ahead, see? He likes it. He’s a big, silly love sponge, yes he is, yes he is…”

She laughs, patting him gingerly, “I see that. Now you’re just being embarrassing, get up.”

“That’s a big brother’s duty, isn’t it?” I roll off of him and stand up, just in time to see a familiar silhouette appear on the horizon. “Oh shit, Wingspark.”

“Wingspark?” She asks, her hand resting against Bang’s forehead.

“Arvid’s dragon,” I clench my fists, the rest of an unfinished fight pulsing through my veins while an apology I can’t quite verbalize fights its way to the front of my mind.

“You didn’t tell me Arvid was coming back today,” she groans, her fingers curling temporarily against Bang’s head before she flinches back at the accidental gesture.

“I didn’t know,” I step around her towards the landing dragon, “if I had I would have given you some warning to get pretty.”

“I never should have told you.”

“What are you doing here?” Arvid swings off of Wing’s back as soon as she’s on the ground. Bigger than I remember, angrier. He looks like I remember Dad and I fight to distinguish them in my head.

The only difference is the eyes. The eyes currently shielded by his anger.

Eyes and tattoos are the only things separating Arvid and Dad. Eyes and “Thor’s beard!” I clap my hand over my mouth, any will to fight disappearing as soon as I see the blue gray lines etched into the skin of Arvid’s chin. “You’re so dead. Mom is going to kill you. You went and got tattoos?”

“She’s not my mother anymore,” he flushes, “what’s she doing here?” Gesturing to Aurelia, of course. I expect her to be shy, to flirt or something. Anything but throwing him a slightly obscene hand gesture and cocking her hip.

“It’s a free island.”

“You just ran off and got tattoos?” They don’t look healthy, swollen and raised from the skin of his face and I wonder how new they are. The skin around them is vaguely pink and if we were on better terms I’d slap it to see if it hurt.

“Shut up about my tattoos,” he wipes his chin and winces. “What are you doing at my house? Aren’t you all moved in with the chief now?”

I roll my eyes, “where’s Dad?”

“My dad is docking the ship.”

“I’m going to go see him,” I swing my leg over Bang, offering my hand to Aurelia.

She shakes her head and glares at me. “I’m not getting on that thing.”

“I thought you two made friends,” I mumble under my breath. She shakes her head again, pale and small.

“And stay away from my house,” Arvid barks.

“Wow, getting all landowner on me,” my voice quakes but no one but Bang seems to notice, “my house too.”

“What? Do you expect me to bow?”

“A little respect would be nice.” I have no idea what happened to that apology I’ve been planning for a week. Aurelia glares at me, at the bruise still fading around my nose, my new nose with a swollen bump on its bridge.

“Right,” Arvid smiles a smug, horrible smile, the one that scared Smitelout off when she was still bigger than us, and even though Arvid has never had a way with words, insults have never been much of a problem. “Respect to the son of the chief’s whore—”

I am primed to jump off of Bang and shut his big mouth up.

Aurelia beats me to it, “Gods, I didn’t realize you were this much of a dick—”

“Let’s get out of here,” I cut her off, reaching for her hand to drag her up onto Bang. She’ll see it’s not so scary once she tries flying. It’s like the jump without the landing.

“Arvid, you’re back.” A fourth voice joins the fray and Fuse lands in the middle of our almost fight, perched almost delicately on Hotgut’s shoulders. “I need to talk to you two.”

“Why would you ever need to talk to me, Thorston?” Arvid shuffles back a few steps, like there’s some unspoken allegiance between me and Fuse and I sigh.

“Fuse, can it wait until I’m out of the firing zone?”

“No,” she frowns at me, “Aren’t you listening? I need to talk to both of you.”

Arvid postures, scoffing loud enough for me to hear from twenty feet and swinging his leg back over Wingspark’s back.

“It’s about the dragons,” she looks at me urgently and when I don’t say anything, whistles at Arvid to get his attention. “Have you heard about the dragons?”

“Eret made some shit up, I heard,” he scratches his chin and winces. “Some shit about them acting strangely on an island. I’m sure he said it just to get attention—”

“Arvid, it’s real. Would I be talking to you if it weren’t real?” She gives him a minute to think about that before shaking her head, “of course I wouldn’t. I need to talk to you two later. I have maps at my shop and…it’s important, ok? Come by around sunset.”

Fuse takes off before Arvid can say anything else and leaves me and my brother—my half-brother—my…my sort of enemy staring at each other. He smiles at my nose, I smile at his chin. Aurelia grabs my hand and clambers onto Bang behind me, ungraceful and obviously terrified as her hands clutch at my shirt, pulling it almost painfully tight.

“So help me if you get more than ten feet off of the ground,” she hisses in my ear, and if we were alone, I’d nudge Bang higher to show her that nothing bad would happen anyway. I click and he runs forward, slowing to a walk behind the trees when Arvid can’t see us anymore. “Are we going tonight?” Her knees dig into my hips so hard that I start losing feeling in my toes almost immediately.

“What do you mean?”

“Are we going to Fuse’s shop?”

“I think she meant me and Arvid.” I nudge her with my elbow and immediately regret it when her grip shifts to my collar, tight enough I’m sure she’s bruising me. “Sheesh, what? Do you want to come and charm him some more with your vicious, vicious words?”

“He’s a dick,” she scoots away from me, barely, one arm clutching at Bang’s scales instead of my sides she just battered. Bang looks back at me, concerned, and I shake my head. I don’t know what her problem is. We could walk faster than this.

“That’s a change of tune.”

“No it isn’t,” she huffs, “he’s still hot, he’s just a dick.”

“Eww, don’t talk about him that way.” I shudder. “He’s related to me, you know. And so are you. And it’s all very creepy.”

“Says the guy who used to stare at my ass,” she says it without malice and I soften slightly. “And I’m going later. Whether you are or not.”

“You weren’t even invited.”

“You don’t know that,” she pulls back from me enough to cross both arms over her chest. “She could have been talking to me and Arvid.”

“Aurelia—”

“Don’t Aurelia me,” she sighs, “Look, every time something cool happens, I’m normally off taking care of Stoick and this time…I just want to be involved, alright?”

“I think you want to check out Arvid,” I nudge her again and she huffs.

“I thought you didn’t want to think about that.”

I don’t. But it’s better than thinking about the brother who won’t speak to me and the tattoos that brand him into a clan that isn’t mine. It’s better than thinking about an island full of sick dragons in the middle of the ocean. It’s better than thinking about my home, or lack thereof.

What I wouldn’t give to go back a few months to a time where the biggest problem I could imagine was Aurelia Haddock making eyes at Arvid.

Mom comes home from the market in the afternoon, dropping Stoick’s hand as soon as they walk inside. The little boy rushes to Aurelia’s side, hugging her leg and frowning.

“What’s up, buddy?” She combs her fingers through his hair, easily, habitually, and he buries his face in her side.

“Mommy is really upset.”

I look at Mom again, take in her pale face, the way her hands shake as she lays them down on the table.

“What happened?”

Stoick is still afraid of me or something, because he hugs Aurelia tighter when I talk. I frown. “You can tell me, I’m uh, your big brother or something.”

“He’s shy,” Aurelia elbows me. “Go ask her.”

“Why do I have to do it?” At home, back when home was home and my family was my family, I could send Arvid or Ingrid or sometimes even Rolf to start the conversation.

“Because she’s your real mom and you’re the oldest,” Aurelia snips, combing Stoick’s hair back from his face, “Let’s go outside. You can climb on Eret’s dragon. He’s nice.”

“Ok,” Stoick takes his sister’s hand and follows, looking over his shoulder at Mom and I, and he’s so small and—and that’s what I must have looked like, isn’t it? That’s what I looked like as a little kid, asking Rolf for help.

Gods, I’m Rolf now? Ugh. Of all the siblings to be.

I shake off that particularly disturbing thought and walk over to Mom, resting my hand on her shoulder and jumping back when she twitches, expecting her to lash out like when she used to fall asleep in Dad’s comfortable chair. She looks at me with a blank face, and she’s Ingrid again, Ingrid if she needed help.

I feel like the oldest one in the room. I stand up straight and slump forward, sitting down in the chair beside her.

“What’s up? You look like you saw a draugr.”

She frowns and turns slightly towards me, tucking her hair behind her ear. My mom is right in front of me but I still miss her, she’s not right, she’s not wearing armor, I don’t know how to talk to her.

“Your Dad—Gods,” she shakes her head. “I can’t believe he’d do that, like…like—”

“What did the chief do this time?” I’m halfway standing, halfway to going and punching and…well, I haven’t really figured out my plan yet, but Mom’s fallen expression takes me aback.

“Your Dad took Arvid to get…” She trails off. “We talked about it, you know. Arvid always wanted but…but it’s dangerous, your dad told me how he had a bad reaction to the ink when he was younger and it got infected and he…We always said no. We agreed and now—”

“You saw Arvid.”

“He wouldn’t talk to me.” She shakes her head. I sit back down and the chair creaks and all I can think of is Aurelia running her hand through Stoick’s hair, petting him like…like a baby dragon or something and…and is that comfort? Is that what I’m supposed to do?

I try to think of Ingrid again, what I’d do if Ingrid were this upset. She has been, a few times, I think. When people threatened Spitleaf, when she shredded yet another contract and talked about leaving. I’d always just threaten, mindlessly, directionlessly. Joke and threaten to light houses on fire, to beat up Smitelout if she ever so much as looked at Spitleaf again.

Ingrid always left the conversation laughing, but well, looking back that’s probably because I’m so tiny my threats were hilarious.

“Do uh, do you need a hug, Mom?”

She looks at me, and her eyes are shiny and I wonder what a bad reaction to ink means. Arvid’s chin was already red, but that makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s probably not bad, he’s probably fine. He’s strong, the strongest.

“You shouldn’t have to deal with all of this.” She shakes her head, “That was the whole point of lying to you. You wouldn’t have to deal with this.”

“Is this some extended lesson,” I laugh in spite of myself, “you lied to me for sixteen years so that everyone would fall apart and you and Dad would get…and the chief would suddenly be around to irritate me and—you lied about all this stuff so that when I was old enough, I would know without a doubt, that lying is bad.” I shake my head, “it’s devious, Mom, I’ll admit that, but I think you went a little overboard on the execution—hey…”

She cuts me off with a hug, one of those painfully tight hugs I haven’t gotten since I was ten and jumped off of the barn roof and she didn’t see Bang catch me. I swear my ribs creak. I hug her back, awkwardly patting her back.

“You’re a good kid, you know.” She pulls back and pats my shoulder, “and you’re a lot like the chief but that’s not always a bad thing.”

“I thought this was a black and white lesson against lying, not a discussion of the nonexistent bright points in the chief’s character.”

“It’s confusing right now, I know.”

“What is?”

“Everything.” Mom smiles, “I still think you’re going to be a good chief.”

Something in her eyes makes me wonder just how much she’s banking against that statement.

Chapter Text

“Have you ever been to Fuse’s workshop before?” Aurelia trots beside me to keep up. I’m walking fast, wanting to get there before Arvid, not wanting to be late.

“She invited me but well…you know, parents divorcing, dragon fiasco, impromptu, life-ruining wedding,” I shrug, “I know where it is though.”

“Thor’s beard, Eret, slow down.”

“If you wanted a relaxing trip, we could have taken Bang,” I roll my eyes, slowing down anyway. “I want to beat Arvid there—”

“Aren’t you banged up enough?”

“I want to get there before Arvid,” I stuff my hands in my pockets, “Ask Fuse what this big plan is and see if Arvid even needs to be involved.”

“You don’t want him to be?”

“I don’t know,” I shrug, shoving gently on her shoulder. She totters anyway, and I’m still not used to being the big one in any relationship. “Why do you ask so many questions?”

“I’m new to this renegade teenage genius gang thing.”

“You overestimate me,” I push my hair back. I need a haircut. I don’t think I’m going to let Mom give me one. I don’t want to say it out loud, but it feels like I’ve been saddled with the chief’s hand me down floppy hair for years. “It’s probably just going to be Fuse giving me a bunch of crumpled drawings she’s had stuffed in her pocket.”

“Why would she give you drawings?” Aurelia frowns, stumbling on an exposed root and scowling at it over her shoulder. “I always kind of thought she was weird, but that’s really weird.”

“She’s not weird,” I smile, “she’s just eccentric. She needs a lot of strange parts to make bombs and stuff. And she always overpays me, so I never mind making them.”

“Huh.” Aurelia frowns, fiddling with the end of her braid as she falls behind by half a pace. We turn onto the path winding around the Thorstons’ house and see Fuse sitting out in front of her workshop on a pine stump, carving a small medallion of something red and crumbly with a pocket knife. Hotgut snores beside her, loud enough to ruffle the stack of kindling between the workshop and the house.

“You brought Aurelia,” Fuse deadpans, not angry, nudging Hotgut awake with her foot. She tosses the dragon the piece of red something, “Incubate that in the barn for me, girl. I’ll come get you after.”

The gronkle lumbers off, small wings ruffling against her sides. She makes it to the barn door before falling back asleep, barely halfway inside.

“Are dragons not invited?” I nudge Aurelia forward to join the conversation. If Fuse wanted her to leave she would have said so.

“I might need you for this too,” Fuse says to Aurelia, holding up her hand, long, boney fingers bandaged and burned as always. “In case things get delicate. You have tiny hands.”

“Uh, thank you?”

“So it’s cool I brought her?”

“I figure she’s not going to tell Chief Hiccup,” Fuse plops back down on the stump and pulls a handful of blue shards that look like glass out of her pocket, absently crushing them with her fingertips into a fine powder in her palm.

“What’s the plan, then?” Aurelia is suddenly comfortable, walking beside Fuse and leaning back against the workshop with her arms crossed.

“Is Arvid coming?” Fuse cocks her head at me and I can tell she’s looking at my realigned nose.

I shrug, “If he is, he’s late.” The whole Western sky is glowing orange, fully flush with the sunset and I shuffle closer, picking up a shard of limestone and tossing it in the air, because fiddling is better than standing still. It’s time I visit Gobber. He probably has something constructive for me to hit.

“Ok, well, I have to show you something,” Fuse pulls a folded piece of parchment out of her pocket, holding it flat in front of her. “After you took me to see the vent, I was looking through my uncle’s library at old maps, and I found the first map that our ancestors made of that region eight generations ago.”

“Yeah?” I take the map and hold it in front of me. Aurelia peeks over my arm, holding the bottom corner of the map taut. “There’s Berk,” I point it out to her and she rolls her eyes.

“Yeah, I know.”

“And…wait, where’s the island?” I smudge the place where it should be, the old paper threatening to tear under my thumb, and I wonder how Fuse got this away from Fishlegs to stuff it in her pocket.

“That’s exactly it,” She stands up and takes the map back, refolding it and placing it back in her vest. “It wasn’t there. And I was reading, and our ancestors thought it was the location of a giant scauldron because the sea was warmer there.”

It takes me a minute, but Fuse meets my smile with fervent nodding. “A thermal vent.”

“Exactly. It used to be a thermal vent.” She breaks eye contact, staring at her feet and pacing in a tight circle. “So then I was thinking, if it was a thermal vent only 300 years ago, maybe dragon activity accelerated the formation of the island, and for there to be that much activity—”

“There are dragons everywhere in the archipelago,” Aurelia shivers, “why would this one island be worse?”

“Hotgut gave me the idea, she’s constantly leaving these solidified magma piles everywhere, and if enough of these—”

It all clicks with me at once, “Boulder class dragons must have been there, in the middle of the ocean. A lot of them. Enough to make an island in a few hundred years.”

“And thinking about how deep the ocean is there and how much stone Hotgut expels—”

“That’s more than a lot of Boulder class dragons.” My eyes widen, “that’s probably all of the Boulder class dragons. What if…what if that’s where they’re from and they’re trying to go back?”

“Exactly,” Fuse smiles, “I think they’re trying to go back somewhere, but they’ve made this island and—”

“—and it’s in the way!” I run my hand back through my hair, the surge of discovery frozen in its tracks. “But it’s an island.”

“I think we should blow it up.” Fuse smiles, really smiles, a manic, mouth stretching expression that makes some of Mom’s stories about her Dad make sense.

“Oh Hel no, I didn’t drag my ass over here to help Thorston with her stupid bombs.” Arvid snuck up on us, somehow, Wingspark trailing behind him as he approaches us with arms crossed. Aurelia looks at the dragon and blanches, standing by the warehouse like she’s ready to jump inside.

“What else did you think we were going to do?” I snort, “this is Fuse we’re talking about. No offense,” I wave at her and she shrugs.

“Why would that be offensive?”

“I knew this would be some kind of joke,” Arvid shakes his head. He scratches his chin habitually and winces. “What do you want to blow up now, Thorston? My dad’s house? The chief’s house—I could be convinced to help with that—”

“You are always like this, aren’t you?” Aurelia snaps from her corner, and I don’t think anyone else hears the fearful waver in her voice when Wingspark steps up to Arvid’s side. “You just had to show up to be hateful where we could hear you—”

“An island, Arvid.” Fuse steps in front of Aurelia, narrowing her eyes at Arvid. And that face is why I was scared of her as a kid, that glare she’s giving Arvid right now, those narrowed, ice blue eyes that say she wouldn’t hesitate to jump right into her own explosion if it met her goal. “There’s an island in the middle of the ocean, covered in sick dragons, and I think we can help them if we blow it up.”

“And why do you need me to blow up an island I’ve never seen.”

“It’s an island.” She holds her hand out towards him, offering the handshake that I won’t. “And I’m guessing the bombs are going to be really heavy. We need all the muscle we can get.”

He stares at her hand like it’s going to explode, “I’m sure you could find some other muscle.”

“Not muscle that won’t tell the chief.”

“Why can’t we tell the chief?” Because right now, I’d rather go home and explain this whole plan than stand here with Arvid looking at me like he is. Like I’m a…Like he looked at those dragon fleas that were all over Wingspark last summer.

“Because I think the old sick dragons need to leave,” Fuse frowns and stares at her feet. “And the chief probably wouldn’t like the idea of dragons leaving.” She offers Arvid her handshake again, setting her jaw and raising her eyebrow. There’s a smear of ash and soot where the other should be.

Arvid looks at me then, ignoring Fuse’s hand still stretched out between them. Ignoring Aurelia who’s standing beside me with her arms crossed, looking at him like she wants to look away.

“And you’re ok with this, going behind your new daddy’s back to—”

“This isn’t so black and white for me, you know.” I shake my head, “I hate him too. I hate that this happened, but I’m not like you, I can’t ditch out on Mom.”

“She’s not my Mom,” he scratches his chin again, swearing under his breath. “And she already ditched out on me. Sixteen years ago.”

“Look, are you going to help us blow this up or not? Because I’m sure I can do it without you.”

“As funny as it would be to see you try,” he shakes Fuse’s hand, staring me down the whole time, looking so much like Dad that it makes my stomach churn. “I’m in.”

“Good,” Fuse drops Arvid’s hand and turns back to me, pulling a stack of plans out of her pocket. “I need these. As soon as possible. I’ve got to start testing bombs. They’ve got to be big.”

“Perfect,” I tuck the plans under my arm and bend down to Aurelia, whispering, “I need to hit something.”

She snorts and Arvid curls his lip, wincing when it tugs the skin of his chin.

When I was a kid, I always thought Dad’s tattoos were glamorous, larger than life. Something not Berkian, some hint to the outside world. On Arvid they look big, heavy, another lead brick in the wall building between us.

He doesn’t belong to Berk anymore and somehow I’m the future of it.

00000

Gobber is happy to see me in the forge the next morning, clearing off my anvil with a sweep of his hook and sitting down on the stool in the corner like he wants to talk while I work. He doesn’t ask what I’m making and I’m surprised he doesn’t whip out some list a mile long of all the things I’m behind on.

I get some scrap in the corner heating up in a fire stoked by a still snoring Grump and start fashioning a vaguely hemispherical mold in the corner sand pit. It doesn’t have to be perfect, Fuse wrote a tolerance on her drawing and as long as it seals tightly, it doesn’t matter what shape it is. I figure for the prototypes, leather straps will be fine, and I can work on threading the seal for the final bombs.

Gods, bombs. I’m actually making bombs. Not just parts for Fuse, honest to Thor bombs.

“It’s been quiet around her withou’ ye,” Gobber leans back and looks around. “Smitelout’s been helping every other day and believe it or not, she manages to do all your work without sassing me every other breath.”

“I don’t know how you’re surviving,” I grunt as I work the baffles, stomach muscles clenching around the still sore bruise in the middle. “Doesn’t she know my most important duty is to make you groan at least a dozen times a day?”

“I’m scraping by,” Gobber laughs too loudly and it peters off too quickly. I stop with the baffles and stare at him, furrowing my eyebrows.

“Let me guess, you’re going to ask me about the chief?”

He shrugs, like he knew I’d find out his plan and doesn’t much care, “It’s a big change, I’m jus’ wonderin’ how things are goin’ for ye.”

“It’s…” Whatever half-baked quip I should be spouting dies in my throat, because I remember last night. The chief acting like he could fix Mom’s bad mood. The way Mom snapped at him. The yelling. I’ve never really heard yelling like that before. Not in the same house as me. Mom and Dad always went and argued outside, we never saw it. Rolf would tell me it was happening, he liked to scar me with it, but I never saw it. It was after Stoick went to bed, and maybe they just think Aurelia and I are old enough to take it but…but it was more like they weren’t thinking at all. Like all that was left in Mom’s head was sadness over Arvid and fury aimed straight at the chief. And he kept saying sorry. Yelling it. Like if he said it loud enough, it would change something.

Aurelia ended up sleeping in front of the fire with me, curled in blankets by Bang’s chin while I took the uncomfortable roost by his spiky tail. I think it freaked her out. It freaked me out too. It didn’t feel like an occasion, it felt like an unfortunate slice of this horrible new normal.

“It could be better,” I shrug, disappointed by how small my voice sounds. “Mom and the chief got in a fight last night. It was sort of nasty.”

Gobber shakes his head, “I…I want ye te know that Hiccup asked my opinion on this whole boneheaded plan and I tol’ him that it wouldn’t work. That he couldn’t just sign himself into being your father and have you and your mother like him. He’s…once he’s got an idea in his head, he’s hard to get off track.”

I can tell by his tone that he thinks I’m like that too. I’m really happy he doesn’t make the comparison out loud.

“You’re right. He can’t.” I pull the molten iron out of the fire and pour it into the sand, picking up a cold clay plunger and pressing it into a hollow dome as it forms molten hot. Sweat beads along my brow and my stomach throbs as I pick it up with tongs, placing it on the anvil and pounding it smooth and thin. Hitting something feels good, right. Like I can make a difference in the metal even if I can’t in anything else. It starts to cool and I rest it back in the fire, wiping my forehead on a grimy towel and watching it heat back to red. “I just…I don’t get it. He keeps trying to act like he’s my best friend. It’s all ‘good morning Eret!’ and ‘how was your day?’ like we’re just some normal father-son duo. I still have to stop myself from bashing the intruder most of the time when he walks into a room.”

Gobber sighs, “I try to tell him, I said ‘he’s not going to get used to you overnight’ and he’s sure he’ll get to you like he got through to your mother—”

“Lalala!” I cut him off with an uncomfortable laugh, taking the reheated dome out of the fire and setting it back on the anvil. “Let’s not talk about him getting through to my mother, alright? That’s disgusting. It’s disgusting enough that it happened without bringing it up, well, ever.”

The hammer clangs against the iron shell with a satisfying rhythm, the blows mechanical. It feels good to be back in the forge, a bunch of muscles I somehow forgot about straining and working. It goes back in the fire after another set of shaping and I take a sip out water out of the fresh pail on a shelf in the corner.

Someone knocks on the window and I turn to see Aurelia, frowning as she leans on the counter, obviously exhausted. She points to the piece of metal, starting to barely glow orange against the coals, “how’s it going?”

“Eh, I’ve got to get back into hammering shape,” I flex jokingly and she rolls her eyes. “You ok?”

“Yeah, I’m good. Mo—” Her eyes flick to Gobber and she looks down at her hands, at the shiny silver ring on her finger, polished utterly smooth, “your Mom took Stoick to the academy and it’s a little quiet around the house is all.” She mutters it so I can barely hear her, and I shuffle towards her.

“You could go ask Fuse if she needs anything.”

She shrugs, “I might just go for a walk or something.”

“I’ll send a search party if you’re not home by dinner.”

She rolls her eyes and stands up straight, clapping her hands on the counter, “you’re hilarious. Try and leave your sweat outside of the house, alright? It finally smells like something other than boy, and you don’t get to mess it up.”

“Sheesh, princess,” I laugh, waving as she walks away. Gobber is staring at me and shaking his head. “What? We get along, alright? Aren’t I supposed to make friends?”

“I’m jus’ glad I didn’t have to break the news to ye about Aurelia being your sister,” Gobber twirls the end of his moustache, the part that’s still barely blonde at the end of the white, around his finger and looks wistfully over my shoulder like he’s about to launch into one of his stories about the good old two handed days. “Ye reminded me so much of Hiccup as a lad, staring out that window with stars in yer eyes, except Astrid wasn’t his sister.”

The thought makes me uncomfortable. The chief noticing my mom when he was just a kid. It raises heckles along my spine and I resist the urge to look over my shoulder.

“So not only am I a mistake, I’m creepy wish fulfillment. Thanks for the confidence boost there, Gobber. I knew I could count on you.”

He’s still wistful by the time I pound the iron shell through another set of adjustments my arm aching from disuse as I roll the tongs around in my hands, trying to loosen up. I look out into the square and it’s more crowded than normal, a few older faces I can match to names but not personalities glancing in at us a little too often. I must look like the chief, a little mini heir Hiccup, working in the forge with Gobber watching over me.

“I don’t understand why everyone is so thrilled for me to be the chief’s heir,” I huff, taking the shell out of the fire and pounding on it with quick, elegant strokes, trying to smooth it to a usable finish. “I mean, I’m a Hofferson, they should be banishing me back to the house at the edge of the island. Why do they suddenly want me taking over the throne?” I’m too loud, I know I’m too loud. I don’t know why I’m asking Gobber in the first place. Maybe it’s because I know he’ll tell me the truth, even if it hurts.

Maybe it’s because I don’t think he knows the truth.

I don’t expect him to answer as quickly as he does.

“You’ve always been the first choice for heir, before you were born, before you were even an idea,” Gobber laughs, a bitter sad laugh and I know he’s looking at his mismatched feet. I know he’s thinking about his friends that have died, and I’m momentarily keenly aware of how old Gobber is, how unfair it is that Gobber is so old. “Stoick was already talking about how promising his future grandbabies would be when yer parents were sneakin’ around together as teenagers. I swear, the dragons were a blessin’ for less than obvious reasons. I hate to think what I might’ve walked in on had they been stuck on Berk like kids when I was a lad—”

My expression freezes on my face. I drop my hammer with a thud and a cloud of dust that settles on my pants with a whoosh. Gobber trails off and his eyes widen.

“You—”

“What did you just say about my—about my parents?” I spit the word and my hands shake. The still blazing hot metal shell rocks on the anvil, hissing as it comes into contact with a drop of sweat beaded on the metal.

“You didn’t know any of that, then, did you?” Gobber blinks, “that’s—that’s not the ideal way—”

“Did you just say something about my parents sneaking around as teenagers?” I don’t need an answer when I see his face. “You better be pulling my leg right now, Gobber. This better be some sick joke. I’m waiting for you to laugh.”

He stares at me. I swallow hard, because just as I thought I had this all figured out, just as I thought it was obvious that I’m the unfortunate result of some creepy, probably coerced one-night-stand, the world has to turn back on its head again.

“You aren’t going to laugh.”

He shakes his head, “now Eret, let me explain—”

“What the Hel? Did they—were they dragon training sweethearts or something?” It sounds so ridiculous that I laugh, thinking about how pretty everyone says my mom used to be, how gangly and ridiculous I am now. It’s impossible. It’s not—how—no. They were acquaintances, she’s—my mom is a Hofferson, the original Hofferson rebel, she’s practically exiled, she’s—

Baldr’s glistening asshole.

“Everyone has lied to me about everything, haven’t they? Not only did you all tell me that my Dad was my father for sixteen years, but no one ever mentioned that…that…”

Gobber looks like he’s going to step in and say something. I don’t want to hear it from him. I narrow my eyes and quench the shell in cold water in one sure motion, the surest I’ve felt all morning. “No one even had the guts to tell me that my Mom and the chief were more than just people who shared an island. No one. Not even the people I thought I could trust.”

Chapter Text

The chief is sitting at the table, leaning over a pile of documents and squinting at something. He has wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, worn by sun and wind and stress, and I try to erase them, to imagine him my age and staring at Mom like she was everything.

I imagine them together, holding hands and sharing secrets and being something more than the ball of anger and wrongness and regret that I spawned from.

I can’t.

“You and my mom,” I announce from the doorway, my head spinning, “you used to be together.”

He looks up at me with that pathetic, banal smile, like he always does, like he anticipates a day when we’ll suddenly, magically be best friends.

“What?”

“You and my mom were together. Before she was with my dad, she was with you. Gobber said you used to stare at her from the forge window and…and you were together.”

“You didn’t know?” He asks in his superficially upbeat tone, his teeth clipping the end of the question with a disjointed clack. His smile stays in place, his eyes glazing over with disjointed anger. “You didn’t know that—we were engaged. We were engaged for years, Eret. Seven years. We were—Gods dammit, you didn’t know?”

I’ve never heard the chief this loud, honestly, this definite. His entire posture has changed, chest puffing out, shoulders a hard, strong line as he pushes away from the table and starts pacing, one white knuckled hand in his hair. His face is pale, freckles standing out everywhere but his cheeks, which are flushed. He looks furious. He looks intimidating.

“Why would I know?”

“I’ve loved your mother since I was twelve,” he snaps, “Thor’s beard, how could you not know?”

“No.”

I can’t cope with something like that. That’s too familiar, too close to home, picturing the chief looking just like me, staring out the forge window at Mom and thinking it could be possible. I can’t handle the similarity, I can’t handle the difference. That Aurelia is my sister and that’s somehow his fault too, because if this isn’t his fault, whose fault is it? Who do I blame it on?

If it’s his fault, it can be my fault for being just like him.

“What do you mean ‘no’?” He laughs, everything about his voice disbelieving and irritated. Like I’m stupid, like he’s explaining something obvious to someone far too old to need the explanation. “Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean you can ignore it. Your mother and I were engaged and we were together before that and—”

“Do you have to keep saying it?”

I can’t stop thinking about it, him looking like me and mom looking like Ingrid, young and in love and together. He probably made Mom laugh. Her eyes probably lit up when she saw him. He probably felt like he was on top of the world when the girl who never noticed him finally did.

“Considering no one has said it to you before, I think I do. Your mother and I were engaged. It happened, how else did you think this happened?” His laugh is still cruel, and that’s how I sounded when I yelled at Arvid, isn’t it? Detached and hysterical and lashing out. Something inside of his brain feels like the mess inside of mine and it makes me dizzy.

“Honestly, I’ve been trying not to think about it.”

His smile melts, dissolving into a frown, his forehead grooved with the weight of it, “Wait, you didn’t—Oh my Gods, that’s—” He scoffs, and it’s like I can see his mind working, “you didn’t think that—I mean, you didn’t think I coerced her or—”

“Like I said, I tried not to think about it.” I don’t want to hear him say it, don’t want the fuzzy idea in my head to become real when it’s said out loud.

“I can’t believe she’d go this fucking far.” He sits down again, flopping into the chair, like puffing himself out was exhausting and he can’t stay on his feet anymore.

I think about leaving, just turning around and walking out of the house, climbing on Bang and flying somewhere else. Anywhere but here. To Fuse’s shop where it’s always quiet, to the academy where Stoick will show me his terror and I can pretend to know how to talk to him. Home, to fight with Arvid, because at least I could tell him and he’d be mad too.

But leaving would be running away and I have to be done with that. I have to learn to be someone who stands my own ground, because I’m the oldest now and I don’t have backup anymore.

And somehow, at some point along the way, it became my responsibility to keep the chief from falling apart.

“Do you tell your kids all about your old girlfriends?” I don’t sound as mean as I want to.

He looks up at me, eyes wet and piercing and so familiar it hurts all over again that I didn’t put this together a decade ago. My knees feel like jelly, unsubstantial and quivering and I dig my fingernails into my palms, trying to focus on something other than how good it would feel to just fall apart.

I’ve fallen apart a lot lately, every time making the excuse that everyone else was doing it too, but as the Chief’s face falls back into this calm mask, I understand some of what it is to be him.

He didn’t tell me either. He couldn’t take saying it without crumbling.

“I’ve loved her since I was twelve.” He repeats, like it’s a mantra, like it’s something he says again and again to fall asleep at night while I’m downstairs thinking ‘I’ll fix the dragons’.

“I can’t believe that.” I shake my head because it’s not this easy, it can’t be, I won’t let it. He can’t just explain himself and erase the last few months, Hel, the last sixteen years. Even the chief doesn’t have that kind of power. “Have you even thought about what you’re asking me to think? That I’m supposed to forget my whole family is ruined and miserable because…because…”

I think about Arvid, because he’s supposed to be next to me when I’m fighting something like this. I think about how he hates Mom now, and I hate him for that, and how I’m worried sick that he’s going to die of some stupid infection because he wanted to be different than me so badly.

I think about Dad, and how he started it, how he was the one who wanted a divorce, he was the one who took off his ring and never put it back on.

I think about Ingrid, who left, and no matter how much I understand it I don’t think I can forgive her. She left. She was the one piece of bedrock I never hesitated to land on and she’s gone.

I think about Rolf, who’s never liked me.

I think about Mom, and how I’ve heard the story of her and dad meeting a million times. How I obviously don’t know anything about her.

“It’s a little more complicated than you thought, isn’t it?” He’s quiet, contemplative, but his posture is still rigid. Like he’s an angry dragon biding his time, like I shouldn’t turn my back to him.

The chief’s anger is a simmering, hidden thing, and for a moment I’m envious. Because I’m an exposed nerve, susceptible to every passing barb and he isn’t, because I want to hate him but it’s hard, and because I’m envious. I want to be strong like that, I want to walk into a room and have people respect me, not because I’m a Hofferson or because I’m the town secret.

“I hate you.” I say it because I have to, because I’m not ready not to. Because it’s easy and because I believe it. “I don’t care if you used to be engaged, she was married to my dad and you still…I still happened.”

“Maybe I was wrong about you.” He makes eye contact and I feel like prey. I feel like fighting him to prove that he can’t pin me down with his gaze but I can’t move because I’ll fall under the weight of everything I’ve just learned. “Maybe you aren’t cut out to be chief. Maybe you’re just another Hofferson, ignoring what’s inconvenient so that everything fits into your neat little world.”

“Leave my family out of it.”

He’s assessing me, I can feel it, sizing me up like he hasn’t yet, like he was so willing to take me at face value before. Like he really does love my mother, so much that any child that was half her and half him was good enough to inherit the world. I can feel him expecting me to be something I don’t know how to be, to say something brilliant that makes him think of himself back when Stoick the Vast was looking for his potential.

“I do hate you.” I clear my throat. “I hate you because you think you can fix this. Because I’ve never heard you say sorry. Because you herded me into your house and expected me to like it here. Because Aurelia hates you too, and because she knows you way better than me. I hate you because you think I’m going to flip some switch and become you, because you can’t imagine a world where you’re not right about every little thing.” I don’t know when I started yelling but I stop, taking a deep breath and looking at him. “You and my mom used to be together. I don’t take that as a reason to trust you, I just see another person who lied to me for sixteen years. You think I can take on an island, that I can take being adopted by someone I don’t know, that I can handle being an older brother all of a sudden. You’ve never hesitated to drop the whole fucking world on my shoulders, but you couldn’t tell me this. I had to learn from Gobber. You keep saying you can be my father? Act like it. Stop trying to be my best friend, stop trying to make me like you. I don’t.”

His jaw twitches and he nods slowly, “I’m wrong about a lot of things, but I wasn’t wrong about you.”

I like the praise and I hate myself for it. It makes me feel capable, somehow, that I held back my fists and still got my point across.

“I don’t want to hear the rest of the truth from you.” I stand up straight, close my eyes, and exhale. “I’m going to go talk to my dad.” A good chief would get all sides of the story, a good chief doesn’t exist in the dark, waiting for people to drop decades worth of shit on them. “I’ll come back for your side later.”

“Alright.” He looks sad again. “And…for the record, Eret?” He says my name like it’s fragile and it occurs to me that he never says it. That he talks to me without addressing me and I hear him anyway. That I’ve never been part of a group to him, I’ve always just been me. “If I knew you didn’t know, I would have told you…I—Please, just…just ask me, alright? I won’t lie to you, that’s a promise. No matter what.”

He sounds like a dad.

There are a million things I want to ask all of a sudden, a million cruel, pecking little questions presenting themselves in the back of my mind. About Aurelia and his wife and Mom and how he can justify this entire shit show to himself.

But I hold back. Because chiefs hold back sometimes. Because I can save that anger for when it’ll make a difference.

Because I’m tired and I want my dad to hug me and lie and tell me everything is going to be ok.

“Ok.”

“What? Not going to ask a million difficult questions?” He sighs, scratches the back of his neck. “You remind me so much of your mom, sometimes. She always knew how to take things seriously.”

Except marriage.

“I hate that those are my only two options. I either have to be like you or like her.” I’m mad at her now and I don’t know how to cope with it, don’t know how to protect her and be furious all at once. “I’ll…I’ll be home later.”

Bang croons when I approach him, tail squirming slightly like it does when he’s worried and I practically flop onto his back, suddenly exhausted.

“Let’s go find Dad, alright?”

He takes off with a rumble in his chest and I rest my chin on his head, letting him do all of the work.

Today is one of those days I’ve had far too many of in the last few months. The world I woke up to is entirely different than the world I’ll fall asleep in and I wonder how many times a person can readjust like this before they explode. I think about going home again, about fighting Arvid just because it’s easy, just because it’s the same. We could have the same argument we’ve been having since the beginning of this nightmare but even he doesn’t have the same face. Even he’s not really the same.

It’s like the whole world is warping to put me at the center of it and push him out entirely. He and Aurelia and Stoick aren’t supposed to exist.

Dad is closer in than normal and he looks up when Bang lands on his ship with a thud. He smiles when he sees me, a tiny, fake little smile that doesn’t erase the frown lines of his forehead that seem so much darker than they used to.

He’s not perfect either. He’s not flawless. He took Arvid to get those tattoos, he drew a line between Arvid and Berk, solidified the line between Berk and him.

He’s the only person I trust to tell me the truth about this.

“The chief and Mom used to be engaged.” I don’t ask because it’s not a question. It’s a fact, a boulder splitting the river of my life, immovable and complicated, causing rapids and making it unsafe to cross. I don’t think there’s a single scrap of smooth water left, not a single eddy where fish could live.

“Who told you?” Dad raises his eyebrows and crosses the deck of the boat to hug me and I let him. I let myself feel small and protected for a second, let myself forget that he’s wrong too. That he lied to me too.

“Gobber,” I step out of the hug, “it—not his fault, it just slipped out. I confronted the chief about it. He—I don’t know.” I throw my arms up and spin around, because I want to hit something and there’s nothing to hit and I want to yell but I’m afraid of what would come out. “How could you do this? How could you lie to me so much for so long? How do you just—you know, wake up in the morning and say ‘hmm, what lies should I tell Eret today to pretend we’re happy and everything is ok’?” I turn back to him, hands in my pockets, “how do you act so happy for so long and then snap and leave and…”

Dad sighs and leans back against the railing of the ship, “how about one at a time?”

It’s something he’s always said to me, something that’s always calmed me down when my mind started spinning so fast I couldn’t keep up with it. One at a time. I only had to think or say or do one thing at a time.

“How could you lie to me so much? How am I just now learning that Mom used to be engaged to someone else?” It’s technically two things, but he doesn’t call me out on it.

“I never liked lying to you as much as we did, but…I understood it, in a way. You were—still are—too smart to hide much from. We couldn’t tell you anything without you figuring out the rest and…and I can’t speak for your mother, but I never told you she was engaged to the chief because I didn’t like thinking about it.” He nods slowly, like he’s thinking about what he says before he says it, and I wonder where he learned that. “Your mother and I got very good at pretending things we didn’t like didn’t exist.”

“Did you ever want to tell me the truth?”

“All the time,” he laughs, “especially when you were at your worst, planning all these elaborate things and dragging Arvid along with them.”

“Do you still love Mom?” This question burns on the way out, like the time Arvid and I drank too much mead and I threw it back up in the corner of the barn. It felt like poison, but I was so much better after I got it out of me, after I gave up on keeping it quiet.

“Yes.”

“Then why’d you divorce her? Why’d you give up? Why’d you let the chief win? I know it’s not that simple and I know…” I trail off. I don’t know anything. “If you still love her, why would you leave?”

“I can’t tell you everything, I don’t know everything, it wasn’t ever something that your mother talked about but…help me pull this net in, it’s time you hear the whole story, I think.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.” I move to pull in the net anyway. It’s half full of weakly wriggling fish, probably still affected by the bitter ash in the water. Berk is still blackened and I can’t wait for the snow to come and wash the rest of it away.

“The story will,” he wipes his hands on his shirt and sits down on the stool near the bow, “and I think you’ll find that impatience hasn’t helped anyone.”

“Excuse me if I’m a bit impatient, I’ve been waiting sixteen years for this.” I don’t sit down, instead leaning against the edge of the boat and watching Bang stretch out in the sun by the stern.

“I met your mother while I was a dragon trapper.” He nods, “you know this part of the story, where I trapped for Drago Bludvist until I learned the error of my ways. What you don’t know is that your mother taught me. Your mother and the chief.”

“They were together then?” I hate everything about this, already. I wish I’d never asked. I don’t think I’ll be able to take a real breath until I know everything.

“Engaged isn’t the right word, I don’t think, no one had exchanged papers but they were…assumed. I caught Stormfly in a net and the chief caught your mother before they both set Stormfly free. She tried to beat my men with a bit of wood she found on the ground.” He smiles, a sad, wistful smile. “I’d only ever seen one dragon rider before, and I was terrified, I didn’t act like it but I was. I knew what would happen if riders kept stealing my stock.”

He rubs his chest like he always does when he talks about Drago Bludvist and I bite my lip to keep from interrupting him.

“The next time I saw her, she was on my ship and the chief volunteered them as prisoners, hoping to hitch a ride to talk to Drago. I thought they were idiots. I thought the chief was a genius and I hated him for it, for having things to control dragons that I didn’t. Back then, I was sure I was the best at everything, because if I wasn’t, the consequences were unthinkable.” He’s staring at his hands, “then Stoick the Vast showed up, Grump sat on me, and everything I thought I knew was turned on end. The chief flew off in a huff,” he looks at me, pointedly, and I stare at my feet, “and your mother tried to follow him, but Stoick sent her back home. I thought she listened until later that afternoon when she showed up again and kidnapped me. This part is how you’ve always heard it, she threatened to drop me and let Stormfly use me as a fetch toy until I agreed to take her to Drago’s hideout.”

“I know this part,” I nod, “Stormfly saved your life and then you saved Mom’s, and you rode a dragon for the first time and Stormfly scared the shit out of you.” It’s still funny, no matter how many times I hear it, imagining Dad clinging to Stormfly for dear life while she shows off. Mom tells it better.

Thinking of Mom makes my stomach hurt.

“Then we flew to the dragon sanctuary, where the Bewilderbeasts fought, Valka’s died, and Toothless killed Stoick the Vast.” He says it like he’s rehearsed it, like this is the unimportant part of the story and he’s just setting the scene, and I’m scared for what comes next. Of course I’ve heard how Stoick died, but I never imagined it had anything to do with my parents. “The chief was devastated and Astrid was the first one at his side, and…you know about Stoick’s funeral, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” I shrug, “they tell us all about it in dragon training when we take our terrors to the statue. I just…didn’t know you guys were there. I guess. I’d never thought about it.”

“Your mother and my story really starts after all that, when the chief was barely the chief and your mom was trying to help him. The chief didn’t take the grief well, he was absent. He spent most of his time off the island and when he was home he did nothing but work. And while everyone else was worried about him, I started to worry about your mother. To be honest, I was already infatuated with her but, of course, she was off limits because she was engaged to the chief who’d be nothing but good to me, but at some point…She and the chief did nothing but fight, after a few years, and when he left your mother would just…stop. Entirely. Like the only thing she had energy for was fighting with him, and at some point I couldn’t take it anymore and I don’t think she could either.”

“So you guys got married?” I hate this story. I hate thinking about the chief and Mom doing the same twisted dance thirty years ago. I hate that my parents are so ingrained in the history of Berk. I hate that there’s no peace for any of us.

“Yeah, almost immediately. She was just…I wanted her to be herself again and she wanted to move on with her life and well…I couldn’t imagine ever wanting anyone else. And we moved out of town, because everyone blamed your mother for breaking the chief’s heart.”

“What about her? Doesn’t he get any blame for breaking her heart?” I hate that I don’t stumble over the thought of the chief having enough of my mom’s heart to hurt it. I hate that I’ve had so many bombs dropped on me recently that I digest them too quickly to even grieve for the realities I’m leaving behind.

When I learned the chief was my father, I was furious for weeks. Now I can’t even muster hours, it’s like I’m already rebuilding in preparation for the next hit.

“No one was going to side against their chief when Berk was…flourishing. I blamed him though, I still do. But really, your mother was the only one who needed to and I don’t think she ever did.” He looks out at the sea and the late afternoon sun catches all the grey in his hair. Not as much as the chief’s, not close, but it kills me to see that my parents are getting old, that they aren’t the infallible beings of my childhood.

Dad’s not the strongest and Mom’s not the scariest and the chief isn’t the bad guy in a children’s tale.

“And then I happened.”

“It was the night before the chief’s wedding. I was out catching fish for the feast. Your mother told me when she told me she was pregnant, that it might not be mine. I knew then, that it wasn’t, just a feeling but…when you were born you had all this bright red hair, but she still gave you my name. I think she was trying to make a statement, that you were mine even though you obviously weren’t. She was trying to say that she was mine, but I never wanted that, I just wanted her to be the woman that kidnapped me and changed my mind about everything I thought I knew.” He stands up and turns around, like he can’t look at me, and I wonder if there’s a third option. If I could be like him. If I already am, in ways people ignore because it’s easy.

Maybe everyone ignores the things they don’t like and being a chief is just pretending that you don’t.

“Why’d you give up on her?”

“Because I’m tired. Because I’m sick of her smiling at me and lying straight to my face. I’m sick of pretending she’ll love me the way she loved the chief.”

“She doesn’t love him now, though.” I don’t know what I want. Maybe I want to be saved, maybe I want to rile Dad up into going and winning Mom back. Maybe I want someone else to fix everything and maybe I want him to try and be the strongest again.

“The beauty of it is, it’s not my problem anymore.” He looks like Arvid after a rare rejection, hurt and ego and acceptance all swirling around his expression.

“No, it’s mine.” I don’t realize I’m mad at him too until I snap. “It’s my problem now. All of this is. And you all did a great job making sure I’m completely unprepared for that kind of responsibility, so thanks for that.”

“Eret—”

“Why’d you take Arvid to get tattoos?” I don’t want to fight with him, I don’t want to lose the last parent I had faith in. I shouldn’t even have three, but maybe the Gods just have a sick sense of humor. Maybe they gave me a spare just so that someone else could let me down. “Did you do it because it would hurt Mom or did you do it because it would make it so clear that we’re different?”

He doesn’t say anything and I give into the childish urge that I avoided with the chief. The urge to make it hurt.

“I know that’s two questions already but I’ll add a third. Were you trying to hurt Mom or me or Arvid? Because for all I know he’s going to die of some stupid infection before I ever figure out how to apologize to him.” I back up and Bang is there, where I need him, like he always is, nudging at my hand. “And I’m not storming off. I’m not abandoning anyone, I’m not like him. I’m just…I don’t want anyone to see me cry.”

I can’t lie to Dad, I’ve never been able to. Mom could grill me for hours and I’d reiterate the lie Arvid and I planned on until I was blue in the fact but all it took was one expectant look from Dad and I’d spill the whole truth.

He says my name, tries to call me back, but I’m swinging onto Bang mid take-off, wiping my face with my sleeve and wishing I’d never asked. I should have just let him hug me, should have taken the bandage he offered and let the wound heal over the gaping trench in my understanding.

On the way back to Berk, I see a single dragon, a giant Nightmare with graying scales, flying towards the island of its doom.

“Me too, dude,” I shake my head and look at the chief’s house, at the place I won’t escape because even if I could, it’s wrong. “Me too.”

Chapter Text

I’ve never really thought about war. Like, I know it’s a thing that happens, and I know that I was lucky to grow up when Berk was at peace, but I’ve never really thought about it. But when Bang lands in front of the chief’s house and I stare at the front door, I can’t help but feel a little bit like I’m preparing for a doomed battle.

If I don’t talk to my mom, I’m going to build this into something that it isn’t. I’ll create some horrible reality in my head that’s probably way worse than the truth and wallow in it, and it won’t help anything, but at the same time, every single question I’ve asked has had a worse answer than I expected. I’ve never had this happen before, never been in a situation where the reality was worse and more convoluted than my own imagination.

But there’s a first time for everything.

I swear, the Gods thought my head was getting a little too big and they just had to send Loki to set me straight. No cosmic slap on the wrist for me, I get complete upheaval.

If anything this shit is making my ego worse. Pretty soon I’m going to start a ‘my life sucks more’ preening contest with Arvid and maybe I’ll even win.

I think about knocking on the door. It would make sort of a statement, I guess. Like it’s not my house and I know I don’t belong there. But I already hit my immaturity quota for the day going off at Dad like that, so I open the door like a normal person and walk inside. The chief is gone and the documents that were on the table are on the floor and I know without thinking about it that Mom and the chief fought about something.

Again.

It was me, again. It’s always me. I’m always the cause of fights no one will let me finish.

“Did you come back just to rub it in?” Mom steps out of the bedroom, tying the bottom of her braid and glaring at me. She does a double take and freezes, eyes widening, “Oh my Gods, Eret, I’m sorry.”

“You thought I was the chief, didn’t you?” I laugh because I don’t think I have anything else left in me. Just a day’s worth of jokes and smiles sitting at the bottom of an empty emotional bucket. “The day I’ve had and now you have to insult my appearance? Wow, Mom, wow.”

“Eret,” she sighs and she looks so sad that it doesn’t feel like a battle anymore. It feels like a funeral.

Maybe the last secret died today. Maybe that last little seed of her keeping me safe and ignorant is gone. I can’t be mad at her the way I want to, because I’m mad at everyone else and because she’s my mom. Everyone else lied to make themselves feel better, but something about the dark etched circles under Mom’s eyes make me think that it made her feel worse.

“So you and the chief, huh?”

“Gobber told you?”

“And the chief told you.” I look around again, seeing the spread of the papers on the floor like someone swept them off the table to be dramatic. Probably the chief, he seems like the type. “And you fought about it.”

“I don’t know when I became so predictable.” Mom crosses her arms and sighs, “you want to talk about it?”

“No. I don’t, really. I want to go back to blissful ignorance.” I wipe my face with my hand, pressing into my eyes until I see bright blips of light on the inside of my eyelids. “I yelled at Dad. I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at Dad like that.”

“I’m honestly kind of shocked you aren’t yelling at me yet.”

I open my eyes and look at her, frowning because of just how miserable she looks. I hate it. I can’t remember the last time I saw her smile or laugh or look at me without that pinched, pained expression.

“I’m all yelled out,” I shrug, crossing the room to sit down at the table. My hair is getting long enough to be annoying and I tuck it behind my ear, scratching the side of my head. Maybe I’ll look less like him, if it’s long. “Let’s talk about it. I’ll have all my trauma in a single day and tomorrow I can punish a few dozen trees and be done with it.”

She sits down and rests her elbow on the table, drumming her fingers against the wood. I don’t like her new wedding band. It’s too small, too delicate, and too personal with bright blue flecks of Stormfly’s scale sunk into the silver. I can tell the chief made it and the workmanship is too familiar.

He learned from Gobber too and he has small, quick fingers too and there’s just not that much reason for us to work differently.

“Dad said he didn’t want to lie.” I don’t know why I start there. Maybe that’s where I’m stuck too, on the fact that somehow the chief has been between my parents’ marriage since the beginning, maybe even before me. “Did you just lie because of me or did you lie to Rolf and Ingrid too?”

“Rolf was six, even he hadn’t asked about my love life yet,” she snorts and I wonder the last time she talked to Rolf. I should drag him up here to talk to her. He doesn’t get to be a dick to her because of me.

“I don’t…I don’t get it, Mom. Why him? Why…you were engaged. Dad said you were assumed, like everyone just knew it was supposed to be you and him. I don’t—” I think this might be the first time ever I’ve had too few words for what I’m trying to say.

I want to tell her she’s too good for the stupid, old chief, anyway.

I want to say it’s ok if I’m a mistake. I’d rather be a mistake than the result of some long lost lovers reuniting.

I want to know about this alternate Berk, the one where Mom and the chief were together and no one batted an eye, where she wasn’t the original rebellious Hofferson and the chief wasn’t chief yet. I want to hear it like a bedtime story, I want to assess it and find all its holes, to reason through why it’s a shitty narrative that should be ignored.

I want to hug her and be silent. I want to pretend none of this is happening.

“I don’t know where to start.” She sighs and looks at the ceiling. “I never noticed the chief—Hiccup—growing up.” She says the name with a kind of fondness that makes it sound like he’s dead. Like she’s giving a eulogy to some version of him that doesn’t exist anymore. “He was the chief’s kid, the smallest kid our age, kind of a brat, honestly. He had no capacity for following orders and that bothered me then. I took myself very, very seriously. I thought everyone else was pretty incompetent and that it was up to me entirely to defend the whole island from dragons.”

I nod slowly, biting my lip. I like how Mom tells stories, she takes longer but leaves fewer gaps. Arvid would always get bored with her stories as a kid and start fussing, he liked Dad’s better because they always had swordfights.

“And Hiccup didn’t pay attention in dragon training, at all, and I was a shoe in to win but then he started getting good. Really good, and I hated that he was better than me, and I followed him one day because he kept disappearing and no one knew where to and I found him with Toothless.”

“You found him?” My eyes widen and I feel like a little kid again, cooped up during a winter storm and hearing all about Berk, “but I thought no one knew about Toothless until he showed up to save H—the chief from the monstrous nightmare in the ring? That’s how I always heard it.”

“That’s how most people tell it because it’s more dramatic,” Mom nods, “but I knew, I found him the day before. And I ran back to Berk to tell everyone, of course, because keeping a dragon in the woods is definitely against all the rules I believed in then, but Hiccup kidnapped me and—”

“What the fuck?” I blurt, scratching my head, “what the fuck, Mom? So the kidnapping thing was the chief’s move and a few years later you just like…recycled it on Dad? That’s messed up.”

“Right. That’s the messed up part of this,” she raises her eyebrow, “do you want to stop?”

“No, I just…doesn’t Dad deserve a new move instead of some old recycled one—”

“You’re just mad because the chief started the kidnapping thing.”

“Maybe I am,” I cross my arms and this feels almost normal for a second, “you raised me to think that was pretty romantic or whatever. Now it’s his thing, like everything else is his thing.” I gesture to myself. She reaches across the table and rests her hand on mine.

“You’re not a thing. And if you were, you’d be your own thing.”

I sigh, “go on with the story. Now that you’ve completely invalidated my only decent move with the ladies, what else could go wrong?”

I know the answer to that. It’s everything. Everything else could go wrong. Again.

“We discovered the nest with its queen and you know the rest of that.”

“Chief played big hero, killed the queen, lost his foot.” I shrug and wave one hand around in lackluster celebration. “Wooo everyone loves him? That good enough?”

“That’s about it.” She bites her lip, looks pensive. “That’s when things got…complicated, I guess, I don’t know. We were so young but everything was already assumed, in a way.” She uses Dad’s word and it sounds different coming from her, like one of those rules she used to think couldn’t be broken. “And we were busy, learning so much about dragons and the world now that we could reach it and nothing…It wasn’t the first thing on either of our minds. I guess. We were friends, good friends, but he was learning to lead and a lot of the time I was more second in command than anything. The enforcer. The other kids wouldn’t listen to him and I helped.”

“Did you like him?” I cough, because I sound far too interested. “I mean…you knew him when he was a teenager was it—did he—” I run my hand through my hair again, shifting and wringing my hands together. She waits for me to get there, patient in a way she must have learned from Dad, because she’s him too now. She’s Mom and Dad and the chief all in one because people rub off on each other and she spent so much time with both of them. “Am I…you know.”

“Are you like him?”

“I guess. I didn’t know you knew him so well. I guess I just…” I want to know if I’m going to mess up some kid’s life so bad someday. I want to know if I’m blindly following his path without even knowing.

“In a lot of ways, you really are.” She looks at her feet. “You talk like him, you always have, I never knew where you learned it. And sometimes you—especially at Arvid when he says something you hate but don’t want to bother with—you have this look. This bored, tired look that’s exactly how Hiccup used to look at Snotlout. It’s uncanny. And you both try to make things better, annoyingly, incessantly. You never settle for a first try.”

“How…how are we different?”

Please say I’m not an arrogant dickwad like he is.

“You’re both…You’re both in the shadow of your fathers in different ways, and you handle it differently than he did. He tried so hard to be different that I think he forgot to appreciate what was good about the way his father did things and then when his father was gone he couldn’t…recreate those things very easily. You…I don’t know how old you were the first time you asked your dad if you’d be big and strong like him someday but I remember that you already seemed to know that you wouldn’t. You knew every step of the way that you had to try a lot harder than Arvid or Ingrid to fight as well, but you never stopped trying. Hiccup…even if he could take the brute force path, he never did. You always do, you only find the other paths if you have to.”

“So I’m stronger?” It makes me happier than it should and she rolls her eyes and leans forward to ruffle my hair.

“You’re a Viking, when he was always very clearly…something else. After he had Toothless…he never really tried to fit in again, not…not in any real way.”

“How did you end up engaged? You don’t seem—I guess you don’t seem like you loved him very much, or whatever, this is all sort of…detached.”

“I’ve had thirty years to detach,” she sits up straight, “I—you haven’t had this yet, but someday you’ll fall in love with someone and they’ll change you. For better, you hope, but sometimes it’s for worse too, sometimes it’s both. And Hiccup was—well, he was a lot like you, he was the loudest, smartest, most different voice in the room. And he was funny and unintentionally sweet and smart and he showed me things I never thought I could have. I never thought I’d leave Berk, I thought I’d die here in a dragon raid and I sort of romanticized that, it sounded…noble. But Hiccup showed me that living could be noble too.”

“And then what happened?” I can feel that she doesn’t want to tell me and that makes me curious, like locked doors always have. I feel like I’m jumping off a dragon, not entirely sure if another one is going to catch me on the way down.

“His dad died,” she shrugs, “his dad died in the worst way he could have died—from Hiccup’s point of view, that is. It’s…I don’t blame him, I guess, because I don’t know how anyone would really grieve for that but I do blame him for pulling back. He shut me out. He left instead of coping. He threw himself into being the chief and he stopped being Hiccup. It’s—all we did was fight, you know? I was still trying to be his enforcer, his second in command, and he didn’t seem to want or need it anymore. It’s like I was small time and he moved up to the next level without me. I seemed to annoy him every time I talked to him, I started yelling and he started avoiding me and…”

“And you ended it and married Dad.”

“I gave it five years, it was five years after his dad died when I married Eret. I was just done. He’d promised me the world and in the end he couldn’t even give me five minutes of his time or an actual smile. So…Your dad and I had been friends for years, and I think…I don’t think I was as numb to his little crush on me as I’d convinced myself I was. And the more we spent time together the clearer it was that we wanted the same things. And he was easy to love. You know it’s—it was like I’d been barely keeping my head above water for years and your dad was the beach and when I reached it I could finally relax.”

I hate how this sounds. I hate every word of it. I hate how Dad is the practical choice and life with the chief was full of adventure and drama and fighting. I hate that I can hear where I came from in her every syllable.

“Did Dad change you too?”

If love changes people, maybe I don’t want it. Maybe the world is hard enough with three different legacies tugging me in wildly different directions. Maybe I don’t need love coming in and adding another point of tension.

“He let me change myself. He let me manage my expectations, he let me find that person who was happy on Berk and become her again.”

“But you didn’t stop loving the chief, did you?” My voice is too quiet and I hate it, I hate how much sense this all makes, I hate how I’d find it so interesting if it were happening to anyone else. “Because he was the one when you were growing up and because you knew him so well and he’d already changed you so much.”

“I didn’t talk to him or see him or think about him for a decade,” she shakes her head, “that was where I messed up.”

“Like he was opium or something and you needed to wean yourself off.”

Johann tried to sell Arvid some opium once, and he almost bought it, because he liked to spend all his allowance as soon as it hit his hands. But he told us stories about people who couldn’t stop once they started and even scarier, people who stopped only to kill themselves with it the next time they found it, because the memory of it was way better than the reality.

He bought a hatchet and I had nightmares for a week about needing something I couldn’t have and looking for something that wasn’t there.

“We were on good terms until you were little. Then he started getting pushy. He always wanted more, if I let him take you for a dragon ride he’d want to have you overnight. He kept trying to give you things, to make you like him. You were three when he went too far, I don’t—I don’t exactly know what happened, you were with your dad and then your dad was punching the chief and it was…it was pretty bad. We hung back after that, kept you away from him, tried to get along.”

“Is there anything else I should know?” I snort, kicking my feet up on the table, because I want to not care. I want to be so casual and uncaring that I’ll forget I’m hurt. I want to force it, to wipe my emotional slate clean and go back to being fine. “Do I have a secret half-sister because Dad slept with Ruffnut?”

“Some things are still impossible.” She pats my shoulder and stands up. “I have to go pick up Stoick. Are you ok?”

“You mean am I going to go jump off a cliff because I heard the truth?” I stretch and stand up, looking around. “I still have to hear the chief’s side of the story. All I got through with him was yelling.”

She sighs and grabs my shoulder again, shorter than I remember her, somehow. I’m probably still growing.

“You need a haircut.”

“I’m thinking I might grow it out.” I shrug the shoulder she’s not touching because I’m not ready for her hand to go away yet.

I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to be mad at her. Truly mad at her. She lied to me more than anyone but all I see is how broken she is, how miserable. I’d hug the chief if I thought it might make her smile.

“When did you grow up?” She smiles, a sad smile that makes her look old like she almost never does. “I want…I want you to remember that I didn’t—I didn’t do any of this because I didn’t trust you. I—I’m your mom, to me some part of you is always going to be five and need my protection. And I just…I didn’t want Hiccup—the chief—or anyone else stepping in and confusing you, or making you think you were wrong or not enough or…anything other than perfect.”

“I’m not perfect, Mom.” I pull her into a hug, resting my chin on her shoulder and squeezing too hard. “But I love you.”

“I love you too.” She thumps my back too hard like she always does and squeezes my shoulders.

“Astrid?” The chief’s voice cuts through the moment like a dull, badly balanced axe blade and I hear his uneven footfalls in the doorway. “I shouldn’t have left like that—oh. Hi, Eret. I didn’t think you’d, uh, be back yet.”

I step out of the hug and stand up straight, looking at him like I’m not exhausted and miserable, “yeah, I’m pretty quick at catching up on a lifetime full of lies.”

“I’m going to get Stoick,” Mom announces to the room at large, avoiding eye contact with the chief on her way out the door. It’s too quiet with her gone, too cold.

Next time Arvid calls me a Mama’s Boy I’m going to own it. It’s not an insult.

“Hey,” the chief scratches the back of his head, shifting awkwardly between his feet. “I, uh…I had a speech planned but—how’d things go with your dad?”

“Eh,” I shrug. I’m not going to tell him I yelled at him and stormed off. It feels like ages ago already, like I’m too tired and emotionally full to keep things that happened more than an hour ago in my head. “It’s kind of hard to surprise me at this point.”

“Do you want to talk now?” He waves his arms too much as he says it, pointing at me and the door and the chairs me and Mom were just sitting in.

I remember him angry and he doesn’t even look like the same person, awkward and twitchy and looking at me like he wants to placate me. If it’s an act, it’s a good one, but I’d rather believe it is than understand that he’s capable of both extremes.

That he’s like Mom, who can be warm and coddling or my worst nightmare. That he’s like Dad, who’s arrogant and humble all at once.

I don’t want the chief to be furious and awkward and bumbling and capable but he is anyway.

“Want is the wrong word.” I shrug, stuff my hands in my pockets. “But we should.”

“Ok,” he nods, “I was actually kind of hoping I could take you somewhere. To talk. I’m not kidnapping you—”

“Just…do yourself a favor and don’t talk about kidnapping, alright?” I wipe my forehead and squint my eyes shut, trying to clear my head and stay on topic.

There are very few times in my life I’ve felt like my brain was well and truly full. Like it was packed to bursting and there was no room for anything else. But right now it’s overflowing with realizations and thoughts I don’t have a place for, but I don’t want to do this again, I don’t want the event that is today to stretch across any more time.

I want to be done, I want to be filled in on all I need to know. I’ve never felt behind before now and I hate it.

“Ok, I just want to show you something. It’s not far or anything.” He shrugs, “earlier was a little…intense, and I guess I realized I don’t know you very well but more importantly, you don’t know me. And…”

“Stop sounding like you want to date me or something and lead the way.” I step around him and through the doorway, whistling so that Bang comes out of the barn and bounds up to me, nudging his face against my hand.

“It’s not far,” he repeats with that hopeful, boyish little expression, like he was hoping we would walk, but Toothless traipses up beside him and he jumps easily onto his back.

“I’m following you.” Like my mom used to.

I could stop any time I wanted to, like she did.

Toothless takes off silently and Bang follows with a thud and a hop, his scales pulsing with competition. I pat his head, because now isn’t the time for that, I can win later once I know the chief’s game plan, and he slows down as we fly in a shallow arc around the island. It’s almost sunset, the barest tinge of orange flirting with the horizon, and I bet Dad is back by now. I bet Arvid knows what happened. I bet Dad’s telling Arvid the same story, because there’s no need for secrets anymore.

It feels like justice, like I shouldn’t have to say sorry, because I’m stuck with the chief while Arvid gets to be home with our Dad in the house that he knows.

The chief dives down and lands in the little forest cove that surrounds the swimming hole. I remember the last time I was here, skipping rocks with Arvid, and he told me I should let the chief adopt me. This is where I learned Ingrid was leaving. I suddenly miss her so much I can’t breathe right.

She’d know how to handle this. She’d figure out who needed to be punched and she’d do it.

“Why do I get the feeling you’ve been here before?” The chief laughs, studying my face so closely I wonder if he recognizes my expression the way I so often recognize his. “There goes my second big speech about knowing places you don’t.”

“We used to swim here, as kids. Ingrid and Spitleaf found when they were…I don’t know, ten? Something like that?”

“This is where I met Toothless.” He slides off of the night fury and scratches his neck affectionately. He points behind me, at a scar in the rock and a tiny cave, “I shot him down up there and he fell in and was trapped. He couldn’t fly with his tail torn off and…and I saved him. I guess. But he really saved me from failing dragon training and probably losing my head to Hookfang.”

“And then the two of you saved Berk, what was it? Three dozen times, and this is your way of sounding humble?” It’s meaner than I want it to be, but I don’t take it back.

I’d be lying if I said I weren’t…curious about him. About how he acted earlier. About what it means that my mom used to think he was the world.

“I have wine.” The chief blurts, pulling a bottle out of Toothless’s saddle bag, like he had another speech ready but decided against it. “I don’t know if you drink—or if you’re allowed to drink, I guess, but I don’t know I thought maybe it would…”

“Is this some symbolic father-son drinking thing to you?” That comes out quiet. “Because…because I had a really rough day and I think it’s your one chance where I might actually go along with that.”

He snorts, “I’ll take what I can get.”

“Ok.” I sit down on a boulder and hold my hand out, not looking at him until he hands me the bottle. I pull the cork out with my teeth and spit it out, because I’m not taking any of this back home. I take a sip. It’s odd. Sweet and almost thick, coating my tongue and burning down my throat.

“It’s not the first time you’ve done this, then.” He laughs, takes the bottle back from me and takes a drink. He doesn’t sit, instead pacing back and forth, and I wonder if in every serious conversation there’s one person who paces and one who sits.

Dad always sat while Mom raged, Mom sits while I pace, and I sit while the chief twitches out of his skin.

Who sits while Dad paces? I wonder if that’s Arvid, if he’s as badly suited for it as I imagine.

“No, it’s not the first time I’ve had a drink.” I shake my head, “Dad started giving me sips when I was twelve, I thought it was gross, it was actually a pretty good deterrent. Then, you know, Ingrid would have a bottle or Arvid and I would grab a bottle because it was fun to sneak around and take things. And then we’d drink it because we had it.” I don’t know why I’m telling him this, maybe it’s just because I’ve been getting lectured all day and I just need to tell someone something. I need to clear something out of my head. “He has hollow legs though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him drunk. He’s fine and I’m staggering around the barn, getting all the dragons worked up and puking in the corner. So no. This isn’t my first time having a drink.”

“What does your mother think about all that?”

“She has a saying, ‘don’t drink and fly’. I always thought that was bullshit because if I’m awake, I have a potential to fly. She doesn’t get it, no one that wasn’t born with dragons does. It’s not an activity for us, you know, it’s a state of being.”

“I like that.” He pauses, suddenly quiet, the quietest I’ve ever heard him. He hands me the bottle and I take a gulp, wiping my mouth on my sleeve. I still don’t like this shirt. I don’t like how it feels. I don’t like that it’s new.

“I’m not trying to be poetic or anything.”

“What do you want to talk about?” He starts pacing again, hands behind his back. I take another sip and it starts to hit me, starts to relieve that horrible pressure building behind my forehead, like my skull can’t hold back the sheer weight of today. “I mean, where do you want to start. Where does it start? I—”

“You’ve loved my mother since you were twelve.”

“She was everything I wasn’t. She was a real Viking, she was beautiful, she…she was Astrid.” He looks younger when he talks about her, the sunlight so slanted it can’t catch the silver in his hair.

“You knew her name. Wow. The attachment.”

“Why is that the sticking point for you?” He sounds genuinely intrigued, the same way that I am about his anger, and I try not to look at him. “Why is me loving your mother the thing that makes you tune out? You have no problem believing that I’m your father—”

“It’s obvious.” I take a sip.

“And that Aurelia, who you used to stare at, is your sister—”

“That’s the kind of luck I have.”

“But you can’t believe that at some point, I loved your mother.”

“I don’t want to believe it,” I take another sip and hand the bottle back to him, “I don’t want to think that you’d hurt her like you obviously did if you really loved her.”

“What’d she tell you?” He takes a drink. It’s almost like being family.

