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pass me by on love's long way

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Toothless' tail swishes back and forth gently and Hiccup lets his fingers trail over the cool, scaled hide of his wings to feel his even breathing. He can tell Toothless isn't asleep. They've both been restless all day. Hiccup's thigh aches, the one his fake leg is attached to, and when he lets his hand drop down over Toothless' spine towards the tail, Toothless pulls away, curling up.

"You okay, buddy?" Hiccup whispers, nuzzling Toothless' neck with his nose. It makes Toothless growl, but then he relaxes. Hiccup sighs and keeps his hand away from the tail.

They rest in bouts of sleep and wakefulness. It's more exhausting than just staying up all night. There's a sensation crackling down Hiccup's spine, keeping him awake, and Toothless squirms whenever he moves too much. He has a nightmare just before dawn from which he wakes with a gasp, sitting upright, and that decides it. Toothless jumps off his bed and stalks off towards the door, thumping down before it, a mountain of sleepless resentment.

Hiccup watches him for a moment before he rubs his eyes and lies back down. He can still feel the impact of the great dragon, its last breath, the pain and fear, the panic, life slowly seeping out of his dying form. He doesn't know what to do about that dream. It's not the first time he's dreamt it. The more often he does, the more it feels like he's not separate from it.

"Toothless," he murmurs. "What's going on?"

Toothless doesn't respond. He doesn't even twitch. Hiccup falls back asleep thinking about it all, wondering if he should tell someone. His father, or Astrid. Probably not.

- - - - -

Hiccup's sluggish all of the next day, carrying water, cooking the meals. He wants to take Toothless out for a long flight, but after only half an hour, they have to descend on a tiny island off shore. It's overgrown with huge wild ferns, evergreen and lillies. Toothless topples Hiccup into the soft grass by smacking his head against Hiccup's stomach and flutters off, wings barely carrying his weight.

"Hey," Hiccup yells, but Toothless doesn't listen. "Hey, would you tell me what's going on, please?"

He finds Toothless by a river, drinking, devouring any silly fish that comes too close. His dragon body is shivering, wings spread out like he might take off any moment. Hiccup places a hand on his scales and feels his heartbeat, thump thump thump, like a jackhammer. When he closes his eyes, he feels a wave of anxiety wash over him that's not his own; then uncertainty, a fear of pain that's sure to follow.

Hiccup doesn't understand why he can feel that or how it's possible. He wonders what that makes him. Stranger, probably. Stranger than he already is, in his own home town that grows more foreign by the day.

"I wish you could talk to me," he says, and places his forehead against Toothless' neck. "Then at least I'd have someone to tell how fucking crazy all of this is."

Toothless doesn't reply, of course, but there's a flood of affection, reassurance, and calm that rushes from Hiccup's forehead to the tips of his toes that almost makes up for it. Half an hour later, they're on their way back home.

- - - - -

There aren't many books in Berk, and the ones that exist are training manuals for hunters, gatherers, dragon slayers. There is one that was specifically written about large fires in the village, about keeping them small and alive. With the dragons living here, fire safety has become a moot point.

Hiccup has started compiling information to write a real book on dragons. He knows some things: he knows how to make Toothless happy by scratching that spot below his chin, or tickling his paws. He knows that some dragons like a varied diet of meat and veggies, and some eat sheep only, while some will happily munch on fish all day and never want anything else. There are no vegetarian dragons that he knows of.

He has no idea how, but he knows that none of the dragons he has ever encountered were youngs. Toothless is one of the youngest, which is why he let himself get trapped so easily. There are no hatchlings when Hiccup returns to the Island a few times to check, no eggs or nests anywhere.

He doesn't know if there is a dragon language. He has no idea how dragons communicate, or if they communicate at all, and if they do, if they can cross large distances with their voices, some high frequency sound that Hiccup's human ears can't perceive. Hiccup can only feel them when he gets very close to them. Sometimes he can feel Gronck the Gronckle, heavy and teasing as he plays with Astrid and the twins, and Lorr, twirling over the village like a dancing girl, featherlight and laughing. Toothless is loudest though, and the most frequent visitor. Hiccup loves feeling him inside, an airy breeze grazing his heart.

"You're being boring," Astrid tells him when she finds him writing again, lying on his stomach on a lonely cliff edge overshadowed by mountains from above. It's summer, short and sticky, hot in all the wrong places. Shadows are the only way it's bearable, but Astrid knows no rest. "I've taken Lorr out twice already, and one of the Terrors. Some of the Deadly Nadders are getting restless and hungry. Where's Toothless?"

"Don't know," Hiccup says. He looks up, narrows his eyes, feels. "Gobber's place. He's helping, leave him alone." He ducks back to his book.

For a moment, there's silence and he thinks Astrid has left, but then she sits down unexpectedly, crossing her legs. "There's something strange going on with you," she says. "You keep searching for something like your life depends on it, and you spend all your time going through the eleven books that exist here, like a new page will turn up if you look at it long enough. And then you do this."

"What?" Hiccup murmurs.

"Like you just asked him what he was doing, and he answered," Astrid says.

