There were times when Astrid Hofferson really wished she lived up to her name a bit more.
Oh, not the Astrid part (she certainly felt she honored the meaning of 'divine strength' well enough); it was the surname she had a few issues with. It was no secret that her father had wished for a son, and so when a tiny tow-headed daughter had been born instead, he'd been mostly undaunted, and had simply christened her Hofferson instead of the more gender-appropriate Hoffersdottir, perhaps in the hopes of sating his undying need for a male child in his life. Astrid had never resented her father for it, really, but she supposed there were times it wasn't so hard to live up to his aspirations for her.
She could throw an axe just as far as the boys in the village, and with twice the accuracy. She could spear a fish through the gills from five meters. She could shear a sheep in record time and could start a fire without flint. Hel, she could ride a dragon, and if that wasn't enough for her father then she supposed nothing ever would be.
Though she had to figure that dating the chief's son didn't hurt.
Unfortunately, right now she was more wishing for the added natural upper body strength that being born a son would have provided than the means of impressing her father, as she dangled from a dizzying height above the earth. Why had she thought this was a good idea?
She had a bit of a history with this tree; this had really been a temptation of fate, she could see that now. The fact that it was rapidly growing too dark to see wasn't helping matters in the slightest.
Tightening her grip and then arching her back sharply, she managed to hook her ankle over the branch and breathed a sigh of relief. Okay, crisis averted, all she had to do now was shimmy back to the trunk and climb back down. With a grunt, she attempted to scoot along the branch as it bowed beneath her weight--
--and then grit her teeth and scooted faster when she heard a rather ominous cracking sound.
"No, no, no--!"
She yelped when the branch gave way, still caught in her hands, and twisted in the air, covering her face as the branches below rose up to meet her. Plunging down through the limbs, Astrid attempted to keep her head. If I wait until I'm closer to the ground, I can grab a sturdier branch, her brain supplied usefully, but she wasn't even sure she really heard it over the scream of panic that was currently tearing from her throat.
So much for keeping her head.
She wondered how much it would hurt when she hit the ground. Would she even feel it, or would she die instantly? How long would it take them to find her body? Would she survive but be paralyzed forever? She wasn't sure that was better. Oh, her father was going to be so disappointed! Squeezing her eyes closed and floundering for something to grab onto, Astrid tumbled end over end through the branches, cursing her foul luck and cursing gravity and cursing this stupid tree.
The impact was swift, but not nearly so painful as she had expected.
With a gasp, she opened her eyes and glanced up to see the broad belly scales of a dragon, and she sighed audibly with relief. Her shoulder was going to be sore tomorrow from the way the Nadder's talons had caught her by the arms and arrested her descent, but she could deal with that.
"Stormfly. Boy am I glad to see you," she breathed as the dragon banked sharply and lowered her to the ground. Rolling her arms back, she examined the myriad of scrapes and bleeding lacerations on her arms with a grimace. Yeah, these were going to be difficult to explain. She'd torn up her arm warmers almost to the point of uselessness, and her headband had been lost somewhere in the tree, but she was otherwise intact, and that was what counted.
Making a sibilant noise as she brushed the pine needles from her shirt and ripped trousers, she leaned her head back as Stormfly loomed over her, trilling softly.
"Yes, I'm fine," she said, reaching up to scratch beneath the beast's chin. "You aren't a true Viking unless you're bloodied at least once a week, right?"
Stormfly snorted indignantly, and Astrid huffed.
"All right, all right, I promise I'll bring you along next time, if only for security's sake," she said, folding her arms and then hissing in pain as the dozens of tiny cuts stung fiercely in protest. Grinning at the dragon, she moved around to her flank and hauled herself up onto Stormfly's back. "It's perfect, though," she said, leaning forward to rub a particular spot on the dragon's neck. "It'll be perfect."
With that, she nudged the dragon forward, and Stormfly took to the air again, headed for the village.
There were times when Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III felt he lived up to his name far too well.
Oh, not the Horrendous part (really the only thing about him that was truly horrendous was his complete and utter lack of any social aptitude ever), and not really the Haddock part, either (as he was certainly not a fish); it was the given name he had a few issues with. There really were days he felt like he was little more than a sudden involuntary spasm of his own lineage. The fact that he was the third Hiccup in the family line was really starting to make him question whether the name was the curse or if he was the first one who had been named appropriately, but he supposed that was something he would never know for certain.
Tonight, for example, was the second to last night of the Winternights Festival in the village, and he still had no idea what he was going to do about Yule. His father had decided that since this was his eighteenth winter, it was darn time he started living up to his position.
'Fetal and floundering?' he had suggested, and Stoick had simply guffawed and reminded him that as the son of the head of the village, one day he would be the one in charge of Berk. Yeah, that fetal position was sounding better and better.
He supposed that, all things considered, being put in charge of the festivities for the New Year Festival wasn't the end of the world. It was only the most important holiday in their entire calendar--what could possibly go wrong? He looked down at the messy scattered papers across the desktop and sighed. The papers were supposed to be covered in notes by now, detailing the grand display he had planned for the occasion. Instead, they were covered in doodles, mostly of Toothless, including a particularly detailed depiction of the Night Fury swallowing Snotlout whole.