“Dad told me more,” I shrug. I don’t want to say more, I don’t want him to know.

“I—I’m not very good at sorry.” He says it too quietly, like he doesn’t want me to hear it. “And your mother isn’t very good at letting things go. I’m sure—I don’t need to tell you this, you know her as well as I do. Probably better than I do, because—I mean, you two are so much alike. I can’t get over it. This morning was…it was like it was twenty years ago and your mother and I were having the same fight again for the hundredth time.”

“Glad I could feed your overflowing well of nostalgia.”

“And then you do that,” he laughs and sits down next to me. Too close. Close enough that our hands are right next to each other and they look the same, long fingers a patchwork of burn scars and freckles and calluses. “When my dad died, I—I was twenty and suddenly I was chief and my mom was there and I didn’t know how to deal with her and the island and everything all at once and—and your mom was so steady, she was so…well, Astrid, just how she’d always been that I thought I could just…put her off for a while. I thought I could get everything else in order and somehow she’d be waiting there when I needed her like she’d been frozen in time or something.”

“That’s a shitty way to think.”

I understand it entirely. I understand feeling like I can apologize to Arvid tomorrow, like there’s always a tomorrow. Like I can storm off and when I come back, Dad will just let me try again, whether it’s a week from now or a month or a year.

I’m shitty too.

“I’m not saying that it wasn’t. I’m just…I’m trying to explain myself. I guess. Which I’ve never done before,” he wrinkles his nose, “to anyone.”

“I always heard you were eloquent.” I watch Bang at the edge of the cove, resting his chin in the water and watching fish dart around. Toothless is looking at him with this haughty expression, like Bang is an idiot for watching the fish, but then a large trout catches his eye and they’re side by side, staring into the cove.

“I expected to figure myself out in a couple weeks, you know? But…I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t shake the fact that my dad was dead and that I was alone and in over my head—”

“But it was your own fault you were alone. Mom would have helped you if you didn’t push her away.” Somehow that’s the thing I’m surest of. Mom would have done the right thing, Mom would have helped him.

“I know that, but—I thought I had to do it on my own. I thought I had to prove myself and I just…I lost track of time. Suddenly your mom would be furious with me because I hadn’t seen her in a month when it only felt like a few days. And I started leaving, trying to negotiate peace, at first, but then it was easier to be gone than it was to be at home, because I didn’t feel so behind all the time—”

“But being gone all the time made you fall further behind and then you wanted to come home even less.”

I hate that it makes sense. I hate that if anyone else were telling me the same story I’d be sympathetic. I hate that my disdain is officially irrational, but it’s no less deep seated than before.

I grab the bottle of wine from him and take another sip. I’m starving, because I was too busy playing lie-detective to eat lunch, and the alcohol is going straight to my head.

“And when I came home, your mom was always pissed at me, because I’d been ignoring her for months and—I don’t think we had a pleasant conversation for years. We’d fight and well, in the name of honesty, have sex—”

“Gross.”

“I told you I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“Please lie about that. Always.”

“We never talked about getting married, we didn’t even talk about being engaged or…we just fought about everything. We fought about the village and about jobs I assigned people and about how disorganized I was. And I remember not knowing if we were even…together anymore, or if she was just my least favorite advisor who went to great lengths to keep me honest. I started…I mean—I was twenty two, the first time it happened, and—”

“Are you saying there were other women?” I laugh and rub my forehead. “I thought we were supposed to be bonding, I didn’t realize you were going to get me drunk and then convince me to kick your ass.”

“I didn’t know it would take convincing.” His hands are shaking. “I didn’t know she still liked me, let alone that I was hurting her. I never…I never saw the hurt and I was young and self-centered. All I saw was her hardening. I didn’t think about why, I was waiting to feel better myself before I tried to fix us. And then one day she was with your dad and she looked…happy. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her smile, and…and I was bitter.”

“That whole thing where a kid doesn’t want a toy until he sees someone else playing with it?” I hand him the bottle and stand up, turning away from him because I don’t want to see the effect of my words. I want to be right without the consequences.

“I was bitter that she kept me on the hook for so long, that she was too stubborn to let go and that kept both of us miserable for years. I thought that if we fought like that it was…you know, how could two people put so much energy into something they didn’t intend to keep? And it wasn’t a month later when they had a contract and I—that’s still my biggest mistake, I think. I was the one who did it. I was the one who married them. I looked right into your mother’s face and signed her over to someone else.”

“You still loved her?”

“I still wanted to. I’d…forgotten how. I think.”

“You two are so fucked.” I turn around to face him, hands in my pockets. “I heard I…happened the night before your wedding. That’s fucked too.”

“The whole situation is fucked.”

“You knocked my mom up, married some other woman—”

“I don’t need a synopsis of all my bad decisions in life, thanks.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize that was what I was doing. If that were my goal I’d start way further back—”

“I had a chance, there, for a second. I should have called off my wedding, I should have—”

“But then Aurelia wouldn’t exist. Stoick wouldn’t exist.” I have a strange feeling saying it out loud, like for the first time I’m grouping myself with them, as one of the chief’s children. It doesn’t feel good, like…like the circumstances of my existence were convenient to him. Like…like I’m a piece in a board game I don’t understand and the move he made after he moved me was bad for his strategy. “You’d trade your kids to fix a mistake you made with my mom?”

“I…” He trails off. I’m angrier than I have been all day, but it’s cool. Distilled. Wine dampened and sharp.

“You hadn’t thought about that, had you?” I close my eyes and exhale, “you…you tried to put my mom on a shelf, like…like an old saddle you weren’t using but didn’t want to get rid of. You married her like signing some papers would somehow erase decades of hurt and you—you think that by putting me in the right place, I’ll change, I’ll fall in line. You…think of your kids as mistakes.”

“I don’t mean it like that,” his jaw twitches, “I’ve been trying to fix this—”

“It’s like you forgot that other people have feelings too. That we don’t like to be used, we don’t like to be…collateral. You can’t pause us until you’re ready to deal with it.”

“I know.” He deflates slightly, shoulders slumping.

I want to say something decisive, something to tear him down the rest of the way. I want to be the bigger person, I want to make him feel better. I want to be so nice, so understanding, so receptive to the idea of his feelings that he knows I’ll never ever be like him.

My stomach growls.

“Look, chief, this morning…this morning I hated you as an idea. You were this big family-wrecking asshole I was blaming all my problems on.” I swallow, step forward and take the bottle, gulp about half of what’s left because what I’m about to say next is going to sting. “Now…I…You’re a person. And obviously there are things about you that don’t totally suck, and I have some of them and at one point, my mom really loved you so you can’t be all bad but…but it’s worse too, because now I know you enough to dislike you. I don’t like how you treat people, especially my mom, especially Aurelia. I…I can handle myself and I can handle you, because well…I think I have whatever makes you so durable and annoying, but…they shouldn’t have to handle it. You should stop being so awful to them.”

“That was the most diplomatic ‘fuck you’ I’ve ever heard.” He cradles his head in his hands. “And that’s saying something. I’ve heard some doozies.”

“You probably deserved them.”

“I probably deserved them.” He echoes. “Tomorrow. Chief training. We need to get back at it, I’m not kicking the bucket and dumping it all on you before you’re ready.”

“Too bad.” I laugh, because I don’t really mean it, not anymore. I don’t really want him to talk to me or anyone I love but I don’t want him to die or anything.

He laughs too, standing up and reaching for the rest of the wine. He finishes it and calls Toothless over, putting the empty bottle in his saddle bag and climbing on.

“You safe to get home by yourself? I’m going to go take a lap, clear my head a bit.”

“Is it my island while you’re gone?” I whistle for Bang and adjust his saddle slightly, scratching him under the chin.

“Sure, don’t let half an hour of power go to your head. It’s big enough already.” He looks at me like he’s appraising me again. Like he’s impressed. I hate that I like impressing him. “You seem to think you’re pretty smart.”

“Hey, I didn’t say I only inherited good stuff from you.”

“See you at home.” He waves as he takes off and I don’t wave back, standing perfectly still until Toothless disappears, perfectly camouflaged against the night sky.

Chapter Text

When I get home, the house is dark and quiet and I’m so hungry I’m thinking about the barrel of fish in the barn as an option, but there’s a plate of food on the table that mom must have left out. Aurelia’s sitting at the table and flipping through the stack of documents someone cleaned up. She raises her eyebrows when she sees me, pointing at the plate.

“You missed dinner.”

She knows more than she’s saying, like she always does, and she turns away from the documents to narrow her eyes at me. Bang curls up in front of the fire, flopping down with a loud thump.

“I’m fucking starving.”

“Long day?” She laughs, scooting her chair away from mine as I fall on the food, like she’s scared of splashback.

“You have no idea,” I say around a mouthful of fish and she looks disgusted. I swallow, frowning at her, “wait, you probably don’t. Fuck.”

“What don’t I know?” She looks nervous, and she has good reason, because for us secrets usually mean things like having your family ripped apart and pieced back together.

“Mom and the chief used to be together,” I’ve said it so many times it almost sounds normal, “like, they were engaged. For years. When they were younger.”

“Shit,” she snorts, grabs a crust of bread from my plate like she doesn’t like having ten fingers. “I didn’t realize it was that official.”

“What?” I shove another forkful of fish in my mouth, sauce dribbling down my chin. Aurelia wrinkles her nose and I roll my eyes, swallowing and wiping my face on my sleeve. “I’m hungry, I didn’t eat today, I was busy running around hearing like, thirty years’ worth of messed up truths, so excuse my table manners.”

“What table manners?”

I roll my eyes, “I don’t think you’re quite shocked enough,” I cram a piece of bread into my mouth and chew quickly, “maybe you didn’t hear me. Mom used to be engaged to the chief. For years. They were together and…and you aren’t shocked. Be shocked. I was hoping you could rant while I finish eating.”

“I don’t rant.” She scoffs, crosses her arms. “What would make you think I rant? That makes it sound so obnoxious, I’m just talking, Eret. You talk all the time, but when I do it it’s suddenly ranting?”

I raise my eyebrows. She flushes and tucks her hair behind her ear.

“Shut up.” She curls her knees to her chest and hugs them, looking at me for a long second before looking at the fireplace. The flames are getting low, more hot coals than actual fire, and it’s like the whole world is winding down from a storm. “I don’t think I have a rant about this. I guess. I—I always figured it was something like that. I don’t know. My dad talks about Mom like…like I don’t know. My mom knew, that’s why she’s not around, I guess.”

I stop eating, for a second, just long enough to put my knife down and stare at her.

“That’s not why.”

“No,” she pats my shoulder, “it’s not. It’s part of the reason but not all of it.”

“Are you trying to take away my appetite?” I laugh because I don’t know what else to do. I want to hug her, to let her know that I should have been a big brother for the last sixteen years.

“Yeah, you’re kind of disgusting.” Her lips twitch. “Plus, I think you’re getting fat.”

“Right, that’s totally my problem.” I scrape my plate and push it away from myself. “It’s not like I’m incurably scrawny or anything.”

“Is Bang going to bite my head off if I go hang out with him?” She stands up, looking at Bang with the closest thing I’ve seen to affection for a dragon.

“No, of course not, he loves you.”

“That’s an overstatement,” she crosses the room and gingerly takes a seat, pulling one of his blankets onto her lap and leaning back against Bang’s side. He warbles and she scratches his chin. “He loves anyone who scratches him.”

“Yeah, and you’re scratching him.” I get up and join her, pulling off my boots and letting my head fall back against Bang’s side. He’s breathing slowly, calmly, like today isn’t going to perturb his sleep at all. “I have to go chiefing with the chief tomorrow.”

“Who else would you go chiefing with?”

“You think you’re so smart, don’t you?” I can hear the chief’s voice in my head, echoing off the stone walls of the cove. “I’m like him, you know that, right? I’m just fucking like him.”

“No, you’re not.” She sighs, pulling the blanket up to her armpits and turning to face me.

Sometimes I can’t help but remember how many times I imagined this. Curled up with Aurelia Haddock by the fire, talking about our days. I lean forward to get away from it, to avoid the cruel twist of the last few months. I suddenly have everything I wanted but none of it’s right, none of it is how I hoped it would be.

People don’t see me as Arvid’s shadow but I haven’t talked to Arvid without yelling in weeks. Aurelia is my best friend but she’s also my sister. People treat me as an adult, but in the horrible way where they trust me with their secrets and their truths and their home.

It makes me want to run away.

I lean back against Bang and throw my arm over my eyes, “yes, I am. I really am.”

“No, you’re not, because I like you.” She pulls my arm away from my face and gives me a surprisingly stern look. “Plus, your hair is way more out of control.”

“I’m growing it out,” I cross my arms, a glimmer of anger at Mom coming through, “I think it’s a little creepy that I’ve had the same haircut as my secret dad my whole life.”

“Maybe it’s because it’s the haircut that makes you look the least dorky.” She ruffles my hair and I bat her hand away.

“Do you think they still love each other?” It’s the question I wanted to ask all of them but couldn’t, because I don’t think I really want an answer. It’s one of those questions I want to predict, I want to be sure what they’re going to say before they have a chance to say it. “Like…I think they actually used to love each other. Does that ever go away? Did she still love the chief when she married my dad? Did my dad know and marry her anyway? I…”

She numbers on her fingers, “My dad has always loved Mom, I think, he talked about her enough. Love absolutely can go away. I have no idea if she loved my dad when she married your dad, but I can’t blame her too much because your dad is a hottie either way. If your dad knew, Mom is also a hottie so I’m not entirely shocked.”

“Can you be serious for two seconds?” I laugh, “and don’t call my dad hot, it’s weird. Don’t call anything hot ever.”

“Sorry, bro, but your dad is hot.”

“Seriously,” I sigh, bury my face in my hands, “can you at least try?”

“Right, because I’m the only one here with a problem using humor to avoid coping.” She tugs on his hair, fingers dragging almost roughly across his scalp. Braiding, he realizes, after a moment, and it’s like he’s victim to Ingrid and her friends again when they got into a braiding mood. “My dad used to tell me about your mom, you know, it was my favorite bedtime story. He thought he was being so clever, but a warrior princess named after a Valkyrie was pretty obvious, even when I was six. He said she wasn’t afraid of anything and that she never let her friends down. I knew, even then, that it was one of those things where he was trying to…teach me how to be, you know? I was supposed to hear about her and get over being afraid of heights and just…leap on Toothless, or something. It never worked that way. I was kind of pissed, honestly, when I realized I’d never be her and he’d never be happy with me.”

“Remind me never to ask you to be serious, that’s the most dismal thing I’ve heard all day. And that’s saying something.” I look up, her hands slipping out of my hair. She looks too fine for everything she just said, like it doesn’t affect her at all.

Like she’s going to keep on beating her weirdo drum no matter what and she knows, at some level, that discounting her is the chief’s loss.

“I try.” She mock curtseys, jumping slightly when Bang groans and curls slightly towards the fire. “I’m sort of shocked you never guessed that they were…you know, past lovers.” She grins, because she knows how much the idea makes me shudder. “Why else would your family have hated my dad so much?”

“Because he’s easy to hate?” I shrug, and I hate this, I hate looking back through every childhood memory and trying to discern if it was a lie. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s obvious.”

“It is obvious.”

“It doesn’t make sense. If they loved each other enough for…you know, me to exist and your mom to leave then why…why did they ever marry other people? Why didn’t they just…you know, figure it out. I don’t know.”

“My dad married my mom because she was pretty and different and she made him feel younger. And because Mom didn’t want him anymore, I guess.”

“My parents were married because they loved each other, I thought. Growing up it was always like…we all wanted that. Or I did, I don’t know, it was just…they were great with each other. They always took care of us and they still kissed every day when dad came home and—I don’t know. They still looked at each other like they were in love. Maybe none of that was real.”

“Hey, their marriage lasted sixteen years post lovechild. That’s gotta mean something.” She reaches for my hair again, tugging it too hard as she starts to braid. It’s too short for this, really, but I’m enjoying being messed with, I guess, like even though my parents are fucked I still get moments of sibling annoyance.

“No comments on how my dad’s hot so it was easy to make goo-goo eyes at him?”

“You said it, not me.”

“I just—every time I get used to my life it gets flipped on its ass again. Everything is different, again.”

“How is everything different?” It’s an honest question and she ties off whatever braid she’s managed before sitting back against Bang, looking at me expectantly. “I mean…yeah, Mom and my dad have a past, but they always did, you exist, we knew they had a past, it’s just…more official than we knew. But that doesn’t change anything.”

“It changes everything.”

“How?”

“I—you want to know how?” I squint my eyes shut and exhale, “because before this, the chief was just some asshole who ruined everything. Now he’s this…actual human being with a past and he used to be important to my mom and…and I can’t treat him the same way. Because now he’s sad. And he’s clueless and…and I’m scared I’m going to be like that someday and I don’t want to give the world license to be shitty to me when I am.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t take you seriously when your hair is like that.” She laughs, pulling the tie out of my hair and combing it loose.

“Some sister you are.” I like it more than I should that she’s snarky and minimizing. It’s bringing me back down to Midgard, when my mind had been trying to drag me away on some lofty whim.

“You won’t be like him the ways you hate, because you know so well how much you hate them.” She pats my shoulder.

“Aren’t you supposed to be the little sister?” I grab a blanket and pull it up over my lap. I’m exhausted even though it’s not that late and I sort of want her to go to bed so that I can. “It seems like you’re always comforting me.”

“I does, doesn’t it?” She laughs, nudges her pointy, little shoulder against mine. “I guess I’m just…I’m more used to my dad, you know? You get your coping period and…I mean, he’s been so busy with you and with Mom that he hasn’t been that bad for me lately. It’ll come back around.”

“I don’t know why he’s so hard on you.” Nothing Aurelia does is ever right. She’s always loud when he thinks she should be quiet or quiet when he thinks she should be loud and it drives me crazy.

“Because,” she shrugs, unsmiling, “I don’t do dragons and he’s Mr. Dragons. And you’re Mr. Dragons Junior so I’m obviously out.”

“I doubt it’s that simple.”

“I don’t want to talk about it. I’m supposed to be comforting you, remember? Don’t get me going, then I’ll never get out of your hair and let you sleep.”

“What did you do today, by the way, while I was playing lie detective?” I change the subject, because she’s right, I should cheer her up before I kick her out of my floor.

At some point, I know someone will say something and make me go upstairs and share that room with Stoick but I just can’t yet. I can’t let myself be integrated so easily into this weird, new family.

“I saw Arvid, actually,” she shrugs, falsely casual, “at your old house. Through the window. I was hiding under the window to be honest. He was shirtless, but he didn’t want to argue with me, so that was lame.”

“You stalked my brother, didn’t you?” I frown, “and don’t tell me it’s because he’s hot too. I can’t take that today. I already want to burn my ears out.”

“I don’t think you could burn your ears out, like, that wouldn’t work, you’d probably just die.”

“Well, I’m willing to try.”

I should have seen it coming, but I’m entirely surprised when she sticks her wet finger in my ear, laughing when I slap her hand away.

“So that’s how you want to play,” I lick my palm and try to wipe it on her face. She looks horrified and kicks me in the stomach with just enough force to make me groan.

The door opens, cold wind cutting through the cozy room. Of course it’s the chief, looking windblown and miserable, Toothless at his heels. He freezes, staring at us, and Aurelia sits up straight, shrinking a little closer to Bang as Toothless slinks past. Bang snuffles at her hand and the chief watches her scratch his head with wide eyes.

“You’re letting all the warm out,” I say, pulling the blanket further onto my lap. He steps inside and closes the door.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize anyone would still be up.”

“Were you avoiding someone?” Aurelia asks, voice too smart for the falsely innocent tilt of her head.

It looks like she doesn’t share my thought that I can’t be downright mean to the chief anymore.

“Nah, just flying.” He shrugs, rubbing the back of his neck and looking at Aurelia’s hand on Bang’s head with slack-jawed amazement. “You like Bang?”

“He’s alright.” She shrugs, knees curling to her chest.

“You should uh…let me take you for a ride sometime. If you know—”

“I still don’t like heights.” She cuts him off, patting Bang’s head and adjusting the blanket across her knees.

“Oh. Ok. Well, umm, if you change your mind, I’m always around for a flight.”

“I know you are.”

“Ok,” he rubs his hands together and looks at the bedroom door, eyes faltering slightly like he can’t handle seeing Mom right now. “Stoick’s probably asleep, right?”

“I would assume so,” I shrug, “Why?”

“If you’re not going to use that bed, I think I will.” He nods, staring at the stairs and I can’t help but respect it, a little bit, the fact that he’s letting down the ridiculous charade of normalcy.

He should have done that since the beginning. Doing it now is better than never doing it.

“Bang doesn’t fit up there anyway.”

“Ok.” He looks at Aurelia again and the way she’s petting Bang’s chin. “I could look out for a Thunderdrum, if you wanted. It wouldn’t be a big deal at all, we have room in the barn and it’s about the right season for it. I know you didn’t finish intermediate dragon training, but I bet you’d be a real natural—”

“I’m good.” Aurelia tries to cut him off but he keeps talking.

“—If you just tried, I bet you’d be great. And look at how Bang likes you—”

“As a friend, not as a codependent, lizard limb.”

“And it’s a little late, yeah, but I was only a little younger than you when I met Toothless and obviously that—”

“I don’t want a dragon, Dad!” She snaps, hand fisted in the blanket on her lap. Bang lifts his head, turning to comfort her, and moving fast enough that it scares her and she falls back against my shoulder.

“S’okay, bud, calm down. She’s fine.” I stroke Bang’s back, pushing down a little bit so that he flops back onto the ground.

“I just thought—”

“Yeah, you thought I might finally be fitting in.” She rolls her eyes, sits back up straight like she isn’t scared and pets Bang’s head defiantly, proudly. “I got some bad news for you there.”

“Ok. I’m sorry, I won’t—I’m not going to say I won’t bring it up again, because I still think you should really think about it but…” he looks at me like he’s hoping for backup and I shrug, because what I said earlier is still so true. He needs to treat Aurelia better. Not the version of her that he wishes existed, but the actual, present her. “Goodnight.”

“Night.” I watch him climb the stairs and shut the door to Stoick’s bedroom before speaking. “We don’t have to talk about that.”

“Good. Because I don’t want to.” She lays her head back against Bang’s, slowly, carefully, like she’s not entirely sure he’s not going to eat her but she has to prove a point. “I’m just going to hang out until I know he’s asleep, alright?”

“No problem.”

“Why are you being so cool about me stalking Arvid? He’s your brother, isn’t it…I don’t know, aren’t you pissed at me?”

I should be. Probably. But I think back to talking with the chief in the cove, that feeling that he was placing me like a game piece.

Telling Aurelia not to talk to Arvid would be convenient.

“Just because my creepy childhood crush is a bust doesn’t mean yours has to be too.” I shrug. “And…a lot of people lied to me about a lot of things to make their lives easier. I’m not…I’m not going to tell you not to do something just because it’s harder for me.”

“You just want to watch me embarrass myself.”

“That too.” I laugh and she uses my head to push herself to her feet.

“Your hair doesn’t look half bad, by the way. Don’t listen to me.”

“I never do.”

She rolls her eyes and looks at the stairs for a moment, like she’s contemplating finding somewhere else to sleep too. She sets her chin forward, and for a second she looks so much like the chief that I can’t believe anyone sees a resemblance between me and him.

“Goodnight.”

“Night.” I wait until she shuts her door to lay down and get comfortable, Bang’s neck cool and comfortable against the back of my neck.

I wake up to something poking my face. Is it Bang’s claw? Did I roll onto a stick? It pokes again, this time at the corner of my mouth and my eyes snap open.

Stoick is kneeling next to me, leaning down so his face right in front of mine.

“Gah!” I jerk back and sit up, tugging the blanket to my armpits like he’s going to see something scandalous through yesterday’s shirt.

“Good morning,” he chirps, sitting back on his heels and rubbing sleepy eyes, “Dad and I had a sleepover.”

“Oh. Yeah. That’s…uh, that’s cool.”

Stoick and I haven’t really had much one on one time, I’m the first to admit that. He’s attached to Mom’s hip, basically, and the rest of the time he’s with Aurelia or his little blue terror and maybe I’ve been avoiding him a tiny bit because what do I even say to him? Everyone else seems to be so comfortable with him, like talking to kids is automatic, and I feel faulty.

“What are you doing?”

“Uh, I’m waking up?”

Bang rolls onto his belly behind me and looks curiously in Stoick’s direction, tail whisking across the floor. Stoick crawls to sit right in front of him, one hand held patiently in front of his face. Bang presses his nose into the gesture and Stoick proceeds to count his teeth, head halfway inside Bang’s agape mouth.

“Thunderdrums are tidal class.” He tells me with an air of authority that’s all too familiar. He looks like the chief too, not as much as me or Aurelia, but it’s in his expressions, in the straight, dark eyebrows that knit together above his nose.

“Yeah, they are. That’s why Bang is always so cool.” I rest my hand on Bang’s side, scratching at the cool, blue scales.

“He is cool.” Stoick smiles, leaning forward to wrap his arms as far as he can around Bang’s head. “I like him.”

“Yeah?” I’m half asleep but I can’t help smiling, letting the blanket fall back onto my lap.

Ok, that’s pretty endearing. He’s got good taste in dragons and massive green eyes and the kid is cute, ok? I can think he’s cute and not know what to do with him at the same time. I was never supposed to be a big brother and it’s different with Aurelia, because we’re the same age, basically, and because she talks like she’s got a direct line to my brain, but Stoick is…he’s so small. I feel like I’m going to break him or scare him or do something wrong.

“Are you waking Eret up?” Aurelia’s voice comes from the stairs and Stoick runs to her, hugging her leg and mumbling something like ‘good morning’ into her side. She pushes his hair off of his forehead and walks over to the table, fiddling with yesterday’s documents. “That’s dangerous. He’ll eat your face off if you bug him when he’s tired.”

“He won’t eat my face!” Stoick giggles, running back to Bang and flopping down on his other side. He counts Bang’s toes and whispers something in his ear.

“That’s what you think.” Aurelia gives me a look too meaningful for this early in the day and I stand up, scratching Bang’s head and walking to join her. “Did you look at these, yesterday? We didn’t get a chance to talk about it last night but they’re from the Berserker tribe, they’ve been experiencing random dragon attacks.”

She’s fully ready for the day in a way that makes me wonder when she woke up, or how much she slept at all. I scratch my head and blink twice, looking back at Stoick when I hear him laugh. Bang is licking his face, tail swishing back and forth.

“Berserkers. Random dragon attacks. What?” I’m more asleep than I thought I was.

“Exactly what you just said. And they’re asking my dad about it.”

“Fuck.” I say too loudly, looking over my shoulder at Stoick to make sure he didn’t hear, “I—that was me, and Arvid, back…back when there was a me and Arvid. The last time we were me and Arvid.”

“Stop saying it like you were dating, that’s weird,” she flips through a few documents, looking over her shoulder like she’s scared of the chief walking in. “You two bombed nine separate locations on the island over two weeks?”

“No, we just did the chief’s chimney, the rest of those are definitely wild dragons.”

“Why don’t I trust you?”

“You should. We just did this one, number four.”

“Do you know what this means?” She looks at me urgently, leaning close to whisper. “This is the inhabited island closest to the island you told me about, with all the sick dragons, you know? What if it’s part of it?”

My eyes widen, “I’d say it’s almost definitely part of it.”

“You should talk to Fuse today. See what’s going on with the plan. I’ll talk to Arvid.” She adds the last sentence in quick, hushed tones and I roll my eyes.

“That’s so selfless of you.”

“Yeah, I’m willing to martyr myself for this one, big brother, get on board.”

The chief flings open the door, right then, walking in with a basket of fresh bread that makes my stomach growl.

“Good morning!” He’s too chipper, looking at me like we’re best friends and he’s apologizing for some minor infraction. Stoick runs and hugs him and Hiccup hands him the smaller basket of bread, asking him to set it on the table.

“What’s this for?” I pick up a smaller loaf, taking a bite out of it directly because I’m starving.

Aurelia looks disgusted, again, and I want to taunt her about how Arvid eats. But that makes them sound like an inevitability and no matter how logical I am, I’m not thinking about that.

“Breakfast,” he shrugs, “I was up early and thought your mom could sleep in.”

Huh.

That’s like…halfway to nice.

“Thanks, Dad.” Aurelia avoids eye contact, picking up a small cake and picking at the edges of it. She’s still mad.

The chief looks at her with something halfway between confusion and frustration.

“Wait,” he digs through the other basket and pulls out an apple tart, “I got your favorite.”

She takes it with a tight lipped smile, “oh. Thanks.”

I wonder if it’s actually her favorite. Something about the way she looks at it makes me think she isn’t. She looks at it like it’s something she’s lost, something she didn’t want to find again, and takes a bite.

“Is, uh, is your mom up yet?” The chief asks me and I shrug.

“I don’t know, Stoick woke me up all of five minutes ago.”

“Oh, was that—I mean…” He looks behind him at Stoick, who’s gnawing happily on a roll and chatting with Bang. “Is that ok? I noticed—I mean, I couldn’t help but notice you two haven’t spent much time together and—”

“It was fine.” I shrug. “He and Bang are getting along.”

“Good.” He raises his hand like he’s going to pat me on the shoulder but then stops, tucking it awkwardly into his pocket, “I’m glad—I… yes.”

The bedroom door opens and Mom steps out, fully dressed, hair half braided, and completely furious. The anger drops from her face immediately and she frowns, looking at me for an answer.

“What is this?”

“Breakfast?” The chief supplies, shrugging and biting his lip.

It’s that pleasing expression he uses on me. I recognize it entirely.

“You didn’t come to bed last night.”

“Dad and I had a sleepover!” Stoick announces from his place on the ground before looking at me with those paralyzing green eyes. “Can Bang have the rest of this?” He holds up his bread, “he’s begging a lot.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Bang takes the last bite of the roll from Stoick with a careful tongue.

“You went and got breakfast?” Mom narrows her eyes, her suspicious look, the one that always sent me and Arvid running because our plan was essentially found out.

“Yes?” The chief scratches his head, “I thought everyone might be hungry?”

Aurelia scoffs. I clear my throat.

Stoick tells Bang he’s a very good boy.

“Ok,” Mom nods, still suspicious as she crosses the room and slices a piece of bread off of a loaf with the knife already in her belt. “Thanks.”

“Yeah, you’re welcome.” The chief smiles, looking constipated and terrified.

“You going to go get dressed, Stoick? You’ve got to get to dragon training.” Mom reminds Stoick, walking over to say good morning to him and Bang.

“We can take him,” the chief pipes up, “I was—yeah, we can take him, we’re leaving soon, right Eret?”

I look down at my rumpled clothes and the half eaten loaf of bread in my hand. “Uh, I’ll get dressed?”

“Good, you can eat on the way. We’ve got a lot to do today.”

In the five minutes I take to change clothes, Mom doesn’t stop looking at the chief suspiciously, sitting at the table and staring at him like she expects a whispering death to pop out of his pocket and attack. Aurelia is uncharacteristically quiet, sitting next to Mom and nibbling around the edges of her breakfast.

“Ready guys?” The chief ushers us towards the door.

Aurelia mouths ‘talk to Fuse’ at me as I grab the rest of my breakfast and leave, Bang trotting at my heels next to Toothless.

We’re barely outside when Stoick runs to catch up with me, pulling up his pants and looking at me expectantly. Like he trusts me in a way I can’t understand, a way I definitely haven’t caused.

“Can I ride Bang?”

“You don’t want to ride Toothless?” The chief looks something like jealous and I move impulsively, lifting Stoick by his armpits and setting him on Bang’s back. He laughs, grasping at Bang’s back and looking for a hand hold.

“Hold on tight,” I tell him. The chief smiles. I feel fundamentally strange.

It’s like yesterday is gone and it left some slightly altered reality in its place. I don’t want it to be gone, I realize, I want to hold onto it, to use it as a launching pad to some future with a whole lot less lies.

“You’re good with him,” the chief walks close to me, speaking quietly under Stoick’s laughter.

“Not really.” I look back to make sure he’s not falling off and Bang is walking super carefully, tail held rigid behind him for balance. “Not the way Aurelia is.”

“Well, she’s known him forever.”

“I’m just not very good with kids.” I shrug. “I don’t have the filter for it.”

“You’re doing fine.”

I hate that his compliments still mean something, hate that they make me feel like I have half a dad again, while mine is so absent. He’s probably mad at me. He probably spent all night telling Arvid how he was right about me, how I’m a lost cause belonging to the chief now.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” I try and keep my tone light, because I can feel that’s the goal. Today we are going to function, we are going to plow forward.

I am going to change.

“Baby naming across town, then we have to fix the wood storage system, an old beam cracked yesterday. And then we have to assess the storeroom, see how much food we need to start preserving for winter. That’ll probably take most of the afternoon, so we should try and get everything else done as quickly as possible.”

“Ok.”

Someone sees Stoick and waves, first at him then at me, and I can’t help but like it, at least a little bit. I like not being a town pariah, I like people talking to me and waving at me. I’ve missed going around with the chief, the talking with the people part of it.

Stoick slides off of Bang’s back when we get to the arena and he hugs me goodbye, arms around my leg. I pat his head, unsure of what to do, but he’s smiling when he runs off so I hope I did the right thing. The chief is looking at me strangely, like this is a test I don’t know I’m taking and I stand up straighter, looking at the village and gesturing with my hand.

“Should we get going?”

“Yeah,” he jumps onto Toothless and I do the same, wishing I’d taken a moment to put Bang’s saddle on this morning when Toothless cuts easily through the sky, flying faster than I usually do.

The island looks the same from above, like it always does, the seas finally clear from the fire. The hill is still burned, of course, and the grass around the village is starting to wilt to a pale brown color, but it looks like fall in Berk. It’ll probably start snowing in a couple weeks, and while the first few will melt off, by Snoggletog we’ll have a permanent three feet that’ll stick around until spring.

The baby naming goes quickly, the smiling new father shaking my hand and introducing himself like I’m someone he’s been eager to meet. I see why people like the chief so much as he coos and comments on how cute the baby is, how strong, holding her for a moment while I fill out the records of her birth. He gives the parents a blanket for her, for the winter, and I see what the rest of the village sees.

He’s a good chief, isn’t he? A relatively decent guy when he’s not making love children and tearing families apart.

We walk into the square after that and the chief points at the forge.

“Oh, yeah, Gobber says you have to finish what you were working on yesterday. Sometime soon, I guess, he said you don’t get to leave stuff half done.” He says it half-authoritatively, like Gobber said it as an order and he’s uncomfortable passing it on.

I shrug, “yeah, I’ll go by later. I should apologize anyway, I sort of…you know, freaked out on him yesterday.”

“You had a pretty good reason.” His face is oddly gray, deeply worried, and I almost ask him what’s wrong.

“Yeah, but it’s Gobber. If there’s one rule I’d never break it’s ‘don’t piss Gobber off’.”

“Come on, I bet you’ve broken that one a few times.” He’s easy to talk to the way that Aurelia is and I’m aware of the slippery slope even as I snort and quip back.

“Never intentionally.” I look over at the forge and Smitelout is working in the window, pounding rhythmically on some armor. “He has help today, I’ll finish up later.”

“What are you working on?” He asks like he’s actually interested and a little chatty bubble builds up in my throat. I don’t want to want to talk to him.

“General repair stuff. I haven’t been around enough to have any real projects.”

“Oh. What was your last project? Or your favorite?”

I shrug, scratch my head and tuck a lock of hair behind my ear. I avoid eye contact. He frowns at me but thankfully drops it.

I don’t want to be his friend.

The silence is just starting to get awkward when I spot Fuse walking towards us with Hotgut at her side. She smiles and waves, and the chief waves back faster than I can, pulling a sheet of parchment out of Toothless’s saddle bag to show her.

“I was hoping to run into you today,” he claps her on the shoulder and her eyes widen as she stares at one pocket on her vest, like she’s scared that the impact is going to detonate something. “I want to talk to you about building a new wood bin, we’re barely keeping the old one together and I think a new one would be way steadier set back into the rock.”

I say hi to Hotgut, scratching her blunt purple nose and slipping her a piece of fish jerky from my pocket. I’m not sure how old it is but she’s happy with the treat, snuffling up next to Bang. Fuse is chatting with the chief, bent over the parchment he’s holding out, tangled braid dragging through charcoal and picking up gray tint. Half her eyebrow is missing, still, and she’s got a smudge of some bluish soot on the side of her nose. I walk around them to look over her shoulder at the drawing and she glances at me, before focusing on the chief’s sketch. She smells like black powder and it clears my head.

“You want to take a notch out of the mountain?” She sounds excited in a way she rarely does, looking up at the ridge in front of us and squinting.

“Yeah, can you do it?”

“I mean, I don’t see why I can’t.” She pulls a charcoal stick out of her pocket and draws a few sketchy lines, breaking up the rock she’s supposed to remove into smaller chunks on paper. “I’d need a path cleared to the ocean here, I can do it, but that’d be a big blast. Like, people should plug their ears and avoid the area.”

“I can clear people out,” the chief nods and hands her the parchment, “let me know when and what you need. I’d like to have it done by the end of winter, because then we can stack next year’s new wood pile there while the old one is depleted.”

She nods and gives me a meaningful look, “I’ve got another big project taking up a lot of time right now.”

A big project which we need to talk about without telling the chief because he won’t like it and doesn’t agree that it’s important. A big project that Aurelia is expecting an update on and why does the chief have to be here right now?

“Yeah,” I shrug, trying for casual and completely pulling it off, “I’ll come by and talk to you about that later, ok?”

She smiles and the chief looks at me funny, like he’s onto something, like he knows it’s a secret thing I’m not telling him about. He’s already been prying today, asking me what projects I like and stuff and—oh shit, did he overhear me and Aurelia talking about it or something?

“Cool, I’ll just be in my shop.”

“Nice.” I go to knock my fist against her shoulder, because that’s the most casual thing I could do, but remember at the last second that she probably has something I might detonate in her vest. I slow down and pat her arm and the chief is staring at me like he knows.

I glance up at the sky and there are no wild dragons, no familiar flapping shapes or rustles in the distant trees, and it hardens my resolve. I let life get in the way of helping those dragons but not anymore.

“See you later?” Fuse cocks her head and narrows her eyes at me, like she doesn’t understand that we have to be super secretive right now.

“Yeah, no, definitely. As soon as I’m done with, you know, chiefly stuff. I’ll come right by.”

“Ok…” she shakes her head like I’m crazy but she’s smiling, one of those tiny, real smiles just tugging at the corners of her lips. “I’ll let you know what I need for this, chief, and get the schematics into Smitelout.”

“Not Eret?” The chief asks, his voice tinted with a strange upward intonation, like he knows something I don’t. “He still works in the forge, you know.”

“I know, Smitelout is just there today.” Fuse is matter of fact as she walks back to Hotgut and swings onto her. “See you later, Eret.”

“Yeah,” I wave as she takes off and when I look back at the chief he’s staring at me, one eyebrow half raised. “What?”

“Nothing…” he says slowly, “unless it’s not nothing?”

“Like that means anything,” I roll my eyes and point in the direction we were walking, “woodpile?”

“Sure.”

He keeps looking at me like he caught me in something, but he doesn’t mention dragons, so I hope I’m in the clear. For once.

Chapter Text

The next morning, I don’t notice what’s off until I’m in the thick of it, sitting at the table across from Stoick and eating Mom’s fish. It tastes the same as it always has and Aurelia’s eating more of it than someone of her size should sensibly be able to. Mom’s sitting at one end of the table, next to Stoick and me, and the chief is at the other, reading over some treaty from Freezing to Death that he told me about yesterday.

Mom asks Stoick what they’re doing in dragon training and he tells her, too excited to talk to notice the piece of fish stuck to his chin. Bang begs him for a treat and gets one, because my dragon has no manners.

No one’s yelling.

It hits me all at once that I’m not homesick because it feels like home. It feels like I’m having breakfast with my family.

“Eret?” The chief doesn’t look up at me, frowning at the treaty, “I think this morning is going to be devoted to the very important chiefly duty of writing strongly worded responses to stupid treaties.”

“I’m sure he’ll be great at that,” Aurelia scoffs, barely loud enough for me to hear, like she’s not sure she wants the chief to hear. If he does, he doesn’t show it, taking a sip of his tea and glancing at Mom like he hopes she’s looking at him.

She’s not.

My chest feels tight and awkward and I stab the fish on my plate with my fork.

“Sounds good.” I look towards Aurelia, and she’s not staring back at me conspiratorially like Arvid always used to, because home isn’t quite like home anymore. I push my plate away.

“You feeling ok?” Mom asks, standing from the table and grabbing Stoick’s tiny little jacket from where it’s hanging on the back of the chair. That’s weird too, because it’s barely even winter, so why would he need it, and he appears to agree with me because he crosses his arms and shakes his head before she even asks him to put it on.

“I’m fine.”

“You didn’t finish your breakfast.” She looks at me in that inescapable mom way, like she knows more about me than I ever possibly could and I shrug.

“I ate a huge dinner, you saw.”

“That’s never stopped you before.” She puts the back of her hand to my forehead and I bat it away. “You don’t feel warm.”

“Just because I don’t finish my breakfast doesn’t mean I’m sick.”

“I don’t know, if I heard you were leaving food behind, I’d assume you were dead,” the chief jokes without looking up and Mom freezes.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I don’t like the way Mom’s looking at him, eyes narrowed and frozen like Ingrid when she tries to see the best angle for a fight. It’s a way she never looked at Dad.

“Nothing, I’m just saying if I had a food budget, you’d be denting it.”

Mom’s mouth twitches. Halfway to half a smile before she forces it flat.

What the Thor loving fuck?

“Come on, Stoick, we’re going to be late,” Mom shakes off the entire interaction, holding the jacket out towards my incredibly small brother, “get ready to go.”

“But Aurelia doesn’t have to wear a coat,” Stoick crosses his arms more tightly, like it’s his only defense against his cruel fate.

Maybe I’m not good with kids because I still am one, because I’d fight just that hard if Mom tried to dress me right now and I don’t care that it’s not rational. I’d fight because she thinks it’s…not an issue to smile at the chief’s bad jokes that aren’t even funny.

“Aurelia is old enough to clean her own frostbite,” the chief supplies, finally looking up from the treaty and straight at me. “Eret, help your mother.”

“Me?” I feel my eyebrows shoot up my forehead entirely on their own, “why can’t Aurelia do it?”

“Because Aurelia is leaving instead of being dragged into this,” she says as she stands up, pushing a scraped clean plate towards the center of the table and waving.

“Where are you going?” I ask.

She feels like backup and I don’t want her to leave because this feels like a fight just waiting to happen.

“Does it matter?” She glances at the chief and shoulders a bag, “I’ll see you later.”

“But shouldn’t you help Mom first?” I look at Stoick resisting the coat and the chief staring at me with something dangerously close to an attempt at misguided discipline.

“I asked you to,” the chief clears his throat like he’s just nervous about it enough for me to feel bad punching him. He continues to look nervous, glancing at Mom like a terror unsure whether they’re going to be rewarded for some trick they just performed and a month ago I would have yelled at him.

I’m not sure why I don’t, really, I just know that I’m not yelling and my chest still hurts and that I’m so tired from fitting in with this whole charade that I can’t even make a solid fist.

Aurelia leaves, slamming the door behind her.

“I don’t need help,” Mom rolls her eyes, holding the coat out more forcefully towards Stoick, “just put it on and we can go to dragon training and Eret doesn’t need to be involved.” The last part is directed at me, like she wants me to go away and why the fuck would she want me to go away? What part of Freya’s green Earth details a reason for her to want me to leave her alone with the chief?

“I’ve got it,” I stand up and take the jacket from her, instantly out of my depth, “Uh…Stoick, you can ride on Bang if you put it on.”

He mulls that over, frowning and looking like my reflection or the chief, whichever, it doesn’t matter, nothing matters except the way the chief keeps glancing at my mom like he wants a cookie.

“Can we fly?” Stoick asks, frown overdone and fake.

“Fine, why not?” I push the jacket towards him again and he sighs, unfolding his arm and letting me guide one into a sleeve. He crosses his arms again once the coat is on, looking up at me expectantly. I look at Mom and can’t help but feel our expressions are identical. “Aren’t you going to take him? On Bang, I mean,” I add to avoid Stoick catching on.

“You’re the one who offered him a ride on Bang,” Mom shrugs, not looking at the chief so resolutely that it has to be on purpose.

They used to be engaged.

I still haven’t dealt with that, because I don’t have to, because it’s not the most important thing in front of me and I can’t deal with the most important thing. I can’t deal with being other and alone and angry with everyone even though everyone isn’t angry with me.

“Yeah and Bang likes you,” I shrug, “It’d be good for someone else to tell him what to do, our…you know, dragon-rider telepathy isn’t good for his training, overall.”

Mom gives me that face, that proceed with caution or turn around now face that always makes me feel five again. I admire Stoick for fighting her.

“Eret, just drop him.”

“Mom—”

“It wasn’t an order until you fought with me,” she raises an eyebrow and I’m cowed even though I shouldn’t be, because I’m next in line for chief and because I have standing now and because I shouldn’t be scared of anyone except the chief, who isn’t scary at all.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I bluster, because she’s looking at the chief again, all suspicious out of the corner of her eye like she used to do at me when I was planning something.

“Good luck with that,” the chief snorts.

“It means,” Mom swallows, like she means it, and I give in before she finishes the sentence, honestly, “take your brother to dragon training.”

I think about being mad at her. I think hard about it for a minute, I think about what that would feel like and how much I would hate it. I swallow, I pretend it doesn’t taste like defeat and the chief winning some fight he doesn’t realize he started.

“Fine.”

“And tell Smitelout he needs to keep wearing the coat, the last thing I need is for him to get sick.”

I grit my teeth, “Fine.”

I’m supposed to be the little brother, I was raised as the little brother and now I’m supposed to be half a dad for this kid I don’t know and…and people used to ask my mom to help with me. I need help, I’m not help.

I need so much fucking help.

“Go ahead,” Mom waves me off, and I can’t help but be comforted by the way she’s glaring at the chief out of the corner of her eye now, “don’t forget to tell Smite—”

“Yep, got it.” I turn to leave and Stoick grabs my hand without me offering it, jogging to keep up as we follow Bang through the front door. “Ever flown on a Thunderdrum?” I ask him, scooping him up by his armpits and plopping him behind Bang’s head.

“No,” he’s jittery and excited as I climb on behind him, holding Bang’s sides with my heels and clicking him forward. He takes off and Stoick chirps, like an excited terror, hands white knuckle tight around my forearm.

“Hold on,” I tell him because it feels like I should, but he already is, fingernails digging into my arm as he leans over Bang’s side to look at the island below. This kid has no fear of heights. It reminds me of the crazy shit I did when I was younger, grabbing onto wild dragons’ back legs and riding as long as I could before they were too high for me to drop.

It’s a lot more nervewracking to watch than it was to do.

“Higher?” He looks back at me, red curls sticking to the front of my shirt.

“We don’t really need to go higher.”

“But it’s fun,” he shrugs, his expression something goofy that I don’t recognize.

“Oh fine,” I lean back slightly, pulling Bang’s head upwards with a tug of my heels, and Stoick hoots, patting Bang’s head with an open hand.

Ok, it’s kind of cute. It’s kind of endearing. I steer Bang through a deep, swooping turn and dive probably a little too fast towards the arena, pulling up at the last moment and wincing as Stoick’s head slams back against my chest. Hard little head on a tough little guy.

Bang lands softly, dragging his tail through the dirt and sending up a cloud of dust. Stoick slides off of him, wiggling under my arm and scratching Bang’s head.

“Thanks for the ride, Eret!” He starts to run off towards the arena and I almost let him, but Mom’s voice is haunting me and I don’t want to think about her with the chief, thinking at some yak-shit level that he’s funny.

“Wait, I should walk you in—”

“You really don’t need to,” he fidgets with the sleeve of his jacket, “I’m fine, I come here every day.”

I sigh, “you know, it’s on my ass if you aren’t wearing that coat when Mom comes to pick you up, right?”

His eyes widen like he hadn’t thought of it that way and he looks at Bang like he has some super-secret Thunderdrum solution. Like he’s a little brother and he’s eight and he’s never thought about how his anything impacts anyone else.

It’s better for him to start that now, right? Instead of being sheltered and coddled and lied to until sixteen when he’s got a chip on his shoulder.

“Mom’s trusting me to talk to Smitelout and make her watch you,” I shrug, “so you’re in that unique little brother situation where nothing you do is your fault, it’s Smitelout’s fault until Mom talks to her and she says she didn’t see me this morning, then it’s my fault.”

He frowns, “I’m not cold—”

“I’m not saying that you’re cold or you’re not cold, I’m saying that if you get caught with that jacket off, Mom’s going to be mad at me.”

“Fine,” he frowns, stomping a tiny foot and crossing his arms, “I don’t ever get to have any fun.”

“That’s called growing up, buddy,” I hop off of Bang wave at him before walking towards town. I figure if I walk, I’ll miss the fight going on back home, because as much as I hope they’re fighting I don’t want to hear it.

I think about going by my old house to remind myself that the chief’s house isn’t home, but then I see Wingspark flying overhead and decide against that. Half the dismal fun would be running into Arvid and reminiscing over how much he hates me now.

I’m not taking an exactly direct path, so I shouldn’t be shocked to run into Aurelia, dragging bored fingertips along the back siding of a row of houses. She looks up at me with a curt nod, like she’s pretending she’s capable of keeping her mouth shut, and it looks all wrong on her.

“Hey.”

“Thanks for throwing me under the charging Rumblehorn this morning,” she says like she’s been rehearsing it, but it doesn’t make it any less biting.

“I didn’t think I’d be much help with Stoick,” I shrug, “and I was right, I wasn’t.”

“He’s at training, isn’t he?”

I change the subject, “where are you off to in such a hurry, anyway?”

She tosses her hair over her shoulder, “the bakery.”

“Not going to see if Arvid has any more brilliant ideas?”

“Not until you put it in my head.”

“Right, don’t take it to heart how weird he was acting yesterday.” I’m sure that she knows I’m lying as soon as I say it, that she can put together that there was something significant about Arvid yesterday at Fuse’s workshop.

Because Mom almost smiled at the chief’s dumb joke and I can feel the world trying to lurch again and I want to stop it.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She narrows her eyes and it’s like she forcibly killed that goofiness that Stoick carries so easily.

“I don’t know,” I do know but I don’t want her to know, “just that you shouldn’t be expecting anything outside the norm.”

It feels like I just turned hard into a cliff face when she raises an eyebrow.

“Now that’s supposed to mean something.”

“He’s just like this, ok? He’s reset his sights on a newly available target, don’t think you’re special.” I pat Bang’s head to avoid looking at her, “I’m not trying to be harsh, just…it’s been a while since he fully maxed out his prowess at picking up girls, don’t get dragged down it.”

“I thought you were dealing with this.”

“I am dealing with everything,” I get onto Bang because flying into a fight is better than walking into one, “I’m just telling you the truth, don’t expect him to be anything more than he is.”

It’s a lie. It’s harsh and makes me think of all the ways I know that Arvid is more than flirting with someone. But Mom smiled at some bad, unfunny joke the chief said and that’s enough to cope with today and I don’t care that it’s selfish.

“And I said you didn’t talk bad about him.”

“It’s not bad, it’s just true, I’m just saying to not build it up into something it isn’t.”

“Thanks for the morale boost, big brother,” she rolls her eyes, looking determinedly up the hill, “and for so willingly taking Stoick to training, you’re such a team player.”

“Good luck,” I nudge Bang off the ground and circle towards home, too long hair whipping against my cheeks and chin and making me think I need to find a way to tie it back. I spot Toothless, heading towards the harbor, and more importantly, when I look towards the harbor I see a trade ship on the horizon and remember Johann was supposed to be here two days from now.

Two days is nothing in nautical time, it’s one stop skipped, but it still leaves a funny taste in my mouth, makes me think of the dragon island, swirling and so incredibly wrong.

The chief beats me to the harbor, swallowing a grin when I land and putting on that chiefly teaching face that I don’t hate as much as the rest of him. He gestures at Trader Johann’s ship as it anchors itself and calls me closer like he’s going to give me some chiefly secret that no one else gets to know.

“Good, you’re here,” he pulls a handful of Berk’s gold out of his pocket, counting it to himself, “a few warnings about dealing with Johann as a…public citizen, let’s call it.”

“What? No buying cool things with Berk money just because they sound cool?”

“That’s the most of it,” he shrugs, “that and he’s going to try and take you for a ride today, because it’s the first time you’re doing this as a chief type person.” He looks at me significantly, “title, you need—” he makes a note in the notebook tucked in his vest, “we should work on that. I didn’t have everything ironed out when I, you know, hired you, but you definitely need a title.”

“Chief in training doesn’t work?” I don’t know if I want more than that, right now, I don’t feel like more than that, I feel like every responsibility that’s sounded so cool has been some shade of awful to take on.

“It does, sure, but it’s a mouthful.” He waves me along behind him as he limps out onto the pier, walking faster than normal.

Everything about him is a little jittery, like a Nadder promised chicken, and I don’t want to know what he talked about with my mom. I don’t want to know what they thought about.

Engaged. They used to be engaged. They probably held hands and kissed and she didn’t love my dad instantly like she always told us, did she? She couldn’t have, she was engaged to the chief. And even if she did, that’s complicated and someone’s the bad guy and I hate thinking it might be Mom. I hate thinking about any of this.

“Master Hiccup!” Johann shuffles down the ramp from his ship, gray beard tied with a string of green beads. His daughter, Aineislis, follows, looking around and frowning when she sees me next to the chief. She nods at me, hand on her dad’s shoulder, and I nod back.

It’s like a weird, private little affirmation that we’re both in business mode now and she isn’t hanging out in the good old Hofferson barn and slipping another sip of mead while she thinks no one’s looking.

“Hey, Johann, anything interesting?” The chief shakes Johann’s hand and steps on board sifting through a few sacks of grain with only half interested hands.

Something happened with him and my mom. Something.

I shake it off and smile at Aineislis and she raises a shoulder in question. Where’s Ingrid? Probably.

“So much interest on my ship, Master Hiccup, but even more on the seas, have you investigated to the North recently, there is something most strange going on with the dragons. Something that might leave the might Berk in need of some extra supplies for the long, cold winter ahead.”

“We just might,” the chief waves me on board and I follow, dodging Aineislis attempting to ruffle my hair, which I haven’t missed at all, “got any preserved vegetables? Any fruit?”

“Well, Master Hiccup, let me take you down below and show you our options,” Johann leads the chief below deck and Aineislis walks up to me, holding her hand above my head and raising deep black eyebrows to ask to ruffle before she does.

I sigh, “fine.”

“It’s just so long and fluffy, I can’t help myself,” she tries to twist me into a headlock and I grab her arm, reaching for her hair myself. “Gods, and you’re so tall, what happened to the little troll who’d ride around on my shoulders? What are you doing hanging around with the chief?”

“What? You’re not in on all the Berk gossip?” I lead her onto the top deck of the ship and start looking through a stack of baubles in a crate near the bow. It’s not like dad’s ship, it’s bigger and wider and slower and Gods, I need to apologize. “I’m a title-pending chief-in-training now.”

“I remember when you were like this tall,” she squats down and puts her hand by her knee and for a second, it’s like having half of Ingrid around again. “Where’s your sister? Someone needs to knock you down a peg.”

That burns in a way I don’t expect it to and I shrug, picking up a little sculpture of a whale and thumbing the smooth tail.

“She’s off traveling somewhere exciting, you know Ingrid, she left a couple months ago.”

“Oh,” Aineislis shrugs like it doesn’t bother her and I try not to roll my eyes, “well at least I get to check in on my favorite little Eret. Is big Eret around?”

“I’ve always found those nicknames offensive.”

“Ok, you’re average sized Eret and he’s big Eret.” She twists a long black braid around her finger, brown eyes narrowed and I can tell that whatever in her that tells her to sell to me is telling her something is wrong.

“You really don’t know, do you?”

“Sorry I don’t keep up with all the gossip of every island I go to, what are you on about?”

“This isn’t just any gossip,” I laugh, because if it’s a funny story I’ll tell it better, “let me regale you. My parents got divorced because the chief is apparently my father.”

“Thor’s armored pantaloons,” she snorts, wide eyed.

“That’s a phrase.”

“As in the chief below deck?” She points at her feet, “I mean, of course, look at you, Gods, look at you. How did I never guess?”

“That’s the question on everyone’s minds, most of them guessed it though. No one felt the need to tell me but…that’s another issue.”

“How are you coping with all of this?” She sifts through a bin on the port side of the ship, coming up with a few jars of colored powder that makes me think of Fuse. “Because these are some herbs from North Africa, well known in those parts to level mood, I’ll cut you a deal.”

“I’m coping fine, thanks for your friendly concern.”

“Chief-in-training average-sized Eret,” she raises an eyebrow, her face settling into a near hawkish imitation of her father’s, “a good chief has to learn to haggle.”

“I know how to haggle, isn’t that where I say no until you stop trying to trick me out of money?” I take one of the jars from her and open it, wincing at the strong scent, “I’m almost entirely sure that’s ground dragon dung, you should be paying me to take it off your hands.”

“Twerp,” she takes it back and clicks the lid back into place, “where’s your brother? I’ve got some useless knife from Gaul that looks fancy, I figure he’s the sucker who’ll want it.”

“I have no idea where he is,” I roll my eyes like that doesn’t hurt too.

“He’s not invited to chief training?”

“Something like that.”

The chief and Johann emerge from below deck and the chief waves me over as he starts counting gold from his pocket.

“How long you guys staying?” I ask Aineislis and she follows me across the deck.

“Just a few hours, we’ve got to backtrack to our last port, there’s something weird going on that uhm, derailed us, I guess.”

“Are you telling young Master Eret about the dragons?” Johann accepts a handful of gold pieces from the chief with a pleased grin, “it’s the strangest thing, Chief, I was barely awake before dawn two days ago and saw a mysterious disruption on the horizon. I hated the thought of missing my morning tea but I just knew that we had to investigate, because when you get as old as I am, you get a sense of things that’ll be of import in the eyes of history—”

“Cut to the chase, Johann,” the chief couldn’t be paying less attention, gesturing at a couple of fisherman on shore to unload what looks like bags of grain from below deck of Johann’s ship.

And maybe sometimes you don’t need to be particularly old to sense an important moment because this one, in public, surrounded by people who can spread it beyond the chief’s influence, this moment is important to the dragons.

“I don’t think he needs to,” I clear my throat and try to ignore the fact that Aineislis is looking at me with a stunned sort of humor for using my burgeoning chiefly voice, “I know exactly what you’re talking about, that island between here and Berserker island, right? The one covered in sick dragons? I know all about it.”

“I presume, as with all things dragons, Berk will be investigating?” Johann looks at the chief. Then me.

The chief looks up, eyes unglazing like he hasn’t been paying any attention at all and I clear my throat before he can ask.

“I’m attempting to pull together an uhm…analysis of the situation,” I talk over the chief when he tries to open his mouth, “those dragons are obviously sick and it’s always been Berk’s prerogative to intervene when dragon-human relations are threatened. With the wild dragon attacks on Berserker island, an island covered in sick dragons starts to look suspicious, like something we need to address—”

“Eret,” the chief hisses.

The fishermen unloading Johann’s boat are staring at me. A few villagers at the end of the pier, waiting for their chance to peruse the trade ship are staring at me. They’re listening, interested. A terror perched on a little girl’s shoulder cocks its head at me like I even have its full focus.

“No, that’s what Berk does, isn’t it? We care about the dragons and we care about other people. We should listen to what Johann’s saying, if this island is really becoming an issue—”

“That’s a big ‘if’, Eret,” the chief laughs, a forced, callus laugh, “I’ve looked into the issue and I think it’s just some mating season behavior, you know, we never really figured out all of that. If anything, I bet we’ll have more babies come Snoggletog.”

“You haven’t looked into anything, you flew over it with me once—”

“Eret,” the chief looks at me with steely eyes, like he starts questioning his decision to make me heir every time I open my mouth, “I said I was handling it.”

“Is that why wild dragons are disappearing, chief?” One of the fishermen asks, setting down the bag of grain he was holding and wiping his hands on his pants, “I haven’t seen a scauldron in the Western passage in months. Could this island have something to do with it?”

“I swear, Master Hiccup, I’d swear on my grandfather’s grave if I knew where it was, you see he was buried at sea in a hurricane—”

“Dad!” Aineislis rolls her eyes, but it’s exaggerated, and she’s staring at me like she’s seeing something new and anything but comforting.

“The biggest scauldrons I’ve ever seen were swimming around that island. Scauldrons half as big as Berk, their tail’s longer than the great hall is tall—”

“And that just speaks to healthy populations,” the chief shouts above the din, people stepping forward to asks questions. Some of them are asking me, not him, looking at me like they’re thinking about choosing sides. “Big dragons are a good thing, it’s near mating season, remember, they’re always off island during mating season. If there is a problem,” he gives me a sharp look, “and remember that’s a big ‘if’, we’ll assess in the spring. Right now our main concern is getting ready for winter, it won’t be very long until we’re freezing our asses off in snow Eret here couldn’t even see over.”

That’s a jab. The kind of jab that makes me inflate, makes me look over my shoulder for Arvid so that he could be big for me.

“And it’ll be a lot colder without dragons,” I blurt out and the chief sighs, pointedly avoiding looking at me.

The din rises again, briefly, and the chief raises his hand to his mouth to let out a sharp whistle.

“This is nonsense,” he says as soon as it’s quiet, authoritative like he never is, “stop this, it’s not what we have to worry about right now and frankly, we don’t have to worry about it at all. He’s just a kid,” the chief waves at me, “don’t let yourself get caught up on any of this.”

Everyone mumbles, Johann smiles and steps forward, leaning on his daughter’s arm, “we’ve still got plenty of decadent wares and trinkets for your expert perusal, Berkians, don’t let a…chiefly squabble stop you from shopping our biggest pre-winter supply yet.”

“We’ve been to Africa and Gaul and the ruins of Rome…” Aineislis launches into her well-rehearsed spiel and the chief walks away without looking at me, the implicit command being that I follow without being asked.

I almost start talking again, because some people seemed to agree that there at least might have been something wrong with the dragons. But the chief waves me forward with a frustrated, dismissing hand over his shoulder and I jog to catch up, following him back to the dragons on the shore. He doesn’t get on Toothless, instead walking into the shelter of the trees and pausing to make a note in his notebook before looking at me.

“You aren’t chief yet.”

“I’m aware,” I shrug, crossing my arms, “I thought I was supposed to be learning.”

“Learning, not usurping.” He grits his teeth, “we agreed that you were going to leave the dragons alone—“

“We didn’t agree on anything, you ordered—”

“So you decide to make a public spectacle?” It’s louder than he intends it to be, his eyes widen and gods, I could punch him right now, “you don’t have any right to address the tribe.”

He holds back the implied ‘yet’.

“Right, I don’t magically agree with you on everything yet—”

“Dragons are a fundamental part of our way of life, Eret, it’s not a disagreement, it’s immaturity.”

I roll my eyes, “you were younger than me when you went and decided that!” I gesture at Toothless and Bang growls, heckles along his back and sides rising slightly. Toothless gives a dragon scoff that’s not as threatening as everyone likes to say it is.

“That was different, Eret, I knew—”

“And I know that something’s wrong with the dragons on that island now! I know that they need my help and I know that there’s something going on!” I exhale when my voice cracks, like I’m thirteen and clueless and I hate this so much. “I thought me being Mr. Dragon was the whole reason you trashed everything so you could pick me for this job.”

“You can’t guilt me with that every time you disagree—”

“So it is a disagreement.” I throw that stupid point back in his face and he sighs, dragging a hand through his hair.

“It’s like arguing with myself.”

“Don’t insult me—”

“We’ll talk about it later. Take the afternoon, cool off, maybe don’t go shouting elaborate theories from an empty mead barrel in the square.”

I feel like he’s going to pat my head and I don’t know why that’s still my default greeting. Why I’m still pat-able even though I feel like a thorny, poisonous dragon with scales that spell do not touch in bright red runes across my sides.

“They aren’t elaborate.”

“I..” He pauses. I’m terrified that he was about to say something stupid full of feelings that don’t matter and would just piss me off. He pats me on the shoulder. “Cool off.”

“Fine.” I shrug his hand off and swing onto Bang, nudging him into the air.

It’s cold. Cold in the way that feels like something colder is coming, like even though the sky is clear and blue now I might wake up snowed in. I don’t see any ships in the water and that’s foreboding too. I wonder if my dad’s ok. I’m sure he is, how could he not be, but the alternative stings like Ingrid and Arvid do, a triad of open wounds.

I wonder if he’d make me apologize. If he’d struggle on the cusp of saying something emotional. If I’d look at him and make some comparison to the chief who could have been him.

My house could have been the chief’s house. I could have grown up having nightmares above the room where the chief slept.

I’m above my old house before I’ve even chosen to fly there and I land Bang in front of the barn, where a thin layer of dead brown grass is marring the bare dirt we used to take off of twice a day, at least. Bang snorts, snuffles the ground, and then looks up at me expectantly like he doesn’t know what we’re doing.

Because this isn’t getting home anymore, this is out of the norm.

I open the barn door to check for Wingspark and Skullcrusher looks up from what looked to be a deep sleep, his lip curling at me briefly before he recognizes who I am. And I hadn’t thought of that, in everything I’m losing, I hadn’t thought that Wing probably hates me and Skullcrusher could be forgetting me and Ingrid’s Zippleback head won’t even remember what pocket to sniff for treats.

“Hey bud, it’s just me,” I step into the barn, coughing at the furl of dust I kick up and crossing the old straw to hold my hand out. He sniffs it, almost delicately pressing his horn into my hand. I stroke it, patting him on the cheek and giving him a strip of jerky out of my pocket. He takes it like it’s not quite all that he deserves and I smile. “There you go, still deigning to accept treats from me.”

He huffs and closes his eyes, but leans into my hand as I scratch under his chin.

“Didn’t expect to see you around so soon.”

I hear Dad’s voice as the barn door cracks open, cold winter light licking across the floor and the toes of my boots. My still new boots.

“I’m not the decades long grudge holder, I think you’ve got me confused with someone else.”

“Never.” He shakes his head, stepping inside and holding the door wide enough for Bang to follow. “You’re the honest one. How are you doing?”

“Eh, been better, been worse.” I shrug, sitting down on a straw bale next to Skullcrusher and leaning back against him as Bang jumps and glides into the loft, “not doing so good at the chiefing thing, Johann’s in town.”

“Does Berk have any gold left?” He sits down across from me, and it’s dark enough that I can hardly see how tired he is.

Mom’s been sleeping well, since the chief moved upstairs. Sleeping alone doesn’t look as good on Dad.

“I didn’t get to touch the gold. Just, you know, the dragon policy,” I scratch the back of my neck and look down like he could still impose some sort of trouble. It’s nice. It makes me feet sort of protected, leashed in. “Inter-island dragon policy.”

“That’s a pretty big assignment to start you out on, then again, Hiccup was never one for slow transitions.”

It’s weird to hear the chief’s first name in that…ex-familiar sense. They were friends. My mom wasn’t just engaged to him, my dad was friends with him.

“It’s not an assignment.” I look at my hands, “it’s…you know, there’s something weird going on that doesn’t have anything to do with…parental relationship drama in my family. You…You’ve probably noticed, there aren’t wild dragons like there used to be.”

“It’s almost Snoggletog.” He says it like he’s worried about me and I wonder how he still has that in him after what I said the last time we talked. I don’t have that, neither does the chief. Mom’s is always covered by mama dragon, protective anger. Dad always seems like he’s waiting, like he wants the whole story before he reacts and even if he’s mad he won’t shove it down my throat.

“Yeah, I know that, but it’s more than usual. Even Aurelia’s noticing. When was the last time you saw a Scauldron or a wild Thunderdrum? I definitely haven’t seen a Seashocker since I was about fourteen and I know they’re rare but…but it’s weird. It’s…I found this island. After I left with Ingrid but decided to come back. It’s…there are all these sick dragons, their scales are all flaky and wrong and they’re piling into this volcano. It’s wrong and…and there have been wild dragon attacks? And it’s all part of the same thing, I know it, and the chief won’t listen to me.”

“He doesn’t believe you that this island exists?”

“No, he does, I took him there and he saw it and—”

“He just doesn’t think that we need to do anything about it.”

He sighs, “well, Eret, why do we?”

I frown and look at him, trying to see the joke. Dad was the one who always used to tell me to keep trying, Mom just expected it, enforced it with steely blue glances. Dad was the one who’d tell me maybe plowing straight through wasn’t the way to go.

“What do you mean? They’re sick. They’re all old and drawn to this island and it’s not…right, I just know it’s not right.”

He blinks at me the way Mom does when she recognizes my shadow before the rest of me and his tattoos look darker in the shadows. Clearer. He seems other in a way he never used to and gods, this really isn’t home anymore.

“You can’t control or fix everything,” he tells me, talking slowly, like he’s worried I’m going to nosedive off of the middle of a sentence and lose the rest of it, “the dragons are beyond anyone’s control, if they’re sick—”

“It’s not if, they are, Dad, it’s obvious.”

“You still can’t change the natural order of the world,” he’s looking at me wrong, the way Arvid does, the irreparable way that makes me say things I shouldn’t, “I thought it wouldn’t be this fast.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Hiccup rubbing off on you.”

My heart stumbles in my chest and I think back to the chief earlier, it’s like arguing with myself.

It was a mistake coming here. It was a mistake expecting this to be anything other than an empty barn and it’s stupid to expect someone to let me call them Dad when I know they aren’t.

“If I’m anything like him, that’s not really my fault, is it.” It’s not a question. It’s self-comfort.

It’s not comforting at all. It’s an excuse.

I pat Skullcrusher’s shoulder before standing. I almost tell him to ask Arvid about Aurelia, but that sounds like something the chief might do.

Chapter Text

“Is that new?” The chief asked Mom over breakfast one morning, a few days after Johann leaves, and Mom paused, staring at him blankly and weirdly. “The dress. I mean.”

“No,” Mom shook her head and turned back to Stoick, who was trying to sneak his breakfast into his pockets for extra treats at dragon training.

“Oh, it looks new.”

“It’s not,” she shrugged, glancing at him in this weird, almost embarrassed way I didn’t notice until I was looking back at the bizarre encounter.

“Ok…” The chief stared for another creepy second until I cleared my throat and brought his attention back to the treaty on the table, the same one he’s still trying to respond to.

I wouldn’t have thought about it at all if it weren’t for the even weirder moment a couple days later when the chief like, completely derailed our official business at the lumberyard because Mom walked by and he started asking about her day and offering to deal with dinner.

Then, then, I really started watching and it got weirder. My mom’s axe has a shiny, newly sharpened edge and she didn’t ask me to do it and there’s a stack of new quilts on her bed the one time I go in there to ask her something.