"Didn't," Hiccup replies with an ache in his heart that makes him add, "Wish I could, though."

Astrid sighs. "Why?"

Hiccup realizes she won't let him write in peace until they've had this conversation, so he sits up as well, facing her. "Because he's - I want to be able to talk to him. He understands me, better than anyone else ever has. He knows me. I know him. But what good does understanding each other do when we can't communicate? When he can't reply to what I say?"

"You're a jerk," Astrid says. Her eyes are narrowed now, and she's no longer looking at him.

Hiccup knows then that he's said something wrong, but he doesn't know what. It's no surprise that he did, though. He's good at that, at getting things wrong. "I'm sorry," he says.

"Forget it. Anyway, you had your chance. It's been months since I kissed you. I came to tell you that Fishlegs kissed me. And it was nice. He's great, actually. He actually looks at me. So."

Hiccup looks at her, really looks at her this time, because he has a feeling that something's just slipped through his fingers. "Oh," he says.

Astrid gets up. "Just as long as I didn't break your heart."

"No," Hiccup says slowly. "No, you didn't."

"Good," Astrid says bitterly. "Maybe we'll go dragon-riding some time again. Good luck with that." She leaves, axe swinging back and forth as she walks.

She's beautiful, Hiccup realizes. His fingers tighten in the grass and he realizes he's lost one more thing that's tied him to the village.

- - - - -

Some things are easier to deal with than others. The nightmares, his alienation from Astrid, the other dragons growing more and more restless as the weeks go by. His father starts asking him how he's doing at dragon training; if he's feeling up to it all by himself. Hiccup wouldn't have convinced his village that he needs to do it on his own, but sometimes, they hardly listen to anyone else, even when they've been claimed for a while. And whenever one breaks out, accidentally causing tragedy, his father looks even more worried. More worried than he did before, when he thought Hiccup was just a failure.

And then there's Toothless. It's like he's avoiding Hiccup, finding something else to do whenever he can get away. It hurts so much that Hiccup wonders if he's not being stupid, giving Toothless so much of his heart; but it's too late now anyway, and he can't control Toothless. Toothless has his own mind and isn't going to be slave to anyone's will.

One evening, he doesn't come to sleep in Hiccup's room, and Hiccup lies awake for hours before he gets up. He dresses in last day's clothes quickly, slipping a warmer sweater over his shoulders. It's growing cold already, because summer never keeps long in Berk. Then he sneaks past his father's room and outside, following the pull of Toothless' dreams.

With his huge dragon body, he's not hard to find; he's curled up Marga's sheep barn, hidden underneath the stairs that lead up to the hay storage. His eyes are closed and he's snuffling in his sleep, tail thumping against the ground every few seconds.

"What are you doing here, buddy?" Hiccup asks him, drawing near. "Are you keeping an eye out for breakfast?"

Toothless doesn't react until Hiccup's close enough to touch; then his eyes snap wide open and he's growling, baring his teeth. Hiccup pulls back, surprised but without real fear, because he can feel that Toothless' not angry.

"What's going on?" Hiccup asks, worried. "Why are you scared of me? Did I hurt you somehow? I'm sorry -"

Toothless' teeth have vanished. He looks smaller without them, contrite. He bows his head until his snout is close to Hiccup's cheek and nudges him gently. He's sorry too. Confused, and sorry and still a little scared.

"I don't understand," Hiccup says. He reaches out with both arms for a hug, and then he's on Hiccup's back again like nothing's wrong. They're taking off, Toothless racing through the barn, scaring the sheep to their early deaths, wings flapping wildly.

The night air is cool and filled with moisture from the coming storm, crisp against Hiccup's face. It hurts, almost, but it's good, too, like a wake-up call, snapping him out of a haze. Toothless between his legs moves gracefully, his smooth body turning left, then right, like a dancer's.

They fly until morning dawns over the ocean in colors of rose and orange, sun rising in the far east. It reminds Hiccup of another time in clouds of rose and orange. Except the sun was setting then, and Astrid's weight was heavy against his back, clutching him tightly. Hiccup remembers that with a trace of wistfulness, because it was nice, easy almost, or as easy as life ever gets here.

Now, he buries his face in Toothless' salty-smelling skin and breathes deeply. "It's just the two of us now," he says, but feels that it won't be true for long.

- - - - -

"I need to go back," he tells his father the next day, sitting across from him at their little dining room table. He hasn't touched his food. "There is something there, on the island," he tries. "We missed something. It's not just about the dragons. There's something wrong with them, but there's something wrong with me, too."

His father looks at him for a long while. He's wearing his wife's breastplate on his head. Sometimes Hiccup has a feeling things would have been a lot easier if his mother hadn't left them. Sometimes, Hiccup takes the other plate, the one he received as a gift for being a dragon slayer, before his father found out he wasn't a dragon slayer at all; and he looks at it, willing it to turn into his mother. It's stupid. It makes him feel silly, and he has to laugh. Toothless laughs, too, then, and they sit on the floor in his room, laughing into each other's necks.

"I don't like it," his father says. "It's not safe."