Ugh, he was never going to get this right. With a groan, Hiccup let his head fall forward onto his desk, the resulting thunk undoubtedly leaving a smear of charcoal on his brow as he closed his eyes and hoped that maybe a brilliant idea would just osmose onto the paper littered there.
Hiccup lifted his head when Toothless let out a trilling sort of noise from where he was curled up in the corner of the room. It was amazing to him that the dragon could take up so little space when he really wanted to. He glanced at the dragon, then looked toward the doorway when Astrid poked her head into the workshop.
"Knock knock," she said, grinning as she lingered in the ingress. "Figured I'd find you here, slaving away as usual."
"Slaving my tail," Hiccup replied, rolling his eyes. "I've been sitting at this desk so long my butt's numb, and I'm still no closer to an idea for the festival." He sighed dramatically and plunked his elbows down, gripping his hair with both hands and glowering at the papers. "My dad's never gonna have faith in me again if I blow this."
For all the times he'd blown it in the past, he'd always managed to find a way to turn it around. But if he blew the Yule festival, it would ruin the new year for everyone. With his luck, it would usher in a year of famine or something, and he would exiled from the village and have no choice but to become a traveling dragon-bound hobo.
Toothless got to his feet and carefully padded up behind Hiccup, nudging him in the back with his broad nose, and Hiccup twisted in his seat to scratch the scales on the dragon's forehead.
Astrid sighed and shook her head at him. "You always blow anthills into mountain ranges, Hiccup," she teased. "Besides, what would you think if I told you I had a plan to help you out?"
Hiccup arched one eyebrow, looking dubious. It wasn't that he didn't think Astrid had good ideas, it was more that her ideas tended to be… unorthodox? No one had forgotten that year she'd left exploding dragon eggs for everyone; good intentions notwithstanding, Astrid didn't exactly think everything through. She had a tendency to get an idea in her head and just charge forward with it without necessarily considering all the potential hazards of the undertaking. But, then, Hiccup had a tendency to consider every possible potential hazard of an undertaking, so really they balanced each other out well enough.
"I would… think that's great, but I hope you're planning to elaborate," he said, and she chuckled, stepping further inside and steepling her fingers.
"Well, I've been tracking the appearances of--"
"Astrid, what happened?" Hiccup cut her off sharply and got to his feet, closing the distance between them and reaching out as if to take her by the arms but stopping just shy of touching her. There were deep scratches all up and down her arms, and even a few on her face. For that matter, it looked like she'd changed clothes. She'd been wearing her usual arm warmers only a few hours ago, and now they were gone, as was her hairband. "You look like you got into a fight with a lynx!"
"Er…" Astrid looked slightly abashed, brushing her hair out of her eyes. "It's nothing, really, I was just… in a tree."
"Yeah!" She averted her eyes and fidgeted. "I mean, well I was in a tree."
"You said that already." Hiccup folded his arms, giving her a puzzled look. "What happened?"
"Well the problem arose when I encountered difficulty staying in said tree--"
"So you fell out of a tree."
"How do you only technically fall out of a tree?" Hiccup sort of gawped at her and then reached for her arms again before thinking better of it. Those scrapes looked like they stung. "Well are-are you okay? Did you break anything?"
"Well, no," she said taking half a step back as if to make sure he didn't touch the injuries, though somehow it felt like she was backing away from him out of irritation. "I mean, yes, I'm okay, no, I didn't break anything, except a few branches." She gave him a slightly frustrated look. "Don't you even want to hear why I fell out of a tree?"
"If this has something to do with your idea to help me, I think maybe we should reconsider," he admitted. "Somehow I don't think tree-falling is destined to be the next holiday game all the kids play."
Astrid's eyes flashed, and Hiccup grimaced. Curse his candor.
"Look, Astrid, I'm not trying to argue with you--"
"You're just a natural at it, then," she snapped, folding her arms and wincing visibly at the motion.
"Wait, why are you angry?" he asked, throwing his hands in the air. "I'm worried because my girlfriend has managed to injure herself falling out of a tree and it seems like her grand scheme for the Yule festival is leaning toward making this a sport."
"You aren't even giving me a chance to explain!" she said, and then growled, throwing her hands in the air, and Hiccup just spun and returned to his seat at his desk.
Toothless, to his credit, made no comment, but his big gold eyes had been bouncing back and forth between the two of them as they bickered, his earflaps sort of drooping in unease. Hiccup knew the dragons didn't like it when their people argued, but he and Astrid never seemed to be able to go very long without fighting about something. Hiccup cared about Astrid more than he knew what to do with a lot of the time, but for all the ways they complemented one another, they sure did know how to have a good row. Gobber had told Hiccup once that he had every inch of his father's temper, and though he'd stoutly denied it at the time, he was starting to wonder if the old loon wasn't on to something after all.
Pressing the pad of his thumb against the ridge of his eyebrow, Hiccup sighed. He didn't have the energy for this right now--his father was expecting a mockup of the Yule plans by the end of the festivities tomorrow night, and he still had a big fat nothing to show him.