And today? Today takes the cake for weird and uncomfortable as soon as the chief and I get home to Mom and Aurelia out front, stringing a small bow together.

“You’ll get it,” Mom’s telling her, that same sort of stern refusal to acknowledge failure that kept me learning and keeping up with Ingrid and Arvid all those years, and she smiles when she hands an arrow to Aurelia and directs her at a makeshift target on a bale of straw outside of the barn.

The chief grins when he sees it and when Mom notices him she shrugs, “she was curious.”

“Thank you,” the chief laughs, “I’ve been saying for years if she’s not going to have a dragon with her she should really learn something.”

“I’m holding a weapon, maybe don’t do that right now,” Aurelia gripes, voice straining as she pulls the bowstring back and lets go. The arrow doesn’t go far, something about her release making it float harmlessly to the ground halfway between her and the target. She sighs and Mom pats her on the shoulder.

“Try again, you’ll get it.”

The chief is looking at her like…like he doesn’t even look at Toothless. Like…

“Do you need any help?” He asks, walking up too close to Mom for her to not shift or move away. Aurelia rolls her eyes at me, like she’s asking for help and wanting me to watch the disaster unfold all at once.

Her next arrow falls out of her hands onto her feet and she sighs.

“I think we’ve got it,” Mom tells the chief, and her blank confusion is less blank confusion and more mild interest. Like she halfway wants to know what he has to say.

“Aurelia,” he holds his hand out for the bow, “can I show you something?”

“I bet Mom showed me how do it right, Dad.”

“No, this is a trick for those of us not so…muscularly inclined,” he laughs. Mom laughs. Aurelia stares at me like she can’t believe what she’s hearing and no one else is going to understand.

“Is that a dig at me?” I ask and the chief doesn’t appear, because he’s glancing at Mom every two seconds and tinkering with either end of the bow string.

“It can’t possibly be about me so…” Aurelia flexes her arm and holds her hand out for the bow.

“Just a second…there.” He takes a second to show her how to hold the arrow differently and when she tries a third time the arrow goes far enough to broadside the target before dropping to the ground.

“Not a bad trick,” Mom takes the bow back, looking at the knots at the ends of the strings and then staring at the chief with a weird, halfway impressed expression. “Where’d you learn that?”

“Gobber. It’s a one handed trick, I guess, but it also works for those of us who have one hand worth of strength spread across two.”

Mom scoffs and punches the chief in the arm, like he’s annoying, which is true, but also like she’s not wholly annoyed by it.

Today. Yep. Today is the weirdest day. The weirdest one of all.

“I think I’m done for the day,” Aurelia excuses herself from between them, leaving the bow and walking over to me.

“Yeah. Good.” The chief waves his arm at the two of us, his focus still on Mom who’s still standing there. Not avoiding him. “You’re done too, Eret, it’s getting late.”

“And they’re getting rid of us,” Aurelia hisses under her breath as we turn and start walking back towards the village. “It’s like he’s remembering how to be human. To her.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I look back over my shoulder at them and they’re still just standing there. Mom shoots an arrow and hits a little off center and the chief holds his hands out to ask for the bow and give it a try.

“Nothing.”

“It’s not nothing.”

“How’s chiefing?” She asks, “I haven’t heard much this week.”

“It’s…” I don’t want to tell the truth, that it’s good but not enough but I know someday it will be, that’s the kind of thing that makes it sound like at some level I’m benefitting from these bizarre circumstances, the ones shoving Mom and the chief into a conversation that’s not yelling. “It’s whatever.”

“It’s…I…” She looks back like she doesn’t want to be heard and I elbow her in the side, urging her to spit it out, “it’s not like…dragon training day in and day out, is it?”

“What? No, we’ve only been by the academy once and that was because of some structural damage.”

“Hmm.” She tucks her hands into her pockets and kicks a pebble out of the path. “And you made an ass of yourself last week. With Johann.”

“Yes, thanks for reminding me how well that went, I always know I can count on you.”

“I’m just saying.” She shrugs.

“What are you saying?”

“Mom keeps asking me why I don’t go chiefing with you guys, and I mean, barring Toothless stalking me like prey all day, I don’t…I guess I don’t really have a good answer for her.”

“You don’t need to, it’s—you’d think it was boring.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Why are you saying any of this? You don’t want to be chief, you never have.”

“Maybe I’m just a little bitter that it was cooler for him to hunt down some crazy love child than to, I don’t know, I don’t know,” she kicks another pebble out of the way. “It’s not like I was a bow and arrow prodigy, I don’t have anything to talk about.”

“No, please, continue, you…are you thinking you have some…interest in being chief?”

“I just said I don’t know.” She stops short and tentatively reaches out to touch Bang’s nose, tracing the edge of his scales with a gentle finger. He puffs on her hand and she jerks back slightly before taking a step forward and setting her hand on his head. “I just…you’re new. That’s why you’re doing it. It’s not…merit, I guess, and I’m just realizing that and it’s not really your problem but you’re supposed to be my brother so…”

“It’s not like it’s…I mean, the job isn’t just acting like your dad all the time, it’s—”

“I think I’ve seen him doing it longer than you have.” It’s not so much her snapping at me as her telling me I’m wrong and that makes me madder.

And it puts me in this awkward position where I’m supposed to argue for why I’m enjoying this, which makes it seem so ok that I’m barely talking to my Dad anymore and that Mom is…back there practically enjoying herself in the chief’s company. I…

There’s this interesting dead space between saying what I mean and avoiding fights and it seems like silence but really it’s too many words, all disagreeing with each other and flying at once.

I nod.

“Yeah, that’s true.”

“Maybe I’ll come along sometime.”

“You’d be bored.” I say again and she rolls her eyes.

“You don’t know what I’d be.”

00000

The chief is cleaning off the table, stacking documents on a shelf and muttering to himself. Aurelia and I are looking over a wrinkled Fuse Original Design on the floor next to the fire and the chief is trying his damndest to eavesdrop, smiling weirdly at us when Aurelia bumps her shoulder against mine and mutters under her breath that he’s being creepy. Stoick is already asleep, exhausted from his special, pre-snowstorm, morning lesson with Mom and Stormfly.

Tonight’s finally the night to meet at the forge, we’re just waiting until it’s late enough that the chief won’t ask. But he’s being weird as he has been all week and I don’t think I’ve been monitored this closely since that time I got grounded for a month for following Dad on a weeklong fishing trip.

Arvid’s probably already there. So’s Fuse. We’ll probably get there and find no forge at all, just Fuse down a few inches of singed hair and Arvid terrified and trying to pick a fight he’s going to lose.

It’s funny, in my head, but somewhere beneath that humor lies the precarious balance of this stupid, probably doomed plan.

Sometimes I wish it were just me and Fuse, honestly. It’d be less complicated, but I look at Aurelia out of the corner of my eye, fixated and eager, and I can’t take this away from her. She didn’t grow up getting grounded for stupid sibling shenanigans and it’s not like her brain is hurting the operation.

Arvid is the wild card.

This is almost absolutely the only way he’s ever going to talk to me again and maybe I’m selfish and maybe I don’t care.

The door swings open and the chief freezes, smiling in that creepy please like me way as Mom strides in from the cold, shaking snow out of her hair and glaring at the weather behind her before shutting the door tight and tucking the blanket back underneath it with her foot to stop the breeze. The chief’s door is a tighter seal than ours used to be and she hasn’t adopted to this level of mandatory luxury any better than I have.

“Hey Mom,” Aurelia folds the sketch in front of us, because she knows Mom’s more likely to ask what it is.

Not to mention the horrible truth that the chief’s about to be distracted enough for us to slip out. Which is…you know, gross and uncomfortable, but I was already being selfish so I might as well continue to capitalize on that.

“What did you get up to, milady?” The chief blurts, and I almost gag, and he looks scared as Mom turns to him, wet boot squeaking on the wood floor. Her mouth falls open and he flinches, waiting for her to rightfully clock him in the face for assuming he gets to use stupid endearments around her.

She doesn’t punch him. She deflates, unwrapping the scarf from around her neck like it’s better to pretend she didn’t hear him.

Or she doesn’t mind it as much as I want her to mind it, but that’s impossibly gross and—what would that even mean? Is she just lonely after Dad and—Gods, that’s all gross. I’m never going to eat again and that’s the last thing I need.

“I—nothing. I was just at Ruff’s.”

It comes out perfectly pleasant and the chief freezes, holding a plate he’s drying with an old cloth. He laughs before he can stop himself, and she blinks slowly and barks out a weird, bizarre laugh I’ve sure never heard before, and I’m the one who used to make her laugh. The chief smiles and swallows hard and it sounds like he’s a terror choking on a chicken wing.

Mom’s staring at him like she expects him to sprout a tail.

“How was the flight home?” The chief asks.

“Cold,” she laughs again, brushing a hunk of ice off of her shoulder. “Cold and wet.”

“Uh good…well, not good, but—I’m glad you’re home.”

She pauses for a second and I recognize that face and it makes me wish I’d eaten less. It’s the face she makes when I’m lying and she knows I’m lying but she’s waiting to call me out on it until she hears whatever ridiculous thing I’m going to say next.

“M too. It’s warm,” she says like that’s not dumb and obvious and Aurelia kicks me in the shin like there’s a chance in Hel I might not be paying perfectly close attention to this.

The chief laughs again and Mom’s struggling not to smile, picking a charcoal stick off of the table and handing it to him. Their hands glance across each other when he takes it and she jolts away, giving him some soft, hardly scary at all, glare and what the Odin fearing fuck is going on?

“Close your mouth,” Aurelia hisses, like my reaction is going to ruin her show, and they both look at us at once like they forgot we were here.

“That was weird.” I announce, tucking the sketch into my pocket and standing before offering Aurelia my hand and helping her to her feet. “We’re going to the forge to finish this.”

“In this weather?” The chief asks and I shrug, grabbing my and off of the hook by the door and handing Aurelia’s to hers.

“We’re going to the forge where it’s definitionally warm,” Aurelia rolls her eyes and laughs, grabbing a too big fur hat from the shelf and tugging it down over my head like it’ll make me forget what I just say. Or what I didn’t see. Or what doesn’t exist because how could it possibly be anything other than a sunless winter enabled hallucination.

I smile and Mom doesn’t buy it and the chief is just staring at Mom, barely looking at me, and wow, this is a textbook level of distraction to sneak out but my feet are rooted to the ground like if I move something will change again.

“We’ll be back. Thanks for the hat,” I adjust it on my head and reach for the doorknob, trusting Aurelia to drag me outside. She comes through and hooks her arm through my elbow, saying something about staying warm.

As soon as the door shuts behind us I duck down, pulling her with me and crouching below the nearby window. I can’t see, but I can hear a muffled version of the conversation inside and I press my ear to the crack at the bottom of the shutters.

“What are you doing?” Aurelia shivers, looking peeved.

“Shh,” I hold my finger to my lips and press closer to the wall, wood siding cutting into my shoulder.

I hear Mom, wedging the blanket back underneath the door with a series of quiet thuds. The chief makes some awkward hemming and hawing sound that I don’t think is Norse and I want Mom to just…disappear into the bedroom and end this.

“Is Stoick asleep?” Mom asks.

“Yeah, he was exhausted. Conked out right after dinner.”

“Right,” she pauses. “I’m going to go to bed. Still sort of freezing.”

“I’ll put a few extra logs on the fire.”

“You don’t have to do that,” she sounds irritated but not louder or harsher and I know at some level that it’s false. It’s a Mom voice I wouldn’t worry about.

“I want to.”

I can hear what I think she should say in my mind. Just one solid fuck you. She sighs.

“Thanks, Hiccup.”

I grab Aurelia’s hand and pull her to her feet and around the corner of the house right as the chief opens the door to get to the wood pile. She jogs to keep up as Bang slips out of the barn and trots to our side, nosing his way under my hand.

“What was all that about?” She huffs, stealing my hat and tugging it down over her own ears. The wind whips through my hair and I scratch my head.

“I have no idea. It doesn’t make any Thor-damned sense.”

“How did you go sixteen years without learning anything if you’re that good at eavesdropping? I couldn’t hear shit.”

“Good for you.” I snap my fingers, guiding Bang to our other side to block the wind as we turn towards the forge.

“What on Midgard did you hear?”

“Nothing,” I shrug, “everything. I don’t know. He’s still being all…nice.”

“What did he say?”

“She was like ‘I’m cold’ and he was like ‘I’ll build up the fire’ and she was like ‘you don’t have to do that’ and he said he wanted to and she didn’t stop him. And…it was in their tone.”

“Even the great you can’t hear tone through a closed shutter.”

“Since when are you Olga Optimism?” I see the wisp of smoke from the forge’s chimney cutting through the thick falling snow just ahead and speed up slightly, trudging a trail through the quick drifting snow as Aurelia falls into step behind me.

“Mom doesn’t seem so miserable anymore.”

“Hmm.”

She’s never seen Mom happy. She didn’t see the truth in the easy lie, the way that Mom got excited when she knew Dad was coming home, the way she used to hum when she didn’t think we could hear her. I don’t really trust Aurelia as any sort of happy family metric, honestly, but that’s not worth mentioning when we walk up to the forge to see Wingspark and Hotgut huddling together outside, like they don’t share their owners’ mutual loathing.

“Do you think Fuse has blown him up yet?” Aurelia scoffs, stepping ahead of me and pulling off the hat, fixing her hair before opening the door.

I roll my eyes.

“Royalty has decided to join us,” Arvid pushes himself away from the counter when we walk in, chewing on a fingernail and staring at Aurelia. She scoffs and walks over to Fuse, who’s leaning over another counter covered in little metal spheres that look like Smitelout’s and dusting them with pinkish powder that matches her hair.

She looks up at me and raises a singed eyebrow in greeting, mumbling under her breath, “they’re only royalty if you insist on bringing it up.”

“And you two were getting along so well,” I wipe my forehead and walk across the room to the fire, stoking it and pumping the billows a couple of times until the coals glow bright orange and yellow and my fingers come back to life. “How goes it, Fuse?”

“I’m miniaturizing three core bomb cells that should work wet or dry, we should use that baffle you made a couple months ago and test them out. The chief wants me blowing out the wood pile next week, I figure that’s a good time…” She trails off, exhaling slowly and closing off the sphere. It doesn’t line up quite how I would have made it and I’d offer to fix it for her if she didn’t look so sure it’s about to blow.

Aurelia is nonplussed, sitting down next to her and kicking her boots onto the counter. Fuse doesn’t look at her, setting the shell aside and finally making eye contact.

“Sounds good.”

“Took you long enough to get here.” Everything about Arvid’s voice is antagonistic in every syllable and I know I could get him to bitch about the chief with me.

I don’t know if he cares if Mom’s happy. Or not miserable, at least.

“It’s a little harder to slip out of the palace than your house,” Aurelia rolls her eyes. She’s smiling, her face pink like she’s far closer to the fire than she is.

Arvid looks her up and down, frowning slightly before going back to glaring at me.

Fuse gives me an impatient, sympathetic look and waves me over, “I’ve got cobalt salt, and…well, honestly I’m not quite sure this is but when I lit it on fire with black powder, I blew half the roof off my shed, so I think it’ll pack a more even punch in solid solution with the salt.”

“And you want me to drop these things?” Arvid’s flexing like it’s not obvious that his chest is all puffed up. I don’t check if Aurelia’s looking because I don’t want to know, because I need to learn when to eavesdrop.

“Yes, this is all an impractically elaborate assassination attempt.” Fuse assembles the next bomb more quickly, tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth. I rarely hear her hostile and I can’t say if it’s intimidating or deadly.

“Is that a threat—”

“No, it’s not.” Aurelia picks up a jar of Fuse’s powder, holding it to her nose and sniffing it with a grimace.

Arvid’s mouth moves wordlessly, twice, and he goes quiet, crossing his arms more tightly. He glares at me when he catches me looking at him and Gods, this is bizarre.

Fuse hands another shell to Aurelia and starts showing her how to load it and I start sifting through a pile of scrap metal in the back corner, because even if Gobber notices someone was here during the storm he’ll be glad they did something practical. There’s a dagger that doesn’t look half bad and I idly pop it into the fire, finding my old favorite hammer in Smitelout’s fantastic mess and swinging it.

I don’t feel like I’m in charge. I don’t know what being in charge is supposed to feel like.

“I’m shocked you’re here,” Arvid’s directing it at Aurelia but Fuse answers first.

“Why? Think I’d avoid you?”

“I’m not talking to you—”

“We’re all here for the same reason,” I raise my voice just enough that everyone goes quiet and looks at me, even Arvid, for half a second. “Because it’s the only thing we can think of the help the dragons. Well, the only thing we can think of that also makes sense.” I ruin that upstanding, halfway chiefly statement and everyone’s quiet for a second.

“Heard you told half the tribe about the dragons being sick,” Arvid clears his throat, “heard the chief shut you down, hard.”

“Yeah, I’m still here though, aren’t I?”

“Not helping much,” he points at the dagger I’m pulling out of the furnace and I set it on the anvil, giving it a couple of anger reducing hits before answering.

“You’re the one doing nothing.”

“Thorston won’t let me touch anything,” he shrugs, “I tried—”

“So hard, he grunted at what I was doing and then walked away.” Fuse looks at me like she wants me to laugh, glancing at the red hot dagger like she’s not sure I’m going to hurt myself or not.

“You want me to fix that?” I ask, pointing at the not quite circular shell she’s holding.

“What?” She cocks her head, braid dragging through the powder on the table and turning some odd shade of purple in the soot and orange light.

“I can fix that shell, it’s not going together right,” I swing the hammer, because it feels like something I’m doing right, “I’m all warmed up.”

“Oh my gods,” Aurelia sits forward, feet thunking to the floor as she looks at me with some weird, cryptic expression and then at Fuse, “I don’t think I’m doing this right.”

“It’s perfect,” Fuse inspects her work, “and these are fitting fine, don’t worry about it.”

“Looks fine to me,” Arvid mumbles. He’s looking at Aurelia.

“They’re looking good. Actually, as soon as we get these together, I’ve probably got to head home, the storm isn’t looking good.” Fuse helps Aurelia get the shell closed and sets it gently in a leather bag, “I got here early, I ran into Gobber actually, I told him I was locked out and he said to lock up before I left so…”

“Yeah, no, I got that.” I look at the door, shuddering slightly with the storm outside. “No problem, thanks for getting started early.”

“It wasn’t early, I could just get away first,” she glares at Arvid as she stands, “I’ll let you know when the chief wants to blow the woodpile out. He said earlier he wants it done before the snow freezes too hard so…” She shrugs and for a second I have the weird compulsion to ask her if she needs a ride home.

Obviously, she doesn’t. Hotgut is outside. She frowns at me like she notices I’m not saying something and I wave.

“Fly safe. It’s getting pretty bad out there.”

She waves back as she slips outside and Arvid gives an exaggerated, obnoxious sigh of relief.

“I might even let you fly me home,” Aurelia mutters, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t really feel like walking through this.”

“Flying would be quicker, but colder,” I keep working on the dagger, “that’s sort of making me think, we should have a final plan in place by spring. You know, because we need to do this soon but we also can’t do it while a storm like this could mess us up.”

Arvid grunts. Aurelia starts cleaning the counter. She’s looking at Arvid. I feel like I need to say something to bring this back on track.

Someone knocks on the door but doesn’t wait for me to open it.

It’s the chief, windblown, snow-covered and deeply disappointed like I should care.

“What’s up, dad?” Aurelia asks, unconvincingly bored.

“I ran into Fuse,” he looks at me and only me and I realize that being chief in training means I’m going to get blamed for everything. “She said you called a meeting at the forge. What could that possibly be about?”

“I can’t believe Thorston ratted us out,” Arvid huffs, “oh wait, yes I can.”

“She didn’t rat us out,” I snap at him and the chief is still just staring at me.

“No, she didn’t,” the chief crosses his arms, “I put this together myself thanks.” He takes a piece of paper out of his pocket and I see red.

It’s a sketch, Fuse’s wrinkled sketch of the island, the one I had tucked into my clean laundry.

“You went through my things?”

“You’re still investigating the dragon island? More than that, you’re planning to do something about it? Using tribe resources and—”

“No one’s going to starve because I repurposed some scrap metal—”

“That’s not what matters, what matters is that we agreed!” The chief makes it sound like I mortally offended his deep trust in me and I clench my fists, standing up straight like if I make my stature chiefly enough then he’ll have to listen.

“You declared, we never agreed.”

Because even now it’s like he thinks he can make my voice disappear if he’s loud enough or official enough or calls me young and stupid enough. Like if he acts like he trusts me I’ll have to behave.

Aurelia steps up beside me and I think of our conversation the other day, how she’s at some level jealous that I’m the one with all the chiefly pressure. I still think she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and I almost wished I’d pressed that further.

“It’s funny, dad, just because he’s your precious, long-lost son doesn’t mean he’s going to follow everything you say!”

“No,” I snap, “I don’t need you fighting for me, I—” I look back at the chief and force myself to deflate like Bang pulling a punch, “No. This isn’t a fight at all, I’m doing it, you can’t stop me.” It feels chiefly when I shove past him and through the door in that it feels bratty and absolute and that’s what I’m supposed to be, isn’t it?

That’s what he wants from me, that’s what Aurelia wants him to want from her.

And beyond all that, it doesn’t seem to matter who’s right or wrong, only who’s older and more famous and more willing to compromise themselves.

“Eret!” The chief follows me out and I walk faster, towards Bang, “Eret, stop. Now.”

“Is that an order from the chief?” I whirl around, pushing snow soggy hair out of my face.

“Yes.”

I stop, clapping my hands against my sides.

“So you’ll stop before treason, then, that’s the line?” He looks hurt. I don’t care. It’s not victory like it used to be but I’m not sad about it either.

“Right, because me knowing something you don’t has to be treason.”

“I’m taking you home,” he stalks past me, towards Toothless, and Bang grumbles.

“I don’t have to go with you.”

“Even if I say it’s an order from the chief?” He swings onto Toothless and points at Bang, snow falling thick on his head. It’s almost to my knees now, drifting against the wall of the forge in the wind.

“I’ll just leave again.”

“I’m still taking you home.”

“Fine.” I get onto Bang and he grudgingly follows Toothless, flying low for shelter in the trees and gliding to land in front of the chief’s house. Toothless slumps to the barn, giving Bang one last dirty look for being the current house dragon, like he couldn’t come inside too if he knew how to share.

Mom’s still awake, blanket around her shoulders in front of the fire as she sips a cup of tea.

She knows. I know that face, she knows because the chief told her and she…

She doesn’t disagree with him. I’m in trouble with her.

“He was at the forge,” the chief tells Mom because they were colluding behind my back like…

Like I don’t know. Like they’re partners in crime or they’re attempting to parent me together like that’s going to make me anything but furious because the chief has no Odin damned right to play doting dad.

“Why haven’t you told me about this?” She asks, that exhausted brand of stern that makes me want to give her a break.

I shrug.

“He wants to figure it all out himself.” The chief crosses his arms, “like that makes it mean more.”

“Neither of you care if the dragons are suffering. It’s just some stupid—you just…”

I can’t believe Mom is standing there beside the chief, arms crossed at me like I’m the problem. Like…like this entire time we’ve been a united front in the face of this shit and now we’re not and she’s shoulder to shoulder with the chief.

They used to be engaged.

There was a ‘the chief and my mom’ before there was a ‘Mom and me’ and maybe age is all that matters, sometimes.

“Of course I care about the dragons, Eret,” Mom sighs, “but I care more about you lying and scheming and—”

“Right, he’s the only one that’s allowed to do that,” I point at the chief, “it’s practically a damn myth that he hid Toothless from everyone and—”

“Yeah?” Mom shakes her head, “well, he wasn’t my son.”

“Let’s talk about this in the morning,” the chief steps between us like he’s trying to calm down the situation. Like it’s not his fault. Like he’s not the fucking flint who keeps lighting everyone else’s emotional kindling in the square.

“I don’t have to talk about anything—”

“You know what, Eret? That’s right, you don’t have to talk about anything,” Mom pours the rest of her tea out into the fireplace, a corner of the bed of coals smoking and steaming. “You just have to listen.”

She turns and walks back in the bedroom, shutting the door behind her.

“Get some sleep,” the chief sighs, “I—”

“That’s not an order.”

“It’s a suggestion,” he stares at me for a moment before his eyes widen, “I’m going to go back out and get Aurelia before this gets any worse.”

“Fine.”

The chief doesn’t get it. He just…he’s stuck in some other time, when wild dragons are as common as ants on apples in summer. He won’t listen, and everything’s suddenly worse because Mom appears to be siding with him. That she won’t go after him for me because he’s annoying because he’s making her laugh and so insidiously worming his way into my life like if he gets close enough I’ll have to lie down and let him walk all over me.

I’m curled up on my stack of furs in front of the fire, leaning back against Bang’s broad side when the door opens and slams shut and Aurelia walks in, conspicuously wrapped in an almost familiar scarf and dusted with powdery snow.

“The chief’s a real dick, you know that?” I scoot, expecting her to come and sit by me like she almost always does. She prefers Bang’s tail, a little further from the teeth, and she hogs the furs as she grouses about the chief and Mom and the general injustices of the day. Aurelia makes me feel like a sunny personality, and I need that sometimes. Especially now. After…that.

She lingers by the door, hands stuffed in her pockets as she glances towards the stairs.

“What? Did you expect me to magic myself home from the forge?”

“Oh,” I stand halfway, arms held out towards her like she needs a hug or a ride. “I left you at the forge without a ride, didn’t I? We didn’t talk about that, I just…stormed out. Shit, I’m sorry, I just—”

“Threw a tantrum because I tried to defend you?” She simplifies, “and then my dad left and chased after you and I was stuck with Arvid—”

“Did he leave you there too?” It’s easier to be angrier at Arvid than to be mad at myself and I cross my arms and step over Bang’s tail towards her. “Because I’ll—”

“Shut up, you’re going to wake everyone up. Arvid gave me a ride home.”

That stops me short.

“You rode Wingspark?”

“She’s sort of sweet,” Aurelia smiles, one of those little sideways smiles, and Bang lifts his head, an offended whuff ghosting against the back of my legs.

“The chief is still out looking for you.”

“Oh,” she shrugs, eyes narrowing. “At least he didn’t forget me—”

“I didn’t forget you!” I cut her off, wracking my brain for the moment she fell out of it. “The chief wasn’t listening about the dragons, there’s less of them every day —”

“I didn’t ask you about the dragons. You forgot me.”

I pause.

“Not on purpose.”

“It…I guess that’s what families do, they forget people,” she says it with a sigh, like it exhausts her to cut so deep, and I think of her riding Wingspark with Arvid and gossiping about me. About how I don’t fit in anywhere.

I did storm out. I stormed out like the fucking chief, and I let him chase me, and I didn’t think about what I was leaving behind.

My heart pounds a little too hard, making me nauseous as I realize the million fights between my parents that I’ve come to understand over the past few months. How Mom would yell and the chief would run and here I am, doing both. In one night. And forgetting people on top of it.

“Eret, I’m sorry, that was mean—” Aurelia steps forward and puts her hand on my arm, and I wonder just how shitty I must look for her to back down from the fight. My hands are shaking when I shrug her off and fumble for the fur on top of my stack, holding it numbly in her direction.

“Here, it’s my warmest one, but I have the fire. Are you ok? I—” Thor, why the Hel do I even exist? All of this dysfunction in one human should be impossible. “And Arvid wasn’t too much of an asshole? Odin, I’m the asshole, I’m sorry—”

“What did I say to get such a rise out of you?” She laughs nervously but accepts the fur, unwrapping the thick scarf halfway around her neck and I recognize it as one of Arvid’s that Nana knit him back when we were kids. “Go to bed, you can fight Dad about dragons in the morning.”

“He’s still out looking for you.” I repeat, because none of what she’s saying makes sense and maybe she didn’t hear me. This is Aurelia, she should be yelling and screaming and making me grovel, but she’s just staring at me like I’m one of Fuse’s experiments left willy nilly on the table.

“Then it’ll be a cold night,” she smiles, and there’s a bit of her in there, tempered by the cold and probably the fact that I abandoned her at the forge in the middle of a blizzard. “He’s got Toothless, I’m sure he’s fine. Why don’t you get some sleep and we can fight about this in the morning when you’re acting less like a crazy person? Thanks for the extra blanket.”

“No. No, someone should let him know you’re home safe.”

“I wouldn’t be too upset if he came home short a couple more toes.”

“No, just because he’s an asshole doesn’t mean I have to be.” I clap my hand over her shoulder and narrow my eyes at the thick scarf still wound halfway around her. “Let me guess, I can’t borrow the scarf.”

“I told Arvid I’d get it back to him tomorrow.” She shrugs, another uncharacteristically demure smile tugging at her cheeks.

“I…ok,” I wrinkle my nose. I know, I know, I told her to go for it. I told her it was something I’d have to cope with, and it’s still true but…it hits me again, repeatedly, off and on like a Nightmare’s skin that I’m both of their blood relatives and my ick-factor is the only reasonable stumbling block besides like, taste.

They’re something else that would work perfectly if I didn’t exist.

“Ok, do you have any idea where he’d look for you?” I start pulling on my coat and patting my leg, coaxing a grumpy Bang towards the door. He looks awfully cozy, curled up in front of the fire, but I point towards the door anyway. I’m not going to be like the chief, not like this.

“The dragon barns, probably.” She rolls her eyes and looks towards the stairs again, hugging the blanket closer to her chest. “Nowhere I’d actually be.”

“Thanks for all the help,” I roll my eyes at her and soften one last time, “I’m sorry. I owe you one, but—but don’t make me cover for you and Arvid, alright? I’ve spent sixteen years covering for that asshole.”

“Nothing happened,” she shakes her head and slumps towards the stairs, “goodnight, Eret.”

“Yeah, nothing happened my ass,” I mutter under my breath as I slip into my boots. I don’t want to think of it the way I don’t want to think about Mom and the chief.

It’s colder than when I got home, one of the few times I curse Bang’s cool core and broad, quickly cooling back, but I tuck myself close to his neck and try and scan the snow for the now familiar night fury smudge.

There’s a flurry of fresher footprints outside of the forge and a strange peg-shaped puncture in the snow catches my attention. Not as inventive as the legends would say he is, it looks like the chief stopped at the forge. I land Bang on the roof and slide into a snow drift with a quiet crunch before yanking the unlocked door open. The chief is inside with Toothless, staring at my anvil, a few long, straight rods in front of him.

He turns to look at me, so different from the raging would be father figure he impersonated earlier and I speak before he can ruin the quiet.

“Aurelia is home. Arvid gave her a ride after we both left her here,” I glare at him and he pushes his snowmelt wet hair away from his face.

“Arvid did?”

“Thank the gods, look outside,” I gesture back towards the snow and pause, “I’m going to go home and sleep now, unless—”

“Can…can you step in here for a moment?”

“Why?” I freeze, “I’m not changing my mind—”

“I just want to talk for a minute,” he points towards the door. “And you’re letting all the snow in.”

I could run. I could go get on Bang and fly to some cave over on East Beach and make a fire. It’d be cold. I would be fine, probably. I grit my teeth and step into the forge, slamming it shut behind me with a little too much force. Bang coughs on the roof above us, a snow drift clomping onto the ground outside with a soft thud.

“What do you want to talk about?”

“I—there’s something weird going on with the dragons, you’re right.” He starts and I roll my eyes.

“Oh, and you can only say that in private, of course—”

“It’s the middle of winter, we don’t have resources to look into it right now. I—I want to figure out some way for us to smooth out a bit, I know that you don’t like—”

“I don’t like you sucking up to all of us like it matters.” I snap, and he purses his lips.

“I’m sorry that’s what you think I’m doing.”

“You’re not supposed to apologize, you’re supposed to be a dick.”

“I’ll re-read the script when I get home,” he smiles like he knows it’s funny and he knows I think it’s funny.

I don’t want it to be ok that the chief shattered my family because he felt like it. I don’t want anyone convincing me I’m part of some weird, important family. I bite my tongue.

“How are things going with you and Arvid?” He asks in that quiet, careful voice like he wants to care without me yelling at him.

I shrug and almost tell him that Aurelia talks to Arvid all the time now, apparently, that they’re best friends. I don’t think I’ve ever almost said this many things without anything slipping out.

“I…It’s at least partially my fault that you two aren’t talking.”

“Wow, so you aren’t actually stupid.” I snip because it’s easier than accepting the statement. The chief smiles.

“And you’re sort of funny sometimes. Wow, who knew?”

I scoff and shake my head, glancing up at him through my overgrown hair. It’s almost long enough to tie back, and still not gray, thank gods.

I hate it when he does that. I hate that I had to accept him as a person and I hate that he keeps shoving it in my face like it’s a trick I should reward him for. I hate how it makes me feel, like I’m the stubborn one when it really feels like I’m the best chance of maintaining logic against this…onslaught of stupid, decent little gestures.

I look at him and I see the worst of myself all rolled up in a sense of humor and master dragon trainer and…

And there’s got to be another way.

“I don’t have to be like you,” I stare at my feet, “I look like you and somehow—somehow without ever knowing you, I fucking act like you, but I don’t have to be like you. It was…Aurelia and I both thought it was hilarious, the idea of you wandering around all night in a blizzard looking for her but—” I clear my throat, probably too loud, and Bang shifts on the roof, like he’s worried about me. I’m worried about me. “But that’s what you’d do. You leave people, you left my mom, you left…when I was a baby, you left me. You left her here and I’m not going to be like that.”

“Eret,” he holds his hand out towards me and I shake my head.

“Can you make it home alright? Or do you want me to hold your hand?” I curl my lip and turn towards the door, “consider yourself found.”

Chapter Text

“Astrid, can you look at something for me?” The chief asks after dinner one night, after Aurelia has already gone up to her bedroom in this shifty, clumsy way that makes me halfway think she’s going to be bailing out a window to see my brother about a nightmare at some point in the not too distant future. Stoick is asleep on Bang’s back, snoring too loud for his tiny self and I’m reading a book that Rolf reluctantly checked out to me the day before, after asking about five times if I’d destroy it or not.

“Like what?” Mom asks, and she doesn’t look at the chief like he’s going to piss her off anymore. Not automatically at least. Something’s shifted since they got me in trouble together. Since he stopped…

I don’t even know.

He’s still sleeping in Stoick’s room, I watch him walk around rubbing his back all day like the bed’s as horribly uncomfortable as it looks. Part of me feels like bringing up the fact that he wanted to saddle me with that uncomfortable bed but the rest?

Well, as much as I hate to admit it, since he’s started being halfway to nice, it hasn’t been quite so…cold around here.

“This,” the chief stands when Mom walks over, offering her his seat, which she takes with one of those not quite so suspicious anymore looks, “it’s a new woodpile, Eret and Fuse are going to be doing some blasting tomorrow and we have to decide what to rebuild.”

“And this is your design? Or…” Mom smooths out the paper and the chief takes a long moment to respond.

I flip the page of my book back and forth, trying to remember where I was while trying to remember that I’m supposed to be learning when to eavesdrop. Now doesn’t feel like time, but at the same time I’m curious. Like if I don’t hear the inevitable next session of fighting is going to catch me by surprise.

“This is actually Gustav’s, and it’s fine, I like it, but Snotlout’s stalled the council because he wants a giant S on top of it and not only would that be a literal flaming beacon to any enemies but—”

“It’s stupid?” Mom laughs. I barely hold back a snort, because that is stupid, and because I want them to think I’ve dozed off because if they think I’m listening they’re never going to say anything.

It’s funny how I can have chiefly responsibility to blow up a goddamned mountain with a seventeen year old…Gronckle whisperer, yet the truth is still elusive and if I ask, it’s something I can’t handle.

“Yes,” the chief laughs too. I see him almost rest his hand on her shoulder from the corner of my eye but he seems to rethink at the last moment, patting the top of her chair instead.

“What do you mean he’s stalled the council?”

“He’s literally refusing to vote until I agree to put an S on this design. He says it stands for ‘plural’ like everyone will know we have more than one piece of wood.”

Mom laughs again, really laughs, and something sours in my mind because that’s a laugh that used to be mine.

It probably never was, it was probably just the laugh that belonged to whatever shadow of the chief I’ve always recreated without trying.

“How can I possibly help you in the face of such raw determination?” Mom wipes her face, staring at the piece of paper on the table.

The chief almost touches her shoulder again but stops, flicking her braid slightly to the side and wincing and Gods, where’s Aurelia when I need this to be a hilarious spectator sport instead of the dragon race from Hel where I’m not even in the running.

“Well, uh,” the chief looks towards me and I slump further against Bang, trying to make it look natural and drowsy even as Stoick’s limp hand tangles in my hair, “I…ugh, the council has an even number of members, um, right now, and that’s why he even has the power to stall because of some rule from 200 years ago that I can’t find a way to undo and we never filled that old Hofferson seat after you left and I was hoping…”

“What?” She turns to him fast enough that the chair squeaks and I can barely see from where I’m sunk down against Bang’s side. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“What doesn’t work like what?”

“I’m your wife, we can’t occupy two seats on the council.”

“Yeah, but you’re you and I make the rules and I uh…I miss your opinion and I don’t care if you vote against me tomorrow and put a huge wooden S-shaped enemy beacon on top of the wood pile, but I was hoping you’d fill it. The spot.” He makes some gesture that doesn’t even make sense and smacks his hand against the edge of the table, “like, for this issue and future issues.”

“No one wants my opinion, Hiccup,” Mom sighs, and that old weight of carrying the Hofferson wild-child grudge reappears on her voice.

“That’s not true,” the chief clears his throat and he’s too quiet and this is wrong and I want to stand up and say that I’m not asleep but…

But as much as Dad joked about it and Arvid prided in it, Mom’s always hated the way people say Hofferson.

“It is.”

“No, it’s not. I want your opinion.”

Mom’s quiet for a long minute and then I hear her stand up, “I’ll come tomorrow, if only to save Berk from a giant S-shaped target.”

“You will?” The chief rolls up the drawing on the table, “thank you, seriously, thank you so much—”

“Don’t grovel,” Mom snaps, not hard enough. It’s more of a reminder than an order.

“Sorry.” The chief sounds genuine and I hate it, I hate that he respects Mom like he knows the other end of her anger as well as I do. “I—can I walk you over? In the morning? Maybe? I mean if you don’t want, but—”

“Sure,” she’s irritated but laughing and I hate that, because it goes against everything black and white that’s she’s always been, “but stop that. I’m not doing you a favor, I’m yelling at Snotlout, you’re doing me a favor by giving me the chance.”

“I guess,” the chief laughs, “so umm, I’m going to go to bed.”

“Me too. Good idea.”

I pretend to be asleep while the chief comes over, scooping Stoick into his arms with a grunt like the kid weighs more than he does and climbs the stairs. Mom shuts her door.

I…I don’t have anything to say, for the first time in my life, probably.

I guess that’s something I’ve always sort of known, that Mom wanted to be a bigger part of Berk than she got to be in my family’s happy little corner of the island. And…I guess I did to. I guess I’m not miserable helping the chief. I’m not really miserable at all, I’m just—I’m miserable that my dad probably hates me and my brothers definitely do and Ingrid’s gone and Aurelia looks more like ambition than comfort some days in the last couple of weeks.

I’m miserable that being chief in training doesn’t let me fix things the way I want to, but I like solving the problems it does pose. I like helping kids with their runaway terrors and I like assuring people that we have enough of everything to last the season. I like organizing orders heading to the forge and looking at the village and seeing more. I grew up hardly allowed to go to the village, let alone add onto it.

There’s a promise to being chief, a wider ranging horizon. If I leave now I won’t be abandoning anyone, I’ll be diplomatic, I’ll be appreciated.

Eret, come inside, out of sight doesn’t exist anymore.

But so does Mom, laughing with the chief.

00000

“Hey!” Fuse greets me with far too much pep for the fact that it’s not even really, technically sunrise yet, because it’s just barely flirting with the grey horizon. She’s got a bag over her shoulder that she sets down gently before stepping towards me like she wants to get past me. I step aside and her arm bumps against my chest like—oh, what?

“Sorry,” I step back again, “am I in your uh way?”

“No, I was just—nevermind.” She shrugs, tucking her hand back in her pocket.

“Oh, were you uh, trying to hug me or—”

She shrugs and if I didn’t know better I’d think she looked halfway to embarrassed. Of course, it’s Fuse, so…

“Let’s get started,” she changes the subject, reaching into her bag and pulling out the small, not entirely spherical shells that we loaded a couple of weeks ago. It doesn’t feel like that long, but obviously it was long enough for them to get dusty, the freezing metal slightly grimy and slick in the way that I almost drop it. “Don’t drop those.”

“I’m not.” I frown, because I’m not stupid and she doesn’t need to tell me things that obvious, and she pulls that weird, swoopy piece of metal out of Hotgut’s saddle bag before telling her to ‘take cover’ like other people tell their dragons to sit and roll over.

“So this is the first time I’ve tested the baffle,” Fuse sets it down and lays down on her front behind it, holding it up and frowning. “And I don’t think it’s big enough to hold it and be safe behind it, I think we have to prop it somehow and go take cover.”

“Plus wouldn’t holding it put us way too close to the explosion? Like, couldn’t we catch on fire or—”

“It’s really more likely that a shock wave reverberating off of the rock wall would turn our brains to jam.”

“Comforting.” I wince and she shrugs.

“I’ve done this plenty of times and I’m still standing.”

“Well you’re you.”

She frowns and I continue, “and I’m Eret, you know, I get hit by things I’m not even near.”

“Explosions fling things pretty far sometimes,” she says like it means more than she’s saying and points at a big rock, that fell off the mountain of its own volition, “can you help me move that, I bet we could prop up the baffle with it.”

“Where’s Arvid when you need him?” I grunt, shoving the rock and scooting it about an inch before my stupid, new boots slip out from under that. Fuse steps up beside me.

“Careful, doesn’t saying his name make him appear?”

“Is that a joke?” We push at the same time and it scoots more easily, because apparently Fuse is freakishly strong for her skinny size. “I hope it’s a joke.”

“You two still aren’t getting along.” She grunts and gives one last shove before standing back and wiping her hands on her vest.

“That wasn’t a question.”

“No, and I wouldn’t really expect you to. I was always kind of shocked at how close you guys were, you were always so different.” She props the baffle against the rock and gets a spool of rope from her bag, starting to tie it in place.

“Yeah, you never felt the need to bomb me until today.” I joke and I don’t remember that she probably won’t get it until she looks up, that weird halfway hurt expression on her face again.

“Do you not want to be here?”

“No, no, that’s not it at all. I do. I really do, actually, you’re still the only person who talks to me like, I don’t know, everything’s still normal. Like I’m still normal.”

“You were never normal.”

“That’s not a joke,” I laugh, picking one of the bombs up off of the ground and handing it to her. She places it in front of the baffle and stands back for a moment like she’s trying to tell if it’s centered. When she decides it’s good she takes a long roll of fuse cord out of a pocket of her vest and feeds it through the uneven seam of the shell casing, waving me along with her as she lets it out and walks around the corner of the old, crumbling wood pile structure. She lets out maybe a quarter of the spool and kneels on the ground, biting the fuse off and pulling flint out of her pocket.

She pauses and holds them out to me, “it’s your first time, you should do the honors.”

“Is there some blowing up mountains tradition I don’t know about?” I squat down next to her and take the flint, miming a couple of strikes and hoping I don’t lose my nerve because I’m actually a little more freaked out than I thought I’d be about, you know, sending tons of rock down the slope and into the bay.

“Now there is,” she sits down and puts her hands over her ears, staring at the flint expectedly.

I strike it.

The fuse lights, burning bright and fast across the ground and around the corner. I smell it when it hits the bomb, something thick and metallic and nerve wracking, and I barely manage to get my hands over my ears before the boom. The whole mountain shakes, and my head throbs and I fall from my squat onto my ass.

Fuse uncovers her ears and jumps up before the ground is even done shaking and I heave myself to my feet and stumble after her.

There’s a cave where there didn’t used to be.

The baffle is nowhere to be seen.

Fuse is pale and looking at a smoking roof about three rows of houses away.

The giant rock we anchored the baffle with is gone too.

“I think it was too small for the bomb we used,” she clears her throat and forces her expression normal and I realize it’s the first time I’ve seen her put herself back together like that, like there’s a concept of upsetting her.

“So you think a smaller bomb?”

“I mean, it aimed it ok,” she inspects the new cave, apparently happy with those results. There’s a few boulders that didn’t quite tip down off the ledge into the bay and I wonder if that’ll be additional explosions to clear them away. “I’m glad neither of us were holding that, I have no idea where that rock went. It got blown across town.”

“Yeah…about that…whose house is that, do you know?” I point at the dented roof and she shrugs.

“I think it’s either the Larsons’ or the Ericsons’ but hey, it doesn’t look like it went all the way through. And it’s done smoking, pretty much.”

“Someone should probably go talk to them…”

“You could go get the chief,” Fuse looks at me, “or I mean, you’re the next most official thing, right?”

“I…” I think that over for a second. I’ve never done anything like that without the chief but…I mean, theoretically I can assume he’d back me up, he would want people to be alerted and also not alarmed. “I could do that.”

“I know, that’s why I suggested it.”

I smile at her and she looks at me like I’m crazy, like she always has.

“I’m gonna go do that, you don’t need any more help here or anything?”

“I need that baffle back,” she waves me off and I nod, turning to follow the faint explosion smell to the accidental attack from the air.

I didn’t bring Bang this morning because Fuse told me not to, because she figured I hadn’t taught him to ‘take cover’ and she figured right. I’m not going to lie, this morning was impressive in a way I didn’t expect. And even though the baffle didn’t work exactly like we expected it to, it was…something.

It’s the Larson’s house, when I get there, and I’m less nervous to knock on the door than I was to light the fuse. Gustav comes to the door, half panicked, and I’m glad I came over as soon as I did.

“Mini-chief,” he greets me, relaxing slightly.

“That’s not really my name.”

“I assume you’re here about my house getting bombed.”

“Yes, uh, Gustav, sir,” I clear my throat, “that was a by-product of some…explosives being used at the wood pile. Of course we’ll repair the roof, I just need to get the piece of debris back right now and I’ll send someone this afternoon? Yes, I’ll send someone to fix the roof this afternoon.”

“You have the power to send people places? Looks like I chose the wrong profession.”

“Could I borrow a dragon to get the debris?” I hold onto my temper and he stares at me for a minute before whistling. A gronckle I vaguely recognize comes around and I thank him, climbing on and hovering up to grab the baffle. It’s still warm to the touch, but not burning me, and it’s dented and warped from the blast. Apparently all this work goes into a one time use thing, but we won’t need to blow up the dragon island more than once.

“What is that, anyway?” He asks after I land and I don’t see any harm in showing him the baffle. He frowns and weighs it in his hands.

“One of Fuse Thorston’s ideas,” I shrug, taking it back and trying to feel official, like I can actually get his roof fixed today. “I have to get it back to her now but um, I’ll make sure the roof gets fixed.”

“I’ll hold you to that Mini-chief.”

“Not my name,” I turn away and wave, taking a couple of steps before Toothless lands in front of me with Mom and the chief both on his back.

“Gustav,” the chief starts, frowning when he sees me and what I’m holding, “Eret, what are you doing here?”

“Oh, uh, there was an accident over at the woodpile and it—”

“That’s what happened?” The chief talks over me and I frown. Mom makes eye contact and it’s embarrassing, somehow. Like she’s thinking I could be doing better. “Everyone saw a boulder flying over and thought it was an attack.”

“It was just some demolition gone…big,” I stand up straighter and clear my throat, “and I’ve got it handled here, chief, I retrieved the debris and I’m going to talk to Sven about patching up the roof before the next snow.”

“Oh…” The chief looks at Mom, who’s swinging off of Toothless and patting his tail. “That’s…good job. He’ll be at the meeting, do you want me to talk to him?”

“No,” I shake my head, “I’m going to follow through with this one, plus, I’ve seen the damage and you haven’t.”

“Oh…ok.” The chief looks at me strangely for a second before turning back to Mom, “we can walk the rest of the way, if that’s, you know, if that’s what you want to do.”

“Long time no see, Astrid,” Gustav raises an eyebrow at Mom, “how’s it going?”

“What?” Mom snorts, “really?”

“She’s been busy,” the chief says like he doesn’t sense the awkwardness and oh my gods, is Gustav flirting with my mother?

“Not really talking to you, chief,” Gustav grins, “can’t really focus on anything but how genuinely lovely Astrid looks today.”

“I’ll still kill you,” Mom laughs, patting the axe that’s strapped to her back.

I mumble “I’ll help” at the same second as the chief says something like ‘go for it’ and we make strange, agreeable eye contact.

“You know, if this whole…you know marriage or whatever with the chief doesn’t work out, you know where to find me.”

My hand tightens on the baffle because, you know, it’d be a decent club and something about the way the chief’s looking at me almost feels like encouragement.

“I’m not gonna keep that in mind.” She turns, looking at the chief like she wants him to follow and walking towards the great hall.

“So you’ll follow up with Sven?” The chief takes a couple steps backwards like he doesn’t want mom getting away and I hate that but oddly not as much as I hate Gustav being…that way.

“I said I would.”

“Ok,” the chief nods, “get back to the woodpile then.”

I barely hold back the urge to say duh. But I do. And that counts for something, doesn’t it?

When I get back to the woodpile, everything is clean and it looks like Fuse has let off a few smaller charges to smooth the edges of the cave and make it a more even shape. She frowns when she sees the baffle, taking it and pressing her hand to the dent made by the explosion.

“One time use, apparently.” I want to tell her, suddenly, about Gustav and Mom and the chief and I don’t know why I don’t.

Maybe I want to stay chiefly, because it’s chiefly that I’m here with her and it’s chiefly that I handled that without clubbing Gustav in the face and being chiefly feels kind of good. Like there’s a barrier between me and my own stupid emotions, like I can’t say anything stupid to Fuse if I’m being chiefly.

“And not quite right. We need a smaller bomb but also a shape that’s not so…aerodynamic.”

“Wait a second,” I take the baffle back and frown and I can feel her staring at me as I put it together. “Not aerodynamic, aiming a lot of power. That sounds like you’re talking about a Thunderdrum.”

“What?”

“No, I mean, when Bang blasts—it’s a Bang, you know, I’m not that creative at naming things.”

She laughs and it’s awkward and I don’t know why it’s awkward. Because it’s Fuse and because her laugh doesn’t sound like the rest of her. I’m a little proud I made her laugh.

“But…I mean, a Thunderdrum mouth. Think about it, it actually makes some sense.”

“Yeah,” she cocks her head, “I mean, shock waves, sound waves, they’re both waves, right?”

“I can do that,” I nod, “I can get dimensions off of Bang and make something. It…yeah, yeah, I’ll do that, it’d be more durable too.”

“Ok,” she nods, “sounds good.”

“Yeah,” I hand her the baffle back when she reaches for it.

“I just…sometimes I keep things.” She shrugs, “the cool things, the things that didn’t go right.”

That makes me smile, for some reason, because it’s the most Fuse thing I’ve ever heard. Being surrounded by disaster and liking it that way. No wonder she always seems happy on Berk.

“Yeah, keep it. You’re fine. I mean good. I mean…I don’t know what I mean.”

She laughs again, “let me know when it’s done and we can make something small to test it with.”

“Ok, yeah that…yeah. I’m saying yeah a lot.”

She laughs. I’m not being vey chiefly at all.

“See you later, Eret.”

I wave and either I’m crazy or she’s staring at me as I head back home to get Bang.

Chapter Text

Mom kicks the chief’s ass at maces and talons one night and the chief doesn’t even pout, he just asks for a rematch and Mom says yes. I don’t know why she says yes. I don’t know why she’s not only going along with this but…steering into it, like she got caught in an avalanche and decided she had a better chance of living if she went downhill but at some point it turned into sledding and she forgot it was dangerous.

But over the next couple of snows, the chief is…not as bad. I hate saying it, I hate that him being marginally less annoying is so great, but it is and I’m tired and it’s not the worst thing to hear my Mom not being miserable as the nights get colder and we end up stuck inside more.

It’s close enough to Snoggletog that the village feels festive, people braving the cold on a snowless afternoon to go to the market and the chief doesn’t look exactly innocent when he suggests we take the long way to the Olsens’ house where they’re dealing with a clutch of eggs their Nightmare laid without them knowing.

There’s that odd Snoggletog notoriety feeling doubled as the chief and I walk into the crowd, everyone looking at Bang and Toothless with the lonely jealousy of people missing their dragons. There’s a few others, around, sure, I saw a Hobblegrunt just this morning who also looked too young to leave, but for the most part the sky’s quiet and so is the hangar. It makes the people seem louder, without squawks and chirps drowning them out.

Bang stops almost as soon as he enters the crowd, accepting treats and attention from the people around him and Toothless rolls his eyes, sticking closer to the chief and chuffing at me.

“Are you ever going to warm up to him, bud?” The chief scratches Toothless’s neck, obviously irritated that the dragon is still making a lackluster impression. “A few months ago you were pretty willing to save his life.”

“I think he’s still mad about me pulling one over on him,” I gesture at myself, “probably thought he was saving you.”

“He didn’t trick you on purpose,” the chief pats Toothless’s back, in front of his saddle, and the dragon makes another irritated sound before he trills and perks up, cocking his head.

It’s Mom. Toothless wags like a baby terror and that whole ‘looking like your dragon’ syndrome overtakes the chief’s face in full force.

Gross.

Mom sees him next, waving like she’s polite and that’s ok, that’s a little less gross, because I want my mom to have friends and smile even if she has really horrible taste, but then the chief is off like a Gronckle at a rock pile and it gets worse.

It gets worse so quickly that I almost think I’m having a nightmare.

“Before I say hi, have you seen my wife anywhere? I don’t want her getting jealous.”

Mom hits him. Not hard, because he doesn’t move and I know from experience that he’s not that hard to move.

“Do you think before you open your mouth?” She narrows her eyes and I think she’s going to let him have it but she doesn’t and no one else backs up like they’re making room for a fight.

“Not when I’m distracted,” the chief smiles that hopeful smile I hate because it’s like he still think I’m going to wake up one day and call him the best dad I’ve ever had.

Mom sighs and rolls her eyes, cocking her hip and resting her half full basket against it. She’s trying not to smile. I’m trying not to throw up.

“Can I carry that for you?” The chief asks, pointing at the basket and Mom stares at him a second like she’s looking for the dragon-shit and it’s more deeply buried than she anticipated.

“I don’t need you to carry things for me.”

“I know that,” he holds his arms out. She stares at him another second and hands her the basket.

“What are they doing?” Aurelia appears from nowhere at my elbow and I jump about a foot in the air. She scoffs. “Is my dad…carrying something for Mom?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Mom laughs at something the chief says that I can’t hear and it takes her too long to put her expression away and I hate it because it’s real and because I’m jealous because I don’t remember the last time she laughed with me that way and that’s messed up but…It makes me question everything, but mostly who she saw when she looked at me, who she sees now.

“Gods, he’s so embarrassing,” Aurelia wipes her hand across her forehead, “you’re so lucky your dad doesn’t embarrass you.”

“My dad’s shunned from the village, pretty much,” I snort, “and I’ve got the worst of both worlds, remember how he is my dad and that’s why we’re in this situation?”

“We’re in this situation because he needed an heir.” She tosses her braid over her shoulder, looking around, “how’s chiefing?”

It’s a little too probing, tainted with that shiny new ambition that I haven’t seen much of. I think I’d like it if it weren’t directed at me. I don’t know why it is, I don’t know why it’s not directed at the chief, like usual.

“Going to see the Olsens’ about a clutch of surprise dragon eggs.”

That makes her flinch and I almost feel guilty. Almost.

It occurs to me that I’m no stranger to sibling rivalry but she’s never had anything at her own level. The most she’s familiar with is fighting Stoick for the end of dessert.

“Then my dad got distracted?”

“Pretty soon I’ll be asking you for help running the village while he chases Mom shaped fireworms around like a baby terror.”

“A lovesick baby terror,” Aurelia says it like it’s a joke and I hate that. I hate how easy that is for her.

Mom doesn’t love the chief. They used to be engaged but that can’t mean anything now. It doesn’t. It shouldn’t.

I can’t look at them and see any of the warmth or safety that I used to see when she smiled at my dad. They were…stable. Mom and the chief used to be engaged but from everything I’ve heard, that blew up in everyone’s faces more than once. It’s not stable, it’s one of Fuse’s bomb’s, smooth and innocuous on the outside but ticking to go off at any minute and blast a chunk out of everyone’s bedrock.

“What are you doing here?” I look away from Mom and the chief, at Aurelia, because she exists and that proves my reality in some small way.

“Meeting Arvid.”

I grimace.

“Stop that, I’m—he’s showing me something.”

“That’s asshole code for—”

“He’s showing me how to saddle Wingspark, alright? I want to see and he said he’d show me and—”

“I can show you on Bang.”

“I’m not allowed to have other friends?” She rolls her eyes. “I—I like Wingspark, alright? She…” Aurelia looks at her feet for a second and then back up, like she’s fishing for words.

“I know her,” I nod, “I—I’ve met scarier yaks to be honest. I—why the sudden interest, though?”

“Well the timing of the interest is something that has a whole lot to do with Arvid’s arms. And chest, I mean, I’m not—”

“Gross,” I laugh and shove her shoulder, “I told you I wouldn’t get in your way but Thor’s beard, do you have to go through me?”

She laughs and Mom and the chief look over at us. The chief gets that soft expression he always does when he’s looking at us, like his scheme to engineer a family worked out just how he wanted it to.

“Eret? Can you take care of those eggs?” The chief calls out and Mom looks at him, flat faced and confused, “just take them to the hanger, get them on a warmer near the water? You—you know what to do.”

“Does he?” Mom looks at the chief, “has he ever done anything like that before?”

“Mom, I’ve been sneaking dragon eggs home since I was four, I know how to not blow anything up by now.” I hope. It’s actually been a few years since I found any around Berk, and it was only ever smaller dragons that didn’t make it all the way to the spawning grounds, Nightmare eggs will be bigger and more volatile and maybe I should go get Fuse, honestly. She’d help me out.

That’s actually a good idea. That sounds way better than watching…whatever I’m watching.

“By now?” The chief laughs, looking at Mom is this gross expression that’s more nostalgia than expectation and she turns red like she never did when Dad looked at her. I need to stop comparing the two, that makes it seem like there’s a comparison. “And here I thought his destructive tendencies were all me.”

“I’m right here,” I mumble.

“Shut up,” Mom’s still red, shoving on the chief’s arm again, not hard enough. Not hard at all.

“Maybe he shouldn’t go do this on his own. I mean, ‘tis the season…”

She reaches for the basket and he holds it out of her reach, “give it to me, Hiccup.”

“It’s your clumsy time of year, you’re going to drop it.”

“Stop,” she’s laughing though, half-heartedly tugging on his arm, and I start to see people looking. Whispering. Smiling.

Like they like seeing this as much as I hate it, and it just makes me feel even more other than I usually do. Even more like I don’t belong here, like I’m not supposed to exist and everyone being ok with it just makes that feeling worse.

“What the Hel?” Arvid walks up beside Aurelia and gods, I never thought I’d be so happy to see hear him so pissed off.

Mom stops, instantly, snatching the basket back from the chief and looking sad.

Like she did for months after I learned the truth. Like that’s her base expression and she only changes it when something makes her.

In this case. It was the chief.

Who now looks annoyed and turns to me, like he’s trying to gauge how I’m going to react, to discern whether it’s worth it to make me mad again.

But I’m already mad, all of a sudden, because Mom looks miserable again and Arvid looks smug and I get hating the chief but—but that’s Mom and…I don’t give a shit about her horrible taste in friends, I don’t want her so sad she can’t function again.

“None of your business, I thought you said she wasn’t your mom anymore?”

“Because of shit like this,” he looks at me, like I’m part of it, like I’m insulting him by standing her and Gods, I used to love having that boneheaded resolve on my side. It was like having a brick wall as backup but…

But Dad thinks I’m just a miniature chief now and Ingrid is gone and Rolf still treats me like I’m half a human and—I don’t want to draw a line with Arvid. I don’t want to but the other choice is a line between me and my Mom and…that means leaving her alone with chief and a whole lot of other dragon dung.

“Shit like me?”

Arvid nods like he’s glad I said it because now he doesn’t have to.

“Eret, leave it be,” Mom tells me and it doesn’t sound like her, already.

“No Mom, he’s the one calling me an it, he’s still an asshole, and I don’t leave those be.”

He punches before I can say anything else. I don’t know how he’s that close or how his arms are that long or Gods, that strong, because it echoes in my brain and I feel the blood spurt from my nose. I hit him back, not as hard, because he just grunts and tries to grab me in a headlock. The chief says something. Mom says something.

I punch him in the back and he winces and someone’s grabbing at my collar and yanking backwards, like they don’t know Arvid will just follow.

Someone says stop.

I don’t recognize until Arvid’s not on me anymore that it was Aurelia, her voice distorted through the throbbing in my head.

“Someone grab this twerp before he falls.” It’s Snotlout, holding my collar, and I shove him off, stumbling a few steps before finding my balance. There’s blood on my shirt. I get the feeling there’s a lot of blood everywhere and it’s all mine, because my nose is still spilling.

“What the fuck?” That’s Aurelia, bordering on shrill as she pokes Arvid in the chest. He backs up a step, staying silent but looking notably dismayed.

“I asked for it,” I shrug off Snotlout when he tries to grab me again, but I guess the dizziness is making me slow and his hand hooks around my arm.

“Why can’t you just leave him alone?” Aurelia asks, not shrill anymore, “just—you can’t draw some stupid objective line and pick a half and stay away from him?”

“Fine. East to west. Through Raven’s point.” Arvid says because complete sentences would make him sound uncool, I guess, and Gods, my head hurts. He holds out his hand like he wants me to shake it.

“I obviously get the half with the chief’s house on it.”

“Right, choose your home turf—”

“Stop.” Aurelia tells him again, arms crossed.

He listens.

I shake his hand and he wipes his on his pants. I wipe the blood off my upper lip. Mom finally rushes forward, wiping my face with her sleeve and shaking her head, eyes furious again instead of sad.

“You’re going home,” she announces, “one of your pupils is huge, Odin—”

“I got him,” the chief offers, his hand on Mom’s shoulder, all of a sudden. Everyone is moving in jerks and jolts and when I look up Arvid is gone like he was never here. Aurelia is still here though, looking like she’d be more pissed if I were less messed up.

I’m more scared of her than Mom, who just looks worried.

“Someone needs to go be chief,” Mom reminds the chief and it’s not an order, it’s a suggestion like he never takes and I expect him to fight but he doesn’t, just nods.

“You’re right.”

“I can still get the eggs,” I stand up straight and Mom catches my shoulder when I almost fall, “I was gonna get Fuse to help me.”

“Oh my gods, not now, Eret,” Aurelia rolls her eyes.

“Let’s go home,” Mom turns me around and Bang is there, concerned and whuffing slightly as I basically flop onto his back, hand tangled in a strap of his saddle.

00000

The chief sits down next to me for breakfast the next morning and I cringe, letting my hair fall over my positively pulpy eye and trying to hide it. The nose seems fine, like it just sprung a leak to be dramatic. He sighs and drums his hands on the table, always drawing attention to himself.

“Arvid has a signature move, did you know that?”

I mutter into my shoulder, scoffing. “Is someone pregnant?”

He laughs. “The black eye,” he rests his hand on my shoulder and I shrug it off, turning to scowl at him. “Oh, the black sideof your face. Not just the eye. My mistake.”

“I’m a Viking, I get in fights.”

“You’re your mother’s son. Why aren’t you winning these fights?” He challenges me and my hands clench into bruised fists, sore from Arvid’s side because apparently he’s made of stone.

“It’s Arvid, he’s like twice my size.” And he’s a better fighter than me. We both know it, we’ve always known it.

There’s just some genetic ability I could never make up for.

“You know, when someone twice your size aims for your eye, it’s smart to dodge it.”

“I don’t go around dodging things, chief,” I curl my lip at him and stand away from the table. “That’s not really how I handle things. Fists, illegitimate children—”

“Dodging blows to the head is a good thing.”

I shake my head and start walking towards the door, but the chief stops me with a click of his foot and a sentence. “Your mom wants to talk to him, I…I don’t know if that’s the best idea right now. I…told her that and she seemed to listen.”

I notice that he doesn’t say that he told her not to. Like he knows he can’t order her around.

I look over my shoulder and he flinches when he sees the bruise in full. It’s still blooming, still pink and swollen around deep purple edges and it hurts as much as it looks like it hurts. But I’m not embarrassed, I guess, this is one of the first bruises I feel like I really decided on. He was doing something wrong, I stood in his way and I don’t feel bad about it now. I thought this one through and I don’t care if the chief thinks it looks bad. It does. I do. But I did something. I push my hair back off of my face and tie it back, turning to face him, watching him squirm.

“Thanks.”

“I promised her I’d talk to you.”

“You talked to me,” I shrug. “I’m going to go get breakfast at the mead hall if you don’t have anything else to say.”

“I can show you a few moves, if you want.”

“Right, because it’s not like I could take you in a fight. Of course not.”

He smiles at that and it’s one of those moments where it’s an eerie mirror and I feel so stupid for not seeing it earlier.

“I’m just saying, I’ve survived a few fights with big guys. I could help you out.”

“Who’s saying I’m not a big guy?” I puff out my chest and it instantly feels silly. I sigh and look towards the door, towards the escape that’s getting away from me. “Ok. That was—I don’t want to dodge blows.”

“For every blow you dodge, it’s an opportunity to give one.”

I mull that over. It’s obnoxiously sage, so damn parental, and I stare at the chief’s mismatched feet, his narrow shoulders.

“I uh…honestly I want a couple more hours of sleep, I might go use uh, Mom’s bed, it’s dark in there and the light is…not fun. For the headache.” I pause, because this is a bad idea. What a horrible idea this is wells in my stomach, dense and foreboding. But I fought for this and I should at least see what I fought for. “This afternoon I could be around. And awake.”

“I’ll show you if you promise not to get in another fight between now and then.” He wagers, and he thinks he’s so cool, bartering with me like I’m an equal. I can see why he’s a good chief, making everyone comfortable. “No beating up any pillows.”

“No promises.”

I do get a few more hours, despite the voice in my head saying ‘awful idea’ in time with the throbbing pain in my temple, and when I wake up the chief is still sitting at the table like he was waiting around to make sure I was ok. I don’t like that feeling, necessarily, it’s not something that belongs to him but at the same time…

I get the feeling we have a small thing in common in that we’re both glad Mom is acting like herself and even though his methods are gross and stupid and going nowhere and mine are well…a little, tiny bit self-destructive, but our motive is the same.

We go out in front of the house and I shiver, scuffing my boot in the snow.

“Ok,” The chief shakes out his shoulders, his armor creaking slightly as he stretches his arm in front of his chest. I’m not sure why he wears it around all the time, it seems uncomfortable, but then again there might be the opportunity to show off with his dumb wings at any minute. “So, I’ll be the big guy. Just pretend there’s more of me…here,” he waves his arms around and I cross my arms.

“Shouldn’t I be the big guy?” I flex a bicep that looks downright impressive against his and he rolls his eyes.

“Yes, you got all—almost all—my father’s physical prowess, I see that. But I already know how to do this, so stretch your imagination a bit.”

It’s weird to hear Stoick the Vast mentioned so casually and I almost ask about him. That’s something that’s still mysterious and still makes me curious. The fact that the chief is half legend and that makes me a quarter.

“Al…” I bite my tongue, nodding. “Alright. Ok, disbelief suspended.”

“Yeah?” He smiles at me and I scowl as much as my bruised face will allow. His expression dampens. Barely. He’s enjoying this too much and I’m letting him because…because I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. “Ok. How do I want to—ah! Ok. So I’m sure you’ve noticed how big guys fight. It’s more of a…bear than anything.” He raises his hands above his head and takes a falsely menacing step towards me.

“And they’re always winding up that first punch,” I raise my fist and drive it slowly towards his face. He catches it with his hand and grins.

“Exactly. And that’s the crucial punch, they’ll break their hand to take you down in one punch.”

“Trust me, I know.” I gesture towards my blackened eye and step back.

“Ok, so he favors a first punch to the eye?” His jaw twitches.

Anger.

That’s what my anger looks like, and I shake my head, remembering that this is uncomfortable. “Kind of a sneaky first move there—”

“I was asking for it.”

“Yeah? Oh big brother, punch me in the eye.”

“Actually it was more, Mom and the chief are laughing and public and even though my existence tore our family apart I’m not actively stopping it.” I remember now, without all the drama of the moment, Arvid’s hurt face, his brow crinkling just like Dad’s. “So I understand him cold cocking me.”

“I don’t have any brothers,” the chief offers with a shrug and it’s refreshing to see him silent. Not pulling stupid advice out of his archipelago famous ass.

“They’re like dragons but you have to clean up after them more. I guess.” I wave towards my eye and assume a loose fighting stance, “And when they punch you, it’s usually on purpose. So, how do I avoid having my face crunched next time?”

“Oh, right,” the chief inflates, like he can make me believe he’s bigger and aims a slow, purposeful punch towards my bruise. “Bring your forearm up…and ok. No. Maybe I should just show you.”

“You haven’t taught anyone this before?”

“Aurelia was never interested in learning, everyone else wrestles like bears.” He holds his hands up in front of him, scarred and freckled and I cock my head. “Go ahead, try and punch me. Not—I mean, not actually punch me—”

“I wasn’t going to punch you.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time—”

“I’m not going to punch you.” I roll my eyes and hold my arm up, cocked back and familiar. “You ready?”

“Absolutely.”

I arc my fist towards him at about half speed and he blocks my forearm with his, swinging slowly under my arm ending up behind me. “Now this is when I normally run and hop on Toothless—”

“But that’s not—”

“That’s not your style.” He stays hunched there for a second before tapping his knuckles against my back, that sensitive spot mid-back, right below my ribs. The one I hit yesterday while I was clumsily avoiding a head lock. “I’d lay into them back here.”

“If you weren’t running for your dragon.”

“Right.” He stands and walks back around in front of me. He’s frowning, “you know, you could also run for Bang.”

“I thought this was to help me win fights, not avoid them.” I gesture towards his hand. “Try me.”

“Alright,” he falters, “you aren’t going to hit me—”

“No. I’m not going to hit you. But if you keep asking me that, I might.”

The chief smiles and shakes his head, “alright, if you’re ready—”

“Born ready, come on.”

He punches towards me, exaggeratedly slowly and I shake my head. “Come on, actually…” He cuts me off with his fist and I block it like he showed me, dodging under his arm and aiming my fist for his lower back. “Ok, and that would be easier with someone taller too.”

“Right, it would be. Good call.”

“Again.” I step back and assume position again.

“I think you had it—”

“Again. I need some practice, faster this time.”