"Nothing's safe," Hiccup says resentfully. "It's Berk. Winter's going to cover this place in two weeks, three if we're lucky. I need to figure out until then what to do, or the dragons might be the least of our problems."

"Take someone with you," his father says. "Don't go alone."

Hiccup agrees to those terms and doesn't say that he's taking Toothless, and that will have to be enough.

- - - - -

Toothless is so scared by the time they get to the island that Hiccup almost considers turning around just to spare him this. It's not the memory of the chase that scares him though, or the fear of being hurt. It's not something Hiccup can place, and that's one more reason why he keeps going forward. Whatever it is that's missing, it's here.

The mountain was partially destroyed during the fight, but a big part of it is still standing. They flew rounds here before, checking for surviving dragons or hurt Vikings, and Hiccup always keeping an eye out for hatchlings or eggs, too. They never went inside the mountain, though.

"I need to go in there," he tells Toothless, who shows his teeth, but doesn't protest. "I know you hate this, but trust me. Nothing bad will happen to you. I'll take care of you, all right?"

Toothless makes a grumbling little sound that vibrates disbelief and protectiveness through Hiccup's body. He nosedives towards one of the entrances. The reddish light is still there, glowing menacingly from the depths. They sit on the ledge they'd shared with Astrid back when the dragon queen had still been here, and Hiccup peers down in an attempt to catch a glimpse of what's down there.

"What's down there?" he asks, and the words echo back at him. The island is deserted now, most of the dragons moved on. Hiccup doesn't know where they've gone. Somewhere safe, probably. Somewhere where they won't be taking a human, just in case.

Toothless nudges his hand with his head. He clearly doesn't want to go there, wants to go home. Hiccup bites his lip and glances down, then to Toothless and down again. "There's nothing for it, I guess," he says. "Only one way down." And he jumps.

- - - - -

Toothless catches him, of course, but by the skin of his teeth.

"I would have been highly displeased if this had been the moment you stopped caring about me more than your own fears," Hiccup tells him while he hangs from Toothless' claws. Toothless snarls at him to shut up.

Soon there's solid ground underneath his feet. He braces on his hands to damper the impact and then looks around from his new position. "Whoa, this is new," is all he can say in surprise.

The mountain hasn't changed, still as dark grey and brittle as ever, and the ground is littered with what looks like dragon feces and parts of half-chewed, rotten meat. Bones of huge animals are scattered everywhere. But it's not the ground that's the interesting part. It's the glowing holes in the even sides around them, perforated like a bee hive, emitting a soft rose color. The dragon queen must have risen from here, taken the fight outside to keep it undamaged. If she'd stayed inside the mountain...

Toothless isn't nearby. He's approached one of the holes and is trying to get a look inside, his head barely big enough to fit.

"Toothless!" Hiccup hisses.

Toothless pulls back guiltily and looks over. There's something new about him, a sense of resignation. It's almost like he's let go of the fear now, and when he trods over to Hiccup, there's something in his eyes like regret.

"It's the nest, isn't it? Why is - what's going on? Why are none of these hatching?"

Hiccup isn't stupid. The pieces are slowly starting to grow together, but he can't quite yet believe it, so he ignores Toothless trying to hide him underneath his wings and pushes him aside. "How do we get them to saftey? What if the mountain collapses? Why did everyone else leave if there's a whole colony of little dragons here?"

He goes up to one of the holes and pulls himself up, barely making it on the strength of his arms. He fits better than Toothless' head. The hole is deeper than he'd thought, and covered in a reddish slime that must break the light in a way that makes it glow like it does. He wants to go inside and find what the eggs looks like. They must be eggs. Maybe they can take a few home, hatch them there.

"What do they need?" he asks, even though he already knows the answer; already knows that taking the eggs is useless. All they will be able to make of them is eggnogg, or scrambled eggs, maybe. He stares down the hole for a minute more, then he gives a dark sigh and steps back, hopping back down onto the ground. He sits down, puts his head in his hands. "Damnit."

Toothless doesn't take long to bunker down beside him, curling around him. It's like he's saying sorry now that they're here, to Hiccup. It makes no sense when some of these might be Toothless' dragon babies dying without even being born. The thought makes Hiccup nauseous. He places a hand against Toothless' hide and then his forehead. It's comforting, more comforting than anything in his life has ever been.

"How do we get a new queen?" he asks, because it's the only solution.

Toothless makes a sound like he's being skewered by a Viking's spear and suddenly, Hiccup knows the answer. It's not a feeling, it's not words, there's just this sudden, ultimate knowledge about the creation of a new queen, how to make it happen; and Hiccup understands now why Toothless has been scared for him for weeks.

"You spoke to me," Hiccup says, but he doesn't say it out loud. He doesn't need to anymore. He's almost there anyway. Dragons have their own language that doesn't consist of words, or of thoughts. It just is. "You knew I was going to do it all along, didn't you?"

His frail little human body feels almost cold against the heat of Toothless' skin when they embrace, and Hiccup thinks he will miss it, sometimes. But in reality, he never belonged with humans anyway, and with the dragons, he will.

- - - - -