"Fine, okay, I'm sorry, go on and explain," he said wearily, but it seemed he'd already missed his chance.
"No, you know what? Forget it."
"If you don't want my help, then maybe I'll just keep my brilliant ideas to myself," she said tersely, "and up a tree where they apparently belong."
"Astrid, that isn't what I--"
"Why don't you go ask Fishlegs for an idea, then? I'm sure he'll be more than happy to stay on the ground."
"Astrid I said I was sorry!" Hiccup would never understand why she got so indignant about everything. "Look, right now I'm just about ready to go consult my uncle's chickens for an idea, so if you have something better--"
"Well, chickens can't fly either, so it's a good thing they won't have any ideas that revolve around trees."
"Astrid, now you're just being mean."
Another snarl and she spun on one heel, her arms stiff at her sides as she headed for the doorway. Hiccup jumped to his feet, tripping over a roll of parchment that had fallen to the floor and stumbling after her.
"Astr--ow! Astrid, wait!" he called, catching himself in the doorway in time to watch her whirl on him in the main room of the hut, jabbing a finger toward him.
"Just figure something out on your own, Hiccup," she spat. "If you think chickens have better ideas than I do, maybe you should go date one of them."
She slammed the front door and Hiccup lifted a hand to his head, his jaw hanging slightly ajar as he sagged in the workshop doorway. What had just happened?
He glanced down when Toothless bumped his head up under Hiccup's other hand, and he rubbed his thumb over the smooth scales.
"Girls are crazy, buddy," he said, giving Toothless a helpless look. "I really dunno what I said wrong this time."
Toothless made a crooning sound and smacked his lips, then closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose. Hiccup didn't really know what that meant, but he interpreted it as some form of encouragement or another.
"I guess you're right," he said, turning to head back to the desk. "I'll let her cool down some and apologize again tomorrow. Think that might work?"
The dragon thumped his tail softly against the floor and then followed Hiccup back into the workshop, returning to his spot in the corner and sitting back on his haunches much like a dog might.
"Okay, back to the drawing board," he said, picking up his charcoal pencil and positioning it over the papers once more.
Half an hour later he still hadn't moved, and was no closer to an idea for Yule, and was starting to think that maybe being a dragon-bound hobo wasn't such a bad life after all. Letting his head fall forward onto the papers again, he closed his eyes for a moment, hoping maybe the darkness would clear his head.
Hiccup snapped awake when he heard the front door slam again, and nearly pitched backward off his chair when his father rapped brusquely on the workshop door. Rats, he'd fallen asleep!? He was never going to get anything done at this rate.
"Dad! Hi! Hi, Dad! Gosh, what, ah… what brings you here at this hour?" He quickly scrabbled to scoop the papers on the desk together, hoping Stoick wouldn't notice they were mostly covered in doodles instead of anything actually productive.
"Just thought I would come and see how your plans for the festival are going," he said, leaning in the doorway. "You know we're all looking forward to hearing your ideas."
"Ah, oh, that's great, Dad, I'm… really glad everybody's looking forward," he said nervously. "Nothing like… a little pressure to get everything done in the eleventh hour, and…" He quickly set his pencil aside and gave his father a frazzled look. "Dad, can I ask you something?"
"Of course," Stoick replied, carefully ducking through the doorway and grabbing the nearest stool. Hiccup was always kind of amazed his father managed to fit in the workshop at all. After taking a moment to settle himself on the stool, Stoick planted his hands on his knees and peered inquisitively at his son. "What's on your mind?"
"Did… you and Mom fight a lot?"
Stoick's face shifted dramatically from curiosity to shock before finding a happy medium in confused. Hiccup had been fairly young when his mother had died, and though he could still remember her face vaguely, most everything he knew about her was secondhand information. Stoick's jaw worked soundlessly for a moment, and then he gave Hiccup a puzzled frown.
"Aye, we had our tiffs," he admitted, then his eyebrows lifted, as though he'd made a connection somewhere. "Did you have a fight with Astrid?"
Hiccup made a choking sound and sort of flailed his arms. "Er, well… sort of." He rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. "It's stupid; she got hurt and I was worried, and I guess I said the wrong thing, 'cuz she got all mad at me and then told me I should date a chicken instead."
"An actual chicken?" Stoick looked puzzled.
"I'm not really sure, Dad." Hiccup sighed and gestured vaguely with his pencil. "I guess I just wondered… I mean, when you and Mom fought, what did you do about it?"
Stoick shifted where he sat, taking a moment to stroke his rough red beard before leveling a serious gaze at Hiccup. "Well, usually there was a lot of shouting," he said, and Hiccup nodded, having expected that much. "Sometimes she threw things."
Hiccup was suddenly glad that Astrid hadn't been carrying her axe.
"Once in a while she would light my beard on fire," Stoick chortled, a fond faraway look in his eyes.
Hiccup suddenly felt a bit sick to his stomach.
"But in the end, it really didn't matter how often we fought," Stoick said, "because we still loved each other. Even people who mean the world to one another don't always see eye to eye."