He stares at me like I’m familiar, like this isn’t the first time he’s seen whatever it is we’re doing and I shake it off. Planting my feet in the loose dirt. “Don’t hold back.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

00000

Mom makes me go to the council meeting a couple of days later, which I wouldn’t usually mind, but I’m feeling a little conspicuous with the giant black fist mark on the side of my face. Not to mention combined with that, I’m also a little out of the loop, because I haven’t been doing anything except sleeping and avoiding Stoick’s not so welcome requests to touch my bruise.

I had better boundaries than that when I was eight. I swear I did.

The hall is starting to fill when we get there and the chief walks to the biggest seat while Mom sits in the one on his left, like she’s used to it, like she was used to it before she even got to do it. Snotlout’s in the one on his right and he gives me a thumbs up and points at the bruise. I scowl and sink down in my chair, spinning my mug of water in my hands and watching the ripples.

It’d be one thing if I were here to participate, but I’m here so Mom can keep an eye on me because of course if she doesn’t for a minute I’m obviously going to pick another fight with Arvid. Which I’m not, it’s not my fight, she’s not his Mom, my head hurts. He’s staying on his side of the island.

If he doesn’t, well, yeah. I guess I will. Fight him, I mean.

I—I can’t say I’m looking forward to it, but we shook on it.

“This seat taken?” Gobber sits down next to me before I answer and I shake my head.

“Shouldn’t you be up there in an official seat?”

“I’m tired, I’m sure they can handle it today.” He kicks his peg onto the seat opposite with a heavy wooden thunk. “Heard you’ve been using the forge after hours.”

“Shit,” I reach up to run my hand through my hair but it feels wrong, pulled back into its tie. Aurelia showed me how to do it properly, yesterday, but I’m not good at it yet and some hair is still tickling the back of my neck.

“Against the chief’s wishes, too, it’s like your father all over again.” He laughs, “you leave it cleaner than he did though.”

“Sorry.”

“Was that your brother?” He asks about my face and I know he knows the answer, everyone knows the answer, everyone in the village saw me get my ass whooped.

“Yeah, of course it was.”

“You must’ve known you weren’t gonna win.”

“Of course I wasn’t,” I shake my head, and honesly, continually, Gobber is someone I not only can’t lie to but I don’t want to. “I—it wasn’t about winning. It was about him thinking it was his business if my Mom wasn’t miserable for a minute.”

“How’s she doing?” Gobber relaxes a little, watching as the chief brings the council to attention. Mom’s listening, looking attentively at the stack of documents in front of her. She prepared. The chief better appreciate it.

“In what way?” I rest my chin carefully on my hands, trying not to make an expression because they all hurt. Happy, sad, angry, listless, they all hurt. “I mean, she…she’s laughing, she wasn’t but now she is. And when Arvid called her out just because it was with the chief I…it—”

“You don’t have to explain it to me.” Gobber relaxes slightly like the conversation is going better than he thought it would. “I’m glad you did it for her, not for you.”

“Because of her or because of me?”

“Because it doesn’t matter, you’re not going to make a good chief if you’re out there fighting your own petty battles all day.”

“I’m not going to make a good chief anyway,” I hate it as soon as I’ve said it because I can feel the dam breaking, “the entire tribe saw me weak, everyone saw me get my ass kicked and I gave away half the island in…you know, a single, dizzy instant.”

“I’m not gonna say that’s not true,” Gobber seems to weigh his words, which he rarely does, “but people also saw you fight for something.”

“Yeah, for some made up birthright.” I scoff, “I mean…it’s not my fault if I’m the chief’s son. I—I don’t know what I’m doing, I just don’t want to make it worse for anyone anymore.”

Gobber’s silent for a long minute. The chief starts talking about inconsequential things. About woodpile construction and sea temperature and a bunch of things I don’t care about the way I’m supposed to.

“You look like your grandfather.”

“What?” That makes me pause, “I haven’t heard that one before. You look like your mother? Yes, pounded in for years and years until I never questioned it. You look like the chief? Yeah, recently. But never my grandfather. You mean…you mean Stoick the Vast, right? Like…that grandfather?”

“You sound like your father. You look like Stoick.” He thinks on it for a minute before continuing, hushed so that he doesn’t disrupt the council meeting ahead. “It’s the hair. And the face. He got into a fair few fights, but it took at least six men to get him that blue.”

“I know I’m not a big guy, why does everyone keep rubbing it in.”

“It’s not about the size, it’s about the fact that you pick fights you think are right.” He sighs, “and I hope you grow out of it, like he did, and realize that throwing punches rarely helps anyone, but…you fight people that you think need to be fought. And that’s what Stoick did when he was your age.”

“And you two were…friends?” It’s hard to ask. It means Gobber lied to me more than I thought he did.

“Yes.”

“You never told me.”

“We didn’t want you to ask.”

“Who’s we?” I sigh and I mostly expect to hear about the chief meddling more than I could have imagined.

“Your mother and me.”

“Oh.”

“Stoick had so many problems with your father,” Gobber looks misty eyed into the middle distance, like he’s as old as I know he is. “He was…strange and small and didn’t listen and that’s what Stoick did best. Listen. Until it came to your grandmother, then he didn’t listen at all. He never told Hiccup those stories, though.”

“Why are you telling me they exist?” I don’t want to ask about my grandma. I know the stories. I know Hiccup’s mother was better with dragons than I’ll ever dream to be. I know she left. I know that should make me care, that should make me relate, but my head hurts and Gobber looks old and I hate it all. “I’ve found my humanity, or whatever, I’m not going to punch him and I think I lost all my intimidation potential by getting beat up in public. You don’t need to tell me about this.”

“I want to. Can’t you let an old man talk?”

“What was…what was he like?”

“Stoick? He was…a great chief, a dedicated father, my best friend.” Gobber sniffs. “He changed the times. Hiccup—the chief,” he corrects and I get the feeling it’s for my sake, “told him how and when but he followed through. He…”

“It’s hard for me, you know, to think that he was around like…just a few years before Rolf was born. It—there’s a monument, and stuff, I guess to me it seems like ancient history.”

“He liked this story about how when he was a boy his father told him to bash his head on a rock and the rock broke in two,” Gobber shakes his head, “I don’t believe it for a second but he stood by it and…and if anyone’s going to smack their boar-headed skull on a rock and have it split in half, it’s you, boy-o.”

“I’m not quite sure that’s a compliment, but thanks.”

“It is.” He nods. Pats me on the shoulder with his hook, and it hurts because all of me hurts.

“Thanks.”

We both start listening to the council meeting, which is still boring, and Mom is still focused and the chief is still talking.

“…so we’ll get that wood storage updated, like I said—”

“With no giant S,” Gustav shouts out. The chief grits his teeth, audibly.

“Yes, with no giant S.”

“You don’t have to rub it in,” Snotlout huffs, crossing his arms and sitting back.

“What about the diplomatic mission scheduled to Freezing to Death?” Fishlegs asks, flipping through a stack of pages like no council meeting ever gets far enough.

“What diplomatic mission?” The chief asks, frowning. Mom looks like she’s pretending she knows what everyone’s talking about and for a second I see what people mean when they say I look like her.

“The one we planned last spring for you to go to Freezing to Death,” Fishlegs sounds halfway panicked and the chief sighs, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose.

“Well, I can’t go on that.”

“What?” Mom snaps to look at him so fast I’m shocked her neck doesn’t crack.

“I can’t go on a diplomatic mission right now,” he sighs, turning to his right, “how do you feel about a Snoggletog away from the family, Snot?”

“You’d send me?”

“I don’t see what choice I have,” the chief laughs, “and I know you can handle it. You could be back by Snoggletog if you followed the itinerary I’m going to give you.”

“I mean, yeah, I’m down but you’re going to trust me?” Snotlout snorts.

Mom’s staring at the chief like he’s on fire.

“My son and my…I don’t know, Astrid’s son just got in a fight and divided the island, do you really think I’m going to leave her alone with that right now?” The chief looks at Mom like he’s hoping she noticed him saying it and Gods, that’s…it’s gross. Still just gross.

“I don’t know. Yeah. Probably.” Snotlout shrugs.

“Well, I’m not.”

“Ok, yeah, I’ll go.” Snotlout stands up and puffs out his chest and is that where Arvid learned it? That’s embarrassing. That’s ammunition.

“Great.” The chief smiles, the nervous, hectic smile of an overwhelmed well…me. I hate it. I hope Gobber’s right. I hope I look more like Stoick.

Something about the mirror says that’s just empty decades of old hope.

“There he is,” Gobber mutters, looking at the chief. “I knew it’d happen at some point.”

I don’t ask what he means. Part of me knows it means sticking around.

Chapter Text

One time, when I was nine, I put a live worm into Mom’s batch of Yaknog. Dad said it tasted better that year.

Aurelia is young, so young, and naïve, so naïve. She looks excited when she sees Mom setting out mugs on the table next to this big, frothy pot. Stoick wrinkles his nose and I like him more every day.

“I left it a little later this year,” Mom grins at me apologetically, like she forgot to feed Bang, “planning the feast and everything and I asked Ruffnut if I should make enough for the tribe and she said no, but this is what I have so far.”

“What is it?” Aurelia frowns when she peeks over the edge of the pot.

“It’s Yaknog,” I step up beside her and grab a mug, holding it out with a big, plastic smile as I step carefully on her toe, “we love Yaknog.”

“We do?” Stoick sniffs again and Mom stirs the pot like she’s not sure that it’s right.

I don’t know why we do this. We’ve always done it, as long as I can remember, and Arvid and I made it a game, dumping it out the door and into Bang’s mouth in the most creative way possible. One time Arvid arced his into the fireplace and smoked us out of the living room. He always said I was cheating because Bang was willing to come to any window for me. Dad always choked down a mug, Ingrid tended to take hers outside to ‘share’. Rolf was the only one who refused, staring at mom with that irritatingly superior glare of his.

Mom loves Snoggletog, more than I loved it as a tiny kid when it was all presents and legends. The dragons were gone, I was never a fan.

“I didn’t like it so much at Stoick’s age either, Mom, it’s an ah…acquired taste.” I barely hold back a laugh as Aurelia takes her first sip and her eyes bulge out of her face. She spits it back into the mug and I give her a hard look. Then a pleading look.

“I’ll work on acquiring it,” Aurelia smiles, her fakest, most princess smile.

“It’s worth acquiring.” I knock my mug against hers and fake a big gulp. The smell is worse this year, which is always true even though it always seems impossible.

“I’m not ready yet, Mommy.” Stoick shakes his head, looking at me with baby terror eyes for approval I’m somehow now sanctioned to give.

I wink at him and he laughs, “don’t waste it on me.”

Never mind, he’s a little shit.

“Can you go wake your dad up?” Mom seems a little deflated that Stoick isn’t saying any so I take a careful fake gulp. Aurelia mimics me, but she actually takes a sip, her eyebrows practically curling at the taste as she forces it down.

Ha, sucker.

“Yeah, sure,” Stoick turns to run up the stairs and Mom looks at Aurelia like she expects her to betray me and give up more than two decades of Snoggletog tradition.

“Aurelia, I wanted to talk to you.” Mom says in her serious voice and Aurelia raises an eyebrow at me like I owe her a warning.

“Yeah?” Opening her mouth must intensify that…yakky taste in the yaknog and she almost gags, eyes bulging slightly. Mom apparently thinks it looks enough like fear and she nods at one of the chairs at the table.

“Sit.”

“Why?” Aurelia hedges, like she thinks there’s a way out of this and I fake another sip glancing around for the nearest place to dump it, because if the level in my mug doesn’t go down soon, Mom will get suspicious all over me instead.

“Sit,” she repeats and it’s not a suggestion that time.

I see my goal. Aurelia isn’t playing, of course, because she doesn’t know the game yet, but maybe I can teach her if I make a first spectacular play. I’m going to dump my yaknog back into the pot.

Aurelia does sit, crossing her arms like she knows she can’t defy the order but she’s also not thrilled about having to follow it and I edge around the table to stand closer to Mom, faking another sip and crossing my arms like I’m with the lecturer, not the lecturee. I just have to wait until Mom looks away and when I can just…plop it in. Maybe even pretend I’m getting another ladleful. Aurelia won’t tell on me if she gets that there’s the potential to kick my ass, I know her that well.

Mom looks at me expectantly for a moment, and I know she wants me to leave, but I take another fake contented fake sip, hiding the grimace as I lick the foam mustache off my upper lip. It’s prickly like I never let it get, but shaving over the bruise has been too irritating so I’m scruffier than I think I’ve ever been. I don’t hate it the way I used to, even when it tastes like yaknog.

“Fine,” Mom sighs, shaking her head like she’s more tired than she’s been looking lately, “Aurelia, I want you to be careful with Arvid.”

“I’m not going to hurt him,” Aurelia holds her fingers a few inches apart, “I’m like this big.”

“I’m not talking about you hurting him, I’m talking about him hurting you.” Mom looks at me again like it’s another opportunity for me to leave and I almost take her up on it, but if she goes to talk to Aurelia any more earnestly I’ll have my opportunity.

That and I don’t like secrets. I want to hear everything so that nothing never comes out of nowhere again. Even if it’s gross.

“Do you really need to hear this, Eret?” Mom asks and I shrug.

“Don’t I also need to worry about Arvid hurting me?” I point at my eye. Mom frowns. One of those very real, terrifying frowns that tells me there might be something I still don’t know.

“You need to get out of the house, that’s what you need.” She shakes her head. Aurelia snickers.

“The chief says I’m not ready.”

Mom rolls her eyes and looks back at Aurelia like she’s determined to ignore me.

“He’s your son, shouldn’t you trust him?” It’s a play Aurelia shouldn’t use, because Mom sees right through it, face hardening in that way that always made me want to listen.

“Right, because this one’s never up to anything,” she points at me.

“Hey! Don’t bring me into this—”

“Then leave,” Aurelia and Mom say in almost unison and I shrug.

“I’ll be quiet.”

“Right,” Mom sighs, “that’s likely. But, Aurelia, just let me get this out before Stoick and your father come back down but…but it’s not that I don’t trust Arvid. It’s that I know him very well.” She swallows, “and I know that he’s softer than he looks—”

“Not his fists,” I mumble. They both ignore me.

“—and that he won’t own up to that. And that makes him dangerous.”

“Not to me.” Aurelia sounds like the chief, for a second, and I think Mom catches it too. I think Mom’s caught it before, I think Mom’s heard it in me more times than she can count. Aurelia sounds like a skinny, sixteen year old twerp insisting that a Night Fury or a Forest Fire or an Arvid isn’t going to destroy her.

“To everyone.” Mom sighs, “he’s a lot like—like his father,” she catches herself and I wonder what she was going to say because nothing that she’s saying sounds anything like the dad I knew before I betrayed him by growing into my face, “he has everything he needs to hurt everyone around him. I’m just saying be careful.” She looks at me again and I realized I missed my in depth conversational chance to dump the yaknog. It doesn’t seem to matter as much as it did.

“Daddy’s up!” Stoick bounds down the stairs, giving the Yaknog pot a wide berth and hugging Mom. She turns away long enough for me to dump my mug and Aurelia opens her mouth at me, insulted.

I mouth ‘do better’ and she looks down at her own mug, then out the window, like she’s four.

“Took you a while,” Mom ruffles his hair and he runs back over to Bang, sitting down in my blankets and looking suspiciously at my empty yaknog mug. Mom follows his gaze and holds out the ladle. “Want another?”

“Mom, come on, I do have a figure to maintain.” I say it just to make her and Aurelia roll their eyes and it works and the chief strolls in, frowning at them and then me.

“What’s funny?” He asks.

“No one’s laughing, why would you think anything’s funny?” Aurelia gets up to stalk away, the way she has been since the last incident with her and Bang and the chief. She grins at me, only me, and dumps her yaknog out the nearest window when no one’s looking.

I give her a thumbs down and she narrows her eyes.

“That’s how you all act when I’m funny, I just assumed.” The chief laughs at his own joke. Which isn’t even really a joke, let alone a funny joke, and Mom smiles because she has no sense of humor.

“Are you sure you don’t want more, Eret?” Mom offers again and I shake my head.

“Nah, I gotta leave some for the chief. It’s been decades probably, since he’s had some good old fashioned Hofferson yaknog. If he’s ever had the privelage, I don’t know.” I shrug. I do know because the chief is looking at me with half horror and half confusion, like he thinks I might actually be trying to be nice but my taste buds are confused. “I don’t want to know either, but…”

“Oh yeah, I guess.” Mom frowns but when she looks at the chief it softens slightly in that way I hate. “Do you want some?”

“Do I want some? The smell woke me up.” He picks up a mug and she ladles into it, “in the best way possible. Like mmmm, yaknog.”

“Oh,” Mom brightens the way she used to when Dad asked for it. I hate that too. It’s better when she acts different around the chief, when they speak in some language that died out only to be briefly revived for the vast mistake of my birth.

She watches him take a sip. His eyes bulge out of his head and he barely grimaces at me as he swallows before forcing a big, yaknog stained grin onto his face.

“Tastes like ‘Snoggletog’ sounds.” He makes a fake sound of satisfaction and ok, if Aurelia is going to be a lame opponent, this is a game I can play.

“I’ll have another cup, Mom.”

I take a big fake gulp of what she hands me and when the chief tries to counter, wincing the whole time, I pour half my mug into Bang’s eager mouth. Stoick’s old enough to get the joke and his eyes light up when I shush him.

The chief’s eyes bug out when he sees how much I ‘drank’ and I shrug.

“It’s good this year, what can I say?”

“And here I thought you forgot all your manners.” Mom’s smiling though as she looks around, “now, who wants to go outside and decorate?” She looks at me.

Aurelia looks at her dad and shrugs, “I’ll do it.”

“How are you going to get up to the hooks on the roof?” The chief frowns at her and I see all that defiant fire light up behind Aurelia’s expression.

“It’s called a ladder.”

“You could borrow—”

“I don’t want a dragon,” she snaps. “There’s a ladder in the barn, I’ve got it—”

“I’ll help you with the ladder,” Mom offers, glaring at the chief in a way that I shouldn’t like so much.

“I’ve got it, Mom, where are the decorations?”

I almost get up to help but Mom nods, “in that crate above where Stormfly likes to sleep in the back corner.”

“Ok,” Aurelia nods, patting Stoick’s shoulder on the way out of the front door.

It’s considerably colder inside once she leaves and the chief tries to break the silence with a hearty swallow of yaknog. I fake follow him, slipping the rest of my mug to Bang’s mouth. Bang’s stomach growls and Stoick giggles.

“I just don’t know why she’s making everything so hard for herself,” the chief says, chugging his yaknog to avoid Mom glaring at him. He gags. I get up to ask for more because I know for a fact that Bang can hold four mugs before he throws up.

“You of all people should know that,” Mom rolls her eyes as she gives me another mug. I don’t know why she never has any, but it’s the one thing that’s probably kept this tradition going for so long. Knowing Mom she probably just doesn’t want to take it from anyone else.

“She knows Bang isn’t going to eat her by now,” the chief looks at Stoick like he can lighten the mood, “right?”

“She doesn’t like flying, daddy,” he shrugs, standing up and scrambling over Bang’s back to lay on top of him. Bang sighs, content with the attention, the gust of air ruffling the chief’s ever present stack of to do lists.

“I’ll uh…I’ll take some more yaknog?” The chief asks and Mom’s irritated expression softens slightly. She takes his mug and refills it and he takes a sip with a strangled little hum.

I wonder how long it’s going to take him to turn green, honestly. I wonder how much yaknog one chief can take before it goes badly.

There’s a thud on the wall and a creak and Bang lifts his head to look at me, worried. He burps. It smells like yak and nog and death and I’m not sure which is more prominent.

“Do you think she’s ok?” It’s the most worried I’ve ever heard the chief sound about Aurelia but it’s also clear that he doesn’t know at any level just how resourceful she is.

“I’m sure she’s fine. She’s sixteen, Hiccup, it’s a ladder.” Mom doesn’t sound as harsh as I want her to and the chief drinks more yaknog.

Stoick leans down to pull Bang’s lower lip back for me to pour some in. It makes me miss what Rolf and I never had, because damn, if Rolf had been cool, being a little, innocent looking partner in crime would have been fun.

The chief looks at me for a second and I’m scared I’m caught so I take a real sip, barely holding back a shiver as it accidentally touches the side of my tongue.

“How long has it been since you shaved?” He asks and I scratch my cheek.

“Oh, I don’t know. Probably the morning this happened,” I gesture to the still green bruise on my cheek and eye and he raises his eyebrows.

“That all happened in a couple of weeks? When did your beard come in, holy Thor?”

“I started shaving when I was twelve.” I try not to sound too proud, but it’s the one thing I’ve always had when everyone else had muscles and above average balance. “I had the same shaving lesson as Rolf, that really pissed him off given he was eighteen and only had 3 chin hairs.”

“I guess that skips a generation,” the chief scratches his face and I fake gulp to cover that smug grin.

I think of the Stoick statue, the beard hanging down to its chest. That’s another comparison I can live with.

“Maybe it’s the yaknog. I bet it puts hair on anyone’s face if they drink enough.”

He looks at me almost desperately for a moment before taking a sip.

Stoick holds his hand out, “can I try it, Eret? I’m ready for my beard.” He winks.

“Sure, it’s a lot of responsibility though. Shaving every day, it’s itchy. Everyone calls it patchy even though it’s not.”

“It used to be,” Mom cuts in, “remember when you tried to grow it out when you were what? Thirteen? It was patchy then.”

“It was not,” I scratch my chin again, suddenly hyperaware of the scruff while everyone talks about it, “it was just itchy. And too warm.”

“And patchy,” Mom looks at the chief like they’re sharing some joke and I look away. Stoick takes a very convincing fake sip for an eight year old and rubs his stomach, making an exaggerated yum sound. “You want your own?”

“No thanks,” Stoick barely doesn’t wince as he licks the residue off of his lip. “I don’t know if I’m ready to shave yet.”

“Good call,” I slip another sip to Bang.

“Well it’s not patchy now,” the chief looks at Mom again like he’s trying to get her attention. Like they have some inside joke he’s trying to reference. “Any girls notice it yet?”

“Is it just the morning of dating lectures?” I snort. The truth is girls as a concept is still utterly tainted by the fact I held a torch for my sister for the better part of a decade. I don’t say that though, because everyone else needs to forget about it before it can disappear wholly from my life and be stuck in the gloomiest, most forbidden, bewilderbeast guarded corner of my memory.

“I’m just asking,” the chief looks at me like he knows something I don’t and I scoff.

“Yes, all the ladies are absolutely climbing over each other to pet my beard. It is the talk of the village, don’t you hear them all pounding on the door to get in?”

Aurelia’s ladder thumps against the side of the house again. I wince. Mom and the chief laugh, sharing a look I don’t really understand. Stoick laughs too, looking at me purposefully and tugging at Bang’s lip. I pour the rest of my mug in and hold it up.

“Can I get some more, Mom?”

“It must be good this year.”

“Oh. It is.” The chief is starting to look pale as he holds out his mug for another. I don’t know why he doesn’t just stop but then Mom smiles at him and I know why.

Because he thinks he loves her. He might even, he’s not being a dick anymore.

“I didn’t do anything different.”

“You never had to,” the chief says and that’s too much. That’s…Mom’s looking at him like she believes it, like she wants to hear it and I wish Aurelia were here to roll her eyes with me and make it seem obnoxious not…quietly devastating.

Because I still remember her and my dad and that look without the questions.

I chug the yaknog. I do it for real, because it’s the play I have, because I know the chief will do it too, because I want him too green and miserable to say things like that. I make an exaggerated refreshed sound when I finish the mug, smacking my lips together and licking the foam out of my moustache. I’m going to puke later. It’s cool. It’s worth it because apparently the chief is going to puke now, because he lurches to his feet and out the back door, spilling his guts off of the porch.

Mom stares after him, confused and more concerned than I want her to be. Stoick laughs and asks for a high five, because he’s an eight year old boy and I’m not afraid to admit that he’s right in tune with my sense of humor.

Mom follows the chief out the back and I go out the front, rounding to corner to tell Aurelia, because if anyone’s going to think this is as funny as I do, it’s her.

She’s standing backwards on the second rung of the ladder, face attached to Arvid’s like a whispering death who just found the ideal place to dig a deep, dark, disgusting hole.

“Oh. Shit.”

Arvid pulls back but it’s not on my account because he’s looking at Aurelia in a super gross, really baffled way and she says something I can’t hear, cheeks bright red.

“Am I interrupting something?”

“Just decorating,” she looks at me levelly, like she’s just daring me to go punch him because he is on my side of the island after all. He still hardly seem to notice that I’m here. “Isn’t the house beautiful?”

I should go punch him.

I don’t want to. I don’t want to fight with him, and he’s not forcing it on me right now. My stomach churns and I can’t tell if it’s yaknog or the build up to another fight.

“Never mind, I’ll just—”

She takes her hands off of Arvid, finally, which…eww.

“What is it?”

“Nothing just…the chief drank three mugs of yaknog and he’s outside puking.”

“Oh,” Aurelia climbs down, looking at Arvid semi-seriously, “We should probably get Wingspark out of here before she has to put up with my dad trying to charm her—”

“That’s probably—” I mean to say that’s a good idea, because it also deals with Arvid getting off my half of the island. But then I gag, and it’s definitely yaknog, made no better by the fact that my siblings were just viscerally, visually making out in front of my face. “Oh shit,” I run around the corner and join the chief, emptying my stomach onto the grass.

He’s just straightening up. Mom’s hand is on his back. I wipe my mouth on the back of my hand and don’t hear Wingspark take off. Aurelia’s laughing about something. The chief is still pale and shivering.

It’d be funny if I didn’t feel another heave coming on.

“Did you two eat something?” Mom asks and the chief laughs.

“More like drank something.”

“Don’t,” I caution him, even though the secret’s out.

“What are you talking about?”

“In the name of uh…gastric honesty,” the chief shudders and stands up. Mom’s hand is still on his back. I slump down and sit against the side of the house, ignoring the tinkle of chain and Aurelia’s laugh because apparently they’re still here. “Yaknog isn’t—”

“C’mon chief.” My head flops back against the wall, “this tradition is older than I am.”

“Yaknog isn’t…great.”

Mom looks at him then at me, then at the mess in the snow in front of us. She wrinkles her nose.

“I…I never was a fan, myself.”

“Then why’d you keep making it?” The chief laughs, wiping sweat off of his brow.

“Everyone seemed to like it so much.” Mom laughs too, and she doesn’t look devastated like I feared she would.

“Because it made you so happy,” he swallows, wincing, “and it’s so endearing that you like Snoggletog so much. No one wanted to ruin it.”

She punches him in the arm, “so you all lied to me and drank it for decades?”

“Dad told us never to tell you it sucked,” I scratch my head, “Arvid and I had a game for years of disposing of it secretively.”

Aurelia stops laughing. I hear a rustle then Wingspark taking off. He heard that and I don’t know how to feel about it. It didn’t make him any less mad or he wouldn’t have left.

“Instead of hurting my feelings about a drink, you all put on an elaborate act of liking it and made yourselves sick?”

“Eret made me sick,” the chief rubs his arm like he doesn’t mind that it hurts, “I didn’t realize he wasn’t drinking that much of it and I was trying to keep up.”

“Sucker.” I snort. Mom thwacks the top of my head.

“You’re both ridiculous. You could have just told me.” She goes back inside and the chief offers me his hand to help me up.

I look at it for a second before taking it and standing, brushing snow off of the back of my pants.

“We couldn’t have told her,” he shakes his head, “she’s only barely mature enough not to kill us both over it now, let alone years ago.”

“I wouldn’t trust it. I’m gonna watch my back,” I take a step backwards because this feels weird. It feels conspiratorial. It feels like that common ground I try so hard to avoid.

“Probably best.”

It’s a quiet day before Snoggletog. Quiet compared to what I’m used to. Aurelia isn’t back and Dad isn’t telling stories and Ingrid isn’t throwing axes. Arvid and I aren’t trying to sneak away for a flight on Bang because by Snoggletog it always feels like it’s been years and Mom never wanted me to ride when my siblings couldn’t.

Mom’s fixing something. The chief is reading a document, but he doesn’t seem that preoccupied by it, because he keeps getting caught staring at Mom. He doesn’t care when I catch him, just gives me some hapless look that makes me wonder how anyone’s ever been scared of The Great Chief Hiccup of Berk. When Mom catches him he shrugs and looks at Stoick like him staring has something to do with his son.

Stoick is playing maces and talons with Bang. Bang is winning.

I’m sharpening my dagger and waiting for Aurelia to come back, as pathetic as that sounds. It’s one of those days where without the forge or chiefing duties or aimlessly flying around, I don’t really have many hobbies anymore. They were all about this way of life that just doesn’t pertain to me anymore, they were about messing with things I just have to fix now or learning things I now wish I never had.

It’s been a couple of hours when someone knocks on the door and Mom moves to get it. The chief jumps up and stares at her for a second before stepping forward.

“I got it, Astrid.”

“Oh. Ok, thanks.” She sits back down. She avoids looking at me. I make a stupid face and she still doesn’t look and it’s wrong.

The chief opens the door.

“Oh, hey Fuse, what’s up?”

“Nothing, I was just supposed to meet—”

“Eret?” The chief supplies before looking at me, too excited. Like he’s excited for alone time with Mom, because we all know Stoick isn’t watching out for what he needs to be.

I stand up and look around the door and Fuse raises a hand in greeting.

“Well, I was actually here to see Aurelia, but hey—”

“Hey Fuse, come in!” The chief waves her inside and she hesitates a moment before listening. She nods at Stoick. Stoick looks at her with that disarming and oddly terrifying curiosity and she looks at me.

“Nice beard.”

“Oh. I haven’t shaved.” I scratch my cheek. She gives me that face like I’m an idiot and I smile. “What are you doing here?”

“Like I said, Aurelia was supposed to meet me but she didn’t show up.”

“Ah. She’s uh…busy,” I shrug. “I’d offer you some yaknog but—”

“But thirty years is enough for a joke on your mother,” Mom stands up, “long time no bombing my house, huh Fuse?”

“It was never your house,” Fuse looks almost authentically apologetic, “it was always Arvid’s house.”

“Right,” Mom seems to accept the not apology and honestly, I don’t think I’m ever going to understand women.

The chief is just…staring at us like he’s expecting us to do something and Stoick climbs off of Bang, cocking his head at Fuse.

“Are you going to blow us up again?”

“No, I’ve never blown you up.” She looks at me for help and I nod, encouraging her. She’s a youngest kid too and kids are hard. “You’re still here.”

“Uh, she doesn’t mean that.” I say before Stoick can be scared and the chief is still staring and Mom looks pissed like she lost something, not like she’s defending me and I direct Fuse towards the door, “let’s talk outside.”

“I’ll give you kids your privacy,” the chief looks like he’s won something, which is scarier than Mom losing.

“We don’t need privacy,” I say, looking at Stoick again, because all we really need is lack of fragility.

“Ok.” The chief shugs, “whatever you want. I’m just saying none of us are going anywhere—”

“Why would I care if you went anywhere?”

“Drop it, Hiccup,” Mom rolls her eyes but she doesn’t necessarily look upset. I stare at her for a second before turning back to Fuse.

“Yes, outside, that’s a good idea.” I follow her out and we walk around the side of the house, the same side where Arvid and Aurelia were kissing earlier, which, gross, I have to talk about now. “So what’s up? Why are you looking for Aurelia?”

“Like I’ve said twice now, we were supposed to meet and she didn’t show up.”

“Oh. About what? Can I help?”

“No,” she shakes her head and looks at me a second too long. She glances down at the beard.

“So it’s not about dragons? What else would you two be talking about?”

“I didn’t come to be interrogated.” She raises an eyebrow but halfway smiles at the same time. “Where is she, anyway?”

“She and Arvid…have uh…escalated,” I do something with my hands that’s meant to be kissing and Fuse laughs. At me, not with me, and gods, the beard must look worse than I thought.

“Figures.”

“Yeah, I mean, it’s about time.” I shake my head, “things were getting a little too uncomplicated around here, something had to happen.”

She nods. It’s too quiet, and I don’t do well with quiet. I shrug and point at the door, “want to go for a ride?”

“What?”

“On Bang, I mean, Hotgut’s been gone for a while now, right? You must be missing flying? If you don’t want to, I mean, it’s cold, but—”

“I can’t, right now, I mean I would but I really had to talk to Aurelia.” She shrugs and punches me in the arm, not hard enough. “And it’s cold but maybe some other time?”

“Yeah, sure. Gotta get everyone their dragon fix, chief’s duty, I guess.”

She raises an eyebrow and waves again, “so I’m going to go now.”

“And I’m going to go on that flight. I think. In case, you know, anyone else is missing their dragon more than you, or whatever.”

“Ok.” She turns to leave and I feel like I should offer her a ride home, again, but she didn’t want that and…

And I could really use a flight.

Chapter Text

When I get back to the house it’s dark and quiet, the coals ashing over in the hearth. Aurelia’s door is open which means she isn’t back yet which means she’s still with Arvid. And that Fuse probably didn’t get whatever help she was going to get from her, because I haven’t heard anything about explosions or fires, so she obviously didn’t run into Arvid.

I build up the fire and Bang curls up in front of it, staring at me as I sit down at the table. It’s covered in maps and documents I should be reading too and I…the quiet that was oddly peaceful earlier is suffocating now, because everyone has things to do that have nothing to do with me. It’s not a decision to wait up, it’s just too quiet to go to sleep, so I start reading through the first few treaties on the stack.

Bang starts snoring right around the time I have to build up the fire again and I think about going to bed but I…I’m starting to have opinions about what I’m reading. Dangerous opinions, the kind I was never really allowed to have because well…Berk was none of my business, I was a Hofferson. My place was complaining like I knew something from a safely outside point of view.

And maybe this is a mad power grab by the loneliest boy on Berk this particular Snoggletog but…I can change some of these things I don’t like. I know more about our fishing system than the chief does and I know that we’re giving too much away to some allies and that they know it too. I know that dragons are worth more now than they were when the chief started some of these arrangements.

I know absolutely nothing about why Fuse would be coming to meet with Aurelia. What could they be doing together? Are they planning something without me? Are—are they just friends?

It’s weird. I don’t have as many of those as I thought I did, somehow. I was never lonely with Arvid and Ingrid and Spitleaf around, but now it’s like…none of those people were ever really attached to me, specifically. And Aurelia was and is, I guess, but now she has secret plans with Fuse and until now Fuse was never really grappling for friendship, was she? She used to be a loner and I thought—I don’t know, I thought we kind of had a friendship, but now she’s keeping secrets with Aurelia, apparently and—

And I’m going to be more useful getting through these treaties and trade routes and—I don’t know, sucking up to the chief, I guess, because sometimes it’s like he’s the only one not annoyed at me and that’s actually the worst.

It’s not quite sunrise yet when the door opens with a loud creak and Aurelia swears in a whisper, sneaking through as fast as she can and shutting it behind her. She blinks at me, like for a second she thinks I’m the chief waiting up, because that’s what my mood needs right now.

“Good morning,” she crosses the room and sits down next to me to look at what I’m reading, “you look like shit. Did you sleep at all?” She pours herself a cup of herbal tea from the pot on the table.

“I wasn’t tired,” I yawn. She rolls her eyes. She doesn’t look much better but I don’t want to mention it. I don’t want to think about it.

“Right.”

“Fuse came by to see you yesterday, but you were uh…out.”

“Oh, shit, I forgot with all the…holiday.” She waves her hand around and that pisses me off, because this is casual for her, for them, it’s just…the positive eventually I never got to have. Where things turn out how they were always supposed to in some mythical eventually. “I’ll talk to her later.”

“About what?”

“What makes you think it’s your business?” She raises an eyebrow and she must have picked up that particular expression from Mom because it’s like she’s reading the very back of my mind.

“I’m just asking, if it’s some plan about the dragons or something I’d like to think you two might include me.”

“It’s not about dragons.”

“Then what’s it about?” I can’t help but think of how I know Fuse likes blowing things up and being eternally right and I don’t even know what she does with the rest of her time. Apparently scheme with Aurelia which makes me feel like it has to have something to do with me because what else do they have in common with each other?

She shrugs.

“You know, you might want to be a little nice to me because I’m assuming you want me to cover for you sneaking in at dawn after being out all night doing—ugh, gross, I’m not going to say it—”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but nothing happened, we just lost track of time—”

“I don’t ever want it to be my business.” I narrow my eyes, “so don’t make me tell the chief. Because I really don’t want to say it.”

“I’m helping Fuse with something personal,” Aurelia doesn’t call my bluff but maybe that’s because it’s not really a bluff and I guess now I’m never going to find out.

“Why did she ask you? Is something wrong?”

She was acting weird earlier. Yesterday. Gods, talking is making me tired, I was wide awake and silent all night but now, talking and thinking is making my eyes itch. Bang’s still snoring and it’s like a gravelly lullaby and the last time I stayed up all night it was with Arvid and that stings too.

“I don’t think anything’s wrong,” she sighs, “it’s a stupid problem.” She’s looking right at me like I should know what it is. I look down at the treaty in front of me, scanning for anything about Fuse or demolition or anything that would pertain to her.

The chief comes down the stairs, walking quietly enough that he almost surprises me as he enters the room.

“Good morning.” He’s doing that thing where he’s looking at me for approval, and Aurelia is looking at him like she’s scared she’s caught.

“You’re up early, chief.” I look outside again, at the sun barely creeping over the horizon.

“Couldn’t sleep.”

I’m sympathetic to that, and if anyone else asks, I’ll blame my own yaknog hangover.

“Us either,” Aurelia curls up on her seat, like the chief’s going to notice she snuck out. It’s better, though, because usually the idea of him noticing her at all never crosses her mind.

“Doesn’t look like you tried very hard.” He’s trying to look at what’s spread out on the table and I wonder if I saw something secret I wasn’t supposed to. I kind of hope so.

“Aurelia refused to make me warm yak milk, what was I supposed to do?”

She kicks me, hard, especially for someone expecting me to cover for her, “I don’t know, have you tried growing up?”

The chief looks creepy again. Like his happy family plan is all working out so well it’s worth the toxic sludge of yaknog working its way through him.

“We heading out now?” I stand up and my vision goes fuzzy for a moment and I yawn again, and I guess the last time I stayed up all night I guess I didn’t read the entire time. Bang stops snoring and I hear him stumble to his feet.

The chief’s looking at me even weirder than he was looking at me and Aurelia, all…understanding. Like he’s not going to chew me out for staying up all night when I knew better.

“You go to bed, I’m not that busy today.” It’s not what I’m used to. I don’t know how I feel about it. I feel like a kid again and today that’s kind of ok. He points at the stairs, “Stoick’s going to be up soon, he’ll never let you sleep downstairs.”

It feels like special treatment. It feels a little less lonely to go upstairs and sleep in the same room as Stoick, even if I’m not always great with him. It feels like something Mom wouldn’t approve of and maybe I’m curious how that’s going to go over, given how she keeps looking at the chief like not everything he does is wrong.

Either all of those things, or I’m really tired, and I let it be the second as I climb under the quilts upstairs and pass out.

00000

Aurelia’s door is closed when I wake up a couple of hours later. It doesn’t feel like a couple of hours, it just feels like I blinked and the light in the room changed and Stoick disappeared. I’m shocked he left me alone, honestly, and I’m even more shocked that Bang is still in front of the fire and not being dragged out to Snoggletog festivities.

Right, there’s a feast tonight. A feast I’ll be expected to go to and interact at. We never went, it was always better at home, yaknog included. That and we weren’t welcome, but…

I yawn. I’m not too excited about it. But I am glad that the chief let me get away with a few extra hours of sleep and I should go catch up with him so that I don’t miss too much. Maybe the holiday spirit will make him listen to some of the things I thought of last night. Maybe if he listens to me about a few on island issues, he’ll listen to me when the dragons come back and there’s less of them than there were a few months ago. At least I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s going to go, I haven’t exactly had time, energy, or an unbruised-faced willingness to fly hours out to sea in the freezing cold.

Now I’m a little guilty about that too.

I lead Bang outside and climb on, patting his side and asking him something I know he’s going to hate.

“Can you find Toothless, bud?”

He grunts, his claws digging into the cold ground.

“Come on, Bang, just do it.”

He ruffles his scales along his spine, poking me in the ass, because apparently my own infectious Snoggletog spirit is getting to him too.

“We can go by the docks after and I will use my limited power to get you a bucket of sardines.”

He groans and takes off, flapping lazily against the frigid breeze and coasting in the direction of the docks. I nudge him with my knee, “bud, I said after. You have to find Toothless first.”

His scales ruffle again and I give up, closing my eyes and letting the frigid, salty breeze wake me up a bit before I have to really jump into this. Today. My first Snoggletog without my family, accepting that family won’t ever really be my family again. My first Snoggletog as the chief’s son and heir and how public that’s going to be.

Bang starts descending slowly, like he knows I’m not paying attention, and I slap the not bruised side of my face a couple of times before he touches down at the docks. Toothless is there, along with the chief, talking to someone beside a boat and I pat Bang in apology. He sniffs at my pocket as I climb off, like I’m going to magically produce the promised fish and I stop short because the chief is standing by my Dad’s boat.

And I didn’t recognize it.

I mean, it has its winter sails on and the net’s on the other side from when I last saw it, but that boat used to be my third home after Bang and the house and…

And I didn’t recognize it. Not right away. I wonder if I’d recognize my own reflection, if I looked for it, or if I just look like some miniature chief.

The fisherman the chief is talking to shrugs and points at Dad’s boat and before I can get over there, Dad is stepping out from below deck and noticing the chief and my own face throbs because I know exactly how this is going to go. Dad looks pissed and I jog the rest of the way over, because someone at least needs to be around to tell the tale of what happened here when I report to the Snoggletog feast as official acting chief.

“…saw your daughter with my son yesterday,” Dad’s angry. Accusing. And he doesn’t look at me until I step closer to the side of the boat than I am to the chief.

Then he looks at me like he wishes I’d leave.

“Eret and Aurelia? They’re together all the time,” the chief counters, badly, and I wonder how he’s still alive if that’s his attempt at a diversion. “Those two are thick as dragon thieves, you can’t just be noticing now.”

Dad looks more pissed and I almost step between them because it feels like my job, or something, but…but I didn’t recognize Dad’s boat and I’m going to the feast tonight and if I save the chief from getting his ass whooped right now, everything I used to have is gone forever.

“You know what I’m talking about, chief.” The title is an insult, like it used to be, and I’m homesick like I haven’t been in a while. “Your daughter’s been all over the island on the back of my son’s nightmare.”

“I don’t see the problem, Eret.” My name and its lack of title is an insult and that sucks more than it’s supposed to. “Don’t you know better by now than to mess with young love?”

Another fisherman drops a barrel of fish. Bang’s tail stops wagging and he looks at Dad like he’s heartbroken Dad hasn’t paused to pet him yet.

It’s quiet, too quiet, the kind of quiet that makes the chief’s impossibly easy stance offensive and like he’s taking everything too lightly because he thinks he has a solution for everything up his sleeve.

“Dad,” I cut in, “I don’t know why he’s here—”

“I’m here to get fish for the feast, Eret. Erets.” The chief stumbles on my name. Our name. And Dad is staring at me like he wants me to do something or he’s just noticing the bruises and he only heard Arvid’s side of the fight and like he still might care. “I asked every other fisherman here and they all directed me to you.”

“What a bunch of drama causing assholes,” I say it too loud, like it’s going to get a response from someone, anyone, like Dad will look at me and laugh or be mad at me and the chief will acknowledge that he’s being an idiot.

“Tell your daughter to leave my son alone.”

The chief shrugs, too blasé, like he knows something the rest of us don’t and he’s assuming no one is going to beat it out of him.

“I don’t know if it’d stick.”

“Chief. Haven’t you done enough?”

I wonder why Dad hasn’t punched him yet. I wonder if it’s because he’s on the boat and the chief is on the ground and it feels like a position of some kind of power.

“I’m not doing anything,” the chief shrugs.

“Yeah, chief, you aren’t, you’re here to get fish, right, let’s get fish,” I finally step between them, “Dad—I mean Eret—I mean, I don’t know what I mean, but can we just get that fish? Thanks.” There’s that feeling that everyone’s staring and I’m still not used it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be. “Now would be good.”

“You heard the man,” the chief turns to the boat next to Dad’s and a couple of men start moving a few baskets of fish down the boat ramp.

“I mean it, chief,” Dad walks halfway down his own ramp before jumping the last couple feet, landing solid and threatening next to the chief, who doesn’t flinch. “Keep your daughter away from my son or—”

“Or what?” The chief narrows his eyes and I want to let him get punched, because he’s trying really hard and Dad deserves it, to be honest.

But I deserve Dad to look at me, or I think I do. I want him to.

“Or I’m going to hurl.” I step between them again and stare at Dad like he’ll care. “Let’s just get the fish and go, chief.”

“Probably best.” Dad has that look in his eyes like he doesn’t quite recognize me and I want it to be in the good way, in the Stoick the Vast way Gobber says is possible, but I doubt it.

I pat my leg to call Bang to me, barely seeing Dad pet him out of the corner of my eye as I turn to the fishermen, “can you guys take that all the way to the great hall? You can borrow my dragon, this is Bang, I—you guys probably know that, but he’ll carry most of it for a tip of a handful of sardines.”

Bang warbles like I’ve betrayed his deepest secret but follows the nodding fishermen towards the trail away from the docks.

“Come on, chief,” I grumble before following them, and I half expect him to stay back and keep determinedly picking a doomed fight, but he and Toothless crunch across the pebble beach behind me.

“Eret, wait up—”

“Why?”

“Because I want to talk to you.”

“But I thought you were in the mood for a fight.”

He grabs my upper arm and I stop, shrugging him off and turning to face him.

“Don’t touch me.”

“Oh. Sorry.” He looks genuine and I narrow my eyes. I hate how he does this, how he’s a different person depending on who he’s talking to and how the one who talks to me is so nice I want to hit him. “That was good back there.”

“What was good? Me saving you from getting your face broken?” I gesture to my own and he softens again, further, and I don’t like that he let me sleep in anymore, I don’t like that he cares.

“No, how you got the fish.”

“So I should have let you get your face broken? Good to know, I will next time—”

“Can’t you take a compliment?” He slips, fully frustrated, “you just handled a tough situation well and I’m trying to tell you.” There’s an implied ‘because I never heard it’ tacked onto the end and I don’t want to hear about his problems. I don’t want him to seem any more human than he has before. “We should go help your mother set up for the feast.”

“Yeah. Ok. Fine.”

“Do you want a ride up?” He points at Toothless and I shake my head at the same time as the dragon does.

“I’ll walk.”

00000

Mom’s in charge of setting up the feast and that actually feels normal for a while, Mom telling me what to do, pinning mistletoe to doorways and helping align mead casks along a table at the front. But before things are done, she shoves a basket of clothes into my arms and instructs me to get ready, like I’m not already ready, and sends me home.

I still don’t like new clothes, they still feel wrong and stiff and strange, and there are far more clothes in this basket than should be on one person, I feel. There are like three shirts. And the belt is heavy and full of woven gold and at the bottom there’s a bunch of jewelry, and when I offer some to Aurelia, who’s also getting dressed, she has more than me so I tuck some under a blanket on her bed and hope no one notices.

It feels like a lot. It’s worse than the clothes I had to wear to the wedding, like maybe Mom knew I wasn’t ready at that point, but I don’t know why she thinks I’m ready now. If I acted ready, that was completely an accident, because I’m not ready and I can’t stop jingling. It all feels very conspicuous and I don’t want everyone looking at me right now, when I’m exhausted from a day of saving the chief’s ass.

Bang isn’t invited to the feast, apparently. Apparently, there’s only room for one dragon in the hall. Apparently, seniority rules and Toothless gets the room.

I wait until Aurelia leaves first, because I don’t want to hear about her bad mood or bog her down with my bad one, and it’s a long, cold walk alone to the feast.

When I open the big door to the hall everyone turns to look, and my adolescent dreams of notoriety have officially become drudgery, I must finally be growing up like everyone thinks I need to do. I spot Aurelia at a table near the front and she’s sitting next to Fuse, who looks cleaner than I’ve ever seen her in a surreal way that makes today feel even more like a mistake. They’re talking seriously about something, probably whatever I’m left out of and Aurelia catches me about two steps into attempting to sneak up on them, probably all of the damn jewelry.

“Hey Eret, come sit with us,” she waves me over and I sit down across from them, folding my hands on the table. I should have gotten some mead first, it’s one of those nights where I doubt Mom’s watching and I could use some.

“Hey, guys. Girls. Working on that secret thing I don’t get to know about?”

“And he goes straight for killing the conversation,” Aurelia rolls her eyes and I look at Fuse again, frowning at her face’s utter and total lack of soot. She looks…different. Her eyebrow is almost fully grown back and she’s red in the face, like she’s already had something to drink.

“Hey Eret,” Fuse nods like she’s not entirely thrilled that I’ve interrupted them.

“So it was about the super-secret-keep-Eret-out-of-the-loop plan.”

Aurelia sighs, “or maybe people talk sometimes and it has nothing to do with you.”

“Impossible, I’m the future chief, everything is about me.”

Fuse laughs. That weird, loud laugh that seems girly when she’s all clean and I frown.

“Oh Gods,” Aurelia looks over my shoulder, face pinched in concern, “don’t look now but your dad and Arvid just showed up.”

“What?” I turn around and sure enough, there they are, standing in the doorway while everyone else pointedly ignores them. “That’s not good. Earlier the chief was like, trying to fight my dad.”

“Does yaknog have lasting effects on someone’s self preservation instinct?” Aurelia shoves her mug across the table to get my attention. “I don’t drink, dad just gave this to me because he wanted me to shut up. Looks like you’re going to need it.”

I knock the mug against Fuse’s and take a sip that’s more of a gulp. She follows, and I look away because of everything happening right now, the neat braids curving around her head are honestly the freakiest. Her hair is combed out and hanging longer than I can see over the table, all pale pinkish and strange looking.

“What?” Fuse asks, adjusting her hair like there’s something out of place, which would be more normal, honestly.

“Nothing.” I shrug, looking over my shoulder at my dad again, at where he’s gloomy in a corner and Arvid is pretending not to look over at us. Or at Aurelia, not me, probably not Fuse.

Ha, Arvid hates someone more than Fuse. It’s me, but that’s still monumental.

“You’re quiet. And you’re staring at me.” She’s looking straight through me and I wonder what she thinks she sees, because I definitely wasn’t staring at her.

I clear my throat, “you’re clean.”

Aurelia’s forehead falls forward against the table and she groans. I take another drink because this is worse than dealing with family, somehow I’m dealing with women again and none of them make half as much sense as Ingrid does.

Arvid would probably know what’s going on. Sometimes that’s the worst part of all of this, it’s like I lost the most practical part of my brain and inherited some backwards thought process where sometimes I don’t want to punch the chief.

“Too much already?” The chief walks up like he can read my mind, grinning at Aurelia like he definitely can’t read hers or he’d get the antagonism practically wafting at him from roughly a typhoomerang’s wingspan.

“I don’t drink, Dad,” she huffs, sitting up and rubbing her temples. She looks at Fuse with something closer to apology than I think I’ve ever seen on her face and stands up, “I’m going to go see if Mom needs anything.”

She doesn’t. She walks towards Arvid in the straightest line possible. I can feel my dad staring at me, like he’s disappointed every second I don’t side against the chief with him.

I’m kind of wondering where that mythical side of my own went, the one Mom used to be on and Fuse used to notice.

“Well, at least you two are in the holiday spirit,” the chief looks between us, “you look nice tonight, Fuse, doesn’t she look nice?”

I shrug, taking another drink and trying not to feel even more picked on than normal. It’s the clothes, they’re too heavy and crisp and new and just looking at Fuse so out of her element makes it harder to breathe.

“She looks like Mom dressed her too, I’m wearing like seven shirts, it’s ridiculous, I could have dressed Bang in half the wool.”

Fuse doesn’t laugh. The chief stares at me like I shocked him for once and I down the rest of my mug.

“Refill?” I take Fuse’s half full mug anyway, shouldering around the chief and walking towards the casks at the front of the room. While mine refills I drink hers, because that doesn’t feel any weirder than drinking Aurelia’s for some reason, because Fuse is still just Fuse and my last uncomplicated friend even if she likes my sister more than me now.

What could they possibly be talking about that they can’t tell me?

Maybe it’s the feeling of a looming secret, but suddenly I’m hit by a wave of nostalgia as the room goes silent behind me. It’s the same strange quiet bubble I remember blooming around us whenever we went into town as kids, like the opposite of a thunderdrum blast but surrounded by whispers.

I turn around and my dad’s standing there looking not exactly pleased but not like he’s going to yell at me either. Not that he ever did, his version of yelling was more of an open ended threat of Mom’s wrath, but that doesn’t exist anymore and somehow I don’t expect anything out of him but silence.

“I gotta say, I always wanted to come to this when I was a kid, but it’s actually about as fun as clearing fireworms out of the attic,” I blurt because I’m not good at silence and so called maturity is putting absolutely zero dent in that particular character flaw.

Dad stares at me and everyone else stares at us and Mom isn’t looking this direction at all.

“Arvid said he roughed you up, he didn’t explain that he rearranged your face.” Dad sounds exactly like he does in my head and it feels like finding something I’d been sure I lost.

“My suggestion,” I snort, “you know I don’t do anything halfway.” Like stand up for the chief, twice now, once to Arvid with disastrous results and earlier today to my dad.

I don’t know why I keep doing it when it feels so wrong. Maybe it’s because then everyone can just be mad at me like they should and leave Mom alone. Maybe it’s some perverse protect the weak instinct that came out when I became the biggest sibling overnight. Maybe it’s because if one more thor-damned thing in my life changes I’m half scared I’ll drown in it.

I cough, “I mean, half-siblings, yeah, I’m apparently great at that but everything else? Full effort, all the time.”

I also don’t know why I’m still talking.

Now I’m the one angling to get hit. I take a swig of my drink and he looks at me like he used to when I wasn’t big enough to do something. But it’s harder now, further away, and I bet he regrets coming over here as much as I regret trying to make him laugh even when I knew it would fail.

“He’s still supposed to be your brother.”

“You think that’d stop him from dating my sister.”

“I thought you two could find it in yourselves to act like family.”

I snort, “we don’t have to do this, you know? You don’t have to pretend you care about my face and I don’t have to pretend Arvid didn’t punch what was left of my pride right out of me. I–and I’m sorry about the dock earlier, I didn’t want–don’t want you to think I’m some chiefling who just wants to order you around, that’s not…there I go again, committing to putting my whole entire foot in my mouth.” I exhale because he’s not going to calm me down, we aren’t that anymore, he’s not going to keep me tethered to the lies that kept me calm all those years.

“Your mother looks happy, she was always good at things like this.” He sounds as numb as I feel and I can’t help but notice that I’m not killing trees or flying away anymore, I’m standing here keeping my face as unaffected as possible while I reconcile with the fact that my dad’s probably never going to hug me again.

Maybe some of him did rub off on me afterall.

It makes me want to try it, to let my voice go flat and strong and to wish him a happy Snoggletog and play that game that I wasn’t ever good at until now, until I had to be. Because everything about funny honesty hurts, the barbs I throw at myself dig in and bleed and I want to invoke that dejected Hofferson armor, the bubble of silence that keeps things private and quiet, even if they’re wrong.

“Yeah, for someone so good at chopping things up she has a real knack at pulling them together.” I say it like I mean it and my heartrate slows, the blood in my ears quieting to reveal the gentle murmur of conversation outside of our ostracized bubble. It makes my stomach ache to be the one telling a lie, even just with my face, and the sweet mead taste on the back of my tongue seems more like medicine than poison. “Enjoy it, I heard the mutton is spectacular,” I take another drink and laugh as that hollow feeling gets heavier, closer to dread and so much less scary than empty space, “and opportunities to get everyone together like this just don’t come around that often. Happy Snoggletog, D–” I catch myself.

He doesn’t move.

I raise my mug in an over-acted goodbye and walk around him, back to where everything’s louder. Fuse isn’t still at the table and I almost miss her when I look around the room, mistaking the long pink waves down her back for someone else standing in strange light. She’s talking to Ruffnut, who I’ve never thought of as her aunt before but the resemblance is obvious in that way I’ve only recently become so attuned to.

I tap her shoulder and hold out the fuller mug and she stares at me with disbelief bordering on irritation. I don’t know how I used to think all of her expressions looked the same, because this one is clearly threatening.

“I uh, have your refill.”

“I didn’t ask for one.” She crosses her arms, pausing for a second like she’s scared of compressing something flammable, but her expression goes back to vaguely hostile as soon as she remembers she doesn’t have pockets much less full ones.

“You really don’t know when to stop picking fights, do you?” Ruffnut asks and she has that woman face I don’t understand, the one Aurelia and Fuse have been swapping back and forth while they talk about something I don’t get to know.

“Nope, never been my strong point.”

Ruffnut pats Fuse’s shoulder and walks away, and as soon as Fuse turns to face me with an icy mask of an expression I miss having the witness.

“I said I didn’t want a refill.”

“I mean, I think you didn’t say anything, but if you don’t want it–”

“I don’t,” she cuts me off like she never does and her voice sounds as efficient as when she’s detailing some plan I’m never going to remember all at once. I frown and set the mug on the corner of the nearest table.

“Ok.”

She raises her eyebrows and it makes the missing tail and her freckles more obvious and I feel weirdly like I’m in trouble and even more weirdly like it’s the biggest deal trouble I’ve flirted with all day. Hel, all week.

“What?” I look around and no one’s watching this conversation, not my dad who disappeared or the chief who’s talking to my mom who looks tired but happy and oblivious to what I’m doing.

“Why are you over here?” It’s not as blunt as her usual questions, like she doesn’t know the answer yet and she really doesn’t like the feeling. I take another drink and it doesn’t help with the feeling of wrongness that’s quickly exhausting its welcome.

“Because I went to get you a refill that you apparently didn’t want but I brought it over to you anyway?” I don’t know why it comes out as a question but Fuse doesn’t appear to consider it an answer. “Sorry?”

“You don’t know what you’re sorry for,” she shakes her head, a single lock of long combed hair tangling on the embroidered front of her shirt and it’s better that way, it makes her seem more even and familiar and horribly distant like everyone else.

“Upsetting you?” I squint and it hurts my face and I don’t think she’s ever looked this much like a girl and why that makes me feel even more clueless and turned around and far from the ever mythical normal.

“I’m not upset,” she says so convincingly that I believe it. That I expect her to follow with the old double whammy of I’m just disappointed, but she doesn’t because she must see that I get it and she’s never been one for extra words. She looks at the mug in my hand with a blank expression before shaking her head at me, “eat something.”

“Happy Snoggletog to you too,” I raise my glass at her as she walks away too, because it’s another one of those days, apparently, and sit down at the empty end of the nearest bench.

It’s weird, everyone used to notice the Hoffersons when we committed the great crime of being generally happy, but no one seems to notice an allegedly important Haddock even when he’s miserable.

Chapter Text

I hate how old the chief’s house is. I really really hate it. I used to think it was kind of cool, but when the stairs’ creak wakes me up to the enthusiastic pounding in my head, I take it all back. I kind of remember getting home last night. I remember the feast being a disaster and having to deal with my dad and Fuse being mad at me for some reason.

I forgot to keep the fire going, because it’s freezing, and Bang clinging to me like he wants to sap all of the warmth out of my body isn’t helping anything. But my head doesn’t want me to move and my stomach agrees so I curl further into the blankets.

It doesn’t feel like long later when I hear someone, probably Mom because the stairs don’t creak again, kneeling in front of the fire and loading a couple of logs into it.

“How are you feeling?” She asks, a little amused in a way I don’t totally appreciate.

“Kill me now. Do it quick,” I pull the blanket all the way over my head when the light of the fire pierces my eyes even through my eyelids. “I trust you.”

“Nope, you’ve taken too much effort to kill quickly,” she pats my leg through the blankets and I hear her get up and the dull clang of the old kettle. “I’m going to make you some tea and you’re going to drink it and the next time I’m not watching you at a feast, you’re going to remember how you feel right now and not get so drunk again.”

“That’s a lot of orders all at once,” I peek out into the room with one eye, trying to let it adjust even as it feels like it’s stabbing me, “I’m gonna forget the last like…three.”

“Of course you will.”

It takes a few tries, but I’m unsteadily sitting against Bang’s side by the time she pours me a cup of tea and gives me a stern look. It’s not too stern though, there’s worry there and a general kind of contentment I don’t know if I’ve seen since everything fell apart. She liked planning the feast. She didn’t get to do that kind of thing with my dad, she only had us to order around and we never listened very fast or well.

“The feast was good.” I try and compliment her even though she definitely already knows. “I mean, it went well. Not that I’ve been to many feasts but this one was good.”

“I always kind of hated that we couldn’t take you kids,” she sighs, “I went overboard at home to make up for it but…that was a big childhood thing to me. The Snoggltog feast with the whole village and everything.”

“It was fun,” I lie, “I liked it at home even better though. I didn’t have to dress up and Bang could be there.”

“Dressing up once in a while isn’t going to kill you,” she looks at me kind of happy for a second, like she’s glad to know she didn’t fail at holidays when I was little. I want to tell her that Arvid liked it too but that’s not mine to say anymore. I know Ingrid would tell her if she were here but well, that’s another reason it didn’t feel like Snoggletog.

Oddly, I didn’t miss Rolf.

“Maybe that’s what did me in, you don’t know.”

“I think it was all of the mead you drank.” She starts on breakfast and I force myself to my feet, stumbling the few steps to the table. The little bit of blood flow made me simultaneously more nauseous and less headachy and I rest my forehead on my hands.

“Debatable.”

Mom doesn’t find that worth answering and she silently refills my tea.

“Good morning, you look like shit,” Aurelia comes down the stairs and tugs at my tied back hair. I glare at her.

“Good morning, you were out late,” I whisper the latter part and she glares at me like she can inflict physical damage with her eyes.

I wouldn’t put it past her, honestly, but my head hurts too bad to care what she does to me.

“Take a good look, Aurelia,” Mom gestures to me with the spatula she’s using to stir leftover mutton stew from the night before, “that’s what drinking like an idiot looks like.”

“Ew,” she sits down next to me and takes a drink of my tea because she’s a tiny, irritating, boundary-less human being.

“No, this is what it looks like when everyone picks on me and takes my stuff,” I shoulder her away from my cup and drain it on principal, even though it makes my stomach swirl and churn. I blink slowly, trying to stop the table from moving like a ship in rough surf.

“No, you definitely look worse than usual,” Aurelia almost sounds compassionate as she gets up to refill my teacup. She takes a sip anyway but sets it front of me.

Stoick is the next one down the stairs, tripping over oversized socks that look like some I used to have. He hugs mom’s leg and sits down across from Aurelia, swinging his legs and kicking the table leg with a rhythm that throbs in my temple.

“Good morning!” His high pitched little voice is like a battle axe to the back of the head and I sip my tea, nodding at him in acknowledgement.

“Keep your voice down,” Aurelia prompts him, “Eret drank a bunch of alcohol and now his head hurts and he’s uglier than normal.”

“Careful with that,” I glare at her, “girl who looks like miniature me with more hair.”

“You wish,” she scoffs.

“Admit it, we both have that Haddock—”

“Last name,” Mom cuts me off, pointing the spatula at me like it’s a weapon and she’s planning to demonstrate. She looks at Stoick and back at me, like he’s never heard anyone swear before or something.

“He was going to say charm, I’m sure,” Aurelia puts on a big, fake smile, “we’ve both got that wholly likeable personality.”

“That skipped me,” I elbow her and she rolls her eyes.

“I know it did, but you wish it didn’t.”

“Good morning!” The chief comes down the stairs exaggeratedly slowly, yawning so loudly it’s like he wants to make me see double. “I don’t know about you guys, but I slept great.”

“Must have, I didn’t even hear you snoring,” Aurelia rolls her eyes, slumping down slightly, all desire to make fun of me reabsorbed for a later time when the chief isn’t there.

“How about you guys?” The chief looks at us so briefly he doesn’t seem to notice I’m doing my best draugr impression before looking at Mom.

She’s red from pulling bread out of the hearth and because the chief is himself, he smiles like it has something to do with him, and if Stoick announcing his presence at the top of his lungs didn’t make me puke, this might.

“I slept good. I was tired,” Mom shrugs, more awkward than frosty, but not as nice as she’s been to him lately.

I vaguely remember them getting me home last night. I bet he said something stupid. I hope they don’t start actively fighting again but I wouldn’t necessarily mind a little frost.

“Why so quiet?” The chief looks around again, “did I interrupt some important conversation?” He asks like that’s not a really weird question to pose sleepy teenagers first thing in the morning.

“Your children were arguing over who’s the most beautiful,” Mom rolls her eyes at me in particular, like she’s worried I’m not entirely aware that me being beautiful is the biggest joke of the year. Like it’s not weird to group me as one of the chief’s children, out loud, and maybe it’s not anymore.

“Oh, that’s easy.” The chief laughs and Aurelia almost looks ambivalent for a second, like she’s waiting to let something go over a stupid compliment she’s expecting. “It’s Eret, he looks the most like you.” He says that to Mom. I wrinkle my nose. She looks blank and still red and Aureila deflates slightly. “I stuck the other two with way more of all this,” he gestures to himself and Mom smiles like she’s trying not to laugh.

“I think I got plenty of that,” I scoff. “And clearly, Stoick is the best looking.”

Stoick nods about as seriously as an eight year old ever does, “I know. I just didn’t want to make you guys feel bad.”

I laugh at that even though it hurts, holding a closed fist out to him. He looks at it for a second before gingerly bumping his tiny fist against mine. The chief’s looking at us with that gross, dreamy, happy family face and Mom sets breakfast on the table. The smell makes my stomach churn but she puts some on my plate anyway.

“It’ll help,” she ruffles my hair and I don’t bat her hand away even though I probably should for laughing at the chief’s dumb jokes.

“Hungover?” The chief sits down next to me and looks concerned, and it’s not like letting me sleep in yesterday, it’s more personal. Like he thinks because he made sure I didn’t freeze to death he’s got to make sure I’m not going to throw up.

That incidentally makes me want to throw up.

“What’s that?” Stoick asks messing with his food like he’s not sure he wants to eat it. No wonder he’s so small.

“It’s the official word for drinking too much and getting sick,” Aurelia explains, pointing at Stoick’s plate, “and I’ll tell you more if you eat your whole breakfast.”

He rolls his eyes and starts eating slow little bites. I shouldn’t say that, because he is eating faster than me, because everything I put in my mouth goes to war with my gag reflex. Ok, maybe that’s a lie, because the fifth bite goes down easier than the fourth and the sixth easier than the fifth. I wonder if Mom’s ever been hungover or if she just took care of other people.

If she ever was it was probably when she was young and that makes me look at the chief. He’d know. I’m not going to ask him because I hate acknowledging that he’d know, but he’d tell me.

That’s something I’m still getting used to. Sitting next to a book of answers so much of my time and being unwilling to open it.

“Did you guys have fun at the feast?” The chief asks, looking at me in particular, “before you got drunk, I mean. Did you at least get to talk to Fuse some?”

“Don’t remind me,” I stab a piece of mutton much harder than necessary, scraping against the plate, “can we not play happy family breakfast right now?”

“Just because you’re snappy, doesn’t mean you get to snap,” Mom chastises me and it takes me a second to realize that she’s essentially defending the chief’s right to ask about things that are none of his or anyone’s business.

“I wasn’t snapping,” I snap and she looks at me like I’m a kid again even though I haven’t felt like one in a while. Because when they don’t need me to be an adult, I go straight back to being a child. “I just don’t want to talk about it.”

Mom opens her mouth to say something else but the chief cuts her off.

“It’s ok, Astrid,” he shrugs and it’s not his usual ‘I’ll do anything to make Eret my best friend’ kind of unaffected. I don’t like that, necessarily, because when he makes me mad the least courtesy he could give me is getting mad in return, but I also don’t necessarily want my mom yelling at me when every word causes physical pain. “I’m not going to let a little hungover testiness ruin my excellent mood.”

“You’re better at that than me, I guess,” Mom sighs and she’s still weirdly pink, like it’s hot in here when it really isn’t, especially since I let the fire die out last night. “I’ll just need a pick me up later when my mouthy son is out of the house.”

The chief drops his fork on the floor. I look at Aurelia to laugh at him together but she’s staring at her plate, mouth tight-lipped closed. I hate it. I hate how there’s one dynamic when the chief isn’t here and another when he is and that Mom doesn’t seem to notice or care. I take the last bite of my breakfast all at once, forcing it down a dry throat and standing up.

“Well, I’ll make that sooner rather than later. Bang needs breakfast. Aurelia, do you want to help?”

“Fine,” she stands up, grabbing her coat off of the hook by the door.

“Are you offering to take Stoick too? Or…” The chief narrows his eyes and looks at me like he does when he’s searching for some part of himself that just isn’t there and I shrug.

“The academy is closed today, isn’t it?”

His face falls slightly and he shrugs and nods and generally makes a fool of himself for no apparently reason. Mom glares at him. I have no idea what he did to piss her off but I don’t really feel like sticking around to find out.

“After you feed Bang I have some things for you to do later,” the chief looks at Mom like she has to approve him making me work or something and I nod.

“Whatever.”

It’s as cold outside as it was yesterday, Aurelia’s breath frustrated little puffs as she grumbles under her breath for a minute, getting it out of her system before Bang walks up beside her and nudges her hand with his nose. She barely jumps, and I hate to say it but all that time with Wingspark has been good for her nerves. He trills at her and she pats his head.

“Sorry your little brother’s beauty is surpassing yours,” I bump my shoulder against hers and she snorts.

“He’s going to cause a pubescent riot in a few years, that’s for sure. We all know how Berk girls love short and scrawny.” She looks me up and down and raises her eyebrows. “Oh. Right.”

“I’m not short,” I huff, “I’m just glad you aren’t chipper this morning either. What was that?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugs, “they’ve been getting along lately, it didn’t seem any different. My dad still doesn’t acknowledge me when he walks in a room so I haven’t noticed much change.”

“It might help the acknowledgement thing if you didn’t go silent every time he comes around,” I wince when the sun comes out briefly from behind a cloud. It’s dimmer closer to the piled high snow berm and I hide there, patting Bang on the tail and urging him to go find his own fishing ground. Normally I’d go with him but I think for the first time in my life the idea of flying makes me woozy.

“Like that’d help anything.”

“It’d make it harder to pretend like everything is sunshine and rainbows,” I tuck my hands in my pockets and wish I’d grabbed a jacket.

“It is, to him.” She has a rare, vulnerable expression on her face that makes me want to hug her. “Me quiet, you being lame about Fuse, Stoick being beautiful.”

“What do you mean me being lame about Fuse?” I huff, “I have no idea why she got mad at me last night, I was kind of busy—”

“Being a drunk jerk?”

