"No," Hiccup said plainly, and didn't budge. The other three traded a quick startled look, and as one turned back to the slip of a boy, usually so agreeable, with quick smarts and a wry sense of humor, who stared at them with leaf green eyes narrowed in something close to anger.
After a moment, Rapunzel took a step toward him, one hand extended. "Hiccup?" she asked gently. "What's wrong?"
He took a step back to match hers, keeping a closed distance between them. It felt like the severing of a friendship, and Jack's still heart twisted painfully in his chest.
"What did we do?" the winter sprite asked, sounding a little childish to his own ears; but he tightened his grip on his staff, wavered on the threshhold of approaching him, tried not to look as hurt as he felt. He liked Hiccup; Hiccup, who was the first to see him when the four of them came together the first time, who called him Jokul when it was just the two of them because he knew somehow that nicknames made Jack smile, who could disappear so easily it was obvious he made a habit out of it, with his head down and his arms held in close like the whole world had him in a bear trap that might spring if he so much as dared try to take a step out-
Hiccup, who backed away from them now, so small and so fierce and so ready to cut ties with the only friends he had, all because-
"We're trying to help! What's the matter with you?" Merida snapped, and her temper gave the words a sharp edge they didn't need. "We're doing you a favor, signing up to help fight these dragons- "
We lost him, Jack thought, when Hiccup's eyes hardened and he cut the princess off with a shake of his head. "Hiccup, what? We just want to help you."
"I know," he said quietly, rubbing a hand over his face. "I know, I'm sorry. But I can't do this with you, I can't. There's too much to- it's too much." He was already turning away, ducking his head like it was their first day together all over again, with quiet iron in his voice. "Killing isn't going to solve anything here, so thank you anyway. Please, just go back home."
And with that, he wove his way through the crowded street, ducking a few well-meaning arms and ignoring several greetings on his way up the hillside; his friends followed him with their eyes until they couldn't see him anymore, Rapunzel tugging on her borrowed dress anxiously and biting her lip.
"Do we go home?" she asked quietly, and Merida met Jack's eyes in a solid knock of equally determined blue on blue.
"Not at all, lassie. We go after him."
Which was a tiny bit easier said then done, because Hiccup had done an impressive vanishing act into the forest and an hour later Berk's three visitors were still hopelessly lost.
"See anything yet?" Rapunzel shouted from her tree, and a couple dozen feet above the forest canopy, Jack called back a negative. Merida kicked a stone, looking mutinous, and Jack floated back down.
"Village is back that way," he said, pointing his with the crook of his staff as Rapunzel jumped from her branch and landed neatly next to them. "Think maybe he went home by now?"
Merida barked a laugh. "That's probably the last place he wants to be, he was walking on eggshells the whole time we were in his village. Every time someone touched him I half thought he'd jump out of his skin!" Her eyes were hard, and Rapunzel's mouth tugged into a frown, and Jack realized he wasn't alone in thinking Hiccup must have it pretty hard, despite how friendly everyone in town seemed to be.
"Whatever we did to hurt him," the blonde said firmly, "we have to make it right. He's been such a good friend to us, and he's never asked for a single thing in return."
Jack leaned back against a tree, thinking of the way Rapunzel's eyes lit up that day Hiccup brought her an empty sketchbook, set in a leather backing just like his with her name branded on it, shuffling a little on his feet as he held it out like there was a possibility she wouldn't absolutely love it- or the way he could talk shop with Merida for hours about shields or arrows or swords, and make her laugh until she snorted- very unlike a princess- when he dryly detailed a few mishaps he had inventing weapons of his own-
"Oh, Jokul, another prank? She's going to shoot you one of these days, and she doesn't miss. Don't pout, you look like a fish- I'm helping, I'm helping."
They wanted to give back, so they slipped into his world after him, the unfamiliar portal spitting them out a little roughly as if to say even manifest magic knew they were where they didn't belong, but Hiccup had been looking so pale and drawn lately and they wanted to help.
So they "borrowed" some clothes off a line, fed a story here and there about coming in on a trade ship and missing their ride back home, and Jack wore a hat pulled down around his ears because people could see him and he stood out like a sore thumb with his shock of white hair.
But apparently there were a lot of uncommon faces about, people from other tribes and islands were gathering, and that was how they found out about the war between Vikings and dragons; and oh, Hiccup was the chief's son, no wonder he'd been so stressed and anxious, his people were going to war against monsters, we have to help-
But somewhere along the line, they messed up. If it was anyone else, Jack would venture to guess it was maybe a pride thing, but Hiccup wouldn't walk away from them out of pride.
"Oh, look," Rapunzel said, "oh, there's a little cove behind these rocks, and a pond. I'm so thirsty, could we go down and get some water really quickly?"
They weren't making much headway in their search, really, and Merida wanted a drink too, so Jack led the way down and helped them climb over the random shield lodged between two boulders like a door.