Hiccup inhaled to speak, hesitated, then frowned. "So… am I suppose to apologize or not?"
"Oh definitely," Stoick said, perhaps a bit too seriously. "No matter how much you love each other, as the man, everything will always be your fault."
Hiccup held up one finger as if to protest this, then sort of deflated. No, that sounded about accurate. Slumping a bit, he raked a hand back through his hair and cast his eyes back to the mess of papers on the desk. "Uhm. Thanks, Dad. I think."
Stoick got to his feet and then impulsively reached out to plant one big hand atop Hiccup's head.
"Don't worry too much about it, Son," he said, and Hiccup glanced up at him, sort of smearing his hair back into its usual tousle as Stoick's hand fell away. "Astrid may be just about as much the spitfire your mother was," he said, "but you two have something going for you that your mother and I never did."
Stoick smiled wisely. "Your mother married a fool," he said, that same faraway fondness in his eyes, "but Astrid?" He chuckled, then shook a finger at Hiccup. "She'll marry a genius."
Hiccup made a choking noise as Stoick turned to leave, lost for words. Flabbergasted was probably a better word for it. He wasn't sure what had him more flustered, though: the idea that he and Astrid might actually wind up married one day, or the idea that his father actually thought he was a genius.
Wait, no, that couldn't be right at all.
"W-well, when I find that genius she's gonna marry, I'm… I'll punch him in the eye, cuz… Astrid's my girlfriend and I'm not gonna give her up without a fight!" he shouted lamely after Stoick, and was rewarded with nothing but roaring laughter from the next room. Hiccup groaned and buried his face in his hands.
Astrid was angry at him for reasons he couldn't even quite figure out, and he still had no idea what he was going to do for the Yule festival. His girlfriend was never going to speak to him again, and the whole village was going to be disappointed tomorrow night.
Sometimes Hiccup really did live up to his name, Astrid thought as she stood in the crowd gathered around the makeshift stage near the dragon arena. Sometimes he really did just seemed to flail his way through life, catching on the edges of his own throat painfully as he attempted to speak. Hiccup indeed; there were times she just kind of wanted to give him a glass of water and hope that his own attack of self might abate. He stood in the center of the stage with a stack of papers in his hand and a look on his face that said to her that he had absolutely no plan beyond the next sixteen seconds of stammering.
"Ah… hi, e-everyone," he stuttered, waving nervously to the murmuring crowd and shifting his weight where he stood. His metal prosthesis made a harsh scraping sound against the wood of the stage and he flinched, nearly dropping all the papers. This was the last night of the Winternights Festival, and though all of the adults were probably too drunk to realize how unprepared Hiccup was, it didn't seem to have taken the edge off of him much at all.
Astrid sighed. It looked like she was going to have to rescue him again.
She was still angry--oh boy was she still angry!--but this was almost poetic, in a way. He had shot down her idea before he'd even heard it, and now she was going to get the opportunity to show him anyway, whether he liked it or not.
She was going to make him wait, though.
"Ah, I'm sure you're all, ah, wondering about my… my plans for Yule," he floundered, and there was a great roar of applause from the crowd. Hiccup cowered at the noise and Astrid had to laugh. "W-well, ah, you see, what I wanted to tell you guys, is…" Hiccup shuffled through the papers, clearing his throat and then scanning the crowd. His eyes caught Astrid's briefly, something pleading in his gaze, and she just lifted her eyebrows, popping her hip to one side with her arms folded over her chest.
Hiccup looked as though he couldn't decide whether he felt betrayed or like he deserved this.
He took a deep breath and spread his arms on the stage. "What I wanted to tell you guys is, I, ah…" He swallowed visibly, then his shoulders slumped. "Well, I can't tell you about my plans for Yule," he said.
There was a ripple of concerned voices through the crowd, and Astrid unfolded her arms. Okay, she supposed that was enough punishment for one evening. As the last of the sunlight faded behind the mountains, she pushed to the front of the crowd and clambered up onto the stage.
"As-Astrid what are you--?"
"He can't tell you," she said, ignoring his confusion, "because it's a surprise. See, every year we do the same sort of thing with the Yule festival: we decorate our houses and parade inebriatedly through the village, we leave our shoes on doorsteps and wait eagerly for Odin to fill them, but what the occasion has been lacking these past few years is that feeling of experiencing something really unexpected!"
There was a beat of silence, and then a voice hollered from the back of the crowd, "You're not gonna blow up our houses again, are ye, lass?"
Astrid rubbed the back of her neck and laughed, then waved a hand dismissively. "Of course not," she said, and then gestured at the villagers. "I mean, you guys would be expecting that, right?"
The villagers seemed to accept that this was the case, and after a moment of muttering amongst themselves they turned their attention back to the youngsters on the stage.
Astrid pressed her hands together and smiled broadly. "So I want you all to just go about things as if this year's festival was going to be just like last year's festival," she said, "and then when the time comes, you'll see what we have in store." She paused, then made a shooing gesture. "Now go on, get back to your merrymaking," she said; "there's still plenty of time before sunrise to wrap up this festival!"