“Yeah, sure, after I was done dealing with my dad and Arvid’s death glares and—”

“Eret, come on, be honest with me. There’s absolutely nothing on Midgard that you’ve done or haven’t done that would make Fuse less than happy with you? Nothing she’s indicated in her behavior or—”

“No! I thought we were making progress with the plan. Maybe not for a while because I got so busy with getting beat up and Snoggletog and all but…I thought things were fine.”

“Right,” she looks at me like I’m profoundly stupid and it feels like a great, cosmic injustice that after years of watching Arvid get that face, it’s Aurelia who turns it back on me, “the plan is going well. That’s the thing.”

“What? I thought it was,” I pause, frowning and trying to remember where we left off. “Oh!”

“Oh?” She waves me on with her hand, “oh what? Explain your ‘oh’.”

“I forgot to make her the thing,” I gesture towards where Bang just was and she stares at me like I’m crazy, “the thing for the plan. The baffle thing. I was going to model it after Bang and she got me a sketch and everything and I haven’t made it yet. That’s got to be it.”

“What?”

“I was going to make her this baffle thing for the plan and I haven’t done it yet and it’s been like a month, no wonder she’s pissed at me.”

“A baffle? A stupid piece of metal? That’s why you thinks she’s mad at you?”

“It’s not stupid, she designed it herself, it can aim an explosion more specifically than anything else she’s tried.”

“Oh my gods,” Aurelia smacks herself in the forehead, hard enough to leave a temporary red mark, “you’re an idiot.”

“Don’t rub it in, I feel awful about it.” I’m not exaggerating, I sort of do feel terrible. Fuse has been so much help with well…everything. And she was the only person who didn’t treat me any different than she did a year ago until I had to go mess it up by ignoring a request that she was only working on for me.

“About not making her baffle. Right.” She shakes her head. “Better fix that. I’m sure Fuse will be thrilled with you then.”

“I have no time,” I kick the icy path at our feet and sigh, “and I can’t ask Gobber to do it because he’ll know something’s up.”

“We could go at night again.”

“And risk being caught by the chief?” I laugh, “I’m not quite sure he’s busy enough with the post-snoggletog work to give me that much of a leash.”

“You could talk to Fuse about it, maybe, she can clarify that she really is, in fact, mad about you forgetting to make her a baffle.” Aurelia shrugs, “just a thought. Communication never hurt anyone.”

“Yeah, I’m not going to be the first. Approaching an angry Fuse after pissing her off doesn’t seem like a good way to keep all my limbs and with them the gulf in my paternal resemblance in tact.” I sigh and whistle to call Bang back, because I know what I’ve got to and I don’t really want to do it. “I can ask Smitelout if she’s working today.”

Aurelia looks like she’s about to say something but she falters, “ok. Go for it.” She waves and keeps walking down the hill and before I can ask where she’s going she calls back, “I’m going to go see Arvid.”

“I didn’t want to know that.”

“Go see Smitelout, because you’d rather talk to her than Fuse and all.”

“I actually really wouldn’t,” I mumble under my breath as I turn around and head back towards the house, trusting Bang to find me on the way.

00000

The other side of the forge window doesn’t feel like home. The inside probably wouldn’t either, because even from halfway across the square I can see that all my tools aren’t where they should be. I know that Gobber said he wasn’t going to let me abandon projects, but that seems more like he just wanted to nag me one last time, because I haven’t heard anything else of it.

Smitelout is at the bellows, pumping them more easily than I ever had and scowling into the flames. I knock on the side of the window and she looks at me and maybe that’s not a scowl, that’s just her face.

“Gobber’s not here, twerp.”

“Come on,” I sigh, already wishing I hadn’t come down here. But it’s for Fuse, I tell myself, it’s so that she can get her part without me holding her up anymore.

“Ok, Chiefling Twerp,” she smirks like that’s the height of comedy, “Gobber isn’t here.”

“That’s ok,” I try not to sound mad, because she’s not going to do what I want if I yell at her and I don’t think she’d take an order, “I actually wanted to ask you something.”

“For tips?” She gestures at the forge, a half finished battle axe on the anvil. It doesn’t look bad enough at this distance to pick it apart and I feel that forced pleasant expression slipping. “I’ve fixed a lot of your fuck ups, I could teach you how, I guess.”

“Those were weapons from the forest fire, Smitelout.”

“Well yeah, but they were all fucked up and now they’re not.”

“But I didn’t fuck them up.”

“And you didn’t fix them,” she still manages to gloat and I swallow against the overwhelming will to tell her exactly where she can shove my supposed fuckups.

“No, because I got a different job. But now I need something special forged so I was hoping you could help me out with that.” I pull the drawing out of my pocket, unfolding it along well worn creases. They’re slightly neater than Fuse’s original folds, but when she hands me a balled up drawing there’s only so much I can flatten it out.

Smitelout gives me a stink eye even her dad might be proud of when she sees the smudged drawing.

“You want me to make you some dumb thing?”

“It’s not dumb,” I snap, sighing to get that back under control, “it’s something for Fuse. Some special project thing. I told her I’d make it but I haven’t had time.”

“So you want me to do a favor to your girlfriend for you?” She snorts, “I’ve got actual shit to do here.”

“What? Fuse isn’t my girlfriend?” I look over my shoulder, half expecting to see Arvid putting Smitelout up to this, but that would require him talking to her and the world isn’t quite that different yet. “And it’s a special project for the chief.” I lie, well, half lie, because Fuse is refining her tactic on things the chief is asking her to do. “She just asked me for it because I could make it. She’s not my girlfriend.”

“That’s super believable,” Smitelout rolls her eyes, “what does the chief want?”

“For Fuse to blow things up, that’s why it’s Fuse’s project.”

“Why’s it a secret?”

“It’s not a secret,” I cross my arms, “you just don’t need to know about it.”

That makes Smitelout mad, the kind of mad that’s rewarding and kind of scary all at once when I remember Ingrid isn’t around to back me up. Smitelout always ignores Arvid but Ingrid pisses her off. Probably because they’re the same age, Ingrid had all of dragon training to get under her skin. And nothing gets under Smitelout’s skin like the implication that she’s not the most important person in the Thor-damn room.

“So I’m supposed to take a break from fixing all those weapons you fucked up—”

“A forest fire fucked them up.”

“To make a secret, badly drawn part for your girlfriend so that she can blow something secret up?” Smitelout raises an eyebrow like she made an obvious point and I pinch the bridge of my nose.

“It’s not secret.”

“Right, like Thorston doesn’t brag about everything she blows up.”

“Fuse doesn’t brag,” I shake my head, looking at her like she’s crazy, which she is, “plus, even if she did, she deserves to because no one else could do what she does.”

“I think pretty much anyone can blow shit up. I have a monstrous nightmare for Odin’s sake.” Smitelout looks at the drawing anyway, annoyed that she’s even vaguely interested in it, “and how the hell would I make this anyway? There’s no flat edges on it, your girlfriend doesn’t know how metal works.”

“You just work around it multiple times,” I wish I had the time to do it myself because this is sounding more and more like whatever she comes up with isn’t going to be right. And after waiting so long, the least I could do is make the stupid part right. “It sounds like you’re the one who needs tips.”

“That still leaves flat spots, didn’t Gobber teach you anything?”

“Not if you don’t heat it up as much.” I almost climb through the window to just show her, but I’ve got to go get the barrels back down to the docks and Bang is already up there helping and someone has to find a force to clean out the hanger to get ready for babies to come back and why do Vikings have to be so stubborn.

That’s a weird thought. Thinking about it like us and them, and Gods, I sound like the chief. Like something about his “we’re different” diatribe made its way into my head enough to stick there.

She’s no different than me, well she is, but I’m a Viking. Hell, I’m her second cousin or something and the Hoffersons are the most stubborn family on the island to exist for twenty five years when no one wanted us to. I don’t need to talk to her like the chief, all placid expression and coddling. I need to talk to her like it’s me or Arvid and we’re sure something is impossible.

“Yeah, if you don’t heat it up you can’t shape it, idiot.” She rolls her eyes.

“Maybe you’re just not strong enough to shape it when it’s cool enough to hold a curve, not your fault, I guess I’ll drop it.”

“What?” She turns red, crossing her arms and huffing, “your arm is as big as my pinky, twerp, this isn’t about strength.”

“It’s either about strength or ability, I could give you those tips—”

“Fuck off,” she picks up the drawing and tacks it to the wall above the anvil that used to be mine, “I’ll have it to you in three days and when it’s perfect, I get to punch you in the face, no questions asked.”

“Fine,” I’m relieved even as my jaw still aches from Arvid’s irritation with my face’s existence, “I don’t get why everyone wants to hit me in the face so bad, but fine.”

“Get a mirror,” she yells over the roar of the forge as she starts pumping at the bellows again with renewed effort.

Chapter Text

It still feels like Snoggletog a week later, and I can’t quite explain it. Maybe it’s the decorations, still strung along the edge of the roof or maybe it’s the strange cheer that everyone else seems to still be feeling. Aurelia is downright chipper between running off with Arvid and Mom is happier than I thought the end of Snoggletog would ever make her. The chief is calm. Present. It’s not the first time I’ve been the crankiest in every room but it still feels significant.

Everyone is quiet and asleep when I get home one night and I half assume they moved into a more cheerful house without me until I hear the chief’s voice, a surprisingly gentle murmur upstairs.

I pause at the bottom of the stairs, the heat from the torch on the wall flickering against my face. It’s too quiet with Aurelia probably gone and Mom sleeping, quiet enough that I can hear the chief’s intonation, no matter how soft. Stoick’s tinkling little laugh. My foot makes the floorboard creak and I wince, leaning against the wall and trying to listen.

“…story do you want to hear tonight?”

“Grandpa Stoick.”

“Are you sure?” The chief laughs and there’s more giggling, tickling from the sounds of it. Stoick squeals. “You just heard about Grandpa Stoick last night.”

“I want a different story about Grandpa Stoick.” The kid says and it’s the loudest I’ve ever heard him speak and I find myself creeping up the first two stairs until I can glance through the doorway and see the chief’s foot glinting at the end of Stoick’s bed.

“Hmmm, a different story about Grandpa Stoick.”

I take another step up and sit down on the top stair, curious. Of course I’ve heard about Stoick the Vast—Grandpa Stoick. How he popped a dragon’s head off of its shoulders in his cradle, how he could kill seven men with a single swing of his hammer. How he faced death with his eyes open and kept Berk safe for years in a dragon hostile sea.

I can’t imagine how I—wimpy little Eret—am related to the goliath that still overlooks the village. I can’t imagine the chief as his son. It’s one of the hardest things to reconcile, honestly, the fact that behind the chief himself is a whole other lineage I can claim along with him.

“Have I told you about Grandpa Stoick’s first dragon?” The chief asks little Stoick and I almost get up to leave, because how could this be true? How could this be anything but a fairytale recorded in one of the newest books in Fishlegs’ library?

But then again, when has any of this sounded real before I heard it.

“No.” The bed creaks and I assume it’s Stoick settling into the blankets. I can’t help but remember bedtime stories as a kid, Ingrid, Arvid and I all piled onto one bed, my head in Ingrid’s lap while she stroked my hair and Mom told us all about battles and gods. Sometimes Dad told them too, but his were different, longer. About the seas and a different land up North. About ice and snow.

Mom always said that Dad’s stories kept us up too late.

“Ok. I’ll tell that one then,” the chief clears his throat and his voice drops slightly, bedtime soothing, and there’s a quiet whisk of fabric. I imagine him rubbing Stoick’s back as he talks and my throat tightens as I suddenly miss Ingrid so much it’s physically painful. “It was a few months after Berk welcomed the dragons, and Grandpa Stoick was running himself ragged, sprinting back and forth across the island a dozen times a day to get his work done.”

“Was he fast?”

“The fastest,” the chief is solemn, serious about the story and I can’t help but lean closer, resting my head against the wall. “But even the fastest Viking in the world can’t fly, so I suggested that he needed a dragon.”

“What kind of dragon did he get?”

“I’ll get there, Mr. Curious, let me tell the story.”

More tickling and Stoick’s giggles dripping with warm sleepiness. I can’t say I share the feeling, in fact the story is making me awkwardly anxious, like I know I have no reason to be on edge but can’t help myself. “So. Grandpa Stoick was unconvinced, he thought he didn’t need a dragon to do his job. But I knew it would make it easier, so I convinced him to go flying with Toothless and me. And oh, was Toothless mad, carrying an extra four hundred pounds of Viking and armor. I thought he was never going to forgive me…

“But Grandpa Stoick liked flying a whole lot, it made his day easier and he didn’t have to run so fast or so far. But we didn’t communicate very well, no matter how much we loved each other, and he was confused. He thought he could borrow Toothless indefinitely.”

“Grandpa Stoick took Toothless?”

“Not exactly,” the chief hums like he’s thinking how to say something and the floor creaks under me when I adjust my seat. “He thought that because Toothless was the fastest dragon on the island, he belonged with the fastest Viking. But that’s not true, because the best dragons fill in their rider’s gaps. That’s why I have Toothless, I’m a slow Viking.”

“And that’s why I want the biggest dragon on the whole island,” Stoick says so seriously that it makes me smile, remembering what it felt like to be on Bang’s wide back when I was barely older than him. “And that’s why Mommy has Stormfly, because Stormfly throws spikes and Mom is too nice to be spiky. I wonder why Stormfly likes you so much.”

“That’s sort of right,” the chief laughs and I get the weird feeling that he’s a good dad to Stoick. It makes me wonder when he stopped with Aurelia. “Mostly, Stormfly likes me because we’re very old friends. But it is nice that she likes me more than Bang does.”

“I love Bang. And I love Mommy,” Stoick sighs. “It’s better with everyone living here. I wish we could all go flying together at the same time.”

“I hope that’ll happen someday, bud.” The chief sighs and my whole back stiffens whether that means Aurelia or myself. I shouldn’t be listening to this.

“What did you do when Grandpa Stoick wanted Toothless?”

“Well, I wanted to help him train his own dragon. Toothless was a little small for Grandpa Stoick anyway, Toothless is fastest with me because I’m so scrawny.”

The chief’s voice dips back to that sleepy timbre and I wonder what bedtimes would have been like with him as a kid. This story feels long, would Mom have said that the chief’s stories kept me up too long? Would he have rubbed my back while I got sleepier and sleepier? Would Ingrid still play with my hair?

Or would Ingrid not exist at all?

I hate the idea that there’s some reality out there where I’m normal and this is expected reality. I hate how close it feels, how easy it seems to be indoctrinated into something like this.

“Grandpa Stoick and I were trying to find a dragon that was destroying all of Berk’s fishing boats. Back then, we still thought that some dragons might be mean, we didn’t know that they’re almost all smart and have good reasons for destroying things. So we didn’t know what to think when we flew out on poor, slow Toothless and found a Thunderdrum attacking a fishing boat.”

“What?” I say it out loud without thinking, sitting up straight and knocking the back of my hand against the wall accidentally. I swear, because there’s no way I’m not caught.

“Eret?” The chief asks and I lean back and wave at him through the doorway, trying to glare through my embarrassment.

“Hey.”

“What are you doing?” Stoick leans across the chief to look at me, his hair mussed from his pillows, sticking up every which way, curly in a way Aurelia’s and mine just isn’t.

“I was just…” Passing through. Going upstairs to…leave something in Aurelia’s room. “Listening. I was just listening.”

“You like stories about Grandpa Stoick?” The little boy grins, his eyes waking up, bright and sparkly. “I’m named after him because Berk isn’t Berk without a Stoick, and only Haddocks can do the job.”

The chief scratches his son’s skinny back and smiles at me, sad. “You can come in here if you want.”

“No,” I shake my head, standing and intending to leave. To go back downstairs and stuff cotton in my ears to ignore this. I stop and lean against the doorframe, crossing my arms. I should know about this stuff. If I’m going to be chief someday, I should know how people other than the chief did it. That and what Gobber said about me is still ringing in my ears. How could I be like someone I never had the chance to meet? Then again, I’m like the chief without anyone cultivating that. “I’ll just…I’ll just listen from here.”

“Ok.” The chief is sitting on the very edge of Stoick’s bed, leaning back against the wall with his metal foot on the bed and his good foot bare and curling around the edge of the wool rug. He has my feet—foot, or I have his I guess. Pale and sprinkled with red-brown hair. Long toes, monkey toes, Dad used to call them, telling the tale of the furry little animal he saw in a cage on the mainland, swinging from leathery little feet. “Where was I?”

“The Thunderdrum just attacked the boat,” I fill in even though I should be silent and the chief glances at me and smiles, nodding slowly. Cautiously, like I’m the wild dragon he’s about to try and pet.

“Right. So we’re on this fishing boat and this Thunderdrum is attacking, and winning, and Grandpa Stoick decides that he needs that particular dragon. He wanted a dragon as loud and big and tough as he was, and well…this Thunderdrum was it.”

“So we scooped the Thunderdrum out and brought it back to the academy, but the entire time it was thrashing and gnashing and booming,” the chief squeezes Stoick’s arms and he laughs, pulling the blanket over his shoulders. “So because we didn’t know as much about dragons then, we had to put a muzzle on it so that it wouldn’t boom in our faces and scramble our brains all around.”

“That’s barbaric,” I snip, I can’t help myself. The chief looks sad rather than annoyed.

“We didn’t know yet.”

“Grandpa Stoick used to kill dragons,” Little Stoick nods solemnly, “but he learned to stop and that made him the strongest.”

“Because?” The chief turns to the little boy like this is something they’ve rehearsed and the kid takes a deep breath.

“Because the strongest thing that a person can do is admit when they are wrong.”

“Exactly.”

“What is that? The conscription oath into the Haddock cult?” If Stoick weren’t here, I’d ask for the laundry list of everything the chief has been wrong about. I hate that I know my own answer immediately and it’s horrifyingly long and general and amounts to something close to everything.

I mean, I managed to piss Fuse off. Aurelia is up my ass all the time for no reason now. I ruined Snoggletog and Smitelout took my job and worse, I suggested it.

“It’s the truth,” the chief looks at me too meaningfully before staring back at his son and continuing the story. I hate how I’m interested, how I bite my tongue to listen because he’s not as bad of a storyteller as I’d like him to be. “And honestly, that makes it a better oath. So, back at the academy, I had to help Grandpa Stoick train his dragon. But instead of listening to me, he wanted to fight the dragon. And that’s something I never understood. The dragon didn’t like him much, and it didn’t like the cage. It didn’t like the muzzle either and it was very upset, trying to escape the entire time…

“But Grandpa Stoick was stubborn, and he kept fighting with the dragon no matter what I said, and eventually, the Thunderdrum escaped!” He says it with astonishment and Stoick sits up, little hands on his little knees, leaning forward with rapt attention.

I barely resist the urge to cheer for the dragon. Muzzling a Thunderdrum is like clipping a dragon’s wings or removing their claws. It leaves them defenseless.

“But Grandpa Stoick already loved his new dragon, even if he didn’t know it yet, because their souls lined up like a dragon and rider’s souls have to, so he followed the dragon to a small island where he found that it was trying to help another Thunderdrum stuck in a cave with a broken wing.”

“Oh no,” Stoick mumbles, looking nervous, and it’s a dusty reflex when I step into the room and rest my hand on his shoulder. I glare at the chief, because this story better have a happy ending, or it’s messed up to tell a little kid. And they better take the damn muzzle off of the badass Thunderdrum. And I find myself nervous too, and pissed about it, pissed that the chief is affecting me this much.

The chief shifts his metal foot to the floor in front of him and looks meaningfully at the empty foot of the bed. I think about it, probably not long enough, and sit down, my hand still on Stoick’s shoulder. The boy leans back against my side, tugging my arm down around his chest with a sure warmth that makes my chest clench.

Stoick trusts me and I have absolutely no idea what to do with that information.

The chief stares at us for a long moment, like we’re a painting, like he’s forgotten entirely that he’s in the middle of a story and I shift, cracking my neck and trying not to move the arm around Stoick’s chest. I can feel him breathing, the quiet, sleepy thump of his heart on the inside of my elbow and he leans against me harder, his head on my shoulder.

“What happened to the injured dragon?” I ask when it’s been quiet for too long and the chief shakes his head like he’s trying to clear it, running his hand back through silver hair.

“Right. The Thunderdrum that attacked the boat was protecting it, they were friends or mates or…something, we never really figured it out, but he was taking care of his injured friend.” The chief is talking to me now, not Stoick, a sort of earnest rush in his tone that tells me this story is meant for me. I wonder how long he knew I was listening. I wonder if he’s been telling Stoick stories hoping that I’d show up. “And just as Grandpa Stoick was putting this together, a huge pack of wild boars came out of the forest, growling and snarling, and that Thunderdrum and Grandpa Stoick looked at each other and they knew what they had to do.”

The chief looks back at Little Stoick and raises his hands into claws, batting at nothing and putting on a show for the boy, who laughs sleepily, warm and adorably pliable against my side. He leans into me like ice melting into slush, like he’s the warmest blanket wrapped around me on a cold winter morning and it’s like a memory of my own childhood through someone else’s eyes. Of all the titles I’ve gained lately, I think Stoick’s big brother is both the hardest and the one that bugs me the least. “They fought off the boars, Grandpa Stoick had no weapons, not really, he just threw and punched and kicked, and the Thunderdrum beat them off with his tail and slashed with his claws and they fought back to back, protecting each other like all good warriors do, until all the boars ran away…

“And then, Grandpa Stoick turned and looked at that Thunderdrum and saw that it was trained, that they had the crucial bond of trust, and Grandpa Stoick took off that muzzle—and it was just in time too, because that’s when all the boars came back! But the Thunderdrum scared them all away with one…huge…blast.”

Stoick yawns. I look at my feet and try to imagine it, the statue against the mountain alive and closer to life size. It takes a lot for a Viking to earn a title like “the vast” after all. I wonder what he would have thought of me, if he would have thought I’m as small and off track as I feel.

I can feel the chief still staring at us and look up, halfway between blank-faced and angry, because I don’t like feeling like his entertainment.

The chief smiles at me, “he’s out.”

“What?”

“Stoick, he’s asleep.”

“Oh,” I look down, and sure enough the little boy is dead to the world, his face pressed into the fabric at my shoulder, mouth half slack, his little hands curled loosely around my arm. My breath catches like I’m scared I’ll wake him with it and I’m too aware of the bony edge of his shoulder under my palm. “Yeah, he’s…how do I…”

“There’s more to the story,” the chief looks at me meaningfully, “and…and it’s not that long if you don’t mind me leaving out the sound effects.”

I frown at my feet, at Stoick’s little red head pressed to me, at the chief’s bare foot on the rug, pale and eerily similar to mine.

“I think I need twice as many sound effects.”

“I’ll make flapping noises and everything.”

I can practically hear the chief rolling his eyes and I hate how I feel it in that part of me I can’t squash anymore, the one that’s always connected to him even before I knew anything. I turn towards him as much as I can without disturbing Stoick, looking up at him with half my attention.

“I can’t…I can’t believe my grandfather had a Thunderdrum.”

“It’s even more than that,” he smiles, genuinely excited to tell me something and I wonder what it would have been like to learn from the chief as a kid. What if he’d taught me to ride a dragon, to read, to write? What if he’d taught me in the forge, his long, burned forge fingers guiding mine around hammers too big for me? I’ve been spending too much time alone if I suddenly care but realizing I’m just lonely doesn’t make me care any less. “A while later, we found these three baby Thunderdrums without a mother. I don’t know what happened to her, but they were a mess, they caused destruction everywhere they went, we couldn’t control them. But my dad’s dragon, Thornado—”

“Like Thor plus tornado?” I laugh, and the most meaningful part of this somehow is that Stoick the Vast had a sense of humor, he made a bad pun. He was a dad, a whole human, someone who fought with a Thunderdrum before learning to fight along with a Thunderdrum.

“Exactly. He thought it was so clever.” The chief shakes his head and looks at his hands, “Thornado took these little guys under his wing, and he took them back to dragon island with him, but unfortunately, he had to leave my dad to do it.”

“And…” I swallow and remember one of the first things the chief told me, “and Bang was one of the babies, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah,” the chief smiles, “I remember when you were eight years old and he landed in the square, snuffling around and he just…he latched onto you and started following you around like a puppy or something. I think he smelled my dad on you. I mean, dragon’s nose aside, I sort of smell my dad on you too.”

“Gross but…really?”

“Some of it’s your mother, she and my dad were always so much alike but…you stand like him. You have his hair. The way you think you know everything—”

“Are you sure that’s not from you?”

“Trust me, I got it from him.” He sighs, “you’re always willing to fight, even if you’re going to lose. You’re a harder worker than I was at your age, you do what you have to for your family—”

“You can’t know that.”

I think of my family, my other family, the family that I miss every day, every night I go to sleep without Ingrid playing with my hair like she used to when I was Stoick’s age. My Dad who won’t talk to me, who’s disappointed in me even when he does.

“Yes I can. You’re here, aren’t you? I’m not actually stupid, you know. I know you’re not here for me. I know you’re here for the village and your mother and…and even your brother and sister.” He looks at Stoick, sacked out against me.

“Maybe…maybe I’m just here for my ego. Maybe I’m planning on usurping you.”

“You bluff like your mother.” He stares at me too long again, tired, the lines by his eyes worn into his skin from years and years of squinting into the wind and sun, and he’s not my dad, he’s not handsome like my dad, but for the first time looking like him seems more like a fact than a curse. Blacksmith’s fingers and windblown eyes and a silly voice that makes your kids laugh when you tell stories aren’t bad things.

I hate it because it’s easier if I hate him. It’s easier to stay mad, to remember everything I’ve lost, if he’s bad, if he doesn’t get me. And the things he understands about me don’t feel malicious, they feel like he’s been lonely and he sees something in me that makes that feeling shrink.

I fake a yawn, stretching my free arm high above my head, “so I should probably go downstairs and go to bed, I’m…just exhausted, you know. Long day.”

“You know I’d give you the bed,” he points to the bed on the other side of the room, the wood still new, the mattress plump and freshly stuffed. I know he built it after he and my mom got engaged, but he likes to pretend that it was there all along, waiting for me. That if I’d dropped by the chief’s house for a snooze at any point in the last sixteen years it would have been there waiting for me.

“Bang wouldn’t fit in here,” I shrug, “and I like to sleep by the fire.”

“Well, if you ever change your mind, I don’t think Stoick would mind the new company.”

“Right, and you’d take the blanket pile by the fire?” I scoff and this is all starting to feel like acting, like I’m falling into some idyllic trap.

“Whatever you wanted me to do.”

I bite back the urge to ask him to take the entire responsibility of producing an heir that’s not me.

“Right.”

“Really, Eret, wherever you’re comfortable.”

It’s starting to feel like I’m squatting here. In the house in general but the room is worse, just this overwhelming feeling that I’m not supposed to be in the place all these feelings are.

“No—yeah, how do I?” I laugh when I try and move him and his little head tips back, completely slack. “I don’t want to wake him up, how do I lay him down?”

“Here,” the chief reaches across the space between us, his hands wrapping around the little boy’s ribs and pulling him off of me and we couldn’t look more alike, three sets of gangly arms and gangly legs and red toned hair in the muted torchlight. All we need is Aurelia in the corner, saying something she shouldn’t be.

I jump to my feet as soon as I’m free of the kid and adjust my shirt, my chest and arm warm from where he was tucked into me, and I almost say something. I stare at the chief for a moment, my mouth flapping like a dying halibut before I turn and nearly run downstairs, curling into my furs and pressing my back into Bang’s cool stomach.

It’s most dangerous when this starts to feel like home. If I get a new home, I’ll start to forget.

00000

I convince Bang to circle three times above the dock while I wait for the chief. He said he’d meet me, that he just had to help Mom at the market before coming down to the docks, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get in an extra game of maces and talons with Aurelia before heading out. Aurelia asked to come with me for some reason, only changing her mind when I reminded her that my dad would probably be there and that he’s not the biggest fan of her and Arvid sneaking around, and basically, by the end of my third circle, it’s been long enough that I’m starting to wonder if something happened to the chief.

That’s funny in and of itself, because of course something is happening to the chief. He’s trying so hard to be nice lately that it’s suspicious in and of itself. He’s acting like someone that could theoretically be talked to, like there’s something other than desperation, forced likeability, and a last ditch willingness to make it an order behind his eyes.

Mom’s been happy. Especially since Snoggletog, even though she and the chief have been talking less, if anything. That makes dealing with him worth it.

After half of a fourth lap above the docks, bang starts whining, tugging at the ground and crooning like he’s never eaten before in his life.

“Bud, come on, you ate twice as much as normal, I saw you.”

He trills, pathetic, flapping like he’s truly too weak to continue and I sigh, scanning the harbor for my Dad’s boat and hoping I recognize it soon enough to avoid it today. After Snoggletog, I don’t know how I’d feel about approaching him as someone attached to the chief. It feels like another betrayal and I don’t know how to convince myself that it’s not, let alone convince him.

Bang lands at the south end of the beach, waddling forward to slurp some guts off of the sand and I look away, patting him on his side.

“Charming, bud. I can’t imagine why there are no mini-Bang-lets running around with breath like that.” I look for the chief or Toothless’s sleek shadow cutting through the sky and find neither. Bang burps. “And the manners? I think next year’s your year.”

“Mornin’ Eret!” Someone I don’t quite recognize shouts from a boat just pulling into shore and I wave, still not quite used to being greeted. In this case, it’s not my favorite, because I feel more obvious than I did already and I look for the chief again, tugging on Bang’s leg when he tries to get at a barrel of sardines.

“You already ate, come on, don’t make this harder on me.”

He looks up at me and warbles, throat expanding and contracting as the sound threatens to be truly loud. It’s like he wants people to look at us, even though I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing here and feel honestly kind of dead in the water until the chief decides to show up.

Maybe I should go look for him. Maybe something is actually wrong and he’s caught up somewhere. He was with my Mom, though, and she’d keep him on track. Or at least I hope she would, I know she’s not happy about my Snoggletog performance but I think she’d be satisfied with me feeling nauseous for a day and flinching at the sight of anything brighter than the moon, she doesn’t have to leave me to look stupid in front of the fishermen.

Or maybe she didn’t think of it at all. Maybe she’s starting to forget that this is awkward for me, that it’s weird to see shadows of a life I don’t have anymore walking around like they don’t know me.

That makes me look for Dad, all of a sudden, because as much as I’d rather not see him at all, it’s still better to see him before he sees me.

And because life has a way of kicking me when I’m at my most kickable, I don’t see him, I see a scauldron, huge and graying, the base of its neck flecked with murky white scales as it rears its head out of the water and unleashes a huge geyser of boiling water at the dock. The fishermen duck and cover, half the days’ catch sizzling and cascading off of the dock and into the water. The Scauldron flails, smashing into the end of a dock and sending a boat towards shore, its eyes glazed over with dusty white.

“That’s great,” I get ready to climb onto Bang and go find the chief, but then I notice everyone is looking at me. People are moving towards me as they duck and run away from the beach, wiping sand from the front of their clothes.

“What do we do?” Someone asks and I shake my head, flinching when the dragon’s wing crashes through the bow of one of the docked ships.

“I think it’s blind—” I try to say above the noise and the dragon screeches, head smashing into the mast of the same ruined ship. “It has to be—”

“The whole days’ catch is gone!”

“I can see that,” I feel frozen. The dragon thrashes in the shallows, the sea foamy and full of half cooked fish, one of its wings caught in the remnants of the end of the dock. “I—”

“Where’s the chief?”

“I don’t know!” I look around and everyone here is older than me, everyone is nervous and no one is drawing a weapon. No one is moving or thinking and that dragon is sick, this is only going to get worse if I don’t get this figured out.

Through a gap in the crowd, I see Dad, and at least he’s doing something, trying to pull his boat closer to the beach while the dragon howls and squirts another, far more feeble blast at the beach. It hits the sand with a sizzle, a cloud of fish scented steam swirling up from the ground and I swear, jumping onto Bang and gesturing at the two full boats that aren’t being destroyed. One of them is Dad’s and he looks at me with a face like everyone else’s, like I’m the one who has to decide what to do, somehow.

“Give me a barrel of fish, one with a chain across the top.”

“Here!” Of course Dad is the one to have one first, of course Bang arcs over the deck of his ship like he’s done it a hundred times before and isn’t as close to forgetting as the rest of me. Dad holds the chain up for Bang to grab it with his front claws and I nod at him like I didn’t just give him an order.

The scauldron swings its head again, tearing through the dock about midway down it, refilling its throat pouch with water and I nudge Bang forward, flying as fast as I dare because I know I need to stop short. I flinch when the barrel of fish hits the dragon in the head and it opens its mouth at me, boiling water gurgling in its long throat and steam pouring out of its mouth as it prepares to spray again.

But the barrel swings back and Bang hovers for a second, letting the scauldron smell it for as long as he can before the weight forces him to start flying forward.

“Easy, bud, nice and slow…” I stroke his head even as he starts breathing hard, the gentle wing-beats needed to keep the scent from blowing away and distracting the poor, blind dragon more exhausting than normal flight.

For a second, the scauldron doesn’t move and I prepare to turn around and try again, but then all at once its neck arcs towards me and it halfway submerges, swimming exactly in our direction with dorsal fins up.

“Ok, give it some speed…let’s get out to the current,” I angle Bang carefully with my knees, heading towards the place where the waves split, and I remember Dad teaching me and Arvid how to find the current when I was too small to see over the side of his boat. The scauldron follows and I drop the barrel where it looks fastest, watching for a minute as it starts bobbing along away from the island, the scaudron following slowly, eating fish that slip out of it and waving its head blindly out of the water to maintain its trail.

The adrenaline hits a moment after it disappears into deeper water and I flop forward onto Bang’s head, groaning.

The dock is a mess. Or what’s left of it is a mess, the rest of it is mixing with half boiled fish and boat parts in the shallow eddies next to the sand. The fishermen are walking around and from the sky they look clueless, like they’re waiting for direction and I can’t seem to make it sink in that I am that direction. I don’t see Dad. His boat is safe and unloaded, tied like none of that ever happened.

Bang lands gently and everyone turns to look at me.

“What was that?”

“You said it was blind? How’d you know?”

“What was wrong with its’ scales?”

“I’ve never seen a Scauldron do that, what if it happens again?”

Everyone shouts at me at essentially the same time and I just manage to pick out a few coherent sentences, even though they don’t seem to mean anything when they’re all stacked on top of each other in my head. Bang eats a few fish off of the sand, knees bending to cool down his stomach against the sand.

“Has anyone seen the chief?” I almost don’t recognize my own voice because of the way it quiets everyone else. Like for some reason mine is louder than theirs combined, even though I’m barely even shouting.

“No,” a few people shrug. There’s one ‘yesterday’ called out as though that’s remotely helpful and I climb off of Bang, knees wobbling slightly.

It’s not the first time I’ve dealt with a wild dragon, but it’s the first time I’ve had to. It’s the first time I’ve made a decision for this many people and it’s definitely the first time they’ve all been older and theoretically wiser than me.

I sigh, taking a step out onto the half ruined dock and wincing when it creaks and sways even under me.

“What was wrong with that scauldron?” A fisherman asks and I shrug, shoving my hands in my pockets and looking out at the horizon.

“It’s sick. A bunch of dragons are sick.”

“Is that why they aren’t coming back?” The same fisherman asks again and I shrug.

“They’re all going somewhere else,” I tell the truth because it doesn’t feel like it matters, it doesn’t feel like they’ll listen to me after the chief shows up, if he ever shows up.

“They could come back though,” an older, gruffer voice insists and a few around him agree, “they will, eventually, there’s no place like Berk for a dragon to live.”

I don’t think it’s where they’re living that’s coming into question but I don’t get a chance to say anything like that because Toothless dives across the sky, fast and dramatic like he just loves to, and the chief jumps off of him as soon as he lands, whistling at the damage.

“I leave you alone for one morning and you tear up a whole dock?” He looks at me and laughs and everything about it pisses me off for some reason. It’s not just that he was late or that he left me to deal with a problem all on my own, but it’s that he assumes I could have done anything different or worse, that at some level I relish in the destruction.

And yeah, objectively, a rampaging dragon tearing stuff up is cool, but not when it’s sick. Not when it’s a huge mess someone is going to have to clean up.

Probably me.

“It was a scauldron, chief!” The older voice that didn’t like my answer pipes up and the chief looks at me for corroboration. His face is red from the speedy flight across the village and I want to ask what took him so long if he was flying that fast, but I don’t, because it doesn’t really matter.

“A Scauldron did this?” He looks at the half cooked fish washing up against the beach and shakes his head.

“It looked sick.” I say it like a challenge but he doesn’t seem to get the memo, instead turning to the group of fishermen still gathered and waiting for an order. A lot of being chief seems to be grouping people together and addressing them until they remember they have jobs, honestly.

“Well, this isn’t really how I wanted to make this announcement, “but that dragon did us half a favor. We’re planning a new dock installation to connect to the expanded wood pile,” he points up the hill at the mountain Fuse and I half blew away, back when she was talking to me and I hadn’t forgotten her project like a jerk, “so…demo should be a little easier now, but I wish it hadn’t taken the boat out too. Sorry about that, Gunter.”

“It’s my old boat anyway,” Gunter, the older guy who didn’t like me, shrugs and the chief continues.

“So this announcement was a little more exciting than intended, but basically, I wanted to ask everyone to dock on the far pier’s in order to leave room for construction. It’s going to be a little while to collect the wood because we can’t cut into the firewood, but it makes sense to me to get the habit going now.”

People nod. A few grumble. They generally seem to accept what the chief is saying by the virtue that he’s saying it and even though a few of them look back at me curiously, no one mentions the dragon again.

“So back out to replace the fish?” Someone asks the chief and he nods, a sheepish, sideways grin on his face.

“I’d appreciate it. We want to build up our stores while it’s still cold.”

“Got it, chief.” They generally grumble and disperse, Gunter and someone who looks like his son assessing the damage on the destroyed ship.

“Sorry I was late,” the chief tries, voice light, fidgeting with his armor like he knows he’s not going to get away with it.

“You’re sorry?” I gesture at the damage, “where were you—”

“I lost track of time,” he waves it off, “and it looks like you handled things…well, you handled them. And I wanted to talk to you about demolishing the dock anyway—”

“There was a giant, rampaging scauldron and you weren’t here!” I hate how I actually sound hurt. Maybe I am a little hurt. Because even though I don’t call him Dad, I’d still like it if my chief were there to help with giant disaster moments.

“And you handled it,” he tugs at the neck of his armor, yanking at it like it’s twisted or tight or something. “Where’d you take the dragon, anyway? I’d like to get a look at it.”

“Out there,” I point, “I took it to the Eastbound current.” That’s a challenge too and I can see him wondering if the island is finally enough of a problem for him to take whatever mythical action he half promised. “It was blind, I think, its scales were flaky. It didn’t know what it was doing.”

“Well, it sure did a great accidental job,” the chief brushes off the implication entirely and I roll my eyes, not even bothering to hide it. He doesn’t say anything and it makes me want to escalate, to at least get him to fight with me about it even if he won’t agree. “I want to talk about anchoring the dock further into the beach because of situations like this—”

“So you admit the chances of this happening more often?” I jump on that, hands stuffed into my pockets so I don’t do anything stupid with them. “If dragons are behaving erratically and not coming back when they should, we need to actually, you know, take action against that—”

“This is about a stronger dock,” he cuts me off and I get the absolutely infurating impression that whatever post-Snoggletog calm that has ensnared both Mom and him isn’t going to break because I point out a few truths that he doesn’t like. “I talked to Fuse on the way down, she should be joining us to talk about blasting a foundation into the sand—”

“Wait,” I freeze, eyes wide, “Fuse is coming?”

“Yeah,” he half smiles, “is that a problem? Or—”

“Yeah, that’s kind of a problem,” I look up and see Fuse’s pink head at the top of the hill, walking towards us like she’s in slow motion. And usually, yeah, I could get away without her noticing, but given I’m a redhead standing next to the chief and the only two dragons on Berk and a gigantic mess, I’m pretty sure she could see me from the other side of a brick wall.

Aurelia could be right, sure. It could be a decent idea to talk to her and apologize, but well, I don’t know that it’d mean anything if I apologized before I fixed what I broke. And it’s one thing to have Fuse Thorston pissed at me from afar, it’s another thing to stand right in front of her and play half a chief while asking her to blow something up.

Plus, I don’t know what I’d say to her. I don’t know how I’d say I forgot the baffle without making it sound like I don’t listen to her or…

It’s complicated.

I swing onto Bang and the chief reaches out like he’s going to grab my arm and stop me. I glare at him before he touches me.

“Wait, where are you going?”

“Away,” I kick Bang off of the ground before Fuse is halfway down the hill, and maybe she doesn’t see me. She probably does, but maybe she’s busy, maybe she’s distracted and she doesn’t see Bang flying low to the water to blend in as he curves around the rock at the south end of the beach and veers away from the shore.

But who am I kidding. She sees. And she thinks I’m a forgetful coward. And she’s probably right.

Chapter Text

“Why’d you let the dragon go?” Aurelia asks, leaning against Bang’s side and wiggling her stocking feet in front of the fire.

“What dragon?” I pick my head up off of Bang’s back to look at her.

“The scauldron, the one that destroyed the dock. Why did you let it go?” She turns towards me, tucking her feet under her and leaning a still cautious elbow along Bang’s back. “Maybe if my dad had seen it he would have finally believed us about the dragons.”

“It’s not that he doesn’t believe us,” I scoff, staring at my hands, “it’s that he thinks it doesn’t mean anything. It’s like he doesn’t notice that it’s a week after Snoggletog and that’s the first wild dragon I’ve seen.”

“But if you’d kept the dragon around, maybe we could figure out what’s wrong with them or—”

“Have you seen a full grown Scauldron?” I snap and I feel bad about it but not enough to slow down. “They’re not small. And if they’re panicking and don’t want to do what you want them to do, they spray boiling water at your face.”

“Yeah, but we train dragons all the time—”

“We?” It comes out too harsh and I sigh. “Sorry.”

“What’s got your too short pants in a bunch?” She looks at the inch of my ankle that’s exposed above my socks with that Aurelia brand judgement that makes me forget she’s harmless and I tug my pantlegs down.

“Nothing.”

“You’ve been a jerk ever since you got home—”

“The chief was late and made me deal with all this shit on my own—”

“Wait, are you actually upset that he was late or are you upset about why he was late?” She leans in slightly like she’s interested in something between the points I’m actually making and I shrug.

“Both—”

“You know?” She scoots closer, distracted enough that she doesn’t flinch when Bang’s scales ripple next to her. That or she’s getting used to Wingspark and it’s carrying over, but I’d rather her be so enchanted with what I’m saying than think about her and Arvid right now. My face is just feeling firm in all the right places again.

“I know what?”

“Wait, what?” She shakes her head, “why are you mad at why the chief was late? What is that why?”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I laugh, scooting away from her because this suddenly feels a little too much like an interrogation for my taste. “But he stopped to invite Fuse without talking to me first—”

“Oh my Gods, that’s still a problem?” She scoffs, “you haven’t talked to her yet?”

“No!” I throw my arms up and my head falls back against Bang, who groans with the impact, whiny ever since I made him work this morning. “Smitelout is taking forever with the baffle and at this point it’s been so long I don’t know how I can just…go talk to her empty handed.”

“So what did you do?”

“I just…flew off.” I shrug, face hot with embarrassment, because it sounds cowardly even though it’s not, not really. “I—I just want to actually make it right, I don’t want to give her any other reason to be mad at me.”

“Right. A reason aside from a stupid metal thing you forgot to forge. Because that’s why she’s mad but you won’t ask her and it’s been more than a week.”

“Is that sarcasm?”

“What do you think?” She rolls her eyes and drums her fingers against Bang’s side before seemingly realizing what she’s doing and very daintily curling her arm back into her chest. “You should just talk to Fuse. And you should also open your eyes, in general—”

“If I’m missing so much, why don’t you tell me what it is?”

“Because I don’t have proof.” She huffs, “and I don’t want Arvid’s head to get any bigger about it.”

“I…” I sigh and cradle my head in my hands, “I’m just going to safely say I don’t want to know what you’re talking about—”

“I—Mom’s happy, right?” She rocks back onto her heels and stands up slowly, like she’s not sure she wants to have the conversation and I wishes she’d be a little more decisive about it. Preferably before she tells me anything else about Arvid’s big head and I throw up. “Or happier than she was. Happier than I’ve known her.”

“She’s seemed happy since Snoggletog,” I shrug a shoulder and look back at the fire, ear trained on her room in case she’s listening in. “I think planning the feast was good for her, I—I don’t know.” Calling her happy hurts, it makes me compare what I’ve seen of her recently to how she used to be and I don’t want to draw that parallel. It makes this feel even more permanent than it already is.

“Yeah,” Aurelia sighs, “I’m going to go to bed. See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, sure. Goodnight.” I listen to her climb the stairs and I hear her door shut. She doesn’t open her window, like maybe she actually has plans to stay here tonight and that, at least, makes me feel temporarily like less of a loser.

00000

“Good morning,” Mom emerges from her bedroom long after I’ve already eaten everything in the house that was in a vaguely edible state for breakfast. She sees the empty pots and baskets on the counter and shakes her head. “I see you were hungry.”

“Yeah,” I shrug, “sorry.”

“It’s fine,” she laughs like she never used to when Arvid and I tore through all passable ingredients in the middle of the night. Maybe there is something to being rich in that special chiefly way, maybe that’s why she’s not contesting it. “Did Aurelia at least get some of it?”

“She asked for bread but lost her appetite when I started cleaning out last night’s pan with mine, to be honest.”

“So you are a late grower,” she scoffs, pulling the bag of flour out and getting started on another batch of bread. I think about offering to help but that feels weirder than it used to, like now I’m almost part of a chief and if he came down to me covered in flour that would go away. “I kind of wondered about that, honestly.”

“Because of the chief?” I try to sound angry but it doesn’t quite happen, because in my head he’s not just the guy who wasn’t there when a scauldron took a dock down, he’s also the guy who tried to teach his dad to train a Thunderdrum. His dad, who was my grandpa, whose statue I’ve seen every day that I lived without knowing Eret the Original.

“Because you never bit Arvid’s hand when he took food off your plate.” She’s diverting, and I don’t mind, I like that she’s faking something, that there’s some plain I can interact with her on that’s not driven by abject, painful truth.

“Not that you saw.”

She laughs. It doesn’t quite make me happy like it used to, because I’ve realized she might have been thinking of someone else making her laugh, and I try to act like I don’t notice.

“Any reason you’re up so early?”

“It’s not that early,” I look out the window at the sun creeping upwards, “it’s like mid-morning. The chief hasn’t even been down yet.”

“It’s early for you,” she points a clean spatula at me.

“Maybe I’m growing up,” I get the feeling that I should just leave, that being here isn’t being helpful and I hate it. I hate that helpful is the pivot that I’ve started to gauge myself around.

“Not that fast.”

“Maybe it’s my late growth spurt,” I stand up, the rare and foreign reality of being irritated with my mom overwhelming as I stretch, looking at the door like there’s anything more entertaining outside. My mom always said I’d someday regret not having any hobbies except running around with Arvid and I guess that day is finally here. “Should I go wake the chief up? There’s got to be something I should go do.”

“Eh, probably let him sleep.” Mom goes back to rooting through the cabinets, “did you literally eat all the food?”

“It’s not like there was all that much.” I cross my arms and lean back against the table, “I could go to the market, if you wanted. I don’t know what all to buy but—”

“Where’s your sister?”

“Out.” I shrug, I’m pretty sure she said something about meeting Arvid and I’m making that eternally hard choice to not think about it.

“She didn’t take Stoick anywhere?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t see her leave, I was giving Bang breakfast.”

“Well he’s not hanging off of Bang so I’m assuming he’s not here.” She says it like a joke and I don’t know why she’s not more concerned. It’s seemed like that a lot lately, honestly, ever since Snoggletog she’s been…almost serene. It puts me on edge more than I could ever have imagined, honestly, because she’s always been the one on top of things, ready to appropriately freak out at a moments’ notice.

But now? Stoick is apparently mysteriously absent and she’s raising an eyebrow at me like she’s only mildly worried and it’s mostly about my dead expression.

“Should I go look for him?”

“If you feel strongly about it,” she walks over to where her axe is hanging on the wall, and I hadn’t even noticed it there. That makes less sense than anything else, the fact that she’s not sleeping with it under the edge of the bed where she always used to keep it. I remember Rolf stubbing his toe on the handle once and moping around for weeks that it could have cut his foot off, and now it’s just…twenty feet away from her, all night, like suddenly everything is safe in a way that she’s always told me Berk isn’t.

Maybe it’s because we’re basically in the center of the village now, instead of on the quiet dark edge where an attack would most likely start, but I don’t want to ask about it. I don’t want her telling me that things are safer and happier than ever when I don’t even have anyone to complain to.

“I mean, I kind of feel strongly about my little brother being missing—”

“Oh my gods, it’s like you woke up angling for a fight,” she rolls her eyes like she wasn’t born angling for a fight and hands me a bag filled with more silver than I used to see in a year, “go to the market while you’re out freaking out about nothing. Try and get at least everything you ate this morning.”

“You’re sending me to the market?” I weigh the silver in my hand and it reminds me of Fuse for some reason, probably because she’s the only other person to ever have overpaid me by this much.

If I go to the market, the chances of seeing Fuse are higher than I’d really like to think about and yeah, I could nag Smitelout about the baffle but that doesn’t feel like it’d be enough.

“I’m sure you can handle it.”

“Well, what are you going to do?” I look around, “the house is clean, all the trees outside are chopped down. What if I don’t know what to get or I get so much I can’t carry it—”

Fuse can’t kill me if my mom is there. Neither can Arvid.

“You have a giant helpful lizard who will carry whatever you buy,” she starts physically ushering me towards the door and I shrug her hand off my shoulder.

“What if we haven’t spent any time together lately—”

“That must be why I’m so well rested.” She opens the door and half shoves me out, “go, I’ll braid your hair and we can talk about boys when you come back.”

“We could do that now.” I try to step back inside and she shakes her head at me and closes the door in my face.

Stormfly squawks, pecking at my pocket like I didn’t feed her breakfast an hour ago and I scratch her chin.

“At least you still like me.” I pull my hand away before she can nip at my sleeve again. “I’m not getting any quality time with her either. I’m assuming she’ll be out in a bit.”

She chirps and I pat her beak, “you could come to the market with me—or that!” I call after her as she suddenly takes off, flying to land on the chief’s roof and curling her wings under her to sit like the giant chicken I feel like, nervous to go into the village like it’s a year ago and my parents will get pissed at me for it.

I start walking that way even though Bang tugs on my hand and tries to get me to fly. That feels more public though, because the skies are slowly starting to fill again. Most of the owned dragons are back from their Snoggletog adventures and a few wild dragons have trickled in over the horizon. It’s not enough and I know it’s not enough but I haven’t mentioned it and no one has mentioned it to me. I guess I’d tell Aurelia if she was ever around, but part of me wonders if she’d just start finding a way to prove that I’m wrong about it too.

I haven’t been right much lately. And maybe that’s normal, but it feels like it’s getting pointed out a lot more than normal.

The main square is full of more people than I want to deal with right now and I cut across to the forge as quickly as I can, half hoping to see Gobber because at least he’ll have time to yell at me or something, but it’s just Smitelout. She’s working on a war hammer and humming to herself and when I say her name she glares at me and at least that feels normal.

“Not quite ready to kick your ass, Twerp.”

“What?”

“When I finish your little gift for Thorston, or whatever,” she gestures under the counter where I’m assuming she’s storing it, “or not so little. That thing is fucking huge.”

“I’m aware.”

“What’d you do?” She snorts, “and you know, the size of the gift doesn’t make up for how big of an idiot you are.”

“I didn’t do anything,” I scoff, because Smitelout is the last person I’m ever going to admit a mistake to. Her ego would swell so big that the roof of the forge would pop off and the chief would probably make me fix it. “But are you going to be done anytime soon? It’s kind of important.”

“Yeah, and so is the rest of the shit I’ve got to do.”

“I’m just asking when you think it’ll be done.” I remember I’m not with the chief right now and I’m not doing anything he asked me to and that there’s really nothing stopping me from telling her exactly what I think of this situation. But I also don’t see how that would help anything and again, I’m campaigning for the heavy, irritating title of Eret the Helpful.

“I’ll let you know, alright?” She gestures around the forge, “I’ve got orders out the ass for new kid saddles for when wild dragons come back and the little shits can all choose their lifelong companion, or whatever.”

“Any idea when that’ll be?” I snort.

“I keep hearing any day now but—wait, why are you asking it like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like you know something I don’t.”

“I can’t imagine you’re used to any other tone—”

“That’s a real reasonable thing to say to the person making your girlfriend’s presents for you.”

“She’s not my girlfriend.” I huff. I’m not sure she’s even my friend after I forgot about her and I keep wondering if I made the right choice flying away from her at the dock.

“I literally could not care less.” She raises her hand like she had an idea I care about, “oh wait, if I were dead. Being physically dead is the only way I could care less.” She shrugs, “and you don’t have to tell me your probably lame reason for talking about the dragons coming back in that ‘I’m the chief’s son so I’m so smart’ tone—”

“That’s not a thing.”

“Uh yeah it is,” she snorts, “ask any Jorgenson for the last like, three hundred years about the chief’s kids’ tone.”

“Not going to dig up your family crypt to get lamely insulted, but thanks for the offer.”

“I’m just saying though,” she sets down her hammer and looks at me almost pensively, or maybe she has gas and isn’t quite sure what to do about it. Either way, at least it’s quiet enough I can half believe she wants me to respond to whatever she’s about to say. “Usually there are a bunch more dragons back by now. Looking at Gobber’s books, you were swamped with saddles a week earlier last year.”

“Yeah, it was earlier.” I look around and the dragons I see are all wearing saddles or harnesses or following people around.

“That’s what I get expecting brilliance from a Hofferson,” she spits the name and it takes me a second to remember she’s talking to me. About me.

“Thought I was just the chief’s kid to you, wouldn’t that make me a Haddock?”

“You’re nothing to me,” she goes back to swinging that forge hammer and it sounds like a memory of a simpler time when I was inside and Gobber was telling me what to do. At least when I was doing what Gobber said, I always knew it was the easiest way through. “But once a Hofferson, always a Hofferson.”

“It’s been…well, it’s been like you’re a pain in the ass, or something.” I pat my hands on the counter once more then turn to leave, “and I’ll consider paying you more if you finish that soon.”

“I’ll take two punches for a late in project rush job.” She waves me away, “I’ll let you know when it’s done. Just leave me alone until then. Seriously. I mean it.”

“Cool, I’ll check in every day.” I laugh at her red angry face and wave one as I take a few backwards steps before turning and pausing again at the crowd.

I don’t see Fuse. I hate that I don’t see her, because that means this isn’t over. I don’t see Arvid either, which is good because the bakery happens to be on his side of the island and I don’t know if I can expect him to honor that or not. I didn’t start anything on Snoggletog, but that could easily be considered an exemption given the fact he was attached to my sister’s face and that would have made it hard to only hit one of them.

I buy bread. I have no idea how much enough is, I only know that I put more silver down on the counter than I think I’ve ever spent in my life. I guess I’ve traded labor in the forge worth more, but I don’t think I’ve ever just…set that much money down. I’m not quite sure I’d call it a perk of being the chief’s son, it makes things feel fake, tilted. Because I didn’t work for any of this and I hate how easy it would be to get used to not working for anything. I hate how the most of myself I’ve put into anything in a while is arguing with Smitelout.

On my way out of the bakery, Mrs. Jorgenson sees me and rushes over and I wonder, for a second, if Smitelout is really enough of a brat to tell her mom that I was bothering her or something, but she doesn’t say anything about Smitelout and instead dives into the middle of some issue I haven’t heard anything about.

“It’s weeks after Snoggletog and the roof is still leaking, it’s right over the cooking pit in the back of the hall and I can’t get anyone down to patch it, the chief said he’d send Gustav over but it hasn’t happened and today I started to notice the floor warping and we can’t make a fire in there without more snow melting—”

“Whoa,” I step back and shake my head, “I don’t know anything about this, Mrs. Jorgenson—”

“But surely you could do something—”

“I…actually don’t know if I can—”

“You could talk to Gustav for me,” she purses her lips like she’s tasting something sour, “he won’t hear it from me, says I don’t have the authority.”

“I don’t uh…I don’t see why he’d think I did.” I pause for a minute and she stares at me like I’m stupid, the resemblance to her daughter becoming apparent in a second. Smitelout might look like Snotlout with less of a beard but that derisive look is all her mother. “Because I walk around with the chief while he orders people around?” I laugh. She doesn’t.

“Could you give it a try? At least?” She’s polite in a way I’m not used to, asking instead of telling, and I sigh.

“Ok. Sure. I’ll go talk to him when I’m done shopping, my mom sent me—”

“There was supposed to be a feast tonight and I can’t get the fire going.” She edges in front of me like I’ll feel physically blocked enough to do what she wants.

“Fine. I’ll go now. I can’t promise anything but—”

“Thank you!” She’s way too excited for someone trying to patch a roof and I get that same feeling from it as I do from Aurelia when Mom gives her a task and she buckles down with that whole-hearted commitment. It’s the commitment of someone who doesn’t get tasked with many things and I have half a mind to offer Mrs. Jorgenson some of mine.

“Sure.” I take one of the pieces of bread out of the basket and start eating it like it’ll magically make me feel more capable.

I should go find the chief, probably, but that would just make this take longer. And I’d have to ask the chief for help, which isn’t my favorite activity even if I know he’d probably give it to me. He’s been happy too. Happy enough to make me feel defective for feeling miserable and weird and out of place in the first house I’ve ever lived in where everyone is related to me.

Gustav opens the door on my first knock and stares at me for a second like if he pretends he doesn’t recognize me I can’t ask him to do anything.

“Good morning, Mr. Larson,” I start and it sounds as fake as it always sounds to pretend I don’t know all of these people in the name of some messed up professionalism. Somehow, when the chief gives people formal titles, it’s always like a reminder that he’s chief and they’re not, but when I say it, I sound like a child. It makes me wish I hadn’t shaved, honestly, but by the time my bruises faded to yellow, the beard was long enough to be itchy.

“You fling some other thing into my roof?”

That was the day I promised to make Fuse the baffle. The reminder stings in a way it shouldn’t and I want to go throttle Smitelout for taking so long or better yet, kick her out of the forge and do it myself. Gobber said that he wouldn’t let me abandon projects, but I’m realizing he probably just said that to yell at me about forge stuff one last time.

“No, not today,” I laugh because the chief laughs when he’s trying to make someone do something they don’t want to do, “it is about a roof though. Mrs. Jorgenson was telling me about the leak at the great hall—”

“It’s not a priority.”

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

“Well,” I swallow, “I say it is a priority. The floor is starting to warp and that repair is a lot bigger pain in the ass.” I remember a second too late that I’m not supposed to swear while I’m trying to look official. “Shit. Or budget. Both. Whatever.”

“Mrs. Jorgenson tell you that?” He raises an eyebrow, “I don’t know why we gave her this feast, it’s all going to her head—”

“Yeah, well, at least she’s using hers.” It’s harsher than I want it to be but maybe my own ounce of half power is going to my head. Maybe my ego won’t fit in the forge anymore either and maybe it feels like the only thing I can lean on. It’s less of an ego and more of a crash landing pad that I’m intentionally keeping fully inflated. “Of course we don’t have the wood to patch the floor of the biggest building on the whole island while we’re expanding our storage.”

“We’re expanding our storage? I thought your mom shot that down.”

“She just shot down the giant ‘S’ part of it, which, you know, fair.”

He looks at me for a second before rolling his eyes and pushing past me on his way outside. He whistles and Fanghook drops down off of his roof, sniffing at Bang and growling a low, intimidating growl under his breath. Bang doesn’t care, which is one of the most admirable things about him, and I wish I felt like battles were choices the same way he does.

“Fine. I’ll go do it now. Tell Mrs. Jorgenson you had to give me more Hel than this though, honestly.” He grins as he gets onto Fanghook, “and tell your mom I’ll do whatever she says if the chief sends her next time.”

My fist clenches. That whole not swearing rule is ridiculous.

“The chief didn’t send me and I’ll tell my Mom to widen her perimeter of avoidance around you.”

“Funny,” Gustav shakes his head, “the kid is funny.”

I want to tell him I’m not a kid. And that I’m not funny, I mean it. None of that makes it out of my mouth before he takes off and at least flies in the right direction.

I’m just getting onto Bang to go home and tell the chief that he might want to go do his own job before people start expecting me to do all of it when Aurelia walks out from between the houses behind me, arms crossed and frowning. I know that look. It used to mean she was gearing herself up for a fight with the chief but lately it’s meant that she thinks I’m wrong and she wants to make sure that I know it.

“You can’t let Gustav talk to you that way,” she scoffs, “now he’s going to fight you on everything.”

“What do you know about Gustav?”

“I know he has to listen to you. Hel, he has to listen to me, I’m still the chief’s daughter even if it’s less legitimate than it used to be.”

“I think it’s plenty legitimate,” I look at her, red braid over her shoulder, sarcasm wielded like a knife. The singular embodiment of everything I had that never fit in with my family.

“Well, yeah, but you still can’t let people talk to you that way if you’re going to be chief. I know my dad doesn’t.”

“I thought you’d be glad for a slight change in regime.” I want to tell her about Smitelout and the dragons and I almost think she’d let me but she cocks her other hip and crosses her arms more tightly, like she’s resolving herself against talking to me.

I bet she talked to Fuse. I bet they’re both mad at me about whatever they wouldn’t tell me before Snoggletog.

“I’m just saying, if you’re going to act like the chief, you can’t let people talk to you like that.”

“I don’t think you’re qualified to give advice on being chief.”

“Fuse saw you, by the way.” She shrugs one shoulder like she’s sorry she has to say it, “in the market. And she saw you fly away from the docks.”

“Why are you telling me that?”

“You should talk to her.”

“The baffle is almost done,” I sigh, “I nagged Smitelout about it today—”

“It’s like you’re this stupid on purpose.” She shakes her head like I’m beyond help and maybe she’s right, maybe Eret The Helpful is a thing because I need it the most.

“I try.” I look at the basket of bread on Bang’s back, “Mom sent me to the market with what looks like all the money. Do you want anything?”

“Nothing you won’t eat before I get to it.” She shakes her head and at least there’s a shade of a smile there, like she doesn’t hate me entirely.

Chapter Text

About three weeks after first asking Smitelout to make the baffle, a terror I vaguely recognize shows up at the chief’s house as I’m leaving in the morning, note tied around it’s foot with my name written on the outside.

Prepare your face. No takebacks. Thorston’s thing is done.

“Finally,” I mutter under my breath, tucking the note in my pocket and shouting upstairs at the chief. “Hey chief, I’ve got to pick up something from the forge, I’ll be back.”

Something in Mom’s room falls over and there’s a thud I don’t quite recognize as the chief yells back down the stairs. It’s muffled like his door is closed and it’s like I’m the only one in this Odin-damned house who can get up on time lately.

“Ok, yeah, fine. I can do this morning by myself even, it’s just—see you after lunch?”

“Sure,” I grab an extra layer and open the front door, calling Bang outside with me with a pat on the leg. “Whatever, chief.” I’ll take more of a break than I asked for, especially after the last couple of weeks. Ever since Snoggletog he’s been absent, and I have to wonder if it’s because he can finally see that nowhere near as many dragons have come back this year and he doesn’t want to shut down everyone asking why he didn’t listen to me last year. I don’t think I’ve seen a single baby, wild or Berkian parents.

I climb on Bang and fly the short hop to the forge, counting silver in my pocket as I walk up to the window. Fuse tipped me most of it and the memory makes me think of avoiding her at the docks. About the fact that Aurelia just had to mention that she saw me in the village and didn’t come talk to me. She always used to talk to me, even if it was stupid or short or about some bomb I didn’t understand. I still don’t know if avoiding her has been the right thing to do but I couldn’t face the thought of making her even more mad at me for showing up without what I promised her. It’s hard enough knowing that she’s mad now without having her look at me like I’m wasting her time.

Which, you know, she could very well do today when I show up baffle in hand. It could be too late. She could have thought of something else.

“Good, you look extra punch-able today, twerp,” Smitelout rubs her hands together when she sees me. She pulls the baffle from under the counter and it’s bigger than I thought it would be, wide enough that she has to stretch her arms to get her fingers around it. She sets it on the window with a clang that makes me jump. “Bring that face over here.”

“How about I just pay you?” I jingle the coins in my hand at her.

“No take backs,” she smooths her palm over the drum of the baffle. I hate to admit that it looks alright, not totally smooth the way I would have gotten it, but it’ll do. I hope. “Every hammer stroke I took to this thing, I imagined your face.”

“Is Gobber finally doing those customer service review cards he always threatened me with?” I lean over the counter and look for the box he always promised would show up one of these days. “I have some constructive criticism.”

“I’ll let him know,” she rolls her eyes, “if you tell me what this is for.”

“It’s for Fuse.”

“Yeah, it’s for your girlfriend—”

“Not my girlfriend.” Not even my friend, right now, not until I get this to her. And Smitelout seems to realize that reminding me of it ticks me off, which makes me more irritated than I expect.

“Whatever. What’s she going to do with it?”

“Blow something up in a directional way.” I set down all the coins I have with me. “Here, I’ve heard that some people exchange money instead of punches, maybe we could try that out.”

“Fine,” she pulls it off the counter and into her hand, “you’re no fun.”

“Not trying to be fun,” I pick up the baffle and start loading it onto Bang’s saddle. He grunts and tries to shuffle away, looking up at two young, wild Nadders flying in overhead. It’s good to see but it’s not enough and I shake my head, tightening the baffle down with a leather strap.

“I think those are the first two Nadders I’ve seen this year.” Smitelout leans on the windowsill like she wants to keep talking for some reason and I shrug.

“Yeah.”

“Which is weird, right? I remember last year there were like four trying to get into our fish buckets at my house alone.”

“It’s pretty weird.”

“Come on, dude, you’ve got to have an opinion about it. I taught you in dragon training, you think you know everything.”

“That was when I was ten,” I snort, “I did know everything.” I look up at the dragons again and think for a second, a dangerous second that’s probably compounded by the fact I’m half dreading talking to Fuse. Ok, more than half, she’s not going to be thrilled to talk to me, I know that. The only bright spot is that I get to talk to her. “Do you think it means anything?”

“You talking? Because uh, no, probably not.”

“No, the dragons.” I look up and the Nadders are gone, probably landed somewhere between the trees. The Stoick the Vast statue is staring down more intensely than normal and giving off the impression that it knows more than anyone down here on Midgard. “Do you think it means anything that there aren’t as many this year?”

“I don’t know,” she picks her hammer up and twirls it, not as clumsy as I’d like to make fun of her for being, “maybe they found something better to do than come back to Berk every year.”

“And if they did?”

“More power to ‘em.” She glares at me like she’s just realizing this was a halfway pleasant conversation, and of course she can’t have that. “Don’t you have something better to do Chief Twerpling?”

“Theoretically.”

“You’re such a nerd,” she mutters just loud enough for me to hear before drowning out any reply by getting to work on a warped axe.

The baffle is heavy enough that Bang complains, whining low in his throat and shifting away slightly when I try to swing on.

“Bud, if I can carry it, so can you.”

He grumbles and I pat his head, climbing onto him to sit in front of it. Before I can take off, Aurelia runs over to me, a little out of breath as she stops short in front of me.

“You keep doing that,” I point at her, “appearing from nowhere and looking like you have wildly important things to say.”

“What? You think I’ve been following you or something?”

“I didn’t say that but now…” I frown, “now, I’m wondering—”

“Is that the mythical baffle of male idiocy?” She walks around Bang’s side and knocks on it, a low bellow ringing out of it against his back. He matches the tone, his throat vibrating in tune and magnifying the sound. Aurelia takes a step back and I laugh, patting Bang’s cheek.

“That’s kind of cool.”

“Are you taking it to Fuse’s?”

“Yes, I said I would as soon as I got it done.”

“Ok,” she shrugs, less interested in whatever I’m doing than she has been. “So. Uh…Sigurd Gunderson just asked me about that rock slide over on the West side of the island.”

“Rock slide?”

“Well, apparently not yet, it looks like it might be one and he said he talked to my dad about it but my dad hasn’t followed up and I just thought—”

“Yeah, I can go talk to him after I bring this by Fuse’s. Thanks—”

“I’m not finished.” She raises her chin and looks at me like it’s a challenge. “I think you should let me go look at it.”

“What?” I laugh, “why?”

“Because I just said I wanted to.”

“Not explicitly,” I look at her for a second and try to see past that still foreign aggression in her expression. It’s how she looks at the chief and I don’t like being on the other end of it. “You said I should let you go look at it, not that you wanted to.”

“I guess I thought the want was implied.”

“I’ll handle it after I drop this by Fuse’s.” I get the feeling that she wants me to keep talking about it and I can’t think of a single time she’s stretched out a conversation without some motive that no one else figures out until she gets there. “Thanks for telling me.”

“Why can’t I do it?”

“Because you don’t know anything about rock slides,” I shrug and I know it’s somehow the wrong thing to say as soon as she looks at me, eyes hard, nostrils flaring.

“Well, neither do you.”

“That’s…I mean, that’s true, but—”

“Then all things about knowledge of rock slides being equal, you should let me at least try—”

“No,” I shake my head, “no, I—I’m not even sure if I’m supposed to do it without talking to the chief first. I definitely know he wouldn’t want me passing it off to you.”

“So it’s about what he wants?”

“I mean…no?” I sigh, scratching the nape of my neck, “it’s—kind of, it’s…it’s about what’s best for the village and—”

“And that’s not me. Got it. You said it.” She crosses her arms and glares at me one more time, her eyes oddly wet as she shakes her head.

“I didn’t say that.”

“You might as well have.” She turns around and starts stalking away across the square and I wonder if I should follow her. Probably, not that it’d do anything. Not that she’s someone I can help because it suddenly seems like whatever she wants is something I can’t give her.

And Fuse wants the baffle that I have. Supposedly. Unless she’s written me off entirely by now.

I fly to Fuse’s house and land slightly down the hill from her shed, sitting on Bang for an extra moment and exhaling. I’m going to apologize. I’m going to give her the baffle first and apologize and…I don’t know. Fuck it. I swing off of Bang and untie the baffle, grunting as I heft it up to chest level and start climbing up to the door of her workshop.

What if she’s not there? What if she’s inside? What if she sees it’s me and doesn’t come out?

Before I can worry anymore, the door swings open and Fuse steps into the doorway, face completely flat and giving me a whole new thing to worry about. I don’t think I’ve ever been at the other end of the Thorston glare, the one that Arvid used to wax maliciously poetic about after dragon training. If she wants to hit me, honestly I’d let her. I obviously deserve it if she’s looking at me like that.