He turned and was met face to face with leaf green eyes.
"Hiccup," was all he could manage, and Hiccup just looked so incredulous it was sort of impressive.
"What are you doing here?" he said, crowding them back toward the narrow crevice in the rocks they'd entered through. "I told you to go, you have to go, why doesn't anyone just listen to me- "
Merida reached out to touch his arm, Rapunzel said something like, "Hiccup, please," and Jack floated up out of his reach so he couldn't be herded away like those fat sheep on the hill. They were friends, and Hiccup had to talk to them, or so help him Jack would freeze his feet to the ground until he did.
"We just want to understand," Rapunzel pleaded.
Whatever Hiccup might have said was cut off by Merida's gasp, and Jack whipped his head around as a black shadow came rushing from the opposite side of the cove. He thought of Fearlings and dragons and brought his staff up to ice the thing before it could get any closer-
and Hiccup grabbed it by the crook in both hands, forcing it back down.
"No, Jokul," he said quietly, freezing Jack where he stood right away; his eyes moved to meet Merida's when she reached for her bow. "You want to understand, right?" Exhaustingly desperate, he stepped away, bare hands raised at them, back to the fast approaching midnight creature with poison green eyes. "Then please. Please understand."
By the time he turned to face the monster, it was already upon him; butting him in the stomach and growling, pawing anxiously and baring its wings open, tail lashing into the dirt.
"I know, buddy," Hiccup soothed, offering his hands. "But they haven't tried to hurt us, have they? You know I wouldn't have let them."
Merida's hand fell away from her quiver like it burned, and Jack settled his staff against his shoulder and leaned on it in the most non-threatening way he could. Rapunzel had both hands over her mouth, eyes shocked wide.
"Oh," she whispered, sounding near tears, "oh, Hiccup."
And when the dragon bumped his face with its wide nose, growls gentling into low croons, wings folding calmly around the leather saddle on its back, Jack closed his eyes and gave himself a moment to think oh, god, we almost screwed up big time.
"We must have sounded just like everybody else to you," Merida said quietly. "You're so alone, and we sounded just like them."
Hiccup's eyes cut down, and he did that shuffling thing. "I'm not alone, I have- I have you guys." He said it sincerely, for all that he couldn't look them in the face while he did. "You know, when I can see you. And I have Toothless." The dragon nudged into Hiccup's hand, snorting, and successfully dragged a warm smile out of the boy. It seemed to rally his courage, because the young Viking turned to face them when he said, "I'm sorry for- "
"No," Rapunzel said sternly, and Hiccup blinked.
"What? But I said- "
"You were at your wit's end," Merida agreed. "Here we're supposed to be your friends, and we show up in your home talking about killing dragons, ugh."
"I'd have flown off the handle a little bit too," Jack agreed, drifting a little closer; Hiccup had called him Jokul and now he was trying to apologize, so it didn't look like their friendship was over, after all, and for the first time all day Jack finally felt like he could breathe if he needed to.
"We still want to help you," Rapunzel said, touching Hiccup's face gently and showing no fear of the dragon lurking behind him. "But this is so complicated isn't it? I mean, your people are going to war against dragons, and you're friends with them."
"Yeah," Hiccup said, rubbing a hand through his hair. "Yeah, I- well." He glanced at the dragon and said "show me your tail, bud," and to their surprise Toothless promptly turned and curled it out toward him. At a quick glance, it looked... lopsided.
"Why's there only one of those little wing things on the end," Jack asked him, and Hiccup looked anguished.
"I shot him down with my bola launcher and it tore his left tailfin off. No one's ever seen a dragon like him before, ever, and I thought if I killed him and brought him home to my father, it would- it would fix everything, you know, it would prove I was a Viking and that I belonged here. But then I found him, tangled up and scared, and I had the knife in my hand and- I couldn't." He wrung his hands, meeting his dragon's gaze, looking sorry and at the same time hopelessly determined. "I cut him free, and brought him fish, and built him a tailfin."
I'm gonna make this right, went unsaid, but they could still hear it. The way Toothless crooned softly at him, he could probably hear it too.
Jack slung an arm around Hiccup's shoulders, felt the girls clamor in and take his hands, and none of them said what they wanted to say. That he was so brave. That he was incredible. He broke through a learned bias, faced a monster with compassion, used his knife to save a life instead of take it. That they were so proud of him.
They couldn't say that because he looked so miserable they knew he wouldn't let himself have it. All he could see was the dragon he had come to love, looking back at him with round eyes and a crippled tail.
So they held him tight, because he'd remember that- the footprint of their arms and hands holding onto him- long after he let their words wash away.
"We're on your side here," Jack promised. "We won't let anything happen to you, or Toothless. We'll figure this out."
Hiccup looked desperately grateful, and Jack had every intention of keeping his promise.
He just never really got the chance to.