The crowd erupted in applause again, and Astrid took a bow before glancing back over her shoulder at Hiccup. She cast him a smug grin, and he sort of wilted.
"Don't just stand there like you've got rocks in your trousers," she hissed, "get up here and wave."
He jerked suddenly, as though awakened from a trance, and then moved up beside her, waving stiffly at the crowd as though his arms were made of wood.
"Astrid, what are you doing?" he asked through the forced smile he had fixed on the crowd.
"Saving your hide," she replied through teeth just as clenched. "You're welcome."
"But I-I-I don't have anything planned, surprise or not!" he protested, and as the crowd began to disperse she turned to him with her hands on her hips.
"You're not even going to say thank you?" she said, and he looked sheepish.
"… Look, Astrid, I'm sorry about before," he said, shaking his head. "I should have listened to your idea when you tried to tell me."
"Oh, you're not getting off that easy," she snorted. "I'll take care of this for you, but since you weren't willing to trust me before, now you're going to have no choice."
He was looking a little green around the gills suddenly. Good.
"You're going to help me put this together," she said, folding her arms again, "but you're just going to have to do what I say without knowing what the plan is."
"Astrid that isn't fair!" he protested, and she closed the distance between them. She was suddenly reminded that he'd actually shot up a few inches this past summer, and part of her resented how much taller than her he'd become. She thrust her chin forward and gave him a severe look.
"Funny, you never really minded not playing fair before," she pointed out, nodding beyond him. He turned and glanced over his shoulder to where Toothless and Stormfly were hunkered together near the edge of the stage.
He met her eye again, realization sort of spreading across his face. Yeah, that's right, do the math… she thought. His gamble had nearly cost the village everything, and he might have kept the whole thing to himself if she hadn't followed him that day. Who knew what would have happened if that had been the case? If he wanted to play the unfair card, her hand trumped his any day, and she wasn't about to let him forget it.
She grabbed his hand and tugged him toward the edge of the stage, jumping down and then waiting for him to follow. He sort of slinked along after her, rather like a dog that had been scolded, and she rolled her eyes.
"Astrid, are you really sure this is a good idea?" he asked, sitting down on the edge of the stage and sort of flipping through the handful of papers he'd been carrying. "I can still go to my dad and tell him the truth."
"The truth?" She clicked her tongue. "You make it sound like I don't have a plan! You heard me, didn't you?" She put her hands on her hips and gave him a stern look. "It's a surprise. Don't be such a coward," she said. "Since when are you afraid to wing it, anyway?"
"Since I'm not sure what you're planning and that makes me nervous?" he ventured.
"Oh, please, Hiccup, I think you would have kept Toothless a secret indefinitely if I hadn't caught you red-handed," she said. "I'm asking you to trust me until the solstice--is that really so hard?"
She was a little stung, honestly, that even now, when she'd stuck her neck out to lend him a hand, he was still reluctant to give her the benefit of the doubt. Oh, sure, she'd set half the village on fire with those dragon eggs, and at least four people had gotten sick from her yak nog, but this was completely different!
Hiccup sighed gustily and raked a hand back through his hair.
"Okay," he said, and impulsively reached one hand out. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's easy to do crazy things that might be dangerous or cause egregious property damage when I know what's coming," he admitted, "but it's… hard to brace when I'm not sure what I'm even bracing for."
She regarded him a moment, then took his hand and tugged him down off the stage. He stumbled forward with the momentum and she took the opportunity to close her hand into a fist and knock it against his shoulder.
"Ow…" he complained. "Sheesh, I said I was sorry…"
"That was for assuming I'm going to do something that requires bracing," she said, and he just nodded tolerantly. She kissed the pad of her thumb then, and reached up to press it against his lips. "But that's for saying you're sorry." He looked surprised, and she recoiled, folding her arms. "I'm still mad at you," she said, "but I accept your apology." With that she turned on her heel and whistled for Stormfly, hauling herself up onto the dragon's back. "Come on, we've got a lot of work to do," she said, waiting for Hiccup to shove the stack of papers into his vest and clamber up onto Toothless' back. "Your first mission is to talk to Fishlegs."
"About what?" He looked suspicious, like this was too easy, and Astrid smiled.
"The best place to find crystals, of course," she said, because obviously Fishlegs was the village expert on such things. "You'll probably want to ask the others for some help; I need as much sunstone and black-mirror rock as you guys can carry."
Astrid gave a yip, and Stormfly launched them into the sky, leaving Hiccup looking baffled at the edge of the stage.
Three-hundred and forty-two clear crystals, two-hundred and sixty-seven sunstones, and eighty-nine black-mirror rocks, that was the final count by the end of the third week of Ylir. Hiccup had to admit it was quite a haul, but what Astrid wanted with nearly seven-hundred peapod-sized rocks was beyond him. Why she had then wanted them all glued to wooden panels and suspended from the tallest section of the forest was even more beyond him, but she had stoutly refused to budge on the purpose of these duties or the intended outcome of her plan.
Well, at least this would be the last afternoon of waiting.