“What are you doing here?” She crosses her arms. Her hair is in one braid instead of two and there’s a smudge of red powder on her chin. There’s a new bandage on her finger and I fumble around ‘I’m sorry’ and end up with something else instead.

“I brought this.” I try to hold up the baffle but it’s too heavy and she doesn’t react aside from a half grown back eyebrow twitching.

“Ok.”

“Look,” I take the two steps to her door and set the baffle down at her feet, brushing my hands on my pants to get feeling back into my fingertips. “I’m sorry. I completely forgot to make this.”

“Is that my baffle?” She almost falters, looking at it with sharp, interested eyes and I risk half a smile.

“I didn’t have any time to make it, so I had to ask Smitelout, but it looks ok, I promise.” I knock on it and it chimes, bellows really, the ground shivering under my feet. “I’m sorry I forgot, I—well, I got really busy but that’s not your problem.”

“That’s true.” She looks confused but not murderous and I try another smile.

“But it’s done. And it’s here.”

“Did you hide from me?” She narrows her eyes when I don’t answer right away, mouth half open. “Last week, at the docks? And a couple days ago at the market?”

“What, no, that’s—”

“Eret.” She looks at me like I know better than to lie to her and I sigh, abandoning the idea of this going well entirely.

“Yes.” I look down at the baffle again, “at the docks I flew away. I didn’t know you were at the market though, Aurelia rubbed it in pretty good. So don’t think I haven’t…you know, felt like an ass about it pretty much every free moment sense. It’s just—it wasn’t done yet, I—I wanted it to be done when I came to talk to you so that you’d know I didn’t forget.” I sigh, trying to read her face as easily as she reads mine. It’s not easy, I see everything there from annoyance to a tiny hint of amusement. Maybe. Maybe I’m just hoping. I’m hoping she’d let me see something that could fix this. “I’m sorry, ok? I know I said I’d get it done and then at Snoggletog I hadn’t yet and—”

“You’re talking about the baffle?” She frowns, pointing at it and taking half a step forward, her face completely out of the shadow of the shed. She squints. “You didn’t have the baffle done by Snoggletog so now you’re apologizing for that?”

“Well, yeah.”

“This baffle?”

“I’m sorry it took so long to get it done.” I clear my throat and try for the kind of honesty that usually ends up feeling fake. “It—I told you I’d do it and you just asked for one thing and you’re always there to listen to me whine and—”

“You’re really here apologizing,” she sighs, scratching the back of her head and looking at me like she’s seen more two-headed Gronckles than whatever it is she’s seeing now. “For the baffle. Not…I mean, just the baffle?”

“Yes. Completely.” I’m oddly aware of what my face is doing and what she might think of it. I can’t keep up the fake smile anymore and it’s something worse, something awkward. Or, more awkward than normal at least.

“For the baffle.”

“I forgot it, entirely, it’s my bad.”

“And you hid from me, twice—”

“Once was an accident—”

“You hid from me because you thought I was so mad about…” She kicks it with her toe and it chimes.

“Yeah. That.”

“Is this a joke?” She crosses her arms and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her look embarrassed before, but I can’t find any other word for the patchy flush on her cheeks. “Because it’s not funny—”

“No, no, I’m not joking.” I want to touch her, somehow, to pat her shoulders and let her know that I’m serious. That I don’t mean anything bad by any of this. That I’m trying, and it’s too little too late and I don’t know how to tell her that. “I felt like such an ass when I realized you were mad at me and I just wanted to fix it and…and I’ll do anything, honestly, I’ll…I’ll give Hotgut a bath. I’ll trim her toenails.”

“I’m not mad at you—”

“Oh gods, no, don’t do that.” I shake my head and I can’t stop that weird urge to take a step closer to her, like I want this to be private. Like it’ll matter more if no one else hears it. “Don’t do that whole ‘I’m not mad at you, I’m just disappointed’ thing, please. I miss you, you’re the only person I can trust to call me on…well, all this dragon dung,” I wave at myself, the whole mess of me that’s going on in front of her, and it all feels like something I need to apologize for.

“I’m not disappointed.” She bites her lip, snaggletooth just barely visible and it hits me that the last time we talked she was clean and unbandaged and looked so weird that it didn’t feel real. Maybe I was a dick to her because of that, maybe I was just stunned. “Or maybe I am but…but that’s not your problem.”

“Make it my problem,” I look at the baffle, “is it shitty? If it’s shitty, I’ll fix it, I know I shouldn’t have trusted Smitelout—”

“It looks fine. I haven’t looked at it yet, really, but it looks fine from here.”

“What’s wrong then?” I look at a stool in her shed but rethink that because it feels like I’m prodding that wild scauldron again, “seriously, make it my problem. I’ll do anything. I owe you for being such a forgetful idiot—”

“You don’t owe me anything.”

“I owe you some listening or—”

“Thanks for the baffle, Eret, really. It’s—I’m fine, ok?”

“You don’t look fine,” I press the issue because it doesn’t feel done yet, it doesn’t feel like I’ve fixed this, “you normally at least half smile when I’m an idiot in front of you for this long. I obviously need to do something else. I’m serious about that nail trim,” I smile again, trying to look pitiable or genuine or something other than almost frantic to fix this, because I miss her. I miss her in a stupid, lonely way that I didn’t fully realize until I got here and she wouldn’t smile even when I’m doing my most stupid, hapless thing. “I’ll…I don’t know, I’ll wash your saddle, I’ll…I’ll give you dragon back rides while it’s drying, I’ll—”

“Ok. Ok.” She cracks half a smile and it’s like things are suddenly better, like I’m not so alone. Like I’ve got somewhere that isn’t home to go even if it’s not a hobby. “I…you got me the baffle. It’s fine.”

“No dragon back rides?” I laugh, jokingly turning around and holding my arms out to my sides, “seriously, work me into the ground, I was—”

“An idiot?” One of her arms goes slack and hangs by her hip, “a jerk? A moron—”

“An imbecile, an utter fuck-hat, a…whatever your insult of choice is, you’re right.” I gesture to nothing. To her. To the stupid baffle which only now seems like part of a problem I don’t understand. “That’s it. You’re always right, forever, that’s what I can do for you.”

“That’s not entirely correct, though.” She huffs, “I’m not always right.”

“About everything important, you are.”

“Sure.” She shakes her head and I get the feeling for the first time that she’s not telling me everything in her head. I hate it. I want to dig whatever it is out but it doesn’t feel like the time. “Tell me I’m right a few more times and…and we’re good.”

“Done. Easy. I won’t forget this time. I promise.”

00000

The first test with the baffle is a disaster. It’s probably my fault, because I spend the entire time rattling off questions at Fuse without pausing for her to answer and I offer to carry her about eight times because she’s still acting kind of strange and I don’t know how to deal with it. She said it was something in the baffle shape that made the test go bad and if it were anyone else, I’d say they were just trying to be nice, but it’s Fuse and she has to actually believe it. Especially to say it while doodling hazy lines on her crumpled baffle drawing and frowning at it like it’s a puzzle she’s missing just one piece to.

“Hey Smitelout,” she doesn’t look up from her drawing even as I drop the baffle on the counter with a loud clang.

“For Thor’s sake,” Smitelout digs her finger into her ear, “apparently you two aren’t taking care of your hearing but have some respect for the rest of us.”

“I need the baffle wider,” Fuse sets her drawing down and Smitelout comes to look at it, almost interested if I’m being honest with myself, “here, at the widest point of the mouth, it needs to be wider in that direction but not any taller, I don’t think…and I’m thinking it’d be good if I made the bomb a bit of a different shape…”

“Ok, I don’t give a shit about that,” Smitelout hefts the baffle into her arms and shoves it under the counter. “But wider? I can do that.”

“Ok, but don’t stress the metal too much because I don’t know how you’re going to quench something this big—”

“You quench it with a bucket—”

“Yeah? You have a bucket this big?”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Fuse mumbles, looking up at me with a hard look I feel almost instinctively that I should listen to. “The first draft was great. Exactly like this but wider and I’ll make the changes I need to.”

“A couples’ spat?” Smitelout wiggles her eyebrows. Eyebrow.

“That’s none of your business.”

“And thank Thor,” she goes back to working at an axe on her anvil, “I’m busy as all Hel without it—”

“Yeah, yeah, complain, complain.” I look at Fuse for corroboration and she stares at me blankly for a minute before scribbling one last edit on her drawing and pushing it across the forge counter. “Ok. We going then?”

“Any idea on when that’ll be done?” Fuse puts a few pieces of silver on the counter and Smitelout nods appraisingly to herself.

“Honestly, the orders for kid saddles have stopped coming in.” Smitelout looks at me purposefully, like she thinks I might have something to say and it oddly reminds me of Ingrid back when she started realizing I was smarter than Arvid let on. “And the chief hasn’t chosen any wild dragons for selection this year.”

“Huh.” I shrug.

“Because like, none came back, dude. And I haven’t seen any in days, at least. You fly out into the woods and it’s like…fucking silent.”

“Huh.”

“Eret,” Fuse elbows me in the side without looking at me, and her elbow is pointier than I would have guessed.

“Ohhh,” Smitelout laughs at me and I hate that I can’t do anything about it without getting accused to messing up Gobber’s forge.

“Yeah, Smitelout,” I cough, “the dragons aren’t coming back. I’ve noticed. I’m…working on it.”

“Right,” she scoffs, “because that means something.”

“It does.” I sound like I’m trying to convince myself and I hate that. I hate how Smitelout doesn’t look up and how Fuse looks at me like she just realized I was talking. “And tell me when it’s done. Or…tell one of us, either of us. Hel, both of us.”

“Your relationship yakshit is none of my business,” she holds up her hand and shoos me away and Fuse stares at me as we start walking away into the square.

“Why’d you want me to tell her?” I ask when we’re far enough away that Smitelout won’t hear and Fuse shrugs.

“Curiosity. She seems worried.”

“I think everyone’s worried,” I look around and either I’m crazy or people are holding their dragons a little closer than they used to. It pains me to even think it, but Smitelout is right, the island is seeming decisively quiet lately. It makes the cold winter air crisper, that moment of quiet before an attack stretching across every day. “They just aren’t saying it yet.”

“I thought Smitelout might.”

“I…you’re right.”

“Is that you still trying to make it up to me?” She stops and looks at me and I love that I know she’s really asking. I know that she wants an answer and that whatever words come out will have a willing place to land. That doesn’t guarantee that those words will be good, but still, it’s nice to know that they’re going somewhere.

“Yes. I—I don’t want Smitelout to be the first public voice agreeing with me.”

“It’s got to be someone.” She shrugs, “and, I mean, I’m in public agreeing with you.”

“And thank Thor for that,” I laugh. It’s not funny. I don’t know why I’m laughing or why I’m reading her face while I’m doing it. Or why everything she says still seems important even after she’s forgiven me. “I—let me know before you test again?”

“Yeah. Sure.” She turns to walk away and I think about following her.

“Eret!” A voice I definitely didn’t expect to be saying my name in public calls out and I startle.

“Rolf?”

“It still feels practically sacrilegious to call you Eret.” Rolf pauses in front of me, out of breath like he just ran to catch me and I laugh.

“Yep. It’s you.”

“I’m just—”

“Being honest. I know. I still grew up with you.” I’m not looking up at him as much as I remember and it makes the whole situation feel strange. Surreal. Like it’s not really happening because it makes more sense for it not to be. “What’s up?”

“I…are you going to make me say it?” He looks more like Dad than I remember. He always seemed like something else, something that didn’t quite belong, but I can see Mom’s ears and Dad’s eyes and that smirk that’s somewhere between spotting Arvid and his fist connecting with my face. I realize now that I was probably putting some of that eternal weirdness I felt onto him, but that doesn’t necessarily make me like him anymore.

“How could I know what you’re going to say if you don’t say it?”

“You were always so good at reading minds,” he shrugs, “I mean, when they were thinking anything but the obvious.”

“Yeah, I get it, queue volley of jokes about a night fury egg in a rumblehorn nest. Yeah. It’s been great catching up.” I pat him on the shoulder and he grits his teeth, never the violent one in the family but always the one to reach for the last word.

“The dragons aren’t coming back, are they?” He asks and I wait for him to answer himself, to set it up as a rhetorical question. He doesn’t. He just stares at me like he hates what he’s seeing and like, for once, he’s not seeing anything different than he always did.

It makes me feel solid. Stationary. Like Midgard is moving but I’m not and like I control its next twist and turn. It’s a sick and heady kind of power and I linger in it for a second, the feeling that me being who I am means something more than rejection.

“They’re sick. They’re at an island. I tried to warn—”

“Yeah, you made a fool of yourself with it, which—”

“I tried to tell people. I tried to tell the chief. He…he didn’t listen.” I’m not looking for support and I don’t expect it and it’s almost a relief when Rolf scoffs, rolling his eyes like he’s not seven years older than me. “I don’t know what I expected.”

“Well, I can’t help but notice that it’s almost a month after Snoggletog and there are no dragons. And—and I have to ask,” he glares at me like I’m his last option and I recognize Mom’s stubbornness there and wonder how many people he’s asked before me, “and you’re—our records aren’t current. There are…there are so many dragons we haven’t cataloged, there is so much information we don’t have written down and…and you can get it. You know a lot of it. Your…your father—”

“You want to get information about dragons?” It’s not what I expect. I can’t say it’s what I want or anything I’d considered but it’s different. It’s one of those times I feel like I fit at least part of a position someone is pushing on me. “I…I can help with that. I—that’s a really good idea, honestly. I—I don’t know if they’re coming back either but now…”

“Ok,” he looks awkward in a way Mom and Dad never do and I get the weird feeling that maybe something in me could have spread outwards. “I’m drafting insertions to the Book of Dragons but I’ll need the information to fill them.”

He doesn’t make a plan. He doesn’t name a time or day or anything specific and I realize that it’s on me. That somehow, I know how to do it and how to push this forward.

“I’ll…I’ll come by your house when I have a free afternoon. I’ve been busy with…” I don’t know how to put it so that Rolf will hear it, “I—the treachery, to my childhood and fake family, it’s been a really whoo, full schedule lately. But when I have a free afternoon, I’ll come by and bring…uh, my knowledge.”

“That’s specific.” Rolf rolls his eyes. He still looks young. I feel young and like I’m not supposed to and like this conversation has stretched on far too long.

“I’ll see you…whenever that happens to be.”

“Ok,” he looks me up and down and I can tell he’s seeing me, not the chief. He’s seeing Mom’s and the chief’s mistake and whatever I’m starting to become. And it feels like potential. It feels like there’s some limited, semi-Rolf-approved direction I can grow in and that’s a whole lot better than being stuck.

Chapter Text

Walking with Mom and the chief, I start to get the peculiar, awful feeling that I’m a third foot on a deadly Nadder. She’s laughing, and at first I think it’s at him, and that’s alright because I’m kind of laughing at him too, at that oh so eager to please expression I was happy to have aimed at somebody but me. It’s different than chiefing with him, almost entertaining, and it’s funny until it’s not.

Because I realize he’s laughing too, that he’s telling jokes and she thinks they’re funny. That she’s not too righteously pissed off to laugh at them.

I should have gone flying. I thought this was a rare opportunity to hang out with Mom without Stoick tagging along, but the chief invited himself along, walking between us, taking all of Mom’s attention like he’s putting on a show. I feel like he’s on my stage and that’s the worst feeling of all, like I’m competing for something that’s not quite wholly mine. Something that was never wholly mine.

He’s telling some story about some drunk chief down south who always thought he was a girl, and it would be hilarious and fodder for a few hundred jokes, if Mom didn’t laugh and punch his arm and the chief didn’t light up like a fucking Snoggletog torch.

“…and then he tried to marry me off to his third son, in exchange for the terror I had with me, like I’d brought him a dragon as a bride price or something and—”

“We get it, it’s a hilarious anecdote,” I cut him off, because Mom’s face is turning red and I’m starting to feel strange.

I don’t mind them getting along, I don’t mind him making my mom happy in a ‘they’re not fighting’ way, but I guess I thought that the chief would have to try a lot harder for a lot longer. You know, sacrifice a hand to make her look at him without being pissed off.

I didn’t think it’d be a few weeks and a few jokes. I didn’t think they’d keep being subtly…nice to each other for this long. I thought that the chief would at least keep things calm and quiet in front of me, I thought that maybe the last few weeks of covering for him would earn me some internal peace. Of course not. Chief Haddock always has his own plan and this time, my mom seems to be going along with it.

They haven’t fought in a long time. I don’t know why that feels like a realization.

“I thought you’d like this one, Eret,” Mom ruffles my hair, like I’m not sixteen and we’re not very much in public, and I bat her hand away, tucking the long hairs she pulled out of my tail behind my ears.

I look around to see if anyone saw and Fuse is on the other side of the square, looking down at a thick stack of pages and not paying any attention to where she’s going, if the way she runs into Hoark Jr. is any indication. She doesn’t quite stop to apologize, just waving absently over her head and turning the page. I’m both glad she didn’t see my mom messing with my hair and oddly concerned with the fact she’s not looking at me.

“Yeah, me making a fool of myself,” the chief is talking to me but he’s looking at Mom and smiling like he’s not ancient and miserable, “those are your favorite stories, right Eret?”

I wish Aurelia were here to absorb the full impact of my eyeroll, and I glance towards Fuse again, hoping she can look up long enough to at least commiserate. She doesn’t. I’m starting to feel miserable and alone again at the same time as I feel important, and as I’ve learned, that’s almost always a sign of nothing good in the inevitable slow fall that is my life.

“Yep, I love when I hear that you, at one time, looked very stupid.”

“Means I don’t now, right?” The chief is still talking to me while looking at Mom and she punches him, hard enough that he should flinch but he doesn’t and I look away like there’s something to look away from.

“Isn’t there something that requires your…input, or something?” I try and it’s not until I finish that I realize he’s not entirely listening. Neither is Mom.

They’re just looking at each other in a way that makes me feel gross. I clear my throat. Neither of them move and it feels significant.

“Oh Hel,” the chief breaks the eye contact and it doesn’t feel like it matters, it’s not a relief, and it’s one of those rare times where I know the hammer is going to make contact before it actually does. “I actually do have to be somewhere.” He laughs, he squints at the sun like he’s checking he’s not late.

Mom looks concerned and interested and like she doesn’t feel like this afternoon was anything other than she’d like it to be.

“What’s up?” She cocks her head and looks so interested and I should be the one asking that.

“Oh nothing,” the chief sighs like this is all the last thing he wants to do, “just, you know, no one’s going to know where to put all that wood if I don’t tell them. And we’ll all freeze to death and it’ll be horrible.”

Mom laughs. The chief leans in and kisses her and it’s in slow motion in my head. It’s not a big dramatic kiss, it’s a kiss like he does it all the time, and I stumble backwards.

“What the fuck?”

The chief pulls back and freezes, staring at me with wide eyes. He laughs. Mom laughs. They sound the same, startled and like they just made some insignificant and silly mistake.

“What the fuck?” I yell louder, “did you two just—”

“Keep your voice down,” Mom cuts me off I laugh, louder than I expect.

“You just aren’t going to say anything? You aren’t going to explain—”

“I don’t have to explain anything to you.” She sounds like she’s trying to parent me again, like I’m a kid and I don’t understand and maybe I am because I don’t. I don’t understand anything I’m looking at.

“No, you don’t,” I shake my head before stumbling a couple steps backwards. I should have brought Bang. I should have left as soon as I saw the chief was planning on tagging along. “I know what happened last time you two thought that was a good idea. I’m living it!” I’m yelling again and I can’t stop it and the chief is staring at me like he thinks he’s going to laugh again, like he’s seeing himself and it’s just thor-damned delightful.

“Eret, come with me, we can talk about this,” he offers like it’s just the best idea anyone in the history of Midgard has ever had.

“No, I don’t want to talk about it,” I shove my hands in my pockets, “I—there’s nothing to fucking talk about with me.”

Mom tries one more time to lecture me about my language, like she didn’t just betray everything I’ve always been or wanted to be, but I don’t stop. I don’t stop when Mrs. Ackson tries to pull me over or when I cross onto Arvid’s side of the island. I don’t stop until I reach the old Hofferson house, dark and quiet even in the middle of the day.

I—that wasn’t a kiss that culminates after thirty years of horrible decisions. Not that I know much about that kind of thing but, well, it reminded me of before. Of when Dad would be running late and he’d remind me to be good on the way out the door, like it ever could have mattered, like there was anything good in me to remember. It reminded me of normal, the normal that doesn’t exist anymore, the normal that was always a lie.

Nothing that happened here matters anymore. It’s like it’s all erased. It’s like I’ve been hating myself because that’s the most real thing that kept it alive, the feeling of wrongness that I wasn’t where I’m supposed to be. That the chief’s house isn’t home.

But like always, it wasn’t enough.

00000

It starts snowing. Honestly, if it hadn’t, I can say I probably would have just stayed in the woods, lurking around my old house and half waiting for Arvid to appear and kick my ass. But it starts getting cold enough for my breath to freeze hard in my stubble and I’m not really interested in getting matching father-son amputations with the chief so I start back to his house. My house. The house where my parents have been kissing casually like that’s not something that matters.

The village looks different than it used to, somehow, quieter even though I can hear people having dinner inside, fires crackling in fireplaces. It’s like I’m further from it than I have been, like I’m on the outside again.

I hate how I used to want to know everything. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that more often than not, it’s painful. That learning new things is a process mostly made up of picking at old wounds with salty fingers and that honesty is overrated.

Everyone should lie to me, that’s the new thing I’m going to ask for. Not that anyone ever listens to what I ask for, not that it matters.

Like hey, if I’m making requests, the chief can probably keep his stupid, obnoxious everything away from my Mom. And she can probably stop laughing at him and letting him kiss her like it doesn’t matter, like Arvid and Ingrid and Rolf and Dad don’t matter. Like only I get to matter even though I’m the worst of everyone, even though I didn’t work for any of this.

I wait outside of the chief’s house when I get there, listening to Mom telling Stoick he needs to go to bed and Bang whining along with him. It sounds like a family. A family that exists around me and not in spite of me and I hate how lost in that I am. I hate how it makes me feel like I’m drowning, like I’m stupid, like I’m blind.

I’m here. Of course there’s some compulsion between those two.

I open the door. Mom is still upstairs putting Stoick to bed and the chief is sitting there, looking at the door like he hoped I’d show up and he jumps up when he sees me.

“Eret—”

“Yeah, yeah, you’ve loved her forever, all that shit.” I wish I’d taken him up on the offer of the upstairs bed just so I’d have somewhere to storm to, but Bang stops that too, crowding around my feet and jumping excitedly until I pet his head. “I don’t need to hear it—”

“But you should have heard it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I—I forget, I forget that you’re so much like your mom sometimes—”

“Yeah, because I’m walking around looking like this—”

“Your Mom needed to be told things. Or needs. I—”

“I know her. You don’t need to tell me about my mother, I know her. Or who she was—”

“She is who she always was and you’re…you’re so much like her and…” He reaches out like he wants to put his hand on my shoulder or something and I take a step backwards. “She always needed to be told, a few more words about how I appreciated—”

“Why are you telling me this?” I sit down on the rug in front of the fire and Bang curls around me, protective and one of the only things that feels the same as it always has. “I don’t want to know any of this—”

“Then why are you here if you’re not ready to talk?”

“Because it’s fucking cold outside.” I gesture at the window, “it’s snowing and I’m not really into a matching father-son amputation especially for a reason as lame as frostbite?” I recycle the bitterness from in my own head and the chief looks like he wants to laugh. Like he’s enjoying this. Like he likes that I’m not leaving and I’m not sure why I’m not.

I always used to leave. Before? Before I would have been off island and so far away I couldn’t think about any of this but now? Now I’m becoming someone who dwells.

Sometimes, Bang’s back feels like another world in a bad way. Like I can just…poof away to somewhere better and when I come back, this world is different again. I feel like I’m supposed to keep tabs on all of Midgard or I’ll end up with a bigger mess to hand off or give up and Eret The Helpful is a mantle that weighs about as much as the effort not to scream in the chief’s face right now.

That wouldn’t help.

Mom talked to me like I was a child earlier, like I was Stoick standing on a chair somewhere I shouldn’t be, and I can’t take that anymore. I can’t take the feeling that I’m more or less depending on who agrees with me at this instant.

“I didn’t want to keep it a secret,” the chief says like he doesn’t want it to hit me too hard, like it’s a weapon he’s wielding carefully and I want to ask him to hit me. Someone should hit me. I liked it when hitting people changed things but it feels like that’s never going to be anything but childish and being childish is my biggest enemy.

And somehow, Hofferson is childish. That’s the thing that’s hitting me hardest. The concept of loyalty and sticking to my values and holding on to things is childish. When people grow up they let go, except the chief, he gets to grab back on whenever he feels like it and somehow, he’s a hero. It’s a double standard to the highest degree.

“But you did?”

“Your mother—”

“You’ve never done anything else she asked you to—”

“That’s half the point.” He tries to look intimidated, or something, but then he’s smiling again, hopeful and beseeching like I could say some magic yakshit and everything would be better. “I—I took your advice. I tried to listen, I—”

“Do you want a fucking pat on the back?” I glare at him and it makes me feel useless. Because I’m angry and vicious and I don’t know any way to get it out of me. It’s just bouncing around inside, dense and brutal. “You got everything you’ve ever wanted, I’m not going to fucking congratulate you for it—”

“That’s not true.”

“I don’t give a shit if it’s true.” I feel that resolve to ask to be lied to cracking, “I—how long? When—I…I don’t get it.”

“It’s—since Snoggletog—”

“So you just get to drink some yaknog and make a few lame jokes and it erases…everything I ever had?”

“Sometimes, what we need is the last thing we’d ever want.”

“I’m not here for advice.” I swallow back a sob I don’t understand, a lonely sob that I don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going, or why my eyes are dry and my feet are still cold. It’s like I’m stuck here, scraped and scratched raw, unable to move forward or back or anywhere. “I’m here to not freeze.”

“Eret.” The chief tries what feels like a final time and my name still sounds like a weapon, it sounds like it tears him up on the way out and I hate how much I like it. I hate how it doesn’t change anything.

“I don’t want to be here, it’s just the warmest place that I’m…” I sigh and press hard on my eyes with the back of my hands like it can make crying less likely, “the only place I’m still welcome.”

He stands there a long time and it’s the first time it seems like there’s something more in me than my Mom and the chief combined in some toxic scramble, because he doesn’t have anything magical to say. He doesn’t have a key to this lock. He can’t get in or out of the way I feel right now and Berk has never been under siege while I’ve been alive but I imagine it feels a little like this.

00000

If I sleep, it’s bad. I’m not sure it’s really sleep, it’s more just…the brutal pain of silently existing when there’s no one to listen. There’s the realization that I’ve said plenty that no one really listened to, they just pretended to because it’s what they’re supposed to do. Bang can’t say anything relevant. He’d try, but that might just make it worse.

Aurelia isn’t here or I haven’t seen her. I don’t think I could talk to her anyway.

I don’t warm up the way I’m used to. Even sitting right in front of the fire with a blanket around my shoulders, and I start to think that maybe I’m just supposed to freeze. If I freeze, it feels like I’m giving him something, like I’m waiting for someone or something to catch up.

It’s nowhere near dawn when I decide leaving would be better. Even if it’s just for a couple of hours, more of a flight than an absence but when I haven’t been off island in this long they might as well be the same thing. It takes three sardines to get Bang outside and awake, but any drowsiness doesn’t last long with the frigid winter wind whipping at our faces.

I fly low over the waves, salt crusting the edges of frozen sleeves as Bang dives and splashes through the white tops, coating himself in salt and ice and it feels stupid in the way I know I need. Stupid and reckless and completely ineffectual. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t help me and it doesn’t hurt anyone and I’m shaking when we finally get back to Berk as the sun is going up.

I shake the worst of the ice off of my beard before going inside and this is the time that I truly wish I’d knocked.

Mom and Aurelia are at the table, mixing dough together, and they both stare at me for a too long second.

“It’s an iceman from the North come to conquer us all.” Aurelia acts sarcastically scared and I snort, scraping another handful of salty ice from my beard.

“Very funny.”

“Seriously, Eret, don’t track that all inside.” Mom is acting like everything is ok, or normal, or some version of normal that I’d believe in and I want her to fight with me about it. I want to figure it out. I want someone to help me and Aurelia seems as impenetrable as she used to but all the more familiar.

“Track it?” I snort, “you want me to leave my boots outside?”

“It’d be a start.” She says like she wants me to say sorry and I hate that I almost do. I hate that I’m mad at her and it’s real and I can’t explain it. That it doesn’t feel wrong.

“Let’s call it a finish,” I toe off my boots and drop my jacket onto them before stomping inside and slamming the door behind myself. Mom raises an eyebrow and I stop, “what? Is that a problem?”

“That’s a new jacket.”

“Ok.” I flop in front of the fire, holding my hands up to the fire.

“It’s new—”

“We’re rich now, or something, right?” I ask and I hate how much I sound like Ingrid, asking to stay out after Mom asked her to be home. I sound like Arvid, wanting different rules. Mom looks almost as unyielding and twice as happy to be.

“Eret—”

“I thought you weren’t going to explain anything to me?” It’s like my throat isn’t used to yelling anymore and my voice comes out gravelly and sad and I don’t know when I forgot how to slam doors and cause problems.

“What’s going on?” Aurelia steps away from Mom, towards me, and it’s more of a relief than I thought it could be to see her instinctively aligning herself with my side. Even though she’s been a pain lately, this isn’t broken yet.

“Nothing.” Mom looks like she hates lying and if she’s trying to make me feel bad for her again, it’s working.

“That’s not really true, is it?” I ring out my wet tail and Bang grouses at me for splashing him.

“He gets to know and I don’t?” Aurelia takes another backwards step towards me and Mom sighs.

“I—I guess there’s no point in lying about it anymore,” she sits down, “not that we lied, really, we just…”

“Didn’t tell the truth while also being all secretive?” I don’t want to be the one to say it. Mom can at least give me that, can’t she? She could at least be the one to say it out loud.

“Is it something bad?” Aurelia looks at me for help and I shrug.

“Eret thinks so.” Mom clears her throat, “I—your dad and I…we’re back with each other.”

“I’m aware of that,” Aurelia points at me, her hand moving slow and definite like she’s not quite sure if she’s joking or not, “that’s why this guy lives here. And we went to that wedding—”

“She’s not kidding,” I laugh, more tired than anything, “or senile.”

“Wait so…” Aurelia looks at my face and back at Mom, “your political sham marriage isn’t a sham anymore?”

Mom looks between us for a second and I get the feeling that she doesn’t mind being surrounded by so much of the chief.

“That’s not quite how we’re thinking of it—”

“Because it sounds too legitimate?” I scoff, “like my newly minted birthright?”

“That wasn’t how I wanted you to find out.” Mom doesn’t sound mad at me for the first time since I snapped at them yesterday and I wonder if she was avoiding me on purpose last night. She’s never done that before, she’s always been there and ready to talk when I calmed down and it feels like I just lost another part of her and what we had before the chief strolled back into her life.

“It seems like you didn’t want me to find out at all.”

“I didn’t,” she looks at Aurelia like she wishes she’d leave so we could have this conversation alone, but Aurelia sits down next to me, wrinkling her nose at my soaking clothes but not moving away. At least I’ve still got a sister. “I knew you’d act like this and—”

“And you didn’t want me ruining—”

“I didn’t want to upset you.” She cuts across me and it’s warm and kind and strong and I want to believe her but can’t find it in me right now. “I didn’t want to hurt you and I knew that this would, I…I’m not going to apologize for it—”

“It wouldn’t help if you did.” I want to explain it to her, this feeling of loss, the way that everything that happened before the last year of my life feels fake, like a story I told myself. And it’s worse because I’m so alone in it, because I used to have Arvid and Ingrid and Dad and now I hardly see them and when I do, it hurts. “Maybe you were right in the first place, maybe you shouldn’t explain it to me.”

“You shouldn’t have found out like this.” She sighs, rubbing her hands over her face like she can’t imagine what to do about the problem that I am. “Hiccup was right, we should have told you.”

“And me, I’d like to be in the know on these things too.” Aurelia doesn’t sound as mad as I’d like her to, but it’s the closest thing to support I’ve heard since the chief tried so hard to be understanding.

“We should have told both of you.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t.” I stand up, looking at the stairs and trying to avoid the way it hurts that Mom looks so sad. “I’m assuming the bed upstairs isn’t taken anymore so if I could just use that door to slam, maybe we could all just pretend I’m a normal sullen teenager.”

“Stoick’s still asleep.” Mom rubs her temple and I hate that it makes me feel better that she’s upset, that she’s going along with my newest dumb little scheme.

“My room’s free,” Aurelia is looking at me like she doesn’t quite recognize me and I’m not sure I would either. “Slam away.”

“Thanks,” I salute her and it’s awkward, but there’s no room in me to care as I stomp up the stairs, each step feeling heavier and less dramatic than the last. It’s an act. I wish I felt like that kid that used to flip out and yell and pick fights.

I half-heartedly slam the door and flop backwards onto Aurelia’s unmade bed.

I stare at the ceiling, listening to Mom and Aurelia murmur downstairs like they don’t want me to hear. Aurelia says something sarcastic. Mom laughs a tired little laugh that feels like it’s scraping out the inside of my ears with sharkskin. I can feel everyone moving on without me again, but faster, more seamlessly.

I feel left behind like Dad and Arvid, but it’s worse, because the very fact that I’m here right now is what let them move on from me. I’m not the miserable tether keeping Mom here anymore, I’m the reason she feels like she can be.

Someone knocks on the door a couple of minutes after it goes silent downstairs and I groan.

“Leave me alone.”

“It’s me,” Aurelia cracks the door, “good impression of a sullen teenager though.”

“It’s not an impression.”

“Ew,” she shuts the door behind her and walks over to kick my foot, “you got my bed all soggy. That’s gross.”

“I said leave me alone.”

“It’s my room,” she starts digging in her closet and throws a shirt at me. It’s Arvid’s. One of those that never quite made it to being mine and my hands clench around it like I want to tear it apart. I might as well. I seem to whether I’m actively trying to or not. “At least put on some dry clothes.”

“I don’t think your leggings will fit me.”

“It’s a weird line for me to loan you Arvid’s pants.” She laughs when I manage to make a grossed out face, “not that I have any here. I was just trying to make your face move.”

“Congratulations, it’s now stuck permanently in double disgust mode.”

“It jokes.” She starts pulling wet blankets off of her bed. “Maybe it’ll live.”

“What’d you say that made Mom laugh?”

“Honestly?” Aurelia shrugs the cavalier shrug of someone tiny who just said something really mean and miraculously got away with it. “I told her that it’s a downgrade from your Dad but that’s her decision so…”

“That’s gross.” I shake my head, looking at my hands and trying to find the will to take my soggy shirt off before the shirt she loaned me gets soaked against my pants. “He’s not my dad. And if Mom is suddenly happy with the chief again…”

“Since Snoggletog,” she sighs, “I can’t believe I lost another bet with Arvid. He’s been telling me something was going on with them. I don’t know how he knew, he’s going to be so smug.”

“Isn’t that just his baseline?”

“No, just his reaction to winning another stupid bet.”

“Hey, it’s only fair that he wins some while I’m losing all of them.”

“She looks happy,” Aurelia shrugs like it’s something she wants to play off as simple, “she has looked happy.”

“So you’re ok with it?” I hate the tremble in my voice, like I’m scared I’m about to crumble into something about as real as my entire childhood.

“I—I don’t see how we can change it. And I want Mom to be happy. If that means my dad getting everything he ever fucked all of us over for then…”

“It’s a Berkian tradition, basically.”

Chapter Text

The sun continues to rise and set. Snow continues to pile up and a handful of wild dragons trickle in from the West, skinny and crowding around feeding stations. Aurelia continues to sneak in late at night and I hear it better because I don’t sleep and when I do, it’s not well.

The chief holds Mom’s hand at breakfast. She laughs at his jokes, looking at me out of the corner of her eye like she’s worried I’m going to hit him. I would if I thought it would matter, even if I just thought it might make me feel better, but honestly, the face centered horror I used to feel when I looked at the chief is dimmer than ever because we look less alike than we ever have. I don’t think I’m capable of smiling that much and that means no one is going to confuse us any time soon.

They’re sharing a bedroom again except in the morning, Mom doesn’t look pissed off. She doesn’t look any different than she used to, back in a smaller house with a bigger breakfast table.

There’s almost a week that’s so frighteningly routine, I’m actually scared I just dropped into some permanent, stable existence that obviously shouldn’t have anything to do with me. I’m almost relieved when Aurelia stomps in before dinner one night, wiping her eyes on her sleeve and avoiding eye contact with the chief, who looks up from a treaty as soon as the door slams open.

“What’s wrong?” He asks, and it’s like he actually thinks she’ll tell him.

“Nothing,” she pauses in front of the fire, warming hands that look so cold they’re almost blue for a second before turning towards the stairs.

“Doesn’t look like nothing.” The chief looks at me for help and I stand up, holding my arms out and testing to see if she’ll accept a hug or if she’ll shove me off for trying. I’m almost taken aback when she lets me hug her, pressing a freezing face into my chest for a second and making a low, frustrated sound that’s more growl than sob.

“Will you tell me what’s wrong?” I set my hands on her shoulders and take a step back so that I can see her face. “Also, you’re frozen solid, will you please stay by the fire until I know you get to keep all your fingers?”

“Now I know it’s serious,” the chief chuckles like he’s trying to break the tension and I glare at him, “Eret said please.”

“Arvid and I just had a stupid fight,” she blurts it out and sniffs again, wiping her face on her shirt and avoiding looking at the chief. “I—I don’t know why that just happened.”

“Uh,” I take a blanket off of the stack by the hearth, busying myself with tucking it around her shoulders. She’s shivering and Bang is concerned but hanging back the few feet he’s learned to do with her. “That’s no fun.”

“He wouldn’t just, you know, bring up whatever was upsetting him in the moment. He had to let it build up over days and days and—he’s so stubborn, why’s he have to be so fucking stubborn?” She rants for a second before her teeth start chattering too hard to talk through.

“It’s a Hofferson thing,” the chief just has to jump in and say something and now that he’s surrounded by the sadness proof armor of Mom’s renewed affection for him, my glare appears to do absolutely nothing.

“This is a private conversation,” I snap.

“I’m just trying to help—”

“It’s like once he decided that some bone-headed thing was the truth, nothing I said even mattered!” Aurelia sits down so quickly it’s more of a fall, like her legs thawed enough to move and suddenly couldn’t hold her weight anymore. “And I didn’t know it was coming! I thought everything was fine and then he was all pissed off at the world—”

“Hey, it’s ok,” I sit down beside her and put my arm over her shoulders, glaring at the chief again when he moves like he’s going to walk over here instead of melting into the floor where he would be gone and actually maybe helping the situation. “Did you walk all the way back over here? It’s freezing outside, I don’t care how mad he was, he should have flown you back over.”

“I didn’t want him to.” She wipes her nose on the blanket.

“Not like I’m going to sleep with that one later, but ok.”

“Not while he was looking at me like that.” She glowers at the chief like she didn’t realize he was still listening and I try to gesture him towards the bedroom.

“You can talk to me—” The chief tries and I talk over him.

“Probably not worth freezing to death over,” I rub her arm as another wave of shivering passes through her, “just for future reference.”

“He’d feel really guilty about it, I’d bet.” She snorts and it’s miserable and the chief is still just staring at us like if we’d just let his infinite wisdom in, all of our problems would disappear.

“Can I ask what the fight was about?” The chief turns his chair to give us his full attention and I’m rethinking that thing about hitting him not making me feel better.

“Sure,” Aurelia chirps, more furious than sad for a split second. “Doesn’t mean I’ll tell you.”

“I’m just trying to help.”

“I don’t want your help, I don’t want your ‘I told you so’—”

“I wasn’t going to say ‘I told you so’.” The chief smiles and if I didn’t know better, I’d say he actually looks kind of empathetic. “I didn’t tell you so, you’d have to talk to me for there to be things that I’d told you.”

“You’ve never liked him.”

“I like Eret’s beautiful face and the two have been mutually exclusive in the past,” the chief doesn’t usually direct this at her, this eager to please persona that drives me straight up the nearest wall, but I can feel Aurelia giving into it slightly. Maybe she’s already tired from fighting once today or maybe she just can’t quite say no to the idea of her dad trying with her. Either way, I want to tell him where to shove his sudden interest.

“Don’t make me blush.” I roll my eyes, willing Aurelia to stay strong against undoubtedly bad fatherly advice.

“But if you like him enough to be this upset about fighting with him, all I’m going to say is that after you cool down—and warm up, ironically, and Eret is right about freezing to death, I don’t know how you go outside without a dragon—”

“It’s called wool,” I cut him off, “Bang isn’t fire breathing and I do just fine.”

“Anyway. If you’re this upset about fighting with him, you should go back and talk to him. And keep talking to him until you figure it out.” The chief waits for a second for her to respond and Aurelia stares at her hands for a minute, spinning the silver ring she wanted me to fix last summer and proving once and for all that all her fingers still work.

“I didn’t ask for your advice.” She’s not as mad as I want her to be.

“I’m your dad, you don’t have to.” He sighs, “and another un-prompted tidbit. Don’t wait a couple of decades to do it.”

Aurelia snorts. The chief looks really satisfied with himself and this is just another interaction I don’t want to get used to.

00000

Aurelia goes back to her old kind of absence, so I assume she and Arvid must talk it out. I don’t ask and I don’t think the chief asks, but he’s a little nicer to her. Or at least they don’t fight in the next week, they just sort of peacefully exist next to each other. It’s weirder than Mom and the chief sitting next to each other and talking in low, happy voices. Weirder than the fact Mom hasn’t noticed that I’m not really talking to her or if she has, she’s assuming it’s something I should work out on my own.

I finally get that free afternoon that I promised Rolf almost three weeks after I promised it and I leave Bang with Stoick, who is almost constantly whining about dragon selection being delayed, even though he wouldn’t be old enough this year even if it weren’t. I’ve got the weird feeling that if I leave Bang at the house, it’s like another set of eyes keeping track of things there and it’s not like he minds Stoick using him as a jungle gym.

I know that Rolf was building his house just south of the Ingerman house, but I’ve never actually been there. I wasn’t exactly part of his ideal house-warming committee and that makes it stranger that I’m going over there now, by myself, with an intent almost completely opposite to familial obligation. But at the same time, if Rolf agrees with me about anything, that means I’ve still got a shot for other people to agree with me about the dragons. Well, other people than Fuse and kind of Smitelout and my siblings.

It’s almost annoying when Hotgut flies above me, coming from the vague direction of the Thorston house and Fuse lands her beside me.

“Are you actually reading my mind?” I laugh, “because I think of you and you magically appear.”

She blinks at me just long enough that I feel like I can’t even comprehend what an idiot she thinks I am.

“You were thinking of me?”

“Yeah, I’m just uh…as weird as it sounds, I’m going to Rolf’s place to help him catalog some stuff about the dragons we’re seeing less of and it made me think that if I can convince him I might know some things, I should be able to convince people other than you now.”

“Oh.” She clucks and Hotgut starts walking beside me, pausing just long enough to snuffle against my pockets for treats. “Don’t give her anything, I’ve got something volatile cooking in there.”

“I don’t have anything,” I scratch her knobby cheek, “unless she can’t have love.”

“She can have love, that won’t affect her stomach contents.” Fuse sounds like she almost knows how hilarious that is and I look at her to try and see whether she’s joking or not. She stares at me another weird second before clearing her throat. “I was starting to think you were hiding from me again, I haven’t seen you around like at all.”

“Ah, yeah,” I rest my hand on Hotgut’s head, scratching idly, “I guess I’ve kind of dusted off my whole, Eret the Absentee Hermit routine.”

“That doesn’t sound real.”

“I mean, I don’t have it written down but it’s a familiar set of…you know, antics.” I feel weird looking at her while talking, like she’s going to mention out loud how stupid I sound and like I really can’t take that sort of commentary right now. “I keep telling myself that I’m going to whine to you less, but in the interest of you not hating me for being even more annoying than normal, I…my parents are back together.”

“What?” She sounds like it’s actually news and I look back at her, “as in your Mom and Dad? Not the chief or…”

“No, oh Gods no, I’m not that…” I pause myself before I say lucky, because there’s no way that could feasibly happen while I’m still…alive. Or a concept, in general, really. “I don’t have anything that wild to report. My Mom and the chief are—to quote Aurelia, it’s no longer a political sham marriage.”

“I mean…that’s convenient.” She’s not quite as blunt as normal and I wonder what about how I’m standing made her think she couldn’t be. She’s right, of course, I probably would have cried on her or something, but I still don’t necessarily like her knowing it without me telling her.

“What?”

“Given that they’re already married, it’s a convenient decision on their parts.”

“Yeah, really efficient.” I gesture behind us at the great hall, “really saving the village another fancy feast. I’m sure they’re doing it for economical reasons.” I laugh, “you want to know the worst part?”

“I figure you’re going to tell me even if I don’t.” It’s Fuse level teasing and she’s still looking at me and I know that she doesn’t waste focus, so I take it as a joke.

“You know me so well.” I laugh and she blushes a weird, patchy blush that makes me wonder if she’s just cold. “Arvid guessed it. Weeks ago, apparently. How the Hel did he know?”

“I have no idea.”

“Me neither. It’s dumb.” I see what must be Rolf’s house ahead and pause, “that’s my brother’s house, right? I’ve never actually been.”

“Yeah,” she shrugs, “you’ve really got to talk to him today?”

“I told him I’d come by when I had a free afternoon and that hasn’t happened since. Why?”

“I’m on the way to test that baffle out again on a little island I found up North and I guess it’d be more…informative if you came.” She’s still patchy looking and I almost offer her my coat. She’s not small like Aurelia and she has a dragon but still, flying over the water isn’t warm in summer, let alone now.

“How could I make it more informative? I don’t know anything about anything.”

“That’s not true,” she frowns slightly, “and you make it easier for me to put things together. You make them make sense in reality and not just in my head.”

“That’s a compliment.” I step a little closer to her, leaning on Hotgut’s shoulder and looking around for the baffle. “And where is that giant hunk of iron?”

“Oh, I just took two trips. I stashed it in a cave.” She laughs even though that’s not a joke.

“Is that why you look so cold?”

“What?” She cocks her head, “I’m not cold. I’m sitting on a gronckle that’s heating up about half a bushel of spark bomb powder.”

“Does that make her warm?” I put my hand under Hotgut’s armpit and pull it away almost instantly, my fingers grazing over Fuse’s boot. “Yep, yep it does. I see why you named her Hotgut.”

“Why did you think I was cold?”

“Your face.” I clear my throat because it’s suddenly dry, probably a side effect of hanging out so close to a dragon that’s boiling all the moisture out of the air. “It’s kind of red—” She reaches up to touch it and leaves an oily gray smudge across her cheek. “Well, now it’s not red, it’s soot colored with a touch of saddle grease.”

She frowns, “you tried to make me do that on purpose, didn’t you?”

“No, I didn’t,” I take a step back because Hotgut’s hot guts are starting to make my own jacket feel too heavy, “but I’m glad you did. You never quite look like yourself without something flammable on your face.”

“I thought you had to go talk to Rolf,” she’s trying to look irritated, I think, but it’s not really sticking because of some combination of the corner of her mouth twitching and a new singed part of the end of her hair.

“I do. Have fun testing the baffle,” I step backwards so that she can take off, “and I’m still sorry about forgetting to make it, but don’t forget to tell me how it goes. Even though that would be fitting revenge.”

“You having to talk to Rolf is revenge enough. Drop it with the baffle thing, seriously, I’m over it.”

“You know Rolf?”

“He’s married to my cousin,” she says it like it’s obvious and I feel stupid, “I probably deal with him more than you.”

“I always forget that.”

She waits another moment before taking off and after she does, I shiver, already missing Hotgut’s warmth. The sudden chill makes it easier to walk the last little bit to Rolf’s house and knock on the door, even though it practically mounts when he opens it, staring at me for a second like he can’t imagine why I’m here.

“It’s my first free afternoon, I’ve been busy.”

“Not like I have trail mapping to get done by tomorrow or anything,” he brushes me off, gesturing me into his house. “And could you at least leave your boots at the door? They’re filthy and my son is at the age where he puts everything in his mouth.”

I always forget I’m half an uncle. Given the frosty welcome, I’m not sure I blame myself, but there’s a distinct sting of realizing there’s another family member that doesn’t want anything to do with me, at least by extension.

“If today doesn’t work—”

“Since you’re obviously here, I can’t accuse you of forgetting about me, so I have to assume that the chief really is keeping you this busy.” Rolf sits down at a table covered in scribbled on scraps of parchment and neatly drawn maps. “Gods know he needs someone helping him run things. If only he knew the paperwork was part of running things…”

“I thought I was here to talk about dragons,” I toe out of my boots and shut the door behind me, “but bitching about the chief, I can do that too.”

I try to think back to the last time we talked. I don’t know if I count that night when everything changed, because he was drunk and Arvid was still trying to protect me. All of that feels hazy now, part of that life that Mom’s trying so hard to pretend never happened, and I suddenly want to cling to it. That feeling that Rolf belonged in that old Hofferson house, taking up all the air with his gloom.

“The boulder class pages are surprisingly up to date, I shouldn’t be shocked given that Fishlegs wrote most of them, but the tidal class pages are abysmal.” He sets a thick stack of a mix of ancient and new parchment in front of me. The oldest of it shows evidence of being un-bound, one edge of them coated with glue and stuck slightly together. The front page shows a slightly inaccurate sketch of a Thunderdrum and a list of qualities that only take up half the second column.

“Well, to start, the tail is wrong, there’s an additional fin here at the top of the tail—”

“I don’t need to hear it, just start fixing it.” He pushes a few graphite sticks and a brush and closed ink pot towards me. “I know you think you know everything but this might take research.”

“I don’t think I know everything.” I pick up the paintbrush and dip the end of it in the ink. Adding the extra little fin feels official and I get a weird shadow of what it would have felt like for Rolf to try with me the way that I want to try with Stoick.

“Whatever.”

“I know I don’t know a lot of things,” I start tracing a harder line around the drawing. The old parchment wicks up the ink and it dries quickly, barely smudging when I accidentally brush it. I used to draw all the time as a kid, or when it was too cold to go outside. Even more before I got Bang and had more exciting things to do.

It reminds me of home the way nothing else has and that makes me feel bitter. Tired. Like I’m so sick of thinking about everyone else that I can’t take it.

“I grew up not knowing anything, that kind of thing eventually leaves a mark, even on a skull as thick as mine.”

“The chief’s life not living up to your lofty expectation?”

“I don’t have lofty expectations.” I blow over the dark outlined drawing, “that’s what everyone else has for me. You included, since you seem to think I know enough about dragons to fix all of this.”

“I know that you’re the only one saying out loud what I know to be true,” he stands up halfway, looking at a map from a couple of feet away before nodding and deeming it good enough, “that something with the dragons is changing and knowledge is always the way to deal with change.”

“That’s not quite a compliment.” I cock my head and start reading through the bullet point information on Thunderdrums. About half of it’s wrong. “Do I cross things out if they’re wrong or—”

“Here,” he slides me a small roll of parchment that’s sticky on one side like someone spread it with monstrous nightmare venom and let it dry gummy. Not great if there’s a fire, but otherwise, a quick way to hold things together. “Just paste it over the corrections. We want to preserve as much old parchment as possible.”

“That’s a lot of trust here, I could be messing all of this up.”

“Even I can admit that you’ve never done that on purpose.” He moves the top map he’s working on off of the stack. “Trouble just followed you.”

“Still does.” I start writing corrections over the new surface, pressing the paler parchment down with careful fingers. This reminds me of working at the forge, honestly, and I miss it all over again. “It keeps getting me as I…assess the rubble that was the family we both happened to grow up in that…well, that you don’t really feel like my brother.”

“That’s because I’m not. I’m your half-brother.” Rolf looks up at me briefly only to scowl when I meet his eyes, like it’s my fault he got suckered into basic manners. “And I never really thought of you as a brother.”

“Yeah. That whole…angry, post-paternity comment about how I didn’t ask to be born still applies.”

“I don’t really remember that night.”

“You were drunk.” I start writing more after correcting what’s there and my handwriting looks right on the page. It’s older than the chief, kept by someone further back, and I wonder if I’m related to them too. There’s so much lost to the paperwork, isn’t there? The paperwork I don’t trust because I’m here where I am now, half a chief half of the time. “Mom’s back with the chief.”

“They got married last year, I believe you were there. Should I not be trusting you?”

“They weren’t then. It was kind of a political sham. It’s not now.”

“It was never a political sham.” He looks at me levelly, in that utterly assholish way that makes me think he’s seeing me now and has always seen me as exactly who I am.

Half Mom, half the chief, probably worse for both of them. Not another chief or a last hope or someone destined to be something more.

Here, I’m just a mistake.

“Do you have a drink?”

“You’re not my little brother who I’m going to hand hold through a sloppy rite of passage,” he holds up what he’s working on, “that looks like the North-west coast, right? You’ve probably flown off more than I have.”

“The point goes a little further out.”

“I’ll go scout it out tomorrow.”

“If you want to do a bunch of extra work, sure.” I shrug and when he glares at me, it feeds into the perverse brand of fun that I’m managing to have right now. Rolf isn’t afraid to be an asshole to me. Being one to him doesn’t carry the weight of responsibility.

I can’t hurt him if he doesn’t care. And no one has ever cared less.

“Unlike following the chief around, this is a job that has to be done right the first time.”

“Likely story,” I hold up the next page of the tidal class section of the book, “scauldrons don’t look like that. What is this? Half a whale grafted onto a monstrous nightmare neck?”

“These are older than our history of dragon training, there are bound to be some mistakes.”

“Like being chief, ok, I get it.”

“Yes, being chief seems to inevitably end in very loud, very irritating mistakes.” He glares at me the way he always used to when he knew he was right, even if he wasn’t, and he wasn’t willing to talk about it anymore. Somehow, this feels more like bickering across my childhood dinner table more than anything since it all fell apart.

“Mom keeps giving the chief these…mushy faces. I don’t like it. No one else seems to think it’s a problem.”

“I thought you came here to work,” he extends the point on his map like I told him to, “and that’s disgusting, I didn’t need to know that.”

“Neither did I. And my loud, selfish self isn’t very good at swallowing pain to provide for others’ happiness.” I shrug, “another Haddock trait.”

He grunts. We work silently for long enough that I get the scauldron drawing fixed and start on those bullet points. So much of this seems like common sense and I hate the idea that it might not be soon. That if dragons don’t start coming back or worse, they keep leaving, suddenly these pages left behind will be the surest evidence that they were ever here.

“You don’t call him dad.”

“Who?” I look up, swearing when I drip ink onto my sleeve and it soaks in immediately. It’s a new shirt, but hey, like I said, we’re rich. Or something.

“Your father.”

“The chief isn’t my father.” I shrug, “I know that he didn’t get your authorized approval first but…but your dad raised me. He’s still my dad.”

“Until you were sixteen.”

“Running the numbers, that’s significant.”

“I have to get this done for tomorrow.” He gestures at the map again and I sigh.

“Can I ask you something?”

“No.”

“Have you ever enjoyed a single, individual thing? Like ever?” I set the charcoal stick down and lean forward on my elbows. He glares at me. It’s irritated and real and the most like a sibling-type stare I’ve felt in a while.

Aurelia feels like she’s trying to catch up to me and it always feels like she’s close. She feels like a version of me I don’t wholly understand. Stoick feels small and fragile. Arvid is…Ingrid is gone. Rolf is staring at me like I’m flicking spitballs into his breakfast and I can’t hurt him. I’m not responsible for him. He’s not trying to guide me.

“Of course I’ve enjoyed things,” he scoffs, “just not while I’m trying to work.”

“Like what kinds of things, specifically?”

“Nothing in your usual proximity, I’m sure.”

“Dragon racing?” I start trying to think of things typically liked by most people.

“Boring.”

“Thawfest?”

“I don’t need to sit around all day watching Ingrid win to know she did it.”

“Ingrid?” Saying her name hurts. She would like this game, she’d jump in along with me, asking things I haven’t thought of.

“She left.” Rolf, of all people, gets that too.

“Dessert?”

“Used to,” he looks miserably at the dusty war hammer hanging on the wall by the door, “until the wife stopped liking how it stuck to me now that I’ve stopped training.”

“You don’t like fighting?”

“Not when the other person is trying to win.”

“My beard? I’m thinking it’s an improvement.”

He grimaces at me, “that’s on purpose?”

“So’s the hair.”

“Ugh.”

“There’s got to be something you’ll admit to not hating.” I look at the page in front of me for a second before writing another fact about scauldrons down. I try to think of something neutral, something generally liked, something harder to hate than dessert or dragon racing. Or Ingrid, because admittedly, she is an acquired taste and she did leave. “Your house? Your son? The concept of being a father? The family you married into?” I sit up straight, the thought popping into my head right when it needs to for the second time today. “Fuse?”

“My house is creaky. My son puts everything in his mouth and I’d really, really hate him to choke. That and the entire concept of being a father keep me up at night. I married into a family of crazy people.” He shrugs, “Fuse is a good kid.”

“She is? I mean, yeah, she is.” I nod.

“She’s one of the only people at an Ingerman-Thorston family dinner who can hold a conversation about anything that deserves to be written down.”

“I mean, fair, but she’s eighteen now. I don’t know if you can call her a kid.”

“Anyone younger than me is a kid, anyone older than me is washed up.” He snorts to himself and I frown at him.

“Wait—”

“It seems like that’s all we’ve been doing. I thought you wanted to help.”

“I do and I will,” I lean forward slightly, “but was that a kind of Rolf version of a joke?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It was funny.” I nod, “I knew I got it from somewhere.”

He doesn’t have an answer for that besides an unnecessarily prolonged grunt and I hate that seeing him made me feel better. I don’t hate feeling better, though, even if it’s temporary.

Chapter Text

The second time I go to Rolf’s, we don’t talk as much. His baby, my half nephew, is there, asleep in the other room and he twitches every time the baby makes a sound. I get through three pages and overwrite about half the Monstrous Nightmare master sheet that I can’t tell whether I suspect Snotlout or Smitelout more for the less than factual edits. I leave when my half nephew starts snoring and I start to truly feel out of place.

It’s still better than the chief’s house though, and it’s even worse that no one here would understand the significance of that, of the fact that this place is literally less homey than Rolf’s. When I get back, Stoick greets me, launching into some long-winded story about an adventure that he and Bang had, talking faster than even I can really keep up with. But that could be because I’m tired and my hand is cramping and my whole head starts throbbing when I look around and see a family I’m somehow buried at the center of even though I don’t really have a place in it.

Mom is sharpening her hatchet with a file fancier than anything we ever used to own and the chief keeps glancing over at her like it’s just as miraculous to him, except in a positive way that doesn’t make him want to wipe his eyes out with saddle polish. She looks gives the edge a few more rasps of the file before looking up and I get the impression that she’s waiting for me to get mad at her.

I’m not mad. Not really. Not at her at least.

I’m just tired.

“Hey.”

“Hey Eret,” the chief smiles in greeting, that stupid smile he can’t seem to keep off of his face lately. “You’re back late, doing anything fun?”

“If helping Rolf update the book of dragons counts as fun, then yeah, my eyes aren’t in pain from deciphering tiny runes at all or anything.”

“You’ve been talking to Rolf?” Mom sounds subdued like she hasn’t since Snoggletog and I want to yell at her that yes, Rolf is still alive. Arvid is probably around too and did she forget about Ingrid entirely?

I sigh, “yeah, I’ve been helping him update the book of dragons, like I just said. It involves some talking but mostly him lecturing me about being too rough on old parchment.”

“How is he?” She swallows and the chief looks worried for a second and I know she’s asking about my half nephew who I haven’t asked to hold because I have no idea how to do that.

That’s her grandchild and I don’t know when everyone got so old.

“He’s fine. Spirited as ever.”

“Spirited,” the chief scoffs, “that’s one way to put it.” It’s not as defensive as I want him to be, because if he were defensive that would mean he was threatened by the casual mention of Mom’s other kids, but it’s irritating all the same.

“Found it!” Aurelia comes bounding down the stairs, three or four scrolls under her arm and one half open in her hands. “It was hiding under the second bed in Stoick’s room.” The chief’s bed. It’s the chief’s bed but she doesn’t call it that because it isn’t anymore and her head doesn’t spin when she remembers that. “Oh, hey.” She sets what she’s holding down on the table, “you’re home late.”

“Everyone keeps saying that. I was just at Rolf’s.”

“Oh,” she looks between me and the chief and Mom goes back to filing the edge of her hatchet, almost pointedly. “I bet there’s still dinner at the mead hall.”

“Why are you trying to get rid of me?” I laugh and she doesn’t and that means it’s not really a joke. “What’s so secret?”

“Nothing’s secret,” the chief shakes his head, picking up the scroll that Aurelia just set down. “Sit, I’d take your opinion too, we’re talking about fixing that bridge over by the third watering station.”

“I think we’ve about got it figured out, Dad.” Aurelia sits down across from the chief and gives me an almost pleading look and I remember her not managing to reject his stupid, unrequested relationship advice.

“Assuming I never have to deal with a bridge myself, yeah, that sounds legitimate,” I roll my eyes and sit down at the table, chair squeaking across the floor as I scoot up to read the scrolls.

Mom leans away slightly to make room, her elbow brushing casually over the chief’s arm. He kisses the top of her head like it’s a habit and like it’s normal and like it doesn’t make me feel odd and tired and uncomfortable.

“You know, I’m understanding this,” Aurelia doesn’t exactly sound understanding, it’s more of a partial challenge and the usual reminder that she’s not used to dealing with older siblings doesn’t quite cover it this time. “If you need help with a bridge in the future, I’m sure I’ll be around.”

“Yeah, but that’s not really the point of the chief asking me to help him out—”

“I’m not talking about the point, I’m saying that maybe you could share an individual component of the point as a whole.” She sets her jaw and smiles and it’s that pushy princess look that never quite fooled me into thinking she was tough.

“You both want to help?” The chief is as excited as Mom is doubtful and when she sets her hand on his arm, my stomach seizes like I just chugged a mug of icy seawater.

“I don’t think this is so much about helping, Hiccup.” Mom looks at me, “you had something else to do today, Aurelia can help your f—”

“Can you not?” I cut her off before she puts that on me and she sighs.

“The chief. Aurelia can help the chief sometimes.”

“That’s not what you were going to say.”

“Does that really matter?” She looks tired and almost sad as she reaches for my hand and I move it just enough to let her know that I’m not really wanting her to touch me with her chief loving hands right at this exact minute.

I’m glad she’s happy. I am. Or more I’m just glad that she’s not so sad anymore, but I kind of miss being at Rolf’s where I don’t have to pretend I’m happy quite so loud.

“I don’t need you to argue for me, Mom,” Aurelia seems happy too. Comfortable. Confident enough to push me when I’m sure she can tell I really don’t need to be pushed.

“Mom, right, it’s so easy for you. This is all so easy for you.” I want to stand up but I feel stuck, wedged into this house and family and life, and I think if the chief actually asked me right now if Aurelia could just have it all, I’d say yes.

I could go be mini-Rolf for a change and grouse about anything and everything while ignoring the problem.

I’d last about a day but it still sounds like the day I need right now.

“It was easier before you brought your attitude home—”

“My attitude,” I roll my eyes, “mine—”

“Both of you—” The chief tries but he has that delighted look in his eye, like the bickering family fantasy he always had is coming true when I don’t even remember how to argue with my sister without feeling like I’m losing at maces and talons.

“I’m not doing anything!” I stand up too fast and the chair tips over, clattering on the floor. Mom stands up too, dropping her hatchet on the table and crossing her arms. “I didn’t do anything but help my brother and come home to find her trying to—”

“Don’t take it out on your sister because—”

“Because what?” I bend down and pick up the chair, setting it back upright louder than I probably need to. “Because I can’t take it out on you? Or him?” I feel like I’m going to cry when the chief puts his hand on Mom’s arm and she relaxes, like he’s taking the fight right out of her and they both think it’s a good thing.

It makes me feel crazy, standing here surrounded by people who never want to fight, my mom’s hatchet on the table like she had to disarm before talking to me. I don’t know where to put all of my own fight, all this anger.

“Astrid, let me talk to him.”

“I don’t want to talk to anyone.” I click my tongue and Bang turns from where he was watching the stairs and hoping that Stoick would come back down. “About anything.”

I grab my axe from the rack on the way out the door, swinging it over my shoulder and heading around the side of the house, towards the denser forest out back.

When I find a clearing, I’m not quiet. It’s not about stealth or training, it’s satisfying to send the blade of my axe into tree trunks fast enough that Bang starts to howl along with it, pacing antsy around behind me like he’s not sure what’s attacking.

We’re Vikings. I’m a Viking. It’s something I used to understand. Even if I was a Hofferson and that made me only part Berkian, I was a Viking and Vikings fight. Vikings get mad, Vikings push things, Vikings win even if that means someone else losing.

I’ve never been like Rolf, with his wind up temper that stays sullen and quiet until it’s not, until his voice ramped from irritated muttering to a bellow in a blink. I imagine this is kind of like that snap though, even though it starts to wind down after three or four trees are laying in firewood sized chunks at my feet.

My hair is out of its tail, sweaty and stuck to the back of my neck and I drop my axe, not caring about further dulling the already dull edge as I sit hard on one of the logs I just cut, hanging my head between my knees. My pulse slows after a minute, arms still sore and stinging and I know it’s the chief approaching me before I look up.

His steps are heavy and loud and uneven and I get the feeling he’s avoiding sneaking up on me on purpose, because even Toothless is stomping instead of snaking his way silently through the trees.

“I see the trees got what they deserved,” he opens like I’ll laugh and this will all be over. “I think we need to talk.”

“About what?” I look up, pushing sweaty hair off of my face and picking up my axe. The edge isn’t that bad. It hasn’t gotten much use lately.

“About what just happened.”

“What do you think just happened?” I want him to say that Mom almost called him my father and I freaked out. I want to see if it even still hurts or if he’s so deep into this family lie that I seem like a teenager throwing a tantrum for no reason.

“I don’t understand it.” He sighs and leans back against a tree and I hate him for saying something other than what I predicted. For saying something that makes me want to say something mean, to lean into a conversation that I don’t want to have. “What you’re feeling right now. I—I didn’t grow up seeing my parents together either—”

“No, I did grow up seeing my parents together.” I scratch the side of my head, fingers getting tangled in hair I’m still not used to, “my parents who raised me. The ones who I always thought were happy and now…now I see the right faces directed at the wrong people and it’s like…I don’t know. It’s like no one remembers how things used to be.”

“Maybe I’m choosing not to.” He wipes his hand over his face, “I’m definitely choosing not to.”

“And you can’t see why it’s hard for me to do that? It’s bad enough that Ingrid isn’t here and Arvid…is more my sister’s boyfriend than he is my brother. I…I don’t know why I’m telling you this—”

“Because as much as you need to kill trees, you probably need to talk too.”

“You don’t know me.”

“Eh, we’ve been living together a few months now. You’d be surprised how much that teaches you about a person. Hel, you learn a lot about neighbors just watching them come and go.”

“So you’ve been watching me, like a creep.”

“Can I tell you a story?” He laughs like it’d be easy to get drawn into whatever circle I’m spinning in and I raise my eyebrows.

“Like I get a choice?”

“You’re right, I’m going to tell you no matter what.” He rubs his chin like I’ll be more immersed in whatever this is if he projects an image of thinking really hard first. It might work, until he starts by repeating himself. “I didn’t grow up seeing my parents together—”

“So you literally came up here with some canned story to tell me, not to actually talk?”

“I didn’t dream of you coming up empty handed on responses.” He looks at me indulgently, like he’s willing to go around in this little dance that’s feeling dumber and dumber by the second. Just how the fallen trees are starting to feel cold and just generally sticky as they ooze sap onto the back of my pants.

I kind of hate it, how quickly I’m starting to adapt to the ever changing yakshit heap that is my life. Something like realizing that whatever feelings between my Mom and the chief weren’t as long dead as we’d all thought used to send me reeling for months. But I’m finding myself struggling to hold onto the anger after just a few weeks. I want to be furious, it feels like the only way to keep the old natural order of things alive. Maybe I’m petering out faster because there’s nothing I really liked about the most natural order of things, there’s nothing to hold onto there. Aureila was already challenging me, Arvid was already furious. Rolf wasn’t quite as…eh, pleasant isn’t the right word. I hate that the right word is somewhere close to brotherly, after all this time.

“Go ahead. Tell your story.” I don’t add on the usual reminder that it won’t change anything. It seems like everything changes everything these days.

“When I was a couple of years older than you, I was about in the same position—”

“Don’t tell me, you were so shocked to learn Gobber hadn’t given birth to you.”

“Not as shocked as Gobber was, believe me.” He almost looks stern and I get the feeling that this is hard for him. “I mean my dad was finally talking about chief. He was expecting me to do things I felt I wasn’t ready for and—and yeah, I was ahead of you in some ways, I’d had some leadership experience but all of that was different because—because it wasn’t Berk. I guess. He thought it prepared me more than it really did, I think, not that I ever really got the chance to ask him but—it’s different when it’s Berk and it’s where you grew up and—”

“What does this have to do with you and my mom?”

“Nothing.” He laughs and points at the chunk of log next to me. “I’m messing this up, do you mind if I sit?”

“Do I really have a choice?”

“I hate that you feel like you don’t. That’s the last thing I wanted.” He shrugs and I get the feeling that Mom won’t be mad at me when I get back and I should probably thank him for that. I doubt he has any control over Aurelia but…still. “I guess I came into this whole thing hoping to be a choice. Or at least…to give you some answers over things you might have wondered about, things like…why you are the way you are and the rest of your family or Hel, most of the island aren’t that way.”

“Sit.” I scoot over slightly and try to ignore the way that his knees bend like mine when he sits down.

“When I was just a little older than you and my dad was prepping me to be chief, or well, the Stoick the Vast version of preparation where he’d just…drop eventualities on me like I’d be forced to figure it out by the deadline,” he smiles at that and I hate how it makes me curious. I hate how I feel that statue more and more every day.

“You miss him.”

“So much.” He idly gestures at me, “he’d know just what to do with you, I’d bet every dragon egg on dragon island.” Then he looks at me and I’m not quite sure what he’s seeing, “not that there’s evidence of that being quite as many as it used to be.”

“You were telling me about Stoick the Vast, we can circle back to me being right about the dragons later.”

“I don’t think I’d go that far but…yes, my dad was prepping me to be chief and it never felt like enough. It…I felt like I had to be him and I knew I couldn’t do that so I started searching for all the reasons why, all the things that felt like…insufficiencies back then. And aside from about twice my size…there were other things. There was the fact I didn’t feel so good about popping a warlord’s head off of his shoulders, the fact I’d rather talk, the whole…dragon thing and the fact I’d thought of it in the first place. And I thought about it so much I started dwelling on it and it took on kind of a life of its own. It started to feel like I was physically missing a mother I’d never known, some…impossible person who was neatly made up of everything I had that my dad didn’t.” He pauses long enough for that to resonate, long enough for it to echo back through a few stubborn months of hurt and distance and I shrug.