"You know, if it were anybody but Astrid asking, I so would not be doing this," Snotlout assured Hiccup with a roll of his eyes. Perched on the head of his dragon, he made sure to give Hiccup a very stern frown before twisting the end of the heavy rope into a tight overhand knot.
"Yes, you've mentioned this at least twice every day for the past week," Hiccup said, leaning forward to give the last square knot a good tug. It had been a bit of a feat getting the dragons to climb the trees rather than fly, but the wind from their wings had already knocked one of the panels down, setting them back a full hour. Snotlout's Monstrous Nightmare, Hookfang, had done them the courtesy of attempting to eat one of them as well--Hiccup just hoped Astrid wouldn't notice that some of the sunstones were missing.
Sliding down from the branch he'd been resting on and gripping Toothless' saddle, Hiccup gave Snotlout a slightly reproachful look. "And here I figured you'd be happy to have a hand in this whole festival to end all festivals thing."
"Wait, the end of all festivals?" Ruffnut's voice sounded disappointed from the adjacent tree. "Astrid would be in charge of the last one ever."
"That's lame, how come she gets to be in charge?" Tuffnut demanded, tying off his side of the rope and then craning his neck over his shoulder to check how level the board of crystals was. "I mean, she kind of already got to be in charge of one, and that was a disaster! Give somebody else a chance."
"No, you guys, it's not the end of all festivals," Hiccup said, kneading his brow, "it's a-- You know what? Never mind." He wasn't going to try and explain turn of phrase to the twins; he still remembered the time he'd unwisely chosen to tell Ruffnut to 'break a leg' when she and her brother had been chosen for a demonstration of the more practical uses for a Zippleback's flammable gas. Tuffnut had been in a cast for several weeks.
"How's it look, Fishlegs?" Snotlout called down from his perch, and the heavyset boy scrutinized the diagram in his hands before holding it up to compare the positioning of the panels. After a long moment, he flashed a double thumbs-up.
"A-okay!" he called, and Hiccup breathed a sigh of relief. Finally!
The dragons carried their passengers back to the ground, and Hiccup jumped from Toothless' back to peer down the row of trees. He really wasn't sure what Astrid was planning with this. She had asked for his help determining angles, so he had to assume she was planning for the crystals to reflect something, but there would be no moon tonight.
"What do you think this is for?" Ruffnut asked, sliding down the Zippleback's long neck and stepping to the forest floor. She folded her arms and frowned at the strange configuration of hanging panels, each one shimmering with crystal and stone fragments, and Tuffnut moved up beside her to mimic her posture.
"Maybe it was just to keep us busy," he said, and she turned to glower at him.
"You really think she would have done all this just to keep us busy all month?"
Hiccup quickly stepped between the twins, one palm on each of their foreheads, pressing them apart.
"We can argue later," he said stiffly, moving past them and beckoning to Toothless. The dragon also moved between the twins, giving them a huff as he swept his tail behind him. "They're about to light the Yule logs in the square; if we hurry we can still make it."
Frankly Hiccup didn't really care if they wanted to keep arguing--he had long ago given up hope that the twins would ever learn to go more than twenty minutes without bickering--but he'd waited over a month to find out what Astrid had in store, and he wasn't interested in putting it off to play referee.
"Come on, Toothless, let's go!"
Grabbing a hold of the harness on the dragon's back, he swung himself into the saddle and Toothless launched the two of them into the air.
There was something magical about this time of year, actually. Hiccup hadn't really taken the time to appreciate the season this time around--he'd been too busy following Astrid's secretive orders and being peeved about it--but as he soared toward the village, the light of the Yule logs in the square flickering below, he had to admit that it was an awe-inspiring sight.
It had snowed that morning, which in and of itself wasn't remarkable, but the dusting of white had softened the edges of the village. Snow always made everything seem cleaner, smoother, and from the air the houses looked like they were made of frosted glass.
Landing in the square as the last of the sunlight died, Hiccup dismounted and gave Toothless a scratch beneath the chin before turning to look for Astrid. He spotted her on the little stage near the arena, a lit torch in one hand. Her hair always looked like gold in firelight, he mused to himself. There was really nothing soft or gentle about Astrid--there never had been--but somehow that just added to her allure somehow. It always had. Fire was a common backdrop in Berk, and for all its destructive power, Astrid somehow made fire look tame.
She turned and caught his eye, but didn't smile. Instead, she made an impatient gesture for him to join her at the edge of the stage.
"Did you get everything hung?" she asked, and Hiccup frowned.
"You know what they say about all work and no play, don't you, Astrid?" he asked, and she cocked one eyebrow.
"That it's efficient and saves time?"
He sighed hopelessly. "Yes, we got everything hung," he said, kneading his brow.
"Good," she said, glancing over her shoulder, "you guys made it just in the nick of time."
"I wasn't aware we had a time limit…"
Hiccup watched her move to the last of the Yule logs up on the stage and run the torch over the candles before hooking it into an iron ring at the back. Then she moved to the center of the stage and clapped her hands together loudly. The bustling crowd that was gathering in the square quieted, and Hiccup found himself wondering how she'd done that. He never had any luck getting anyone's attention, no matter how much noise he made.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" she called, and then looked down at Hiccup, motioning for him to get up on the stage. Oh no, she was going to make him talk? Surely she knew better than that by now. "Welcome to this year's Yule Festival! Thank you so much for your patience--I promise you that this surprise won't leave you disappointed."