“I used to miss Berk. Not as an island but—I used to do whatever I could to make myself closer to it even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to.” It sounds stupid in the face of what he’s telling me and I feel stupid for caring. “Maybe that’s…I don’t know. Similar.”

“As I’m sure you know, I found my mom, and she was all that—and more! More, of course, I’m not saying she was just…exactly what I was looking for and nothing else, but more than that, I saw them together. It was just once, and it didn’t end well—”

“They fought?”

“No, I wish.” He drags his metal foot through the dirt I churned up in my near frantic chopping and it’s starting to frost over, reminding me how cold it is outside. I recognize the chill of my half damp hair against my neck and scoot away from him slightly, trying to pretend I’m not so interested in the conversation that I forgot to feel the cold. “Or maybe I don’t. I definitely don’t because my dad died. In the battle that happened right there.” He sighs, “we don’t really keep the timeline as part of the heroic narrative.”

“I—I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me too.” He looks back down the hill at the house through the trees, the fire inside making windows glow orange even through the shutters. “About a lot of things. But not seeing them together, even just that one time. Because I—I can’t say how much more real it made me feel to see that even though their life wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot given the two decades of separation and…” He looks at me again and I actively try not to put this together, to not be led where he’s leading me. To not feel guilty about how I feel about it all. “But I saw them together and there was love there and that, more than anything, made me feel like even if I couldn’t be my dad, maybe I could be enough of myself to fill at least most of his truly gigantic shoes.”

It’s silent. There are no wild dragons chirping in the forest and Toothless is crouched low, listening to the story like a giant cat, eyes glowing like Stoick’s do when Mom teaches him something in front of the fire.

“Do you get what I’m trying to say?” He looks at me and I remember him commenting how my profile looks like my mom even if my face doesn’t seem to.

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“I get that when I see you and my mom…happy,” I let him have that, I don’t know why, but I do. Happy. It feels like I have to dig it out of somewhere deep and dark to even say it and the cold starts to sink into my chest as I do. “Yeah, I’ve got a sense of myself, I guess, but I hardly ever think that far because more—because mostly it makes it feel like the first sixteen years of my life were a lie. And I didn’t spend years cataloging what made me different, I spent them working to be…a part of it.”

“I thought you said you missed Berk.”

“No, not—A part of the family that doesn’t exist now. The one that’s getting forgotten every day.”

It’s his turn to be silent. I don’t like it. I don’t want time to think about what I’ve told him.

“I don’t think any of us are going to forget what happened, Eret, I…” When he says my name it sounds more like my dad’s then it does the rest of the time and I stand up, log chunk creaking and sap sticking to my pants.

“Right, because I’m here. I—what you talked about, the person made of all the traits that didn’t fit.” I pick up my axe, the axe that used to be Mom’s, that I’ve rebuilt twice. The one I always wanted to put a Thunderdrum weight on, before I knew what that might mean. “That’s me. Except no one is dwelling on putting it back together.”

00000

Unless I’m crazy, the chief tones it down with my mom in front of me, at least for a few days. It’s not everything, of course, it doesn’t fix anything, but I kind of appreciate it. Between that and some off island scouting for a new granite source, the next week is an improvement, full of more flying and adventure than I’ve had in a while. Well, if almost getting eaten by a flock of Night Terrors counts as adventure. Bang and I don’t agree on that particular point, given that my eardrums took about three hours to finish whining at me after he decided he needed to blast the bulk of them out of the sky instead of hiding in a perfectly serviceable cave, but well, it’s a nice break either way.

Aurelia even seems to find it in herself to get over the other night, and she stays up late with me after I get back, going over the bridge stuff that the chief showed her with me. It’s more complicated than I thought it would be, with each bridge installed changing the weight requirements of the other ones and weakening the rock beneath it. I suggest asking Fuse about how to anchor the supports deeper into the mountain and Aurelia rolls her eyes so hard that it apparently exhausts her and she has to go to bed.

The next morning, Mom is making tea when I wake up and I almost fake continue sleeping before I remember that it’s Mom and she’ll see right through me and I hate the fact that I think she’d let me get away with it.

I sit up with a big stretch, scratching behind Bang’s jaw and glancing over my shoulder at her.

“Good morning,” her tone is clipped as she sits down on the hearth, stirring tea that smells stronger than normal and vaguely minty, which draws my attention to the chill in the room. I let the fire die down the night before and it looks like she just built it up, the wood just charring around the edges.

“Should I have fake slept?” It falls out of my mouth almost accidentally and my face heats up, “I debated it, honestly, since we haven’t really talked since—”

“Of course you shouldn’t fake sleep,” she looks levelly at me, “and Hiccup talked to me about what you said. Not all of it, I don’t think, but he said I should go easy on you and…well, I listened to him about a lot of other stuff that got us all here so…”

“Does go easy on me mean that I’m not in trouble for yelling at you or that you’re going to forget it happened? Or…”

“No trouble,” she smiles slightly over her cup, “you’re getting a little too old for trouble, anyway. It’s not a good look for a grown man with a beard to be grounded.”

“I know, I know, I’m going to shave today.” I scratch my chin, “it gets itchy.”

“That’s because it’s not patchy anymore.”

“It was scruffy. Not patchy.” I feel like I’ve missed her even though she’s been here this whole time. It hasn’t felt like it though, it’s felt like her and the chief have been here and I’m not sure where I’m supposed to fit around them, because between them is pretty untouchable. “What exactly did the chief tell you?”

“He said you were pretty upset.” She takes a sip of her tea and winces slightly like it’s too hot. “And I guess…I didn’t think about this being hard for you. And it kind of makes sense, I guess. To you this all must seem pretty sudden.”

“For you it’s…” The culmination of decades of flipping and flopping and spinning and falling. “Not.”

“No, it’s not.”

“I don’t really want to talk about it.” I swallow, “but if you could lay off on the rubbing it in my face, I can work on not freaking out about it. Eventually. Maybe. If my nebulous acceptance of the whole Arvid and Aurelia thing is any indicator of my capacity for…weirdness.”

“Sounds about right.” She’s pale and more tired looking than she has been lately and I fidget with the edge of my blanket.

“Don’t like…lose any sleep about it though. I’ll be ok.”

“Is that your way of telling me I look tired?” There are the deadly accurate Mom eyes I remember, the ones that I’m pretty sure Loki himself couldn’t fool for more than a couple of seconds.

“Inferring.” I shrug, “making sure I’m not the reason.”

“Hopeful on your part,” she smiles, “but things have just been busy. Plus, I think Ruffnut gave me whatever she was complaining about last week. I’ve been a little off.”

“Is there anything you need? I can run out real quick before everyone wakes up and it becomes an endless slog of people needing things from me.”

“I hear you’re doing a good job as sometimes, partial chief.” She stands up and pats my head when I duck enough that she can’t quite get her fingers in it. It keeps tangling whenever people or the wind mess with it, but somehow the length is still better than someone confusing me for the chief every few minutes. “I heard you even got Gustav to do something you said. That’s impressive, I think I was probably the last person to do that without resorting to drinking.”

“I tried that,” I stand up slowly, stretching my arms over my head and shivering when my shirt lifts enough for a draft to get at my stomach. I tug it down and stretch my shoulders, because those seams feel weird and stiff too. I’m never going to stop hating new clothes, but not so much that I’d keep any of Arvid’s shirts that keep showing up in Aurelia’s room. “Rolf wouldn’t share.”

“Maybe he’s finally remembering he should look out for you.” There’s guilt there, guilt that feels validating and makes me wonder what all the chief told her.

Probably too much. But it’s not like they haven’t kept secrets before.

“I think it’s just that he’s Rolf and he doesn’t want me coming around too often.”

“How is he?”

“Like I said, he’s the same as always.” I start getting myself a cup of tea, “if you’re asking about…I mean, the baby’s cute. He snores a lot. Rolf didn’t hand him to me but I also didn’t ask. Maybe you should go see them, or something.”

She looks a little green and I backtrack.

“I mean, I thought it went well. Or not well, but—whoa!”

She lurches to her feet and runs past me to the door, shoving it open and hurling on the ground outside.

“Mom!” I reach out to help her stand up but she holds a hand in my direction, shooing me and wiping her mouth on her sleeve. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her sick. Hurt, a couple of times, but never anything bad. She nursed all of us through every fever or runny nose or cough that ever came through the house but I don’t remember her ever getting one herself.

“I’m fine,” she stands up, looking at the mess on the ground and gagging again but managing to swallow it aback. “I’m good.”

“You just threw up,” I shut the door behind her when she steps back inside, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you throw up.”

“I’m fine, sweetie,” she uses the pet name she hasn’t used since I was seven or eight and it hits me more than anything else.

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” she walks back to the table and takes a gulp of her tea to wash away the taste, “really, it’s just Ruffnut’s stomach thing. You don’t need to worry about it.”

“I’m me, I worry about everything.”

She laughs and it makes her gag again and she burps into the back of her hand like she would have gotten on any of us for.

“I’m fine.” She doesn’t look fine. She looks kind of gray and pale and her hand is shaking as she drains her tea.

“Who’s slamming doors this early?” The chief steps out of the bedroom, tugging his shirt the rest of the way on and looking at Mom with a concern that can only mean secrets.

“It was Eret, he doesn’t know his own strength.” Mom waves it off, “it’s fine. Can you get me another cup of tea?”

“Of course,” the chief takes her mug and stumbles over to the kettle, too close to asleep to be doting on her this much. “Why’s it urgent?”

“I’m just lazy,” she lies and the chief looks at me like he also knows better. “Eret, don’t, really—”

“She threw up.” It feels like a betrayal and she looks at me like she’s too exhausted to accuse. The chief nods.

“That’s three days in a row, you promised you’d go to a healer at three days.” He crosses his arms and looks so much like her for a second that I almost get what he meant the other night about seeing his parents with each other. He didn’t used to know how to make that face, I still don’t. That’s a face that takes more than seventeen years to learn.

“I’m fine, Hiccup, honestly. It’s just—Ruffnut was complaining about it, I’m sure she just sneezed in my food—”

“Like that matters, you promised me three days.”

“What’s going on?” I ask the chief and he doesn’t look as convinced as Mom that it’s nothing.

“New house rule, someone throws up three days in a row and they have to see someone about it.”

“It’s completely unnecessary,” Mom tries to shrug it off and I feel compelled to replicate the chief’s expression.

“I’ll respect if it you will,” I offer and she looks even paler than she did first thing this morning.

“I don’t need—”

“Can you handle the conference with the builders up by Raven’s point?” He asks and I shrug.

“Yeah, I don’t see why not.”

“Cool. Today’s list is on the table, I’ll catch up to you when I’m done taking your lovely, stubborn mother to the healer.”

The lovely comment doesn’t feel as directly against me as it would usually and I nod.

“Sure, I got it.”

Chapter Text

No one wants to build the bridge where the chief wants the bridge. It takes half the morning to agree to building it half a gronckle-length to the West, but that results in another half day of tracking down the extra materials that it’ll take to move the thing, because apparently efficiency isn’t the name of the game, even though we haven’t fully figured out the woodbin yet.

The chief doesn’t catch up to me.

I don’t think too much of it, honestly, because he’s probably just heading to the next thing on the list, but by the time I’m struggling to finish up item number six out of seven, checking in on the mead hall roof, I’m starting to worry. If it takes a whole day to figure out, it’s not not serious. But that doesn’t mean much, it’s Mom, right? Mom is untouchable.

It’s probably whatever made Ruffnut puke and she just had to slip some to my Mom because that’s how it is.

Task seven isn’t important, nothing is going to blow up if I don’t look at the woodpile progress today, especially since I saw it partially this morning when I checked in on materials for the bridge, so I head back to the chief’s house a little early. Bang seems more eager to get in the door that usual and he jostles me against the doorframe hard enough that I kind of doubt what I’m seeing for a second.

The chief looks like he’s been crying. Aurelia looks at me like she’s not sure if she knows what the truth is. Mom looks calm and healthy and I pause just inside as Bang runs to curl around her feet, scooting most of the furniture in the room out of his path.

“So…what the fuck is going on?” I try for delicacy but fail, heart racing as my mind filters through a million kinds of bad news. I’ve never thought of Mom as someone who needed medical help and now that door is open I’m reeling.

“It’s not scary.” Aurelia shakes her head and I take another step inside.

“Ok, but—”

“Your Mom’s pregnant.” The chief is crying. Or he sounds like it, at least, even though he’s smiling and Aurelia still doesn’t seem to know what to think.

I laugh, “what are you talking about?”

“I’m pregnant,” Mom sighs, “it’s the only thing that matches up with everything.”

“What is everything?” I’m sure she doesn’t mean everything as in everything, as in the last few months of our lives, as in the overwhelming change from how things used to be. That whole family where she was a mother of four teenagers and adults.

“It’s a miracle, honestly, the healers could hardly believe it,” the chief pops off of the bench where he was just cuddling my Mom in front of me while delivering this news he seems so gods-damned happy about. This news. This impossible news. “I didn’t think it was possible, I barely even thought of it.”

And what keeps hitting me is that the chief looks ecstatic and Mom looks worried about something other than me, worried about something on the other side of the back of my head.

“Who’s the father?” I blurt, and it’s heavy and funny and I can’t help but think of the moment my dad knew I wasn’t his, not really. It’s like I suddenly appeared into some alternate version of a past I wish didn’t exist.

“Eret!” The chief snaps, angry in a way he hardly ever is and Mom barks out a laugh, leaning forward and cradling her head in her hands.

“Yeah, big brother, that’s a little more than uncalled for—” Aurelia glares at me.

“I thought it was nostalgic?” I’m still just looking at Mom, at the strange silence of all of this. It can’t be real, except it can, but I don’t want to because that’s the biggest change of all.

It’s like me, all over again, isn’t it? It’s just some new little option to be what I lack, all those things like composure and quiet and the ability to agree with people who are wrong.

“Eret,” the chief says my name like it’s ice and I freeze, “the healers said that this is very delicate. It’s…it is a miracle, there’s no other way to put it, and it’s fragile.”

“My mom isn’t fragile,” I take a step backwards, because I’m not welcome here and I know the feeling all too well. Bang doesn’t follow, he stays curled protectively around Mom’s ankles and I’m glad about that, she needs someone, but I don’t think I can do it. “I don’t know if you’ve met her but—”

“Her pregnancy is.” The chief says it like it’s a separate entity. “And…and this family, our family has a chance to grow here, and that means we need to make this as easy as possible.” He stares at me like I’m the enemy and I snort.

“Ok. I’ll help.” I turn around and leave and I’m expecting to walk but Stormfly struts slowly out of the barn, hunching slightly like she used to for me to get on when I was little. I try not to take it as a sign but Stormfly might also be against Mom being talked about as a pregnancy.

00000

Rolf lets me into the library after closing about three days after Mom’s, or hey, the chief’s, announcement. I don’t tell him why and he doesn’t ask and I don’t find anything about miraculous pregnancies that are the worst idea ever when someone already has four teenage children. Or four teenagers, one adult, and one child. There’s not much on pregnancy at all, honestly, and I get restless before I get bored.

I look at what happens to tribes without chiefs and tribes with last second, random heirs and they all dissolve into the idea of loss and failure and the fact that I’ve known this was a bad idea this entire time. I can’t shake the feeling of being replaceable and when I go home to the chief’s house and find it quiet and happy without me, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s already happened.

Mom is sitting on the bench by the fire, going over runes with Stoick and the chief gives me a sharp look from his place at the table reading a treaty. He opted to stay home again today and stuck me with about a dozen annoying little tasks he could have done in half the time because people listen to him on the first try, but I wasn’t actually annoyed by it until I see that he’s still in his night clothes.

“Sit down, relax a bit.” The chief orders. I roll my eyes and bang settles in front of the fire with a huff and a grunt, like he doesn’t think the chief’s suggestion is a bad one.

“Relaxing on command isn’t actually that relaxing.”

“I think it’s plenty relaxed around here, Hiccup,” Mom sighs at the chief with that new fondness she never used to direct at him. “You wouldn’t let me go get groceries.”

“It’s a long walk.”

“I would ride Stormfly, it would have taken five minutes.”

“I offered her to Aurelia, it’s not my fault she didn’t take her.” The chief gets up and crosses the room, bending down to kiss Mom on the top of her head like she’s a little kid or something and Mom sighs. “I’m sure she’ll be back soon. If you’re hungry before then, I could go get you something. Or Eret could!” He offers me up with another stern face like I better not ruin the illusion of operating at his beck and call and I scoff.

“I think if Mom’s hungry, she can get her own food.”

“I’m not hungry.” She points Stoick’s attention back to the book in front of him. “Are you, Eret? You normally come home and fall on dinner like a monstrous nightmare. I think there’s some fish jerky—”

“Don’t get up, I’ll find it for him.” The chief starts digging around in the cupboards by the hearth and Mom rolls her eyes in my direction, and I can’t remember the last time she made a face behind the chief’s back just for me. I smile.

“Yeah, any food you can find would be great, actually.”

“I don’t know where you put it,” Mom relaxes slightly, like somehow it’s easier for her to be waited on if someone is here calling it ridiculous along with her. “I thought you were gaining weight for a while but it’s all gone now.”

“It’s the stress—”

“Which isn’t something you need to bring home. Chief’s orders,” he shoves a bag of fish jerky into my chest with a little too much force and I don’t shift my feet. “And I think I know where all the food is going.”

“Where?”

“Your attitude.” He sounds like he does when he talks to Aureila about finally finding a dragon.

“Right.” I sit down and pull out a piece of fish, nibbling on it and discovering that I am, in fact, hungry and that wasn’t just about making the chief do something for me. “That takes energy too.”

“Energy you could save a little of right now.”

“Mom,” Stoick whines, flopping sideways and putting his head in Mom’s lap, “I don’t want to read, I want to play.”

“You can play when you’re done reading this.” She plays with his curls and I remember her teaching me and Arvid to read and how I’d always finish first and distract him until she kicked me out so he could finish. He hated reading. I hold on to the memory for a minute, that was after Fuse had knocked one of his teeth out with that fire cracker thing gone wrong and it took almost a year for the adult one to come in. I think it might have been the only individual time in our shared years that I was the better looking one.

“Outside,” the chief prompts and Stoick groans.

“Dad, it’s cold outside.”

“Mom needs quiet, bud.”

“Why?” Stoick is full on whining now, dragging out his vowels in a high pitched, nasally way. It makes him sound a bit more like the chief actually, and that makes me laugh.

“Because,” the chief looks towards Mom and she shakes her head at him, “because remember how she wasn’t feeling good? She’s not quite better yet.”

“She’s fine enough to make me read, Dad.” Stoick rolls his eyes, “and that’s not easy.”

“Then maybe you should make it easy for her.” The chief stares Stoick down until the boy sighs and starts reading again, mouthing the words slowly to himself.

“Maybe I should go check on Aurelia.” Mom stands up and stretches and the chief almost jumps out of his chair again, like she could possibly need help with that. “It’s been a while.”

“Eret can go check on her, right?”

“I mean, I could but it seems like Mom wants to.”

“But why does she need to when you can just hop on that dragon of yours and take a quick flight?” He’s so nice it’s like his words are trying to cut me open and I want to point on that Mom looks more stressed about this than about Stoick whining.

“I’d kind of like the fresh air, Hiccup—”

“There’s air in here,” the chief waves his hand around and Mom’s glare fades again to that kind of lazy fondness, like there’s no point in fighting and it’s a good thing she already likes him.

“If she’s not back soon—”

“If she’s not back soon, I’ll go check on her myself.” He offers and Mom starts tending the fire, sending Stoick back to his book when he tries to follow her and help.

Aurelia shows up not soon after, throwing her shoulder into the door to get it open and setting a small basket on the table. She’s either been flying or crying because her eyes are red and when she glares at me like she thinks I’m going to say something, I bet on the latter.

“That’s all you got?” The chief picks up the basket and pulls out a single loaf of sweet bread. “You were gone all afternoon.”

“Everything was sold out. Sorry.” She sniffs, scratching her red nose with a cold, white finger. “I don’t know why it took so long.”

“Is everything alright?” Mom herds her in front of the fire, reminding me of when I did the same thing after her fight with Arvid. I mouth that at Mom but she doesn’t see me because the chief is too busy stepping between everything.

“Everything’s great,” he puts a hand on both their shoulders, “what could be so bad that everything wouldn’t be great right now?”

“Bang could poop on the floor!” Stoick suggests and Bang shuffles over at the sound of his name, setting his chin on the open book and ending reading time once and for all.

“He’s outdoor trained, bud.” I remind him and Stoick nods.

“I’m just saying, it would make the day worse.” He raises an eyebrow at me and I concede.

“You’re right. It would.”

Aurelia still hasn’t shrugged the chief’s hand off and she’s staring at the fire as she warms her hands. I get the feeling she’s deciding something and more than that, that she probably won’t tell anyone later that she did. I’m starting to recognize the face she makes when her internal gears are spinning a mile a minute about things she’s not intending to share with me and this is like that but harder. More solid.

She looks back at Mom and if her eyes weren’t red, I never would have guessed that she came in practically crying.

“You know, I hate to say it, but maybe my dad is right. Maybe things are pretty great right now and…and it should just be about that.” She looks at Mom’s stomach, which of course doesn’t look any different, “because—”

“Because I’m feeling better,” Mom looks pointedly at Stoick and Aurelia seems to understand, nodding slowly.

“Because you’re feeling better and because this has felt more like a family around here than it ever has. And because I still get that.”

Mom looks like she wants to say something about that too but the chief hugs Aurelia, picking her up an inch off of the ground like she’d usually yell at him for, but she seems kind of frozen in some new commitment to say that things are ok. It’s the same kind of silence as when the chief gave her advice about Arvid and I can’t help but wonder if this is part of the same problem.

“There we go! That’s the kind of attitude we like around here!” He turns to me, “you should try it, Eret, being happy takes less energy than being stressed out.”

“You want me to get fat?” I put on my best offended face and pat my stomach and no one laughs, because I’m not here to make people laugh anymore. I get that feeling again that I’m extraneous here, that everyone is pivoting on someone else.

Well, everyone but Stoick, who looks kind of peeved that no one is bringing him into the group hug. I wonder why they haven’t told him.

“Let me go back to the market,” Aurelia steps away from the hug, awkwardly straightening her skirt, “I—I can do it now.”

“That’s my girl,” the chief says like he wants to compliment her and slap me at the same time and it’s never been that direction before.

“I’ll go with you,” I stand up, leaving the crumbs in the fish jerky bag on the table, “and help carry.”

“That’s marginally better,” the chief shrugs and Mom glares at him.

“Hiccup—”

“I’ll read with Stoick, you should go take a nap or something. You never get to do that,” he starts herding Mom towards the bedroom as Aurelia grabs the basket off of the table, leaving the bread.

“I never want to—”

“Are you coming?” Aurelia walks out without waiting for me and I jog after her, Bang barely scraping through the door behind me and giving me a dirty look.

“I thought you’d want to play with Stoick,” I mutter at him and he nips my boot. “Hey—and can you slow down?” I have to run a few steps to catch up to her again, which is impressive given our respective heights.

“Mom needs things.”

“I think what Mom needs is for the chief to leave her alone for five minutes—”

“The healers said that this is a fragile time, we have to keep her as comfortable as possible.” She glares at me but also looks like she’s on the verge of crying again and I put my hand on her shoulder, trying to turn her towards me. She shrugs it off.

“Hey, what’s wrong? You look upset—”

“It’s nothing. It’s stupid.” She shakes her head, “there are bigger things going on. My dad is right.”

“Bigger than what?”

“Just a…” she sighs, “just another dumb fight. It’s fine. Everything is fine.”

“With Arvid?”

“What’s got you so convinced it’s your business?” She snaps at me, her sharp tone dulled by some general sogginess in her voice.

“I don’t know, you’re both my siblings so I’m right there in the mix of that business. As you know.”

“That should make it less your business,” she nods to herself and starts walking again, eyes bright with determination in some direction I don’t understand. “And it doesn’t matter. Mom’s going to have a baby, that’s—it’s amazing.”

“Yeah, we just apparently have to sit in a silent house being happy for…however long it takes for a baby to…occur.” I frown, “I know nothing about babies. Shouldn’t Mom be…um, expanding or—”

“It takes time,” she looks at me like I’m the dumbest person in Midgard and I remember she was there for her mom being pregnant with Stoick, “and if it makes it less stressful, I don’t mind. It’s what we have to do.”

“Did I hit my head and wake up in an alternate universe?” I laugh and it doesn’t seem to reach her ears. It kind of seems like I might as not be here at all, like she’s already favoring the one who hasn’t talked back to her yet. “You’re willing to fake happy to make your dad happy—”

“It’s not fake, I’m completely joyful.” She spits, “and it’s not for him, it’s…it’s for family. It’s one of those things you’re supposed to do for family.”

“You seem to know a lot about family all of a sudden.” Now that she’s latched on to most of the leftover broken bits of mine.

I don’t say it, but when she glares at me I wish I would have.

“I don’t actually need your help to do this if you’re just going to bug me.”

“I didn’t realize I was bugging you.”

“Well, you are.” She stares at me for a second. “This should probably be a stress-less zone too, if we’re going to help Mom with everything she needs.”

“I didn’t realize me talking to you was inherently stressful.”

“Well…it is. Right now.” Her lip trembles and I think something else is going to come out, like she’s going to tell me what’s actually upsetting her. “So if you’re going to keep bugging me…”

“That’s…” I sigh, “that’s a shockingly polite way of asking me to leave you alone. Congrats on your new leaf and the magical transformative power of…the chief and my mom overwriting all their previous mistakes.” I climb onto Bang and take off.

I never thought I’d see the day where Aurelia would rather do a favor for the chief than talk to me, but hey, he’s winning everyone over lately and no one seems to want the dinged up copy when the real thing is right there.

00000

I hate how many versions of me exist simultaneously, even on one small island. There’s all of the people I’m not anymore. The clueless eight-year-old that burned down the forge and unknowingly forced myself into hiding. There’s the equally clueless fourteen-year-old that followed Aurelia around like a lost dragon and gained the pity of everyone with eyes and a thirty-year memory. There’s the sixteen year old who threw tantrums and yelled and fought Arvid, the one who everyone treated as a risky decision.

There’s the version of me at home right now, the quiet one Aurelia won’t stop glaring at while bringing Mom tea like I’m endangering the chief’s last chance at happiness by not being thrilled about it. There’s the version of me that I am right now, the one that no one questioned asking for help all day even though there’s nothing official in place that says they can do that. They trust me and I don’t know why, I don’t know why they let me into their houses to check on their babies or dragons or foundations when there are all those other clueless, little me’s running around.

Not to mention the version of me that isn’t even born yet, the one everyone’s already aiming away from my mistakes. Especially the ones like calling the wrong person Dad and thinking what people told me was true.

I wonder if a version of me even exists in Dad’s head anymore, or if that’s dead and quiet like all the others aren’t allowed to be.

I’m just finishing up with Darren Thorston, deciding how to patch the academy wall after last week’s monstrous nightmare training incident, when Gobber approaches me, leaning heavier than usual on his cane. Grump isn’t with him and I sigh, squeezing my eyes shut.

“You couldn’t fly over here?”

“None of your business how I hunt you down, laddie,” he rubs his back with the side of his hammer hand though, leaving a sooty streak on his shirt like he just came from the forge, “plus, I was looking for Hiccup but as always, you’re worse at hiding out.”

“That’s because I’m not hiding out,” I hold my hand above my head, “and probably because I’m taller, or something. But what’s up?”

“We’ve got a problem, that’s what’s up. I didn’t chase you down just to chat, come with me,” he waves me after him and I look back to make sure Bang is following us and not staying around the academy to keep begging students for treats. There still haven’t been enough dragons for the older kids to choose theirs and anywhere there’s children, I swear Bang gets mobbed before I can say ‘fish jerky’.

“We could fly, you know.”

“Not everything’s the same from the air,” Gobber turns abruptly and I follow him to the edge of the stream that cuts around the edge of town. “Like this.”

“It’s a stream.”

“Look at it,” he points down, unimpressed with me.

“It’s water, I’m looking at water,” I crouch down anyway, sure that Gobber wouldn’t be so cryptic if it weren’t important enough for me to figure out. “Wait…” I inhale and squint at the current, finally spying wisps of what looks like ash swirling and taking responsibility for the vague, sulfurous smell. “What’s going on with it? It’s full of ash.”

“The snowmelt’s collecting ash from the fire last year and it’s all getting dumped in the drinking water. Doesn’t taste too good and when Smitelout plunged some hot metal into it this morning it flared up like one of Fuse’s concoctions, must have been some dragon leavings in with that ash.”

“So the water is…flammable.” I blink at him, standing up and looking back down at the stream. “Am I hearing you right?”

“Given the whole village isn’t on fire, I’d say that part of the water is flammable, part of the time.” He shrugs, “I figured you’d want to know.”

“Why would I want to know?” I gesture back at the academy, “I’m supposed to be getting Darren Thorston approval to take extra wood from the wood pile to patch a whole academy wall, why is the stupid creek my problem?”

Bang splashes a few feet upstream of us and abruptly gags, that morning’s fish glugging into the water.

“You still drink water, don’t you?” Gobber raises a long, white eyebrow and I barely resist the urge to stomp my foot.

“On occasion.” I sigh, rubbing my temple and trying to think through this problem on top of all of the others. “What should I do about it?”

“That’s not my job.” He shrugs, “I’ve got to go console Smitelout about her eyebrows. I keep telling her there was always supposed to be two but she’s mourning the middle.” He starts walking away like he actually means to just leave me with water that makes Bang, of all steel gut dragons, puke, and I follow him.

“Do you have any advice?” I stuff my hands in my pockets, “and before you say ‘ask the chief’ he’s been really busy lately so—”

“I heard.” Gobber nods, “that’s a bit of luck there.”

“Yeah. Great luck.” I mutter under my breath, “or so I keep hearing.”

“With those two, it’s always just luck to start with. Honestly it’s never good or bad until the body count and list of damages comes in.”

“Yes, the common knowledge of my actual parents’ shared and complex history, I get it, it’s all so poetic.” I almost tell Gobber about that nagging feeling that they’re happy they aren’t stuck with just me anymore, that it’s not just a pregnancy, it’s a chance to get a better version of me next time, one without so many nurtured flaws. But to be entirely honest, I don’t for the exact same reason I haven’t told Fuse about it, I don’t want real advice, I don’t want anyone to tell me I’m whiny or wrong or self-centered. I already get that whenever Aurelia stares daggers at me from across the room. “Does anyone else know about the partially, occasionally flammable water?”

“Not that I know of,” Gobber shrugs, “I’d talk to Sven, he’s in charge of the dams around the village, he might be able to help you out.”

“So I just go…find Sven and he’ll handle it?”

“It’s a place to start, at least.” He points East, “last I saw him he was using some of the rubble from the wood pile for something.”

“That’s…so specific. Thanks, Gobber.” I start climbing onto Bang and pause for a second, “tell Smitelout I said her two eyebrows probably look really dainty, alright?”

“I’ll pass along the message because you can’t pick enough fights on your own, apparently.” He shakes his head, waving me off as Bang soars upwards, just high enough to ride the lower current over the island.

No one told me how much being chief is like playing tug of war with a group of terrors. It’s not that any individual is very smart or strong or crafty, but eventually they pile up on you and start nipping at ankles and you lose which direction you were supposed to be tugging. I’ve tried to go home four times today, each time just to be spotted and called into another conversation about the chief’s absence and what he promised them and how if it didn’t get fixed today, something catastrophic would happen.

And now this problem is coming out of nowhere and I tell myself that if I don’t see Sven where Gobber suggested, I’m actually going to turn around and go look for the chief. He should have to deal with some of this, it’s not like I actually know what I’m doing. I spend a few minutes scanning the coast where Fuse sent those boulders toppling down the cliff and when I see no sign of man or dragon, I turn and fly back up to the chief’s house, landing outside and hopping off.

Everyone but Stoick is sitting around inside, of course, Mom with her feet on the chief’s lap and looking picked on while the chief and Aurelia are actually laughing about what appears to be the same thing. They stop laughing when they see me and of course, it was probably some shared version of me that did something stupid one time that they both happened to witness.

Glad I can bring the family closer together.

“Hey, Eret, what’s up?”

“Nothing much,” I sit down at the table, drumming my fingers on the wooden table top, “just…stuff coming up. All over. All day.”

“I’m sure you handled it,” the chief looks halfway confident in that and Aurelia just has to take the chance to roll her eyes.

“Most of it, yeah,” I shrug, “Gobber did just tell me something I have no idea what to do with though.”

“Yeah?” The chief asks even though he’s obviously already checked out of the conversation and I clear my throat.

“The snowmelt is picking up some nasty stuff from the plane where the forest fire was last year. Smitelout quenched something in some of the water and it caught on fire.” I explain as succinctly as I can and only get Aurelia’s and some of the chief’s attention. “And it made Bang throw up, so I don’t think it’s a small deal.”

“The water caught on fire?” Mom snorts, “have you asked Fuse about it?”

“What? No,” I shake my head, “Gobber showed it to me and told me to find Sven because he might know what to do, but I couldn’t find him so I came here to tell the chief.”

“You didn’t tell anyone else?” Aurelia raises her eyebrow, “there’s exploding water down there with all the dragons and you didn’t tell anyone?”

“Right, all the dragons—”

“That’s not helpful, Eret.” The chief half snaps, more dismissive than actually angry and I hate it more than when he kissed up to me all the time. Back when I was someone he thought was worth kissing up to.

“And Mom’s right, you should have asked Fuse. She’s gone this long without setting anyone on fire, if anyone could put out a flammable stream, it’s her.” She’s combative but sure of herself and I stare at her, wishing it didn’t have to be against me.

Now, I’m the backup again and when he looks at Aurelia with a rare thoughtful expression, I feel like co-backup.

“What?” She shifts, uncomfortable with him looking at her with something other than disappointment, evidently, and flushes slightly. “Do I have something on my face?”

“You’re right,” the chief sounds shocked even as he says it, “this is something to put Fuse on. Could you go talk to her?”

“Me?” Aurelia stands up so quickly she trips over her own toe, setting her hand on her chest like it’s not clear who he’s talking to.

“I can go, chief.” I offer mostly to undo my frankly idiotic mistake of coming back here when I could be flying around looking for someone who doesn’t expect anything but chiefly from me.

“You seemed to think you needed a break,” the chief blinks at me slowly, a silent challenge that I know I can’t take him up on because of the healers’ stress comment. And it hits me that it doesn’t stress Mom out anymore for me to feel ignored.

“I didn’t say that—”

“You said you’d been doing everything all day and all over,” he looks back at Mom like I’m not even here and it was hard enough to watch when they thought they had something to be embarrassed about, “and if Bang threw up, he probably doesn’t need to be flying around.”

“Fine.” I stand up and brush my hands off on my pants like they have something gross on them just from being here, “I’ll go pick Stoick up then, he should be done soon.”

“Thank you,” the chief practically sing-songs, all that worry for Bang gone the instant I’m not currently annoying him. I barely resist the urge to give him a rude gesture over my shoulder, even though that’s the impression of myself I’d really like to leave behind right now.

Chapter Text

I know I’m truly on the chief’s shit list when most of a dead dragon washes up on shore and he tasks me with cleaning it up before the smell gets to Mom’s stomach. I don’t see how that’s even possible, given that the entire island smells like fish and death that sends every dragon squawking and avoiding the East beach as much as possible, but something about the way he tells me to ‘handle it’ makes it clear that I’m not getting anything else until I get it done.

When I get down to the beach, Fuse is already there, reaching into a satchel slung over her shoulder and pulling out handfuls of something that looks like black powder.

“Are you trying to cover the smell?” I walk up next to her, trying and failing to hold my breath, “it’s not working.”

“The chief wants it gone,” she shrugs one shoulder, but her eyes are brighter than normal, her mouth twitching like she’s trying not to smile. Part of her eyebrow is singed and it makes her look just a little bit more unhinged than she usually does. “I’d say a Viking funeral is in order.”

“You’re going to burn it?” I look up at the mass of it, mottled purplish scales breaking in places to reveal gargantuan white ribs. It’s honestly too far gone to be sad, it’s barely recognizable as a dragon at this point and maybe the last few weeks are making me callus, but I snort to myself when I notice that familiar patchy white on the scales of what I think used to be a foot. “Looks like it didn’t make it to the island.”

“They’re coming from further out,” she sighs, tossing an almost respectful handful of powder onto it like confetti and making me feel like a monster.

“Must be.”

“The chief told me to handle it. I think burning is a good solution,” I nudge a broken off, long-dull claw with the toe of my boot, “Viking funeral, like you said.”

“Alright,” she starts walking around it, throwing handfuls of whatever she has over as much of it as she can. “How’d you end up on dragon removal duty?”

I shrug because I don’t know if she knows about my mom. I’d kind of rather assume she doesn’t, frankly, because I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t even know if it’s my thing to talk about. No one acts like it is, it’s more like something I’m in the way of by frowning.

“Just lucky, I guess.”

“It is going to be pretty cool,” she grins, nodding a little too vigorously and lifting her satchel to pour some of the powder in between two visible ribs. The smell doesn’t seem to bother her at all and that makes it bother me more, somehow, and I pull my shirt up over my nose. “And respectful, of course, to the death of a dragon.”

“Did someone coach you to say that?”

“My dad,” she shakes her head, “he didn’t think the chief would let me do it.”

“You asked?”

“I didn’t think he’d be so on top of it,” she shrugs, “with the baby and all.”

I sigh, “so you do know. I was hoping you didn’t and we could just pretend all of…that doesn’t exist.”

“That won’t make it exist any less.” She climbs up onto the dragon hide, brackish rot pooling around her feet and running down and I gag.

“How are you not throwing up right now?”

“It’s accumulated so much gas,” she laughs, poking a pocket with her toe, “this is going to be great. It’s going to fireball, if I get it covered well enough.” She pauses herself and nods, “respectfully.”

“That’s believable.” I laugh because this is absurd and because I don’t think I’ve ever seen Fuse struggling to contain herself. She’s always so steady, if I weren’t seeing it with my own eyes I don’t know if I’d believe she gets this excited. She tosses a few more handfuls of black powder across the top of the carcass and jumps down, wiping her boots on the sand but still managing to track some smelly footprints across the beach.

“Why don’t you want to talk about your parents having a baby?” She digs in her pocket and pulls out a small clay jar. It’s full of little shards that look like sea glass, but she handles them much more carefully than that, setting two on the decaying hide right in front of us.

“Because we’re at a giant, morbid dragon funeral and it doesn’t seem like the place?”

“You said you hoped I didn’t know.” She pulls her flint out of her pocket and clacks it together, almost fidgeting. Like she’s got too much excited energy to hold together and I resist the urge to comment that she’s human after all.

Or super human, to not be affected by this smell.

“I’m kind of sick of talking about it. Or not talking about it.” I shove my hands in my pockets, “I’m sick of everyone else talking about it.”

“Aurelia’s happy about it.”

“She’s the one that told you?” I ask and Fuse shrugs like she’s not willing to tattle but she’s not going to deny it either. “It just doesn’t feel real. The healers hardly believed it, it’s not—I don’t know. It’s not like everyone is changing diapers, I don’t get why everything has to suddenly be completely different.” I nod towards the dragon and something about the conversation makes it look more like a dragon, a hurt, sick, old dragon that I should be helping instead of trying to make Berk smell better so that the chief can play build a better heir. “I’m supposed to be getting rid of the smell so it doesn’t stress my mom out. I don’t know how I even exist if she’s so fragile.”

“She’s old.”

“No, she’s not,” I huff, “well…yeah, she’s the same age as the chief, but she’s not old. I guess I don’t know anyone that old who’s ever had a baby, but I don’t know that many people. I’m sure it happens, I just…just what are the odds?” I gesture to myself, “I guess I know the odds didn’t really help my mom out last time but…”

“Probably about as astronomical as this dragon washing up on a beach on an island of people willing to give it a proper send off.” She nods at the dragon and I frowns.

“Were you even listening to me?”

“I thought you didn’t want to talk about it at a morbid dragon funeral.”

“Just blow it up already,” I try to sound mad but it’s kind of hard when she looks at me like she’s shocked to have permission, like this is some big present she wasn’t expecting to get.

“I’ve got to let the powder absorb a few more minutes,” she steps between her feet, rubbing her flint together in her hand. There’s a new bandage on her pinky, the skin around it a little bit pink, and the flint catches on it as she practically jitters around.

“Are you going to break into song?” I laugh, “Thor, Fuse, it’s like you do have fun every once in a while. I’m not sure about the kind of fun—”

“You should try it sometime.”

“And you’ve got jokes—”

“I’m not joking.” She steps away slightly, looking at the tide lapping at part of the carcass and frowning. “You can’t control what your parents do, so there’s no point in being miserable about it.”

“Normally you entertain my moping a lot longer before getting to the meat of your advice. Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“Respectfully…” She pauses for a second before laughing, a wide, toothy grin I hardly ever get to see spreading across her face.

“Are you saying that you don’t actually mean that respectfully?” I laugh and try to take the flint in her hand. She dodges and I trip on a piece of seaweed, stumbling slightly before turning and making another grab. I catch her wrist and she tries to hold her hand above her head, pulling me close enough that I almost step on her foot. “Because I’ll light it, I’ll say some words about this majestic creature’s full and adventurous life—”

“Respectfully, you’d blow the island up—” She twists, hip-checking me and pulling my arm across her front, stretching to keep the flint from me in her uncaptured hand.

“Then you’ll definitely be rid of me,” I try and hold her still with my arm across her stomach, stretching for the flint holding hand. She’s still laughing and it makes her hard to hold, her shirt sticking to my sleeve and twisting around her as she tries to wiggle away.

“Well. This is a gross place to flirt.”

I drop Fuse. I didn’t realize I was practically holding her. She catches herself with a hand on my shoulder and practically jumps away, straightening her shirt and dropping her flint on the ground. We lean down to pick it up at the same time and our heads knock together.

“Sorry—” I apologize and she plucks the flint I managed to pick up out of my hand with delicate fingertips, like she doesn’t want to touch my palm.

“Don’t stop on my account.” Smitelout walks past us, wrinkling her nose and looking up at the dragon carcass like she’s sizing it up.

“We weren’t doing anything,” I don’t know why I feel like I’ve been caught, but I do, and my cheeks feel hot in a way that cooks the smell closest to my face and makes it worse.

“It’s none of my business that you like to get handsy around gross beached dragons,” Smitelout covers her mouth and nose with her shirt, turning back to face us, “am I going to tell everyone and make fun of you? Yeah, but I don’t care.”

“What are you doing down here?” I cross my arms, fixing my sleeve where it’s twisted from Fuse pushing at it.

“It stinks, I came to get rid of it.”

“I’m handling it.”

“Right.” She rolls her eyes, “you and Thorston cuddling totally gets the reeking dead dragon off the beach.”

“We weren’t cuddling—”

“We’re blowing it up,” Fuse is red like the smell is finally getting to her, because she’s back to her old determined self as she walks up to the edge of the black powder she spread and shows Smitelout her flints.

I half expect Smitelout to keep pushing the absurd cuddling issue that doesn’t make any sense because we were clearly fighting over something and just because Fuse was laughing like an explosion crazed maniac, that doesn’t make it cuddling.

“You’re going to blow up the giant dead dragon?” Smitelout’s shirt drops from around her face and if she pushes it, I’m going to comment on her eyebrows. They’re still not grown back together, even a week after the incident with the stream water, and I’m opening my mouth to say something when she smiles. “Can I watch?”

“Sure.” Fuse shrugs, pulling a coil of fuse rope out of her bag and tossing one end on the ground near the dragon. “As long as you’re respectful about it.” She glances at me as she says it, a smile creeping into the edge of her expression and growing as she walks backwards, laying out a neat line of rope. “It’s a funeral.”

“Whatever.” Smitelout backs away from the dragon along with us until Fuse runs out of rope and sets the end on the ground. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a beached sea dragon before. It’s weird.”

“Well, yeah, but it’s got those scale patches, it was obviously sick and heading to the island.”

“Eret!” Fuse snaps at me, suddenly serious and I frown.

“What?”

“What island?” Smitelout looks between us, “and it’s got sick scale patches? What does that mean?”

“Nothing!” I clap my hand over my mouth. “It’s just the smell. The bad smell. It’s making me say nonsense.”

“No, that sounded way more legitimate than most of what you say. What are you talking about? Why haven’t I heard anything about sick dragons?”

“Because it’s…like high level, secret stuff—”

“You just said it was nonsense—”

“It is!”

“Is that why the dragons didn’t come back this year?” Smitelout looks between Fuse and I like the answer to her question is somehow between us. “Because they’re sick? And they’re sick at some island?” She frowns, “isn’t that the crazy you were spouting last fall? I thought I heard something about you making a massive fool of yourself—”

“This is fun, we should catch up more often.” I talk over her, a last ditch effort to stop the surprisingly quick way she’s putting this together.

“You were telling the truth.” She shakes her head, “it wasn’t just an attention grab, there’s actually an island with sick dragons on it. And you’re keeping it a secret—”

“How can I be keeping it a secret when I made a fool out of myself with it last fall?”

“Then why don’t we know about it?” She scoffs, “you’re telling me that Chief Hiccup Dragonlover the Third would know about an island of sick dragons and not be yammering on about it all the time?”

“He’s been busy.” I shrug.

“So you’re telling me there’s an island of sick dragons that are dying like this poor sack of rotten fish,” she points at the dragon carcass on the beach and Fuse fiddles with her flint, obviously bored of standing here and talking for this long.

“That’s not respectful.”

“And no one’s doing anything about it?” Smitelout throws her arms in the air and I sigh.

“That’s what we’ve told you. Yes.”

“What else is there?” She huffs, “are you keeping trolls in a cave somewhere? Is the chief secretly a dragon hunter? Are you actually Eret’s real child?”

“Someone’s doing something about it.” I set my jaw, “I am doing something about it.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Fuse sparks her flint and catches the coated rope on the ground in an artful flourish that tells me she’s done that more than a few times, “we’re going to blow up the whole damn island.”

The spark travels up the fuse, too bright to look at directly, and when it hits the black powder, it multiplies into hundreds of little firebursts. The whole of the carcass goes up in flames all at once, a powerfully hot gust of air first magnifying the smell and then leaving something charred and only vaguely fishy behind. The secondary explosives Fuse placed crackle and snap, larger bones crumbling as they’re revealed by black peeling skin that’s crumbling and floating upwards in the red-orange flame.

It looks more like a dragon, skin and rot removed, its once proud skull upside down on the beach, reflecting in the plane of glass the fire is melting around it. And I feel bad for it, bad for being here, bad for not doing what I promised for the dragons yet.

A secondary wave of fire shoots up through the ribcage, blue inside of vibrant red, and the ribs crack apart, splaying open and blackening as they start to crumble.

“Blowing up an island is going to help the dragons?” Smitelout picks a piece of ash out of her braid, wrinkling her nose and dropping it on the ground. I don’t see the point, we’re all covered in it, Fuse’s face practically freckled twice over with gray and black flecks.

“We hope so.”

“Well, count me in, Twerp.”

“Do we have a choice?” I shake my head. “Just…don’t tell anyone, alright?”

“Right, because I’m the blabbermouth here.” She scoffs at me one more time before punching the back of my arm and waving. “Let me know what you need, dorks.” She walks back towards the village and I look at Fuse, or her profile, at least, because she’s still staring transfixed at the fire as it simmers down to a buttery yellow and the bones crumble further.

“Is she going to tell everyone?”

“At this point I think you’ll beat her to it.” She grins at me and it’s kind of hard to feel the stress when I’m this close to a rare moment of Fuse giddiness.

“That’s fair.”

00000

When I get back to the chief’s house, I have to blink a couple of times, because I couldn’t possibly be seeing Mom sitting alone.

“Hey,” she looks up from her sewing and cocks her head, “that was quick. I heard it was quite a mess down there.”

“Just a second,” I exaggerate rubbing my eyes with my knuckles, “I think I’m seeing things.”

“Are you ok?”

“I don’t know,” I squint in her direction, “I’m seeing you alone, I don’t think it’s possible—”

“Don’t scare me like that,” she chastises, voice gentle, “and Bang is here,” she prods his side with her toe and he grunts, eyes blinking open. His tail swishes when he sees me but he doesn’t leave her feet, just shifts slightly to face me and pressing back further into her legs. “He won’t leave me alone to be honest, I wish you’d take him.”

“Stormfly getting jealous?”

“My feet are asleep,” she sighs. There’s a pause then and I realize I’m supposed to offer to help her, that things are like that now. Because for all the time and energy I’ve spent defending her in the last few months, I never thought she was defenseless.

I take a step towards her and gesture vaguely, “do you want help up or…”

“Gods no,” she scoffs but she doesn’t stand up herself, she just looks at her lap like there’s something she can’t say but I’m not the person she can’t say it to. “Getting up would probably be deemed too stressful though, so…”

“So what?” I laugh, stiff because it feels wrong the way that Fuse being excited about her job felt wrong, but I’m not really in a position to hold in any laughs I manage to work up.

She opens her mouth and I almost welcome her yelling at me, even though I’m sure that’s stressful too, but nothing comes out and she sighs. “You know, I don’t know if you’re wrong.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific,” I lean on the edge of the table, wiggling my fingers at Bang in half an attempt to get him to come and greet me. He just scoots closer to Mom, looking dangerously smug about not having to help me with my disgusting task this morning. “I’m ambiguously right about a lot of things.”

“I don’t think I can keep from doing anything Hiccup considers stressful for me for most of a year,” she doesn’t sound defiant about it and maybe that’s why she feels like she can tell me even though she and the chief have done a great job of acting like the happiest couple to ever exist these past couple of months. “I don’t think I want to. That’s what? A twentieth of the time I have left? If I’m lucky?”

“You’re not old,” I frown at her.

“I’m getting there,” she nods to herself and I get the impression that she’s thinking out loud and I’m just here to bounce things back at her. I missed this. It reminds me of when I was little and she’d give me the list of things she had to do that day and I’d repeat them back when she asked. Looking back, I think she asked a lot more than she needed to, she just wanted to give me an important job to keep me out of her hair. “It’s not a bad thing, I don’t think. You’ve got to do a lot of things right to live long enough to be old.”

“I don’t know, I get the impression the chief got there with sheer luck.” I shrug, “and a lot faster than you.”

“Maybe.” She nods like I said something more important than some common variety insult about the chief’s appearance. “He and Aurelia went to talk to someone about a bridge on the way to get Stoick at the academy. Do you know anything about that?”

“Nope.” I sigh, “nope, I don’t. She gets a bridge and I get rotting dragon carcasses, that sounds about right.” I mutter the last part under my breath, but of course Mom hears anyway.

“Aren’t you glad they’re finally getting along?”

“Well, if they were getting along, I would be.” I cross my arms, “I’m pretty sure they’re both just thinking I’m a heap of dragon dung for their great moods so they’re avoiding me, together.”

“You aren’t happy about…this,” she gestures at herself. At the room. At Bang curled protectively on her feet. And it’s not a question, it’s not angry, it’s not disappointed like she was when I first saw her and the chief together and freaked out. “Not like they are.”

She doesn’t call it a baby.

It’s not a living, screaming entity that’s taking over everyone’s life. Yet, I guess.

“I don’t—It doesn’t seem real to me, I guess.” I relax into talking to her faster than I would have guessed, thinking about how tense it’s been around here lately. “I can’t see it, it’s not—nothing has changed, except everything has. Suddenly everyone’s treating you like you’re fragile. And…and honestly, it sounds like something out of the chief’s dream journal come to life and put onto all of us to deal with and as always, I’m the only one who doesn’t know how to.”

“You’ve never had a younger sibling,” she comforts me, but it’s hollow, like she’s saying it because she feels like she’s supposed to and I regret telling her anything. Dealing with me is definitely stressful. “It’s probably normal to feel weird about it.”

“I have two younger siblings.” It’s a way I obviously feel but I don’t know if I’ve said it out loud by her reaction, happy and perplexed in equal parts. “I felt weird about it at first, but I got used to it. I…” I want to swallow the bitter taste in my mouth and tell her that I’m happy for her. That I’m happy she got something back even though it feels like we lost so much.

“To be fair, this is different for me too.” She looks around the room, “I’ve done this four times and I don’t think any of them involved this much sitting around.”

“That’s a perk of being royal, I guess.” I say it like I don’t think it’s a perk at all and she nods like she agrees with me.

“Right,” she points at Bang, “could you please get your dragon off of my feet? I’m not here to warm his freezing stomach.”

“Yeah, sure,” I pat my leg and click at him, “he looks too comfortable anyway. Bang, come on. Come here.” I raise my voice slightly when he doesn’t immediately jump off of her and of course that’s when the door opens and the chief, Aurelia, and Stoick walk in.

“Where’s the fire?” The chief laughs, glaring at me above that calm, friendly voice. The one that makes him sound like he’s talking down an enemy just to kill them when they’re relaxed. “Why so loud?”

“Hiccup,” Mom rolls her eyes, “he’s just trying to get Bang—”

“Do you not want Bang in here?” The chief rushes over, snapping his fingers and pointing towards the door in a way that hurts Bang’s feelings enough he stands, slumping my direction until the chief snaps again. “I’m sorry about that—”

“It was fine until both my entire legs fell asleep,” Mom tries to joke, rolling her eyes in my direction like the chief’s fussing is endearing. I don’t believe that she believes that from the way her face flickers when he tries to fluff the pillow behind her back.

“You let Bang lay on Mom?” Aurelia drops Stoick’s hand, watching him just long enough for him to follow Bang outside. “Come on, use your brain—”

“Aurelia,” Mom chides her.

“Hey, it’s ok,” the chief sits down next to her, grabbing her stiff hand in both of his and squeezing. “Aurelia, Eret, get along. There’s nothing worth getting all worked up over.”

“I’m not worked up,” I can’t keep the edge out of my voice and when the chief’s smile freezes and cracks into a grimace, I’m not sure I would have wanted to. “And I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty odin-damned stressful using my happy, inside voice all the time.”

“Good thing this isn’t about your stress,” Aurelia scoffs, and it doesn’t matter if she’s snarky, right. Because she squealed at the right time, she can say whatever she wants.

“It’s about the stress in the environment—” The chief sighs, worrying at Mom’s hand like he can personally force a perfect solution onto everything if he strokes her fingers just right. She looks annoyed. Then the chief kisses her cheek and she looks resigned. Resigned like she did on her wedding day, like she hasn’t in a long time.

“Ok,” I throw my hands up, “I’ll leave then.”

“Eret—” Mom and Aurelia say my name at the same time with entirely different intonations but I don’t stop, shoving the front door open and stomping outside.

Chapter Text

It’s quiet for a few days. Calm almost, except for Bang following Mom around like something bad will happen if he lets her out of his sight. He doesn’t even want to go flying, so I end up walking to cover about ten things for the chief when he opts to stay home to keep an eye on Mom. I kind of get what she’s saying about not being able to live like that for almost a year, but I know better than to say anything about it. It might finally be getting through my thick skull that having the same fight multiple times just for the sake of it never actually changes anything.

Aurelia’s still being frosty and sticking closer to the chief than usual and I’m trying not to let it bug me even though it feels like I’m kicked out of some club. A club I never accepted the invite to, because I was never one to hang out with the chief on purpose. Maybe that’s what changed his mind, if I’d kissed up more he wouldn’t keep waving me to the door to take care of his stuff with that disinterested little head bob.

I end up spending a lot of time with Stoick, which isn’t as awkward as I would have thought because he mostly just likes dragons and getting as covered in mud as is humanly possible. That and we’re both banned from the house for being deemed too loud, except the number of times Mom checks on us makes me sure that it’s more the chief’s idea than hers.

It reminds me of the last time we were all living under the law of the chief’s idea, his whole brilliant marriage plan that didn’t quite backfire. Except this time, Aurelia is inside and I’m not. And everyone’s ok with it to the point where I can’t even try to shut up that little voice in my head that’s constantly reminding me that they’re all hoping for a second chance at a better version.

And then, one morning, I wake up coughing, sitting bolt upright and wheezing against the incredibly pointy elbow jabbing into my chest. It takes me a groggy moment to recognize the brick red of Aurelia’s hair tangled in my blankets and another second to realize she’s sobbing, her face wet against the side of my neck, back heaving.

“Hey, it’s ok,” I mutter, clearing my throat and ignoring the fact that she’s practically choking me as I rub her back. She’s fully dressed and smells like the woods, like she just snuck in. For a moment I’m sure it’s Arvid, that he’s done something, and he may be my half-brother but he’s dead.

Her fingernails dig into the nape of my neck, “it’s Mom.” She barely gets it out between sobs and I sit up more fully, looking around at the quiet room. The fire has died down to coals, and it’s not strange because I’m used to waking up next to a cold hearth, but in the moment I’m sure it’s gone because Mom couldn’t restart it for some reason.

“Is she ok? What happened?” I try to pry my sister’s face away from my shoulder but she refuses, rubbing her snot on my shirt.

“It’s…it’s the baby,” she whispers, shoulders tensing as she pulls away ever so slightly. Right, I made an ass of myself, as always, and now she doesn’t think she can talk to me about it.

Eret not-son of Eret, ruining sibling relationships for sixteen years and counting.

“What happened with the baby?”

She sniffs and presses her face back into my shoulder. It’s not an answer but it’s everything I needed to hear.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Shit.”

That earns a snort, for some reason, and she pushes soggy hair out of her face and hugs me like she’s not trying to choke me, “you do care. Did care, I mean. You’re right, shit.”

“Of course I care,” I’m suddenly aware of the house around me, the three people breathing in the other rooms, the weight of this all pressing down. “Just because I’m an asshole doesn’t mean I don’t care.”

“Could have fooled Mom,” her tone isn’t accusatory, not really, just matter of fact in a way that pierces my chest like a well-aimed Nadder barb. “Sorry, that was too far,” she sniffs, “I’m just…I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel.”

I don’t have time to answer, which is probably a good thing because I have no idea what to say, because the bedroom door opens behind us and the chief appears in the doorway, looking gaunt and gray in a way I’ve never seen. He stares at us for a moment before recognition flickers behind glassy eyes and one corner of his mouth quirks up.

Aurelia pulls slowly out of our hug and stands, brushing her skirt off and crossing the room with an even, defiant gait, like it hurts her to do it. She wraps her arms gingerly around his waist and squeezes. I barely hear the murmured, “love you, Dad,” and it doesn’t sound like her when she says it. It occurs to me that she’s saying it for him, not because she wants to or because it’s true, and I feel so impossibly helpless.

What am I supposed to say? ‘Hey, chief, I don’t hate you sometimes’? Is lying cool? Is this one of those situations where I can fill the gaps in the conversation with fluffy, sweet lies and no one will call me out on it?

“Love you too,” the chief kisses the top of her head and something stirs in my stomach, remembering Dad carrying me to bed and whispering goodnight in my ear because he didn’t know I could hear him. I feel like an intruder.

I don’t belong anywhere else.

Aurelia turns and walks into the bedroom with an admirable caution, her footfalls even and close together, and the chief looks at me, staring like he’s not sure what he sees.

“Uh…Aurelia told me,” I stand, wishing I’d slept in my shoes so I could bolt out the door. The twin instincts to run and to face him, head held high, wage war in my head and I grind my teeth.

“Yeah, she…Astrid told her first.” He seems to shrink, lips pressed into a thin, pale line.

“Oh.”

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” he says it so quietly that at first I think I’m imagining it. I don’t think I’ve ever sounded that quiet, that gentle, and for the first time I really see the ghost of a boy who trained a night fury inside of him. “It was too literal. Trying again like that.”

I open my mouth to excuse myself but nothing comes out, and I don’t remember the last time I felt so silent.

“I guess there are just some things you can’t get back. Some things don’t get second chances.”

I know what to say then, I know the lie to tell, the one that fixes something, that bridges the gap between me and the sadness I’m so compelled to brush away. You don’t need a second chance, you have me.

But then it strikes me how true that is, that he has me, like a possession. He saw me and wanted me and took me, married my mom, split apart what I used to call my family. I want to be furious but I’m too tired, too overwhelmed, too weighed down by the unfairness and stupidity in the world to get myself riled up. I wonder if this is what it feels like to grow up, if being an adult is nothing more than a million little decisions to be quiet when you want to be upset.

“I—” I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to think. “I’m…sorry.”

I wonder if he looked this devastated about me once upon a time.

“Me too.”

I think of him reading to Stoick, of him staring after Aurelia with what I always took to be stern negligence but was probably always more misunderstanding than malice. I think of him hugging me by a forest fire, with my burned feet and singed hair. I think of him thwarting my plans at every turn, always talking about how dangerous they are, how I don’t know what I’m doing.

Maybe…maybe all this Hel has been nothing more than a misguided asshole’s horrible attempt at rebuilding a family.

“It sounds like you mean it.”

“I don’t,” he’s crying now, tears dotting those too familiar freckles together as he runs his hand through his hair, silver sticking up at odd angles. “Gods, I’m not sorry at all, I did what I did and I’m here and this should have been better—it should have been different, you shouldn’t hate me so much, you and my daughter shouldn’t band together against me and—and—and I should have been able to build something instead of tearing everything apart.” He sobs and it sounds like Aurelia, their pain has the same cadence and it reverberates in my chest like a Thunderdrum bellow.

“Hey, it’s—I don’t hate you.” I’m an awful liar, I didn’t used to be, but somehow I am now. I flinch from my own insincere words as the chief flops down into a chair, elbows on the table, head cradled in his hands.

“I deserve this. I—I fucked everything up, a thousand times. In a row. Just again and again and again. But your mother doesn’t…” His back is shaking, trembling really, and I feel anchored to the floor like my feet must be made of lead. I take a faltering step towards him, looking towards the closed bedroom door, thinking of how strong Aurelia was to walk in there, chin held high. As mad as we’ve been at each other lately, I can’t think of how to repay her for that.

It takes a million years to cross the ten feet of room between us. I set my hand on his shoulder, lightly, because I’m scared to touch him, scared of what it means. If I comfort him, does ‘Dad’ follow? Do I start thinking he’s right? Does trying to absorb this indescribable pain build from here until I don’t recognize myself anymore?

Or is it worse than that? Will I run away from it eventually? Will I recognize myself perfectly because I’ll be just like him?

“Umm…it’s not ok, I’m not going to say it’s ok, but…” I don’t know what spirit possesses me to keep talking, but I stare at the back of my hand, jarring against the soft wool of the chief’s green tunic. “I don’t know what to say, I was never the one that gave pep talks. That was always Mom or Ingrid, I was the one who needed them. Ingrid always knew how to make me feel better, she can make any situation seem like a fight I can win if I just push a little harder but…but this isn’t like that. I know it’s not.” Gods, I wish Ingrid were here. I miss her. It’s the only reason I don’t leave sometimes, I don’t want anyone missing me the way that I miss Ingrid.

The bedroom door opens behind us and I jerk away, shoving both my hands into my pockets. I expect to see Aurelia alone, but Mom is with her, eyes wide, face composed.

“Eret, can you pick your clothes up off the floor? I swear to Thor, you’re going to be chief before you learn to pick up your own socks.” Mom snaps at me, and she sounds so much like her old self, the one I haven’t seen since I was oblivious, that I jump to attention, scrambling to pick up my mess. “This house is too stuffy, don’t you think? I know it’s just spring, but I think we could open some windows. It’s not that cold outside.”

“Mom,” Aurelia’s voice is fragile as she rests a hand on Mom’s elbow. “Maybe you should—”

“If I gave you some money would you run down to the market for me?” Mom cuts across her suggestion, striding across the room and rummaging through the chief’s coin purse. “We need…a lot. We need everything.” She pauses and I can see her façade splitting at the seams, sad but not unsurprised. Beaten but not lying down. Guilty in a way she never should be.

“Hey, Mom, why don’t you go lay down—” Aurelia looks at me like I might have the answer as Mom starts organizing a cabinet, tossing things haphazardly onto the floor behind her.

I spot my axe out of the corner of my eye, her old axe, and it’s desperate and hopeful when I grab it and walk over to her, grabbing her hand and tucking it around the handle. She swallows and turns towards me, taking it in both hands.

“You’re right. That’s better, isn’t it? We need firewood.”

“Yeah, the pile is looking a little low.”

She stalks outside, axe over her shoulder and when I look back inside, Aurelia and the chief are staring at me, twin pairs of green eyes fixed on my face. That crushing weight of responsibility is back with all of its charming heft and I backpedal, tripping on an uneven floorboard and stumbling back upright.

“I’m going for a flight.” I’m not sure that they heard me but I leave anyway, trying to ignore the rhythmic hack of Mom’s axe, pounding along with my heartbeat.

00000

I end up at Fuse’s shed, eventually, after a few lazy laps around the island, fighting the thought of going further. It doesn’t seem relaxing anymore what with the dragons and Arvid and the fact that the quiet would just amplify the thoughts bouncing around my head. But Fuse’s shed is quiet and the stool in the corner isn’t comfortable enough to relax. She barely lifts her head from whatever she’s doing when I step inside and sit down and that’s better already. I can pout without making it worse for anyone else.

I’m not even sure what I’m pouting about, honestly, I wasn’t excited like everyone else.

“What are you building?”

“Testing a boring charge combination.” She looks away from whatever she’s doing to exhale, like the force of her breath could disturb it.

“For the chief or for our plan.”

“Our plan.”

“Have you talked to Smitelout?”

“No, I haven’t needed anything.” She carefully sets a clay lid onto what she built before spackling the seam with what smells like pine sap but is darker, mixed with something I don’t recognize.

“I still can’t believe I told her. Do you think she’ll tell anyone?”

“We’ll know if she does.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

She doesn’t know and it was comforting at first but now it feels suffocating. It’s not mine to tell and I don’t want to talk about it, necessarily, I just…Mom needed someone to hand her an axe. I need someone to tell me that axing something wouldn’t do anything even though I already know.

And I never had a problem going against the chief before, staring at the parts in front of me—the forbidden parts, the defiant parts—I can’t help but feel strange. Almost guilty. I think of how his face crumpled when he told me, how he looked so much like me in that moment that hurting him was suddenly akin to smacking my own head against a wall for sport.

“What’s wrong?” Fuse looks up from her project, a few heaps of jewel toned powders laid out in some cryptic organization on an old scrap of seal skin. She’s methodical where I’m stagnant, a smoking stone bowl dispersing her day’s work into the air. It smells awful, like tar and rotten eggs, and I have no problem believing it would explode flawlessly.

“Nothing.” It’s not something I should talk about, is it? It’s private and it occurs to me that I haven’t ever been in on a family secret before. Ha.

It’s a passing of the torch, I’m no longer the big whopping family secret, some concept of a dead little sibling of mine is.

My eyes itch. I don’t know why.

Fuse quirks half an eyebrow, the short fuzz of regrowth catching the sunlight streaming through the doorway and glowing pink like her hair, “you’re an awful liar.”

“Thanks. I try.”

“You aren’t being as much of a nuisance as normal.”

“I’m just thinking.”

“Silently? What’s going on?” She walks towards me and the hair on my arms stands up.

“Nope. I’m good. You just—you know? I might actually call it a night, take Bang on a flight or something just—are you ever just antsy? Like there’s a hundred fireworms wriggling under your skin. Yep. I’m just going to go uh—“ I stand up and trip over my own foot, internally cursing my clumsiness and where it came from. Maybe that’s why I didn’t leave, that would have made me feel more like the chief, it would have brought the memory of his unreachable sadness even closer than it already is. That thought shakes that hard little ball of anxiety around in my stomach and I feel nauseous and Thor’s beard, it’s a good thing I never had to keep family secrets, I would have been floundering in Daddy issues by the age of three.

Fuse’s grip is stronger than it should be as she catches me by my upper arm even though I’m not stumbling anymore. She brushes some soot off of my shoulder but just makes it worse, rubbing it into the weave of my new shirt. My clothes still feel wrong, crisp and un-stretched in the shoulders, constantly reminding me that Arvid didn’t wear them first.

“You know I’m a good listener.” She reiterates like she has so many times the past few months.

“That’s what scares me,” I swallow, “I might just tell you everything.”

“You could start with why you aren’t working on your master plan to help the dragons, because that’s all I’m really asking about.”

“Gods, you make it sound so easy.”

“You talk more than anyone I know, it is easy for you.”

“Careful,” I snort, fumbling back for my stool and plopping down onto it, rubbing sooty hands over my face. “You might convince me to talk your ear off and then I’d never stop.”

“You always stop.” She shrugs, one shoulder, almost sad in that Fuse way that makes me suspect she’s reading my mind. “Eventually, at least.”

She sits back down at her station, glancing at me out of the corner of her eye as she carefully scoops an emerald green powder back into a small, clay jar with a tight-fitting lid.

“What if this is all about me?” It’s a rhetorical question and I don’t really expect her to answer, but when she doesn’t, I’m suddenly compelled to fill the silence. I don’t like silence, it used to be because I was afraid I’d disappear into my siblings’ larger shadows, but now I know too much about what exists in the silence between people. Between me and…this morning, I understand that whole people can disappear into the quiet. Suddenly I’m angry that the chief and Mom didn’t tell anyone, that they kept it secret just like they did to me all those years. Like we couldn’t exist until we were a long lost miracle. “What if I’m not trying to help the dragons at all? What if I’m just…screaming into a void and hoping that the chief hears me. That he knows I’m angry. But he knows and he’s—I want him to be evil, I want him to be pathetic, but he’s just…what if I’m defying him just for the sake of defying him?”

“So you aren’t worried about the dragons?” She hisses, sucking on her finger when it glances across a candle flame.

“You ok?”

“Because those dragons look sick, Eret. You didn’t make that up. Hel, one died and washed up here, that’s never happened before that I know of—”

“If it were about the dragons, wouldn’t I have argued more? Wouldn’t I have fought harder for help?” I sigh, “the chief is the one who knows the most, he’s the one I should be campaigning to. I shouldn’t be playing matchmaker for my half siblings in the forge in the middle of the night. I would be…I don’t know. Rallying. I’m supposed to be chief someday, people should listen to me. Instead I’m just in here playing teenage defiance.”

“What happened between you and the chief?” She asks, turning towards me, eyes narrowed, strand of long hair escaping her braid and falling in front of her face. I get the impression she’s reading me, like a water-logged scroll, trying to see what I said before the elements got to me.

“Nothing, alright? It’s just…don’t I have to grow up sometime?”

“You tried with the chief, he didn’t listen.”

“He admitted it’s a problem. I should have waited—”

“Growing up isn’t synonymous with laying down.”