"Me house is still in one piece, lass, so you're doin' a'right!" a voice shouted from the back of the crowd, and Astrid sighed.
"I'm just… never going to live that down, am I?" she asked, and there was a general consensus of 'no' from the crowd. Astrid rolled her shoulders back and regrouped. "As you all know, the Yule Festival is a celebration of the ending of one year and the beginning of the next," she said, gesturing with her hands like she tended to do when she was really enthused about something. "On this night of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, we are reminded that even when things look really dark--yes, even if your house has caught on fire or you've come down with some horrible stomach virus on account of expired yak's milk--that there is still always a light to look forward to."
She cast a glance at Hiccup, and he waved his hands at her--what did she expect him to say? Even he didn't know what she had in store.
"Berk has prospered these past few years in a way it never has before," she said, turning to gesture to Toothless and Stormfly at the edge of the stage, and then to Hookfang and the other dragons beyond the edge of the crowd. "Because we are able to work together with dragons instead of spending all our energy fighting them, our crops flourish and our fishing hauls have never been more plentiful. And, though they do have their… drawbacks…" she added, making a bit of a face as she gestured to a rather large pile of dragon dung on a nearby rooftop (someone must have been late to the 3:00 fertilizer drop), "the fact of the matter is that Berk would not be what it is today without them."
He was really only half listening, instead just sort of watching her as she spoke. Astrid had always had a way of commanding a crowd, and Hiccup never really got tired of watching her do it. He might have been the chief's son, he might have had the smarts and the authority to make a judgment call, but Astrid was the one with all the charisma. Even if he didn't understand her a lot of the time, there she went again, proving just how much they complemented one another.
"And so, I think maybe we should all take a moment to acknowledge that."
Oh, wait, she was still talking. Hiccup snapped back to the present as Astrid grabbed his arm and tugged him forward.
"A-Astrid, what are you--?"
"Weren't you listening, leek-brain?" she asked as the crowd erupted in applause. "I was talking about you, dummy; they're clapping for you."
Hiccup felt everything behind his ribcage seize up and squelch like old pudding as he cast his eyes out over the crowd. The whole village was there, applauding him, and he wasn't even really sure why. She'd been talking about the dragons, but--
"And now, if I can direct you all to the main path through the forest," she said, taking Hiccup by the shoulders and pointing with an open palm, "the main event awaits you there."
As the crowd cleared away, headed for the woods where they had hung the crystal-encrusted panels, Hiccup couldn't quite seem to find the coordination to move, even as Astrid's arm slid away from his shoulders.
"Are you coming?" she asked, taking a step toward the edge of the stage.
Hiccup gave her a suspicious look. "Is this a trick?" he asked, and she folded her arms.
He flapped his arms helplessly at his sides. "I thought you were angry at me," he said. "All this time, you've barely said a word to me beyond barking orders about this festival and your super-secret plan for it, and now you're up here saying that half of Berk's current prosperity is because of me. I don't get it, Astrid; are you mad at me or are you proud of me?"
"Can't I be both?" she asked, and Hiccup gave a start. She grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the edge of the stage. "Come on, I saved us seats."
"Mmhm," she said, waving Stormfly and Toothless toward the stage and leaping nimbly onto the dragon's back. "If you think I'm giving you anything but a front-row seat to the coolest idea I've ever had, then you really are a leek-brain. I can't wait to see your face."
"Isn't this the tree Toothless stranded you in that first night?" Hiccup asked as the two dragons landed in the forest near the base of a particularly tall evergreen.
"It sure is," Astrid said, not really surprised he remembered. "That's our destination."
And with that she hopped down from Stormfly's back and marched over toward Toothless. Hiccup looked puzzled, but Toothless simply lowered his shoulder to allow her to climb up onto his back. They'd made an arrangement, after all. Hiccup had discovered that Toothless loved clams more than just about anything, so as long as he didn't give her a hard time for this one night, she had promised him all the clams he could eat. She still found it a little eerie the way Toothless really did seem like maybe he understood everything they were saying.
"Ah, Astrid?" Hiccup sounded nervous, craning his neck to look back at her as she settled into the saddle behind him. "Astrid, what are you…?"
"The tree won't hold us and both dragons," she said simply, giving him a matter-of-fact look in return, "so I made a deal with Toothless."
"You made a deal?"
"Don't sound so surprised," she scolded. "He's smarter than the Thorston twins combined."
Toothless snorted indignantly.
Astrid laughed, patting Toothless' flank. "All right, smarter than them combined with Snotlout as well." The Night Fury shook his head quickly, and Astrid glanced back up at Hiccup again. "So all you have to do is get us to the top of the tree. Think you can manage?"
"Well sure, but…"
She furrowed her brow, something like injury threatening to bleed into her expression. "Hiccup, I know you like having all the information," she said. "I know you don't like feeling left out of the loop, but you're just going to have to trust me this time. It'll be worth it, I promise."
He hesitated, looking like he still wasn't convinced this wasn't a trap, but urged Toothless into the air anyway. They banked to the right and circled the tree once, and then the Night Fury landed lightly in the uppermost branches. Once the dragon was settled, Astrid shifted a bit and leaned forward to look at Hiccup.
"I was angry because I don't want you to feel like you have to protect me," she said sternly, and he made a choking noise.
"Wait, you stranded me up a tree so we could talk about this?"
She scoffed and punched his shoulder. "You were the one who asked."
"Like a month and a half ago!" he countered, waving his hands and twisting around in the saddle. "Usually when you're angry it's because I've actually done something stupid or crazy," he said, "but if I'm not allowed to be worried about you when you get hurt, what am I supposed to do?"
She shook her head. Really she did know this already--she knew Hiccup didn't think less of her for being a girl, and it wasn't just because she could kick his butt and everyone in the village knew it.
"You're not not allowed," she said. "I guess I'm just not used to being the one being worried about."
He laughed softly. "Yeah, usually I'm the one doing something dangerous," he said. "I blow myself up--you just blow up other things."
"No, seriously, I'm never going to live that down, am I?"
There was a nervous titter of laughter, and then Astrid saw a flicker of brightness gleam against Toothless' scales. She grinned broadly. Perfect timing.
Hiccup lifted his head and smiled faintly. "Oh, the northern lights," he breathed. And then his jaw slackened suddenly and he turned to gawp at Astrid. "That's what you were tracking?"
She chuckled. "Got it in one," she said, buffing her fingernails on the front of her shirt. "I'd been watching them for a while, and while it was hard to determine a pattern at first, I finally figured it out." She scooted a little closer to him and spread her hands excitedly. "They seem to happen about a month apart, actually. They happened one night, but not the next, and then two nights in a row, and then not again for four nights… I started writing down every night I saw them, and I noticed that the pattern seemed to repeat just about every month. Whatever causes them must be on some kind of cycle--isn't that amazing?"
Hiccup looked a bit flabbergasted. "I… yeah! It is!" He shook his head, a helpless grin pulling at his lips, and he turned in the saddle to take Astrid's shoulders. "I didn't even think you were really interested in that sort of stuff," he said.
She shrugged one shoulder. "Usually I leave the number crunching to you wussy types," she said, giving him a bit of a shove, "but when I figured out that the lights would probably show up on the first night of the festival, I wanted to tell you."
Realization crashed across his features, and Astrid allowed herself a moment of smugness.
"You… wanted me to be proud of you," he said, and then sagged forward, shaking his head, "and instead I was just a jerk."
Her fist met his shoulder again, though not as hard this time. "Got it in one," she said, and then gestured slightly with her chin.
Hiccup turned over his shoulder and his jaw slackened open. "Oh." He sagged a little where he sat, shaking his head. "So that's what you wanted the crystals for."
The forest was alight with green and turquoise and gold, ablaze with the colors of the aurora overhead. As the ribbons of light danced across the sky, the panels encrusted with crystal caught the multihued light, casting it spinning and twisting against the trees and through the evergreen branches, bouncing and reflecting it from the heavens to the earth. Hiccup leaned forward and peered down the sheer drop below them, watching the crowd of villagers on the ground as they were bathed in the ethereal light of the sky.
Astrid smiled. He really was brilliant, she had to hand it to him; he'd calculated the angles she'd needed perfectly for the crystals to reflect the aurora, and he hadn't had the slightest idea what the calculations were for in the first place. It really was perfect: she couldn't have planned this better if she'd tried.
"So are you proud of me?" she asked, and he laughed aloud, turning to look at her again, a crooked grin splitting his face.
"Yeah," he said, and then looked sheepish again. "Are… you still mad at me?"
"Not irreparably so," she replied. "You were a big help. I guess I can let you slide just this once…"
Her voice trailed off when Hiccup leaned forward and planted a chaste kiss on her cheek. Wait, that wasn't supposed to happen. He wasn't supposed to kiss her, was he? Had he ever even done that before?
Astrid's eyes widened and she lifted a hand to her face, then narrowed her gaze at him.
Hiccup jutted his jaw forward. "That… that's for forgiving me," he said, and then hesitated. "And… I'd like to give you one for everything else, but I don't want you to give me a black eye."
Astrid stared at him for a long moment, then laughed helplessly, reaching forward and tangling her hands in the front of his vest. She was pretty sure Toothless was rolling his eyes, but she didn't really care; she had a feeling this was the beginning of a really great year. As the aurora shimmered above them and reflected brilliantly off the crystal panels hanging from the trees around them, she pulled Hiccup toward her and captured his lips with hers.
Astrid would never be the son her father had wanted, and Hiccup would probably always be a bit of an involuntary spasm, but in that moment Astrid had to think that maybe a name wasn't really all that defined its bearer. What was in a name, in the end, but a bunch of letters, right?
So maybe it wasn't the destiny of a person to live up to their name; maybe it was just up to the bearer to define the name they were given.