“F—“ For my mom it was. I barely catch the words on the way out of my mouth, turning them into a cough and staring at my hands.

I can’t stop thinking of her face this morning, sad but unsurprised, like the only response she had left was ‘not again’. I can’t help but wonder how much she’s lost, can’t help but think of her loving the chief and then loving my dad and then waffling, each decision hurting one of them, but never as much as it hurt her.

She has it worse than I do, and I’m in here whining and defying and making everything harder for everyone while they’re going through something I don’t want to understand. I should be back there helping, but I don’t know how to help, I don’t know how to handle everyone grieving for something I never understood them wanting.

Am I not good enough? Is it because I don’t call the chief dad and let him ruffle my hair? I feel impossibly more replaced, like I have to try harder and be better just to prove that it wasn’t a loss, not really. They didn’t need to try again, they’ve got me and I’m…

I’m both of them, all at once, they don’t need another. They don’t need to be so shattered.

I’ll shatter for them and they can put me back together and then maybe I’ll be what they want.

I sniff, wipe an errant tear away from my cheek, and look up at Fuse. She’s not looking at me, almost like she’s giving me privacy to fall apart, like I’m a bomb and she wants me on the other side of a barrier. I like the way she deals with emotions, clinical, sure, calm. She’s the calmest person I’ve ever met and it makes me feel safe and inferior all at once.

“I think you’re doing this for the dragons,” she says quietly, her tone assured and steady, “I think your methods might be for you, but I think that’s ok. When you don’t do anything constructive, you end up fighting your brother and screaming at the chief and if you need a few things to blow up as an outlet, well hey,” she smiles at me, “I get that.”

It’s too quiet and I open my mouth to say something but nothing comes out. Maybe a sigh, maybe half a breathless laugh.

“I think I should head home.” I should go try and help. Even though I don’t know what to do or how to do it. She’s right, my methods are for me and I don’t want to be someone who runs and hides so now I have to prove that to myself.

“Alright,” she nods, “I’m close to something here. I’ll let you know if it’s anything.”

I nod and stand up, “yeah, sure, I’ll…I’ll see you tomorrow, I guess. Or something. Around, I’ll see you around.”

She nods at me and I keep that quiet reassurance in my head as long as I can as I fly back up the hill to the chief’s house. I think about knocking again, honestly, especially after I see Mom’s axe planted so deep into half a tree that I wonder if she stopped because she couldn’t get it out. I did that a lot as a kid, honestly, I was way better at swinging than I was at getting it back and I don’t think I’ve changed much. I just didn’t know I got that from Mom. She was always so in control, of us, of what she said and did. Of everything.

Until the chief came back into the picture and threw her back into chaos, I guess.

I take one more deep breath before pushing the door open.

Mom is cooking and she’d look completely normal if it weren’t for the splinters stuck to her skirt and the hair that’s out of her braid and stuck to her neck, like she was sweating from all the tree murdering. Aurelia is at the table, stack of books in front of her, on her knees in her chair to see the book at the top of the stack. She looks more frazzled than Mom does, face pale when she looks up and stares at me for a second before shaking her head.

“Oh, hi.”

I know that voice. That’s the voice of someone who just mistook me for the chief. I reach up and pull the tie out of my hair, shaking it out with my hand like that’ll make the difference more obvious.

“Hey.”

“We could have used your help earlier,” Mom stands up, “Aurelia nearly killed herself bringing the entire library home.” She walks across the room, affectionately touching the top of Aurelia’s head and looking at me like she dares me to bring it up.

“Sorry,” I cough, trying to think of anything else to say. “I uh…needed some air?”

“Mom, this says that dandelion greens—” Aurelia starts in an urgent half-whisper, like she’s not quite sure she wants me to hear and Mom cuts her off.

“I told Hiccup it was stuffy in here. We’re Vikings, a spring cross-breeze has never hurt any of us.” She goes back to the fireplace, fussing with whatever she has on the grate inside of it. “Are you hungry?”

“Always,” I blurt and she shakes her head like it’s just a normal day and that’s just a normal joke that wasn’t funny the first time, let alone the thousandth. “That smells good.” The second part is a lie because I can’t smell anything but fire and Aurelia’s anxious energy as she flips through pages. I glance at her book and see drawings that aren’t Berkian and the words aren’t Norse. She’s mouthing slowly to herself, face flushed with frustration.

“Cold baths,” she mutters, looking up at Mom, “maybe it was the time of year?”

“Put the book away and eat something,” Mom half snaps, dropping a plate of stew in front of her and putting one in my hands. She sits back down on the hearth and starts eating out of the pot, idly brushing splinters off of her lap. “That’s good. Yeah, Hiccup is never on cooking duty again, there’s a reason he’s so skinny.”

“Maybe you weren’t eating enough.” Aurelia says louder, pushing the plate pointedly away. “Maybe that’s it.”

“You skipped breakfast.” Mom looks at the plate, “eat.”

“I’m not hungry.” Aurelia crosses her arms and I shake my head at her as subtly as I can, because even though I’ve never seen Mom quite like this, I can’t imagine it’s a good idea to challenge her like that.

“You need to eat something.”

“Not until I figure this out,” Aurelia’s voice cracks and she slumps back down, sitting on her heels. She doesn’t wipe the tear that spills out of the corner of her eye, doesn’t even try to hide it, and Mom’s expression freezes on her face.

“I’m going to go get Stoick,” she stands up, leaving her fork on the hearth next to the pot of stew. “You can hold down the fort while I’m gone, right Eret?”

“Uh…” I look at Aurelia and swallow hard, like I can physically stuff my own confused sadness so deep inside that it won’t spill out accidentally. “Yeah. Sure.”

“And check on Hiccup, would you?” She says it like an afterthought, slipping on her boots and frowning when she pulls a splinter out of one. “I don’t think I’ve ever known him to sleep this long at all, let alone in the middle of the day.” Her laugh is hollow and numb and another tear slips down Aurelia’s cheek.

“Sure.” I feel like it’s somehow the same word I just said, like it floated around the unusually dead air in the room and came back to me, only to fall out under nearly identical, numb circumstances.

“I’ll be back,” she opens the door and leaves like it’s a normal day and Aurelia sobs the second the door is closed.

“Hey,” I set down my food, wrapping my arms around her shoulders and pulling her into a hug that’s almost intentionally smothering, like I can squeeze this out of her faster. “It’s ok—”

“She needs to talk about it!” She snaps, wiping her face on my shirt and leaning into the hug. “We need to figure out why for when…” she sighs, “in case…”

“She’s…” I want to say something comforting but all I have is the truth and I shrug, “she’s kind of old for it, Aurelia, it was crazy in the first place—”

“Just because you didn’t think of something doesn’t make it crazy.” She shoves me off, leaning back over her book and slowly saying a word in a language I don’t recognize. “Fuck. What’s that mean? Thor-dammit.” She slams the book shut and wipes her eyes again. “I can do this. I can do this.”

“What are you trying to do?”

“Read.” She sits, letting her legs swing under the chair, and pulls the giant book into her lap. “Of course we don’t have anything in Norse about this but that doesn’t matter. I can do this.”

“Aurelia,” I put my hand on her shoulder and she shrugs it off, “look at me.”

“I know the answer is in here, I just need to figure it out—”

“I know you’re upset, but that doesn’t mean you need to magically learn another language—”

“I know this!” She jabs her finger at the page, a whole wave of tears falling down her cheeks at once. “It’s my Mom’s language, I spoke it. We spoke it. She taught it to me and…and it’s gone. Parts of it are gone and I need it—”

“Hey,” I bend down to hug her again, ignoring the weak swat of her hand on my forearm. “Mom will see a healer, they’ll know what happened—”

“She already did,” she goes back to tracing over the same strange word again and again with her fingertip. “They said it just happens. Things don’t just happen. If things happen it’s because something makes them happen and someone lets them happen. What the fuck is this word? I know it, I know I know it.”

I look down at my arm, the pale, freckled skin against the dark green wool of her shirt. There’s the scar that I got falling off of Bang when I was eleven, there’s the dirt under my fingernails from cleaning my saddle. I just happened. I am a mistake, an accident, an unlikely collision of things that weren’t supposed to happen and if they happened they weren’t supposed to work.

And now I’m an isolated event. I always was, of course, but it’s different now after lightning failed to strike twice.

“It’s a fish!” She shouts, “it’s a kind of fish. We didn’t have it here, my mom was always looking for it…” She mutters a few more words in a strange, clunky accent, “and that doesn’t help us.”

“I don’t know how this would help anything.”

“Of course you don’t,” she shrugs my arm off and it plucks at that nagging feeling of being replaced by something that died before it was ever alive.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Mom needs to talk about it, I know you don’t seem to think she needs to, but you’re wrong. And she can’t talk about it when everyone is just acting like it’s normal, it can’t be something she has to bring up—”

“I think you need to talk about it.” I gesture at the closed bedroom door, “he probably needs to talk about it. I…” I don’t have anything new to say about it. It feels like I don’t have a single thought in my head that hasn’t been said a hundred times. I feel empty and full of other people’s thoughts at the same time and I can’t figure out who would care if I said that out loud.

“Mom should talk.”

“Well, you can’t make her,” I let my hands fall against my legs with a louder slap than I expect.

She glares at me and sniffs, wiping her nose on the end of her too long sleeve. She looks younger than she has lately, puffy eyes and red cheeks reminding me of the sullen girl I moved in with, the one I just wanted to laugh so that someone would. I get the odd feeling that I know her less now than I did then and then I was just guessing.

We aren’t feeling the same thing. Not even close. We aren’t in the same book, let alone on the same page. Our books are in different languages.

Today’s the most I’ve ever heard her talk about her mom and I almost want to ask, to try and steer this back into something I understand, but I don’t want her to say the things in my head. I don’t want to hear it out loud, that I’m always going to be a reminder of something they all lost.

“I’m going to check on the chief.”

“Yeah.” She looks back at her book, “good luck getting him to talk. Since you know what he needs so well.”

I pause for a second, deciding against answering that and picking another teary fight before Mom gets back, and cross the room to open the bedroom door. It creaks, and a bar of light falls across a lump of blankets that I assume is the chief. I stand there for a minute and he doesn’t say anything so I clear my throat, hoping it’s loud enough to wake him.

“I’ll be out in a minute.” He mumbles, barely loud enough to hear through the covers and I sigh. I almost ask him to get up for Mom, because she’d like a little normalcy and that doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

But maybe I’m the one who wants normalcy and my normal isn’t anyone else’s anymore.

“Ok. Yeah. Seems likely.” I shut the door and resist the urge to bash it against my head a few times on the way.

Chapter Text

Mom makes breakfast. Aurelia reads, that odd accent becoming smoother and smoother as she mumbles things to herself under her breath and making notes on a scrap of parchment. The chief sits at the table, skinny and old without his leather armor and nibbling at breakfast like he can’t let himself starve and leave us without such a constant reminder that yesterday happened. That things were different then. That they’re always going to be different now, at some level.

Stoick is unusually quiet, playing on the floor with an old carved dragon, taping it on the hearth and whispering to Bang.

“Here, there’s more,” Mom refills my plate as soon as I clean it and I fail at holding back my desperation for her not to.

“No, I’m full—”

“You’re growing,” she gives me another scoop for good measure, “that shirt’s too small. I’ll make you some new ones.” She tugs at the seam on my shoulder and her hand is both clinical and affectionate and I get a flash of an impression that she’s wondering if what she lost would have looked enough like me for her to imagine. “Maybe I should have kept Arvid’s old clothes, I think you’re finally catching up.”

“Do you have to mock me?” I expect Aurelia to look up at a mention of Arvid, but she doesn’t. If anything she leans closer to the page and I wonder if she wasn’t just around more because Mom needed her. Or the chief needed Mom to need her. Right now it seems like everyone needs Mom more than she needs them and I don’t want to be on that list. I want to actually help, I want to make it worth it that I’m the one here, like somehow that’ll make it less sad.

Like if I turn it around I can be half a success.

“No, I’m serious,” she yanks at my sleeve and it doesn’t stretch all the way to my wrist. “I wish I had the pattern I used last winter.”

“We can buy clothes,” Aurelia glances at me, sullen and oddly committed as she shuts the book and sits up straight, “you can relax, you know.”

“Like rest will help anything now,” the chief drops the crust of the bread he’s been nibbling on and it’s so tense and pained when his face half crumples that Toothless doesn’t lick up the treat even though it’s practically on his foot. He’s curled around the chief’s chair and somehow I doubt anyone Toothless doesn’t approve of could get close to him.

“Hiccup,” Mom chastises, expression hard even though her voice is gentle, like she’s scared of breaking him. I think it might be too late for that, honestly, and another pang in my stomach signals the nonsensical cosmic connection between his pain and the part of me that’s him.

“My shirt’s fine,” I cough, pushing my still full plate away. My sleeves feel too short now that Mom pointed it out and I push them up to my elbows, looking pointedly at the list in front of the empty seat at the table. It’s the chief’s list, the master list, the one that he points at whenever he’s trying to get me to do something particularly gross or annoying, like I’ll believe it’s the list making me do it and not him.

I know that’s just Stoick’s seat, but it feels different, it feels like someone more worthy of that list is supposed to be there. A real heir, the one they wanted.

“Can we stop talking about Eret’s stupid shirt?” Aurelia snaps at me, like this is all my fault, and I almost reflexively apologize. But something tells me it won’t do anything and the part of me that would like to predict the next hit before it lands imagines forever in this house with her mad at me.

“Not the name I would have picked…” The chief mumbles, staring at me like I’m inanimate or he’s not quite sure I’m real and it makes me feel like I shouldn’t be.

“Hiccup,” Mom chides him a little more sternly, setting her hand on his and squeezing. She’s as pale as I’ve ever seen her and I look at the list again.

“Who’s going to do that?”

“What?” Mom looks at the empty chair too and I wonder if she sees it the way I am, as a place someone else is supposed to be.

“The list,” I almost reach for it but that feels like a decision I don’t know if I get to make. “Everything that’s supposed to happen today. Who’s going to do it?”

“That’s what you’re worried about? Some list?” Aurelia scoffs, “you’re just trying to ignore the problem—”

“No, I’m…” I fumble for the words, not because she’s wrong but because she’s right. I do want to ignore this. I do want to forget about it as long as possible and hope that a magic solution to the way I feel finds its way out of my subconscious at some point. But it’s more than that, I realize, it’s…I don’t know what to do about this. About the fog in this room, about Mom’s expression or the chief’s lack of one. Aurelia’s anger at me for some reason I don’t understand.

But that list? I might be able to do some of those things.

“Typical,” she scoffs, “this isn’t something you can plan away—”

“I’m not ignoring anything,” I stand up, my chair squeaking across the floor as I grab the list and roll it in my hand, “I’m just noting that other people’s problems still exist—”

“Because they’re easier.”

“Aurelia,” Mom’s voice cracks, almost angry in a tired, hollow way.

“Chief?” I ask, holding the roll out when he looks at me, taking a long second to recognize me. That must have been how I looked at him before I put it together, that sense of familiarity. I wonder if he’s going to see the ghost of someone he never knew every time he looks at me now. “Are you going to come help me with this or—”

“Oh, I don’t care about that,” he looks at the list, “it doesn’t matter like I thought it did.”

“Ok…” I look at Mom but her face is unreadable. She nods at me, almost imperceptible. “Well…I think it’ll matter if….” I look at the list and pick out a random line, “the barley field keeps flooding. So I’m going to go…fix that. Somehow. I have no idea how but—”

“Go.” Mom looks at Stoick, “can you get your shoes on? Eret will take you to dragon training.”

“Do I have to go?” Stoick shuffles his feet and stomps half a stomp. “I’m doing something important.”

“Shoes. Now.” Mom lets go of the chief’s hand, “any color preference on the shirts?”

“I don’t need shirts.” I grab Stoick’s hand and call Bang, holding the door for both of them and stepping outside feeling both lighter and more exhausted. I feel bad leaving Mom with all of that but I don’t know what else to do, I don’t know what else would matter.

Like yeah, I could stay and argue with Aurelia and snark back at the chief like it makes his blank eyes not matter, but that wouldn’t help anything. I can’t even guarantee that it wouldn’t make anything worse.

“What’s going on?” Stoick asks, yanking his hand from mine and scrambling onto Bang’s back. Bang doesn’t even pause anymore, just hunches his back slightly for Stoick to find the toe hold on his elbow, and there’s just another way I’ve been replaced. I never thought Bang would ditch me if I finally got a fraction of some supposed growth spurt.

Catching up with Arvid, my ass.

“What do you mean, bud?”

I’m glad Mom didn’t tell him. I don’t know why she made that choice, but it was right, even if it’s hard now to look at him being the same age I was when I was accidentally burning down forges and everyone noticed what I was and what I clearly wasn’t. He’s too smart to be lied to but so was I and it’s the passing of a perverse torch for me to do it now.

“Everyone is sad.” He lays down on Bang’s head, cheek smushed against Bang’s face. “Why is everyone sad?”

“Aurelia is more mad at me than sad,” I try and divert, “and frankly, I’d love your insight on that because I have no idea what her problem has been lately.”

“I think it’s something about a boy,” he wrinkles his nose, “but that’s not why Dad’s sad.”

“I think he’s sad because of a boy too,” I sigh, “not like that, but…well, you don’t need to worry about it.”

“I’m already worried about it.” He leans up on his elbows, head on his hands, comfortable like only a kid on a well trained dragon can be. Probably more even, given that he grew up with Toothless and the lack of fear that comes with that.

“Well, you shouldn’t.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m worried about it already,” I nod like I know what I’m talking about, “ok? I’ve got the worrying covered and plus, you’ve got more important sh—stuff! I mean stuff to worry about. Don’t you start Terror tracking soon? That was hard for even me.”

“It’s gonna be easy,” he shakes his head, “I track with Toothless all the time. He can find all my lost toys.”

“That’s because he already knows how to do it.” I scratch under Bang’s chin for a second before almost tentatively ruffling his hair. He doesn’t shove me off and I hate how I feel right for lying to him, even if I didn’t really lie. I just told him the part of the truth that he should know.

That’s worse, isn’t it.

“It’s gonna be easy.”

“You say that,” I push up my sleeve and show him a vaguely curved burn scar on my forearm. “Until you’re trying to train a dragon to find your clothes and they find you instead.”

His eyes widen, “really?”

“No, not really,” I laugh, “that’s a burn, but Arv—my older—a guy in my training class got bit in the ankle. It’s not easy to train a dragon to do the right thing even when you aren’t watching them.”

“It’s gonna be easy.” He crosses his arms, looking so much like Aurelia that I don’t quite know what to do with it, because I can’t remember where I exist in it anymore.

“I hope it is, bud.”

00000

Everything else, all of the rest of these changes happened overnight. I blinked and everything was different. But this takes time, apparently. This takes days. Days of the chief staring blankly at the wall in an empty house while I’m talking to someone, lips pinched into a tight white line when I stop in to ask him something. It’s days of picking through pathetically few items on that list, even as it gets longer and longer. It’s days of noticing that the chief’s handwriting looks just like mine except smeared, because he writes with his left and drags his hand across the runes. Once the whole list smears in my pocket or hand, I can’t tell the last thing he put on it from the first thing I did.

It’s the first time chiefing feels hard, unnatural, lonely. People look at me like they know something is wrong and like they assume I don’t and it’s like the first sixteen years of my life and something entirely different all at once.

It’s worse.

Because I’m alone and Aurelia is with Mom, probably prying, and winter’s creeping away just enough for people to come outside and look to someone for direction and I’m the only one moving.

“But Eret,” Gunnar Ericson explains with a calm sort of patience, like he’s not sure I can handle the conversation, “the west field flooded in the melt and I can’t get anything to grow anywhere else until summer.”

I know absolutely nothing about farming. Even fishing, I only understand at a magical, surface level where a net is put in the sea and somehow fish know to swim into it. But farming? Seeds grow things. That’s about the extent of my knowledge. And I know that there was something weird in the creek flooding everything and I know that Aurelia talked to Fuse about it and I don’t know what happened and the field might be poisoned or something, but maybe plants like flammable soil or maybe the soil isn’t flammable anymore.

Is it normal for the chief to answer questions with a question? I think I’ve heard him do it before but I think he always meant it, like he was looking for a particular answer. I don’t know what I’m looking for.

“Umm…Try?” I wince as it comes out and Gunnar glances in the direction of the chief’s house, closing his eyes and nodding sympathetically at me.

“Sound counsel, acting chief.”

“I’m not acting chief,” I shake my head, because that sounds official and I don’t know if anything I’ve ever done has ever been official. I wasn’t even born official. I’ve spent days pretending and it was exhausting without a title. “So I mean, if trying is going to kill your entire crop and starve the entire island,” I swallow and shrug one shoulder, “don’t?”

“More good advice.” He nods, “it’s ok to tell me to come back later, chief.” He smiles, his upper lip disappearing beneath his thick brown moustache and I remember the time Arvid and I stole an apple from his stand and feel endlessly guilty all over again about it.

“Yeah, that’d be good.” I realize need to talk to the actual chief and frown, “I don’t know exactly when. Probably not later today. Or tomorrow.” Or before everything falls apart in my uncapable hands.

“Maybe things will have dried out by then,” he nods before walking away.

I need to talk to the chief about this one. At this point, the questions I need to talk to the chief about is longer than the list of items I’ve managed to cross off of the masterlist on my own and I realize that means it’s probably time to go talk to him. I’m not afraid to admit to myself that I’ve been avoiding it, but I also can’t find it in me to beat myself up about it because as soon as I step into the house my stomach drops.

The chief is sitting at the table, exactly where he was when I left. He looks up and stares silently at me for a second before looking back at a document that he can’t possibly be reading because it’s the same thing he was pretending to read yesterday and the day before that. It’s like he barely exists, everything annoying but alive about him dead except for where it’s stuck to me like a stain I can’t get off and don’t think I want to anymore. Because it should exist in someone else too, it feels like a doubly applied weight on my shoulders.

“Hey chief.”

“Hey Eret.” His tone shifts across my name and I almost blurt out that I’d change it to Hiccup IV if he stopped making Mom take care of him.

I wouldn’t, I don’t think. That’d be shedding responsibility too and sometimes I think the narrow channel I exist in between all those responsibilities I can’t avoid is the only thing keeping me moving forward. Freedom feels dangerous, I don’t know what I’d do and I fear it wouldn’t be here and Berk would be different and worse when I got back. And more than sitting here, it would be because of my decision.

“I have a few questions about stuff.” I set the list down on the table, my hand thumping a little too loud against the wood like the sound will snap him out of it. It does, for a second, and he frowns at me like he forgot what I just said. “Around the village. People asked me a bunch of things I don’t know the answer to.”

“I’m sure the village is fine,” he shrugs, looking back at the top of the document like he hasn’t gotten any further than that. Or, more likely, like he’s rereading the first sentence again and again and absorbing nothing. “I’ll get to it.”

“Some of this is a little more urgent than—”

“I’m sure nothing is that urgent—”

“There’s flooding in the West firld that’s preventing planting and a delay in building that new dock because of a low wood pile and the dragon hanger isn’t warming up enough—”

“You don’t need to worry about any of those things right now.”

“Well…” I set my jaw, leaning further into the decision I already made once, “I’m worrying about them.”

“Nothing’s going to blow up in the next few days,” he says it like he’s mostly trying to convince himself and like he doesn’t realize that it’s already been a few days.

“That’s another thing, isn’t Fuse supposed to be working on that woodbin wall? Because that’s why I can’t get the wood for the dock—”

“I can’t do this right now.” He snaps and for a second and I think he’s going to cry. He stares at me for a moment, face blank like he knows I’m supposed to be responding and he’s hearing it even though I’m not saying anything.

“I think…I think it needs to get done.” I sigh and push a loose piece of hair behind my ear, “and people are starting to call me chief and acting chief like that’s a title—”

“Acting chief?” He perks up slightly, looking at a spot above my head like I won’t notice it’s not my eyes.

“Yeah, I didn’t tell them to call me that or anything—”

“It’s a great idea,” the chief makes a note on a blank page in his notebook and it trails off after the first few runes. They smear but otherwise they look like mine. “The village needs a chief and you’re acting like it. I’ll write up a notice—”

“Wait, no. I don’t know what I’m doing,” I shake my head, the urge to yawn and scream and stab him and stab something else all mounting at the same time, “I got asked about farming today. I don’t know anything about farming, I can’t…I don’t…” I shrug, throwing my arms in the air and he flinches when they smack back down against my sides. “Help me out here, maybe?”

It’s the thing I never said that he’s always wanted to hear. I expect it to work, I expect some magical realization that I’m his son too, that I’m a kid who needs him as much as that kid that never finished happening was. Or is. That I’m here in the present even though no one seems to notice.

That I’ve never realized how much I needed him until now. Not in the way he wants me to, of course, but it’s something and I need him and no one else can help me. I learned how to manage being dorky and small and awkward without him, but chief? I can’t delve deep enough into my well of vague but persistent self-loathing to figure that out. I need him to tell me. I need someone to tell me and he’s the only one who can and I’m asking.

It feels like begging and I hate that, I hate that I’ve ended up just as weak in front of him as I always told myself I’d never be.

“You’re ready.”

“Ok, but that’s not what I’m asking.”

“You’re ready, you’ve been ready. You’ve been helping me for months now, you haven’t made any big mistakes—”

“What are you saying?”

“I’ll write up a notice and put it—and you can put it at the great hall. Nothing’s going to blow up in the next couple of days—”

“If you’re titling me Acting Chief, something makes me think this is more than for a couple of days.” I flail and I feel more like him than ever, more animated and desperate and willing in a way that’s always been irritating. “I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know how to tell people what to do and have them do it and if it goes wrong, it’s all on me—”

“Just do what I would do.”

“That’s the whole point of me talking to you, I don’t know what you’d do.” Because I’m not as much of him as I should be. As I need to be. As the village needs me to be.

“Nothing can go wrong in just a few days,” he looks back at his notebook, “things don’t change overnight. They just don’t.”

“What do I do about the farming? And the woodpile—”

“I’m trusting your judgement.” He doesn’t look at me. He doesn’t bore an invisible ‘don’t fuck it up’ into my forehead like Mom always does. He sits there like someone who needs to be protected, like one of those who will be affected by whatever wrong thing I inevitably do.

“Well…” I deflate, shaking my head and looking at the door, because the village is going to feel so different when I go back out there. When. Not if. I decided and this drags me further into it, not backwards like I wish.

I could leave. But what would I be leaving? What would it be when I come back?

It feels like everything changes because of me, what would change because of lack of me? I’m already seeing it, in a way, what changes when some version of me disappears. I can’t do that to everyone again.

“It’ll be great.” He shrugs, “you’ll see. I’m trusting you.”

“That…that makes one of us.” I huff, snatching the list—my acting list off of the table and stomping back outside.

00000

Fuse is at the woodpile. I see her first because she’s the only thing standing still, her hair glinting as she cocks her head at the side wall. I should go talk to someone about the stack, first, but I don’t, and I don’t know if it’s what the chief would do and that makes my hands shake.

“Hey Fuse, what’s up?” I walk up to stand next to her, “how’s it going with you?”

“I think it’s going to cave if I take from the front. I think I’ve got to take from the middle and work back but pillar this front corner. I think there’s a crack coming down from the point. See?” She points up and a little to the right at a bit of ceiling that looks exactly like the rest of the ceiling, “It’ll crumble if I don’t column the corner.”

“Then column the corner.” I shrug, “it’s about access from the new dock, right? It should be fine if the corner is a column.”

“Do you know where the chief is? He’s the one asking me to do this.”

“I do,” I sigh, “and he’s not going to tell you, so…so I’m just going to decree, or whatever, that as my first decision as Acting Chief, whatever that means, it’s fine if you column the corner. Because you think it’s the way it’ll work and I trust you.”

“Acting Chief?” She frowns, fully looking at me for the first time since I’ve walked over, “what are you talking about?”

“The chief is writing up a notice to make me official Acting Chief,” I laugh, feeling limp and tired and like I don’t have a chance to do anything but fail, “an ambiguous but surface level powerful title that means nothing but also everything.”

“Wait, I’m missing something, why would he—”

“You know how my Mom was pregnant?” I exhale through my nose, shaking my head slowly and wondering again why she’s not the one falling apart. How she’s not the one staring at a corner. How Aurelia and the chief are on some wavelength that I’m not for the first time since I’ve started looking for similarities. “She’s not anymore. The chief’s…I don’t know, staring at a wall and not deciding anything. My Mom’s…Aurelia…” I chew on the inside of my lip, reminding myself why being here matters more when it feels like everything would be calmer and better and newer everything else. Because this ominous grief-adjacent feeling is too familiar to be healthy. “It’s not the best.”

“My gods, I’m so sorry,” she sounds more typical than Fuse ever does, more broken record polite, and I hate it. I hate how her voice breaks and I wish she were still thinking about explosives. I wish things were going to blow up in the next few days and I didn’t have some undefined period of thinking about what the chief would do in front of me. “Is there—do you need a hug?”

I laugh. It comes out too loud and too painful, like my throat has forgotten how in the past couple of days and it has to half shred to remember.

“No one has asked me that.”

She hugs me, arms pinning my arms to my side, chin pointy and painful into my shoulder. Warm and smelling like black powder and squeezing tighter than she needs to. It’s good anyway, bracing, like she trust me being tough at some level other than just talking about it. She steps back, a little stiff and I wish she wouldn’t be, I wish she’d go back to talking about cracking rocks.

“So Acting Chief, huh?” She nods slowly, “I can column the corner, but that means nothing is stopping reloading the bin from the other side.”

“So I can get the bin catalog updated?” I throw my head back, “oh my gods, that’s the best. I can’t get going with building the dock until Sneezlet Hoarkson lets me take the wood and she’s not doing that until the roster is updated.”

“You sound busy.”

“The busiest.” I sigh, “now I’ve got to get the bin filling and then I can go tell the builders down at the docks—”

“I can do that,” she offers, “I need to get some stuff to start measuring to prep the wall, anyway, it’s practically on my way—”

“You’d do that?” I feel struck by it somehow, maybe it’s that I was just asking for help and didn’t get it and now it’s offered and it’s Fuse, so it feels easy. It’s genuine because she’s never anything else and I don’t know how to apologize for being so thordamned needy. “I might need another hug, that’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”

She sputters, like she never does, started like I’ve never seen her, “I figured you’d had a rough day.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“I’ll go talk to the people prepping the dock,” she nods, cheeks patchy like the enormity of my being Acting Chief just hit her. Like she just realized what she offered but she’s not backing down.

“Thank you.” I sigh, “now I get to tell Sneezlet how to load this up, but well, having that only be half the job is such a huge thing. Thank you.”

“I got it.” She turns abruptly and walks off and that makes me laugh even though I don’t know how anything could be funny right now.

Sneezelet fights the idea of my authority until I tell her to check the notice on the front of the great hall, the notice I haven’t seen or put up yet, but that’s enough to get her ordering people to load their dragons and get all that half green wood stacking into the half of the shelter that Fuse says won’t be affected by her blasts. It feels official, far quicker than I would have thought it could but just as heavy as I’d feared. If this messes up, it’s my fault.

If it messes up, I have to clean it up and that’s all on me, because I don’t think that the chief is going to be ready like he seems to think he is.

Honestly, I don’t know how the chief ever had time to annoy me so much. I’ve only been doing this for a few days on my own and an hour officially and I can’t remember the last time I was home before dinner or got more than half a nights’ sleep. I don’t mind the first part of that, really, because home isn’t my favorite place right now, between the chief staring off into space and Mom being almost frantically fake happy all the time.

And there’s the fact that Aurelia still won’t talk to me, or she’ll talk but it’s not like we used to, it’s not nice or comfortable. It’s like she wants me to be wrong because she’d get something out of it. It’s like every word out of Norse that she remembers, she gets further away.

So I’m happy to be out of the house, but when what feels like the seventh frantic worried face of the day approaches me as I’m trying to get across town to check on Fuse and the progress on the new dock, I may or may not hit today’s emotionally full point and snap at them.

“What? What do you want?”

“Sorry,” Mrs. Ericson takes a step back with wide eyes and her hands held up. I must have sounded fiercer than I thought. “Er, Chief?”

“I’m not the chief.” I blurt out automatically and shake my head, “but right, I’m Acting Chief, that’s why I’m so tired. Acting Chief is fine. What can I do for you?”

“My Winky chewed through their girth last night, the boy forgot to take the saddle off when he got home, and I was just wondering when I could drop it by the forge for you to fix.”

“I’m not actually putting in much forge time these days,” I sigh, “Smitelout Jorgenson is over there though and don’t tell her I said this, but she’s actually doing a pretty good job picking up the slack.”

“Oh, I know she’s been working with Gobber,” Mrs. Ericson hems and haws the way that Vikings don’t unless they’re talking to the chief, which is somehow me, as weird and uncomfortable as that still feels, “she fixed my dagger up last week, actually, and it’s fine, I just…well, I prefer your individual touch on the leather.”

“That’s…flattering, Mrs. Ericson, but I really don’t have time right now.” I try to feel like I’m not being crushed under the weight of her understanding disappointment. “I…ok, bring it by the forge and leave it with Gobber, I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you!”

“It’s fine,” I lie, because it’s a pain in the ass and I don’t have time and that’s what the chief would have said but he has me to cover for him and I don’t. “If I can’t get to it—”

“You’re trying, lad, that’s all we ask!”

“Right.” I wave at her and keep walking, looking down at my feet like it’ll make me less noticeable.

I remember when I used to want to be noticed, when it used to feel like something would change if someone just saw me. When I thought my ideas would matter and that somehow, that wouldn’t feel like a crushing weight plopped onto my chest.

I miraculously make it down to the dock without anyone seeing me, because checking in with what Fuse offered to do seems like the biggest guarantee for some level of comparative success in this overwhelming day, but of course, everyone is yelling.

“Fall?” Someone is yelling at Fuse, which makes me furious in a way I can’t quite comprehend right away, because I put here there, I told her I’d cover her, “we’re supposed to wait to do this with fall wood? That doesn’t submerge right—”

“I’m just telling you what I—”

“Well, tell whoever told you that they’re a thick-skulled moron—”

“You seem perfectly capable of delivering your own insults.” Fuse deadpans, completely unflappable as they move closer to her, shorter and angrier than she is and l move to step between them.

He pokes her in the shoulder. She blanches, suddenly alarmed.

“Do you want to blow us both up?”

“Is that a threat?”

“Whoa there,” I step between them, facing the guy who’s causing Fuse problems. He’s younger, but not young enough that I know him. Small enough that the weight of the axe against my lower back makes me feel like I know the only ways this could go. “What’s the problem?”

“She said—” He tries to point around me at Fuse and I check his forearm with my wrist, just enough of a hit to tell him I know where my axe is and could get it just as fast.

“I don’t care what she said.” I step towards him, “tell your boss that you can start building as soon as Sneezlet lets you have the wood. And don’t start fights you can’t finish.” I look at Fuse over my shoulder and she’s red and irked in a way she rarely gets without Arvid’s purposeful prodding. “That would have gone bad for everyone.”

“Says who?” He tries, but he’s faltering, and the combination of me and Fuse must mean something that I never used to because he doesn’t move towards me.

“Says the guy who’s got Acting Chief status according to the notice on the front of the great hall. Go check. I don’t care.” I make a mental note to put up that notice next, before I find a place to sit down.

“How soon are we going to get the wood?” He asks, narrowing his eyes at me, and I think I recognize him from Rolf’s dragon training graduation. Maybe there was something in the water that whole year.

“Soon, we’re moving into half the pile and can get it counted.” I take a step towards him and he backs off two, “go tell your boss. Seriously.” I hate how I sound like the chief when I aim for authoritative and I clear my throat, “and come to me next time you don’t like an order.” I try and shrug how Ingrid does, that little shrug that makes my axe handle stick out. “Preferably before you form that wrong opinion.”

“Alright,” he falters, looking at Fuse one more time like he wants to say something and stopping himself, “Acting Chief.”

“Good,” I turn away before he can pull me into more of this delightful conversation, hands sweating enough that I wipe them on my pants. Fuse is staring at me like she’s not sure if she needs to say anything and I look at the fullest pocket of her vest, “maybe next time leave the explosions at home when I send you on such a confrontational errand.”

“It wasn’t a confrontational errand.”

“I didn’t think so,” I laugh, gesturing back up the path from the dock, “but maybe I should get you out of here before that changes. What happened?”

“I just relayed the message.” She looks as embarrassed as she is distracted. “He just started telling me to insult people—”

“Ok,” I stop, reaching for her elbow and pausing before I end up in the same situation, my arms falling back slack as I step off of the trail and wave her to follow me. “Things like that don’t just happen. I’ve made enough happen on purpose to know that it’s not necessarily easy.”

“I didn’t do anything.” She stands in front of me, a little bored but not willing to ignore me and I hope it’s not just my almost title. Somehow, with her, I know it’s separate.

“You know, you’re one of the only people that I actually trust around here,” it comes out fast and honest and funny in a way nothing has really been lately, “but if I’m going to be Acting Chief, I’m going to need a bit of diplomacy.”

“It’s not my fault if everyone else is so sensitive.” She looks confused and angry about it and I sigh.

“Everyone isn’t sensitive, we’re Vikings. You’re just…shockingly direct and astute enough that your first hit usually gets the vulnerable place.”

“I didn’t hit anyone.” She crosses her arms, looking bored and red and out of her element the same way she makes me feel. “He just acted like it.”

“Oh come on, you honestly don’t know you can be…harsh?” I want to reach for her arm again, to tap her on the shoulder. It feels like no one else should hear what we’re saying, it feels like I want it to be a secret.

“You don’t seem to think so.”

I laugh at that, “that’s because I’ve already said all the meanest things to myself and you’re logical in comparison.”

“I’m not mean to you.”

“You’re frank.” I want to shake her even though it’s dangerous, even though it could evaporate us both and leave a crater. I realize I might know something she doesn’t, even if it’s still new to me, even if it’s still strange. Maybe I’ll understand it better if I say it out loud and I try to curb the urge to whisper it because that’d make it sound less sure. “You know, sometimes, when chiefly authority is involved, you have to say things so that people will like the idea of listening to you.”

“Why do I care if they like it?” She hesitates though, cocking her hip slightly, arms crossed but slack like she’s thinking about leaving but isn’t quite sure yet.

“Because someone just tried to fight you.”

“I don’t care if people want to fight me,” she scoffs, “it’s stupid.”

“Ok, how about I care?” I step closer, “because I like trusting you when to know when to blow things up and if people are trying to fight you, that decision is out of your hands.”

“I can’t control what people do.” She falters slightly, her frown cracking around the edges like she’s just realizing what just spun out of control. “People don’t react like bombs, they don’t make sense. I don’t know how I’m supposed to predict how people will react to things.”

“You’re pretty good at predicting me.”

She cocks her other hip and averts her eyes, cheeks red like she’s not used to me catching her by surprise.

“That’s because your face is obvious.” She shrugs and almost looks defiant, almost embarrassed. I want to fix this more than I want to check off anything.

“Yeah, maybe, I never said I was subtle.” I step closer, trying to frame what I’m about to say in a way that I won’t have to explain more than once. This all feels subtle. Important. And that notice still isn’t up anywhere. “Sometimes, you have to say it so that people will like you.”

“I just told him what you said.”

“Ok, I get that but…ok, ok, let’s practice.” I grab her elbows and turn us around so that she’s still facing me but my back is to the road. I don’t realize what I’ve done until I drop her and step back, waiting for that face that means she’s scared of an unpredictable ticking. It doesn’t happen. She just reddens slightly, arms slack at her sides. “Ok…pretend you have to tell me that I…hmm, that you can’t blow out a wall I need you to or like…a bunch of fish is going to spoil. Or something.”

“Why can’t I do it?”

“I don’t know, make something up,” I laugh, “something is cracked or something.”

“I’m not good at making things up.” She looks like she just admitted some secret more horrible than any I’ve heard already, which is simultaneously hilarious and impossible.

“It’s just me, it doesn’t have to be good.”

“Ok.” She shrugs and thinks for a second, two thirds of an eyebrow lowered over her right eye. “I can’t blow up the imaginary wall because it’ll take down the imaginary hill too.” She’s completely flat, awkward in a way that’s never been so palpable, small under all those packed tight vest pockets.

“Ok, now say it like you want me to like you.”

She sputters again, cheeks patchy, fingertips digging into her arms. I laugh and it’s more uncomfortable than genuine.

“Apparently a thought a little too far from reality,” I try and shrug it off but suddenly this feels weird. Ominous. Like I’m missing something obvious and it’s circling. “What did you actually say?”

“What Aurelia told me to.” She sighs, “she caught me halfway over and said you’d told her that you’d miscalculated and there wouldn’t be enough wood until the whole bin was full.”

There it is.

“She did what?”

“She told me that—”

“Yeah, I heard you.” I pat her almost reflexively on the shoulder and she doesn’t flinch, “I didn’t tell her to do that. I’m going to go…I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing.” It feels like less of a confession than it does something shameful I shouldn’t saddle her with. “I’ll…see you. I guess.”

“Yeah.” She pauses, mouth half open, “I…yeah. I’ll let you know if I need anything to column that wall. Acting Chief.” She uses the title like it means something and I hate that it does. I don’t want to leave but I have to, because I promised I’d keep things together and even though that was only to me and the half the chief still talking, it still matters. It still has to matter.

Chapter Text

I don’t see Aurelia until the next day, when the notice is clearly displayed on the front of the great hall, clean and crisp and clinical in a way the chief’s blurred runes aren’t on their own. People stop to look at it when they see it, they read it and then look at me, worried and knowing and willing to believe a piece of paper more than I ever should have believed everything I used to think was solid.

Aurelia has a different look when she approaches me after seeing it, small and red and quick, and I step out of her way habitually before remembering Fuse’s face and wishing I hadn’t.

“Acting Chief, huh?” She says it like an insult, like everyone, including her, said Hofferson. “Because now is the time to do that—”

“I didn’t do anything,” I take a step sideways when she tries to push closer, because I don’t want to push back. I don’t want to bring this to that. “I just tried to keep things together—”

“Because now’s your chance—”

“You sabotaged Fuse.” I cut her off, loud enough that she seems to respect it for a minute. She crosses her arms and gives a long exhale through her nose.

“We don’t have enough wood.”

“According to who?”

“According to someone with eyes.”

“According to me we do.” I try to feel like saying it means something and I can’t say I succeed. But then I remember Fuse, in a fight she didn’t pick with no way out and not knowing why she was in it, I puff my chest out and feel ridiculous, but like I have to commit.

“The woodbin is empty—”

“Because all the green wood harvested is being stored in some random clearing while the chief decides how to reorganize so that the brand new dock we’re building can access it.” I tap my chin with my finger, “right, the dock you tried to delay. You do know it.”

She huffs.

“How was I supposed to know—”

“You weren’t supposed to know, and I think the reasons are obvious—”

“You could have told me, you’re Acting Chief now, you could make an effort to keep me in the loop instead of—”

“Instead of what? Just assuming you’ll go behind my back and get Fuse into shit situations whenever you feel like?” I had to spend all of last night thinking of how to say this some kind of well, but none of those words are still with me now. “Honestly, I’m really busy. This is really hard and I don’t have time to tell you things, let alone make sure you don’t do anything stupid with them.”

“That’s not fair,” she flushes, jabbing her finger into my chest, lower than normal, jostling off of my ribcage in a way that hurts more than it should. “You could tell me things, you could—you should have waited to claim something that isn’t all yours—”

“Claim something?” I laugh and it’s fake enough that it doesn’t feel like effort, “it got dropped on my head.”

“After you decided it was your problem.”

“Like you tried to do with the dock?” I start walking, done with the conversation in a way I never am. I know this is going to go in circles, and that doesn’t sound fun like normal, it sounds like a sore throat and lost sleep and another self-doubting voice joining the bouquet. “That’s not how it works, you can’t just decide something is your problem and take it.”

“Like that’s not what you did with everything,” she jogs to keep up and it’s worse, because I feel bad about it. “The whole island. My dad was gone from it for a few hours and you decided it was all your problem—”

“It had to be somebody’s problem.”

“Why are you the only somebody?” She pauses and forces me to stop too, to let the rest of her sentence fall on me with the force she intended. “You decided that. That worked.”

“You told Fuse something that wasn’t real, you lied for me—”

“Like I’ve never lied for you. Like I’ve never said you’re happy a million times when you aren’t. Like I haven’t made your disinterest sound like you’re tired and not detached—”

“Not to Fuse.”

“You’re an idiot.” She means it. I don’t know why it’s so bitter or why I don’t care, not right now, not when I’m angry and tired and full of all the realities I can’t control but somehow need to.

“Maybe so. But I’m Acting Chief and you don’t get to undermine that.” I don’t add anything about Fuse even though that’s still where I’m angry. It’s still what made this more than a sibling tiff. Not that she knows how to have those, not that she’s learned.

“I get that now.” She doesn’t look like she gets it, she looks like she recognized this path is blocked but she’s still wholly committed to whatever direction I don’t understand.

I almost ask her about Arvid. I don’t want the truth, either way.

“So are we done here?”

“Yeah. I can see we are,” she looks me up and down like she doesn’t recognize me either and turns on her heel to stalk away.

Fine.

She can storm off all she wants. It’s not even towards the Thorston place, which is what really matters, because I really don’t want her talking to Fuse and playing off some part of that as normal. Somehow, I’m scared that Fuse might believe her and I don’t know what that would mean. There’s that weird new feeling that maybe Fuse isn’t as impenetrable as she’s always seemed, that something is different now that I understood something she didn’t. That she was confused and in some kind of danger because of something I did and something Aurelia intercepted.

I find myself at the Thorston place without really thinking about it, and I walk up to Fuse’s shed’s open door even though it seems less like an invitation than usual. Chiefs should knock. I don’t know what I really think about my existence or title or family or life, but I know that all of it would be more obvious if chiefs knocked. I knock on the side of her door frame and she whirls to look at me, moving faster and jerkier than I’ve ever seen her.

“What?” She half snaps, almost truly startled before she notices it’s just me. “What are you doing here?”

“I uh…I don’t know, honestly.” I feel too big in the doorway, like the door is shorter than it used to be and my shoulders are wider than they’re supposed to be. Like I’m pushing my way into a space I’m not sure if she wants me to fit in anymore. “I talked to Aurelia.”

“So you want to vent.” She says it like it’s an inevitability and I hate that she feels those too.

“No, I wanted to see how you’re doing.” I swallow, crossing my arms then uncrossing them, trying to find something comfortable even though I’ve never had to try with her before. “After…you know.”

“I’m fine.” She won’t look at me and for the first time I can read her, if only partially, and she’s lying.

“It’s ok if you’re not—”

“She lied to me.” Fuse throws something metallic down on her workbench and her shoulders shake. “She lied to me after I trusted her.”

“I know, I talked to her—”

“You trust everyone,” she cuts me off and it’s not for me, like it usually is, it’s not cutting off some wrong and harsh thought that I don’t need to have, “I don’t. I trusted her and she lied to me and it messed up something important.”

“It didn’t mess anything up,” I don’t want to walk inside without asking, no matter how bad I want to ask if she’s the one that needs a hug today, especially when her face is so wrong, “if anything, I learned she was up to something sooner. I don’t know what, but it’s something and—”

“I believed her.”

“She hadn’t given you any reason not to.”

“I read her like you,” Fuse looks back at her workbench, “it used to look the same enough to trust.”

“I…” I want to reach out and touch her shoulder, I want to tell her that it’s going to be ok even if it’s not true. I kind of want to test if she can still read me or if I look different too, if I look like an Acting Chief like that title means anything. “I get that. I don’t know what to say to her either.”

“You’re blocking my light,” she looks at me like she’s trying not to see me, like she wants me to be someone she doesn’t trust with the little trembling frown at the corners of her expression. “I just want to get that wall out.”

“Sorry,” I lean more fully to the side until a sunbeam settles over her arms, “and I get that. And I appreciate it but…” It feels like a decision to keep talking, but what doesn’t these days, “as uh…Acting Chief and the one suddenly responsible for keeping the whole village running, I can’t leave until I make you laugh.”

That gets her. She pauses entirely and turns to look at me, brows furrowed, eyes fully focused for the first time since she noticed it was me and not anyone else.

“What?”

“Gotta keep the citizens happy, you know, it’s part of the job. I’ve got to make you laugh, it’s just umm…routine.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Yeah, and I get to make ridiculous laws so…” I fumble with my hands, feeling weird for putting them inside of the shed when she hasn’t invited me to but also hoping that the more obvious I am, the more likely she is to get that I’m trying to distract her. “It’s ridiculous law time and I’m not leaving until you laugh.”

“Ok,” she looks at me another minute and I get the feeling that she’s checking my face against something in her head, something that isn’t Aurelia or the chief and I don’t hate that fact. I wonder if it’s me, another version of me, one less stressed and less determined. “You might as well sit down.”

“Come on, don’t take my moody teenager angle,” I sigh, resisting the urge to collapse onto that uncomfortable stool like I’ve done too many times before. “I can’t crack that, that’s the whole reason why it works.”

“I’m busy.”

“The Acting Chief needs you—”

“Eret.” She glares at me and her eyes are wet and confused and I hate it. I want to offer her a hug like she did me but that feels wrong. Like I’d be shoving some shadow of Aurelia on her. I want to distance myself from that and that’s hard to swallow.

“I’m just trying to help.”

“I know, but you can’t.” She huffs, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so expressive, well, except when she’s hopping around a dragon corpse. I wish she were more happily expressive, but she’s not, and I want to fix that. It’s not on the day’s list but it might as well be item number one.

“Give me one chance.”

“At what?”

“One chance to make you laugh.” It doesn’t feel like gambling any more than any particular path through the village does and her shed creaks when I lean on it slightly harder. “Either way I’ll leave you alone. If you want.”

“I do.”

“So since you win both ways, give me one chance.” I raise my eyebrows, eyes tracing her face as she stares at me, unreadable but generally sad.

“Fine.”

“What…why does the gronckle cross the…nearest fault line?” I stumble into it, hoping I think fast enough to find my way out of the other side, but it doesn’t leave me much room to think of anything but Fuse, and how sad she looks and what might change it. At what makes her bright eyed and giggly. What makes her laugh fake and loud and what she talks about when no one prompts her.

“Why?” She stares at me levelly like she half wishes it could ignite.

“To get to the…denser, more uplifted granite.” I sound too confident for what I’m saying, because this is stupid, and I don’t know anything about gronckles and she stares at me a long minute before the corner of her mouth twitches.

“You’re an idiot.”

“I always said you were honest.” I want to step inside again, like all of this would mean more if I were closer, and that’s nonsense because I have a few dozen other places to be.

She sighs and tries to purse her lips disapprovingly but it turns into an impossible smile somewhere along the way. Her snaggletooth peeks out slightly, half dug into her lower lip and I raise an eyebrow.

“Consider me laughing, ok?” She goes back to glaring at me, but it’s different, more dismissive than sad. “Let me figure this out.”

“Alright, I’ll leave you to it,” I take a step backwards and hate how it feels, because behind me is the challenge I don’t know how to beat, “let me know if you need anything.”

“I already said I would…” she trails off, focused enough that she doesn’t glance at me and I take that as at least part of a win in an unwinnable situation.

Because even though I half understand Fuse, Aurelia is still angry and out there.

00000

I don’t see anyone in the mornings. Mom and the chief are usually asleep. Aurelia is usually behind a closed bedroom door. I haven’t seen her sneak back in for a while and I don’t know how to feel about it, if it’s better or worse for her and Arvid to have been a fling.

Probably worse. That’s a lot of emotional discomfort for something that won’t last.

It’s something I think about confronting the first morning I realize I don’t have anywhere to be right away. I’ve been Acting Chief a little more than a week and the morning it weirdly quiet, the sun just creeping over the horizon as Bang snores next to me. I used to be able to sleep in but now I don’t remember how or what it’s like to not bolt upright a few hours before dawn, paralyzed with the fear of missing something that someone more important than me deems important. Not that there’s anyone more important than me, these days, given that the chief is mostly focusing on staring at walls and answering Mom’s over-eager questions with hums and grunts.

And this morning, I know I should get up. I know I should go walk around and try to find something to do, to fend off the mid-afternoon rush of everyone reaching some sort of solution-less problem at once.

I sneak off to the forge instead, leaving Bang at home to play with Stoick, who’s still whining at the lack of dragon selection date choice, which is something I really don’t want to bring up. The woods are still as quiet as the skies and no one has asked me why, but I can’t promise I wouldn’t be honest if they did. Mostly people ask me about everything I think they could do themselves, that and houses and doing things to them. I don’t seem to know what daily life as a chief means and I’m not sure I ever will.

The forge is quiet at this hour, the coals just barely crackling when I open the door. It’s not that I’m planning on using it, but it’s colder than I expected and I’d like the warmth. I toss a couple of logs on and spark the flint on the nearest worktable, sighing when it doesn’t catch.

I’m out of practice.

That’s not what I wanted to feel before I picked up the Ericson saddle and assessed the damage. It’s not great, the leather along the skirt chewed and shredded in a way that’s going to be hard to disguise. There’s not much scrap leather in the shop but I set about cutting it up, layering it over the damage in something that half looks like a pattern and digging up one of the thick leather needles and the thick wool thread that goes with it.

I missed this. Not in a sleepy, ambiguous way like the way I miss normalcy, but in the way that I actually miss working with tangible things. Things that I have to figure out, things that I have to fix. Things that I can make better. This will be stronger by the time I’m done with it, neater, with fewer rough leather edges spreading with age and drawing dragons in to chew them. The sun is fully up when I’m just finishing the last of the patches I’m working in and Smitelout kicks the door open, pausing when I don’t jump.

“What are you doing here, twerp?”

“Fixing something.”

“Who’s job is that?” She picks up the hammer I used a minute ago to get the thick needle through double the leather and hangs it on the wall, exactly opposite of where it goes. I try not to glare at her, tying off a neat knot and tugging it tight with my teeth.

“I don’t know, that’s a couple of levels below my delegation.”

“Acting Chief for a week and a half and there goes the ego.” She starts loading up the forge and I try not to act like I’m glad when she gets it lit on the first try and a warm breeze blows across my calves.

“What? Gone completely along with hope of sleep and the confidence in possibility of second chances?”

“Gods, I’m not doing that.” She takes the thread roll that I snipped off of and puts it away in the wrong place too. “Nope, not playing the whole complain with Chief Twerpling game.”

“Good, because I didn’t ask you to play anything.”

“Great,” she steps closer and stares at me until I look at her, eyebrows raised.

“Can I help you?”

“Yeah, by getting out of my space.”

“This is the saddle anvil, it’s got that rounded front.” I stand up and flex my hand, trying to work feeling back into numb fingers. Leather is harder than metal because you can’t change it, you just have to push through again and again until you believe it’ll hold together whether you’re watching or not.

“I use it for hammers, because it’s rounded in front.”

“Who told you to do that?” I scoff, “that doesn’t make any sense.”

“No one told me,” she crosses her arms, “it’s just the basest level of common sense.”

“I’m almost done.”

“I’m here early because I have shit to get done,” Smitelout gestures at a pile of projects ranging from weapons to door hardware and I stand back from the saddle to look at the evenness of my stitches from a distance.

“How’s this look?”

“Like a dragon chewed it and someone tried to make it look unique,” Smitelout scoffs, “you should have replaced the skirt level.”

“There’s not that much scrap leather.”

“You should have charged for not scrap—”

“You’ve worked here, what? A few months?” I roll my eyes, picking up the saddle and setting it in the stack for pickup. “Let Mrs. Ericson know that this is free of charge, just for her vocal preference of my work—”

“Right, because that totally happened—”

“It did.” I wipe my hands on my pants, rubbing my fingertips together and trying to work feeling back into the deep numb lines. “So I think I know when to charge for scrap and when no to.”

“This is supposed to be about making money.” She hefts the anvil over to the wrong station and starts heating a dented hammer up in the fully lit forge. “And no one’s going to pay for shit patch jobs. Not to mention that replacing the skirt works better.”

“But it’s a waste.”

“Yeah, a waste of profit.”

“Like that’s what matters,” I’m emphatic because the last time I thought about wealth or money, I had none, I was my parents’ son and I knew I wasn’t worth anything. Now, I can walk up to anyone and ask for a deal on whatever I want and it’s almost expected that they should give it to me. I hate it.

“Maybe when you’re Acting Chief.”

“Yeah, I don’t have to care too much about money.” I shrug, “it’s kind of a popularity contest, which good for you that you don’t have to deal with it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She takes the war hammer out and gives it a few smart, exacting whacks with her hammer.

“I’m just saying, being chief is about being likeable and—”

“I don’t remember giving you your key back,” Gobber huffs around the corner, hand knuckle white on his cane like he was rushing in here for some reason. “Some of us are trying to get work done here, laddie.”

“I got work done,” I point at the saddle, “Mrs. Ericson wanted me, in particular, to fix it.”

“Mrs. Ericson doesn’t know a cross-stitch from a full stitch,” Gobber sits down on the stool I just vacated.

Smitelout laughs, “nice one.”

“You about done with that? It’s been close for a week,” Gobber chastises her and it’s almost gentle. It’s generically bossy like in a way he never is with me. “Don’t you have something better to do than fawn over Mrs. Ericson’s saddle?”

“I’m not fawning,” I cross my arms, “I’m just doing what’s necessary for an appreciative citizen—”

“How’s Hiccup?” He cuts me off, authentic and irritated that it took me so long to say something I didn’t think he knew about.

“Why?”

“Because he asked, twerp.” Smitelout laughs. I glare at her and I might as well have slept in if I wanted to be ganged up on like this.

“Because I’d be careful with thinking you’re so popular,” Gobber says in that way that lets me know, unequivocally, that he knows more than me and isn’t afraid for me to fret over it.

“You heard that?” I scoff, because that doesn’t matter. Or it does, but not here, not in the place where ability matters more than birthright more than anywhere else on Berk. Here where I mattered before anyone wanted to believe I could.

“Sounded like you were having way too much fun,” he ushers me out the door, shoving me not at all gently in my lower back with the round of his hook. “Go be popular out there, I heard there’s a new dock that’s already behind.”

“Last time I try and help you guys out—”

“We don’t need it,” Smitelout shouts as the door closes behind me. Gobber stays on the other side. I’m more alone than I was before he booted me and I hate to look at the day ahead.

The fact is that the place I’m least needed is the place I felt alright and useful for a morning. Moving up is a lot like being kicked out of where I used to belong and that feeling is still a little too familiar.

Chapter Text

“Is it broken?” I feel stupid asking the question as I stare at the dam Sven wants help with. I’ve never looked at a dam for this long before, of course I understand the basic idea of it, that it stops water from flowing and makes a pool that we can draw from more easily, as evidenced by the channel taking water down the hill to the fire suppression system. But there’s also water trickling through the front of it, a smaller stream than the one uphill, sure, but isn’t it supposed to stop the water?

“No,” Sven shakes his head, “we just need a bigger reservoir behind it, the chief gave permission for a secondary channel down by the hanger in case of fire and when we try to fill both,” he shrugs, “it doesn’t work.”

“Ok…” I sigh, “dumb question, but why don’t we just stop all of the water coming through it? Can’t we grab this water.” I dip my toe in the trickle through the front of the rocks and Sven looks at me like I’m stupid.

“If we fully dam the creek and get more rain than we expect, that’s a flood for sure.”

“But wouldn’t it just go the new way you tell it to?” I point at the diverted channel and Sven shakes his head, obviously frustrated.

“Well, no, it’d flood the dry riverbed and eventually the North fields and the village itself, most likely.”

“So we can’t do that.”

“No.”

“What exactly do you need again?” I rub my forehead like that’ll make it think faster or de-clutter the thoughts that are already there. I’ve been on my own with this stuff for a week and a half now but it feels like a lifetime, or at least like I have a lifetime worth of everyone else’s problems jamming up my brain. Bang nudges my hand and I pat his nose.

“You ok, chief?”

“Acting Chief,” I correct, because the opposite of what people say almost always sounds better. Acting Chief sounds ineffective when I don’t know what to do but Chief sounds like I should know what to do. There’s no winning with it really. “Just a headache. I’m fine. It’ll be better when we figure this out, so what exactly do you need? Again? Again again? Sorry.”

“We need the pool behind the dam to be bigger.” Sven speaks slowly in a way that would usually offend me, but it’s about all I can keep up with right now. “So conventionally, that means we need to make the dam wider and taller, but I don’t know what rock to use and we can’t spare the dragons to go off island for it.”

“Right,” I look around like I keep forgetting to, the absence of wild gronckles fluttering around more ominous than it should be. “What kind of rock do you need?”

“Any of the bedrock around here works best. Big pieces,” he holds his arms out wide to tell me how big, “are good, but I’ve used them all.”

“Big pieces…” I think to myself for a minute, but I’m apparently too tired to be contented in thinking about a list of places I’ve seen the biggest, hardest rocks and my mind tries to wander. The chief would know the answer, if he were saying anything other than the blandest small talk I’ve ever had to suffer through. Fishlegs might know, Hel, Rolf might now and I should probably check in on the dragon catalog anyway. That’s just another thing that got pushed aside in all of this, that and the fact I haven’t talked to Fuse about our plan in weeks. Fuse…Fuse! “Oh! Fuse Thorston is about to blow out that wall at the edge of the wood bin, by the new dock, I wonder if there’s a way to make it crumble into big enough pieces for this.”

“That’s an idea,” Sven shrugs, and in some ways I like talking to him more than other people, because he tells me when my ideas are stupid instead of just taking pity on the young, frazzled Acting Chief and letting me get away with being wrong. “I’ve used a lot of her rubble before, it’s usually a little small but it’ll do.”

“I’ll ask her if there’s any way to make it bigger.” I swing onto Bang, “and I’ll let you know what she says.”

“We need this by the end of summer!” He calls the deadline after me like I’m not stressed enough about it and I steer Bang a little higher than is really necessary, closing my eyes as we cut through a cloud and cold water condenses on my face. My beard’s getting long again, just on the cusp of annoying, and I make a note to shave it later, you know, if I have a single instant at home and awake enough to remember.

The easiest way to avoid Aurelia and the chief’s sad, dead eyes is to get home late and wake up early. Unfortunately, there’s more than enough to do to fill pretty much all of that time, so that means I don’t see Stoick or Mom either. And maybe that’s something I’m avoiding too, because at this point I’ve left her alone with this far too long if she isn’t as ok as she’s been acting. I hate that somehow, I’m at this point where I’m in a position to doubt what my mom tells me, to read into it more than she might want me to.

But she’s been ok. She’s been keeping up with the house, Stormfly’s saddle is shiny and her axe found its way back inside after spending a couple days in the demolished trunk out front. Maybe she’s doing what I’m doing and keeping busy to avoid thinking about anything and maybe that’s all anyone can do sometimes.

I land at the edge of the square, pointed towards the Thorston house and walking quickly enough to avoid any reasonable interruption, but when someone grabs my hand with an irrationally strong grip and crows in my ear, I know it’s not reasonable.

“Oh, Eret, I just need to ask you for the quickest favor!” It’s Mrs. Ack, her wrinkled arms almost mystically strong as she hooks her elbow through mine and reaches up to pinch me on the cheek. Or she tries, I think she gets mostly beard because of her height and slumped back and the fact that there’s not much unbearded cheek at the moment. It hurts anyway and I rub my face when she lets go.

“I’m a little busy right now, Mrs. Ack.”

“It’s really the smallest favor,” she drags me towards the farm stand on the other side of the square and I look almost wistfully over my shoulder at the barely visible roof line of Fuse’s shed. It’s quiet there. I bet if I asked, she’d let me hide for half an hour. I wonder if she’d mind if I took a nap, honestly. “I was just thinking to myself how I’d bought too much heavy food when I saw you landing just nearby.” She squeezes my arm the way she pinched my face, “you just remind me so much of your grandfather.”

“Stoick the Vast was known for his food carrying abilities?” I laugh and try to loosen her grip on my arm, but it’s pointless. I’ve learned that in the last couple of weeks. Vikings are stubborn and cutthroat and can’t fathom being wrong, but when it comes to Viking women, that’s all a horrible understatement. And it gets worse with age, for me to tell a woman over eighty that I don’t want my cheek pinched at this exact instant is essentially an act of war.

“He was always so ready to help.” Mrs. Ack has no visible problem picking up a basket and setting it in my arms and before I can start walking towards her house, her arm is back through mine even though she’s dragging me more than she appears to need help walking.

This is the part of being even acting chief that I wasn’t prepared for. When I was helping the chief out, I usually had a directive, I was doing one small thing to completion to the best of my abilities. But when I’m alone out here, I’m always being pulled a million ways at once, and it seems like the strongest pulls, literally when considering Mrs. Ack’s fingers digging into my arm, come from the least important places.

But I don’t exactly resent the few smaller errands I end up with a day, the grocery carrying is new but there’s always a terror in Mrs. Ericson’s tree or a yak in Mrs. Jorgenson’s house that they end up wanting help with. And they usually feed me and try to coerce me to stay for tea and even though they’re pushier than most of their husbands, they’re generally more complimentary on the kind of job I’m doing and at this point, I’ll take what I can get. If my praise is coming in the form of Mrs. Hoarkson shoving her homemade apple bread into my mouth and commenting on how I can’t keep growing if I’m running myself into the ground, at least I’m both full and tired.

“I’ll take that back,” Mrs. Ack drops my arm and nimbly plucks the basket from my hands with one arm, setting it inside her house on the floor and shushing an old Nadder that whines when disrupted from its nap in front of the fire. “Do you have time to come in for a cup of tea? I have leftover pie from last night and if I may say, you’re looking too skinny, chief. You can’t spend so much time taking care of all of us that you forget to eat.” She pats my face again and I laugh.

“I’m just skinny, Mrs. Ack, unfortunately no amount of pie is going to change that.” I take a step back and avoid another cheek pinch, if only narrowly. “And maybe some other time. I’ve got a lot to do today—”

“Can I at least send it with you?” She walks further into her house and starts wrapping up something in waxed parchment. Her husband grunts about giving away all the food and she shushes him. “It’s just Eret, Sigurd, if he doesn’t slow down and have some pie he’s going to blow away the next time he takes off!”

“I’m really fine.” I take a step back from the door but she practically sprints after me, shoving the food into my hand and patting my arm.

“Come by any time, chief, we’ve always got an extra seat at the table since our Burpa moved in with her son last year.”

“Thanks.” I’m probably not going to take her up on that, but at the same time it’s nice to know I have some option to be very well fed even if tensions get too high at home. “Have a good rest of your day.”

She squeezes my arm before letting go and I hear her chewing out her husband interspersed with brief seconds of praise that I try and take in while they last, because if I let them sink in maybe it’ll be a cushion the next time someone directly calls me stupid or naïve or laughs when I try to tell them to do something. I unwrap the pie almost immediately, eating it as I walk back across the square towards the Thorston house.

“I thought Mrs. Ack was going to lock you up inside her house and never let you out.” Someone appears beside me fast enough to startle and I drop my pie, barely catching it in the other hand and crushing it slightly.

It’s Ruffnut and when she looks at my clumsiness with vague disgust, it makes her look more like Fuse and less at the same time. Mostly it makes me miss Fuse’s fond annoyance at my antics, even though it’s only been a few days since I’ve seen her.

“She seems convinced she can feed me out of my skinny phase,” I look down at myself, the bony lines of my ribs practically visible through the shirt that’s somehow tight on my shoulders and loose everywhere else. Maybe it’s a holdover from when Mom was…incapacitated and the chief was getting someone else to do all the laundry. It must have shrunk and then stretched funny. “I told her it’s not a phase. What can I do for you, Mrs. Ingerman?”

“Oh come off of that,” she rolls her eyes, “I wiped your butt. It’s Ruffnut, whether you’re some fancy chief or not.”

“Acting Chief.”

“Yeah, you are acting like a chief but I’m not going to hold it against you.”

“Do you need something?” I shove the slightly crushed pie in my mouth and almost choke on a crumb, coughing after I manage to force it down.

“I was just checking that you’re actually that clueless,” she shakes her head, “and not letting yaks into the Jorgenson house just to check up on the misses.”

“That was so weird,” I laugh, “it left really willingly too. Which was good because I know about as much about livestock as I do about—”

“Women?” She raises an eyebrow and everything about the way she’s looking at me makes me uncomfortable. It’s like she’s both on my side and against it and I have no way of knowing which way she’s facing at any exact instant. “Yeah, I’ll bet.”

“I was going to say being chief but, I mean—”

“Women works better.” She rolls her eyes and shifts her basket to her other hip. She looks young like Mom, but in a different way, like she stole it from other people’s youth by teasing them until they willingly handed it over. “Don’t let some grandma pinch your arm off before my niece comes to terms with how clueless she is, alright?”

“I uh…” I frown, “I’m going to go talk to Fuse now if she needs help with something. Not that I usually have more clues than she does, but—”

“That’s gotta be the Astrid part, right?” She’s talking through me more than at me and I get that all too familiar feeling that everyone knows something I don’t. “Hiccup figured it out eventually and it wasn’t as obvious.”

“You’re being super cryptic and not helpful at all…”

“Odin, that’s always weird,” she shakes her head and sighs at me like I’ve caused her great personal distress. “When you do the…the talking thing, like that. Ugh. Anyway, I’m not going to ruin the surprise for anyone, so I’ll see you around. Also, just in case you didn’t know, Terrors don’t actually get stuck in trees. They can fly, just, by the way.”

“I know terrors can fly,” I call after her but she doesn’t stop, a fact I’m frankly glad about because I wasn’t enjoying that conversation. “But I did think that one was weird,” I mutter to myself, licking a spot of filling off of my thumb and feeling oddly like I’m being watched. It’s probably Mom, probably ready to jump out and tell me off for my manners, because even chiefs can’t escape those.

Right before I turn to walk up to the Thorston place, I spot Hotgut out of the corner of my eye, landing hard in front of the forge, belly probably full of something heavy and explosive. Fuse slides off of her and I change direction, clicking when Bang doesn’t follow immediately. He’s been sluggish too, well, that and clingy to Mom any second I let him out of my sight.

Smitelout drops whatever she’s doing, literally, and leans over the window to talk to Fuse. Fuse has one of those wrinkled drawings and Smitelout frowns at it, trying to smooth it on the windowsill.

“Ok, but how does blowing up an island help anything?” Smitelout asks at full volume right as I get there and I shush her, earning a spectacularly dirty look.

“There’s a thermal vent under the island that it seems like the dragons are trying to get to.” Fuse explains casually, voice low, and I hope she’s not still dwelling over Aurelia. I hope this isn’t fake confidence, because that’s not something she’s ever supposed to have.

“How could you know that?” Smitelout scoffs at an appropriate volume and I lean in slightly like my back could possibly shelter anything we’re doing. The drawing is just a shell, thankfully, nothing that’d give it away as anything out of the ordinary.

“We found some old drawings that said that island wasn’t there a few hundred years