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Title: The Light Beyond the Trees
Fandom: How to Train Your Dragon
Rating: PG
Notes: Written for [livejournal.com profile] trekkie_mage.
Summary: Hiccup, growing up in Berk.



i.

Astrid is eight years old when Valhallarama, the fiercest warrior of the tribe and wife to the chief, dies. The dragons attack, and Valhallarama fights well, but by the next day word has spread through the village that her wound has gone bad.

The day after she dies, just before sunset, Valhallarama is put in a boat with her favorite axe and her shield and set out to sea. Stoick the Vast follows her into the shallows with a torch, and sets the boat alight before the tide pulls it out of his reach. He stands there for a long moment, a massive black shape against the bright fire, and then turns around to return to shore.

Astrid can see from her position in the crowd that Hiccup is crying, steadily but silently. She hears someone behind her murmur that he's being brave, in an approving voice, but he doesn't look brave. Just so sad that he can't even speak.

But by now Astrid has gone to enough funerals – including those for her own parents – to realize that to the tribe, any child mourning their parent is either brave or fierce, depending on how loudly they cry.

Afterwards, when the tribe returns to the Mead Hall for a feast in Valhallarama's honor (or as much of a feast as they can fit in before the dragons attack), Stoick nevertheless sits Hiccup down at the table with all the other kids. He's stopped crying, at least, and the loss is raw and new enough for the whole village that the others go easy on him. Instead of the usual collection of insults and jokes, they don't say anything to him at all.

It's strained, to say the least.

There's no attack that night, and eventually the rest of the tribe filters out of the Mead Hall, the crowd thinning. Snotlout dares Fishlegs to snort milk out his nose, and Ruffnut and Tuffnut are determined to do it first. This leads to a competition, which leads to an asthma attack, which leads to adult intervention and then it's only Hiccup and Astrid left at the table.

Hiccup's fish lays untouched in front of him, and he hasn't spoken a word all night. Astrid can't remember a time when he was so quiet, but her usual fallback discussion topics are killing dragons and weaponry and neither seem particularly appropriate right now. The only other thing she can think to say is "At least she's in Valhalla," and that is definitely not appropriate right now, judging by the overwhelmed look on Hiccup's face.

"The Elder said it's not supposed to snow again this winter," she says, a little desperately.

Hiccup jerks his head up to stare at her, startled after the silence. Then he says, "Oh. That's...good."

"Because we already had so much snow," adds Astrid. "Earlier. This winter."

They fall back into silence, Hiccup once again staring at his plate and Astrid looking anywhere but at him.

All in all, it's an incredible relief when the Viking parents finally decide that it's time for the children to go to bed.

ii.

Gobber has never been one for delicacy, but he tries for it now. It takes quite a lot of effort. "Are you...sure that's a good idea, Stoick?"

"I've thought about this already, Gobber," says Stoick, but he stays seated in the Mead Hall chair, his shoulders slumped. "Hiccup will learn discipline and hard work in the forge. It will be good for him."

"He could learn discipline and hard work on the fire brigade, too," says Gobber. "That would be a better job for the future chief of the tribe..."

Stoick's voice is weary. "The boy just lost his mother, and you want to push him into the heat of battle?"

"He'll be pushed whether he likes it or not, it's just a matter of when," says Gobber. "Do you really think the tribe will accept a chief who's used to sharpening swords and making nails instead of facing down dragons?"

"I'm not saying he won't fight someday - "

"If he doesn't learn how to fight, then he never will - "

"You've seen him, Gobber, he's tiny!"

"Of course he is, he's still a boy. And he won't grow up to be a man unless he has a chance to learn how."

Stoick's eyes narrow, the first real expression Gobber's seen on his stony face since the funeral. And for a face that Gobber’s used to seeing contorted with a war bellow, his - and there’s no other word for it - stoicism has been downright unnerving.

But Stoick just says, "He won't learn anything if he's killed by a dragon. Maybe the tribe won't accept a boy forged in a smithy as a chief. But this way Hiccup will live long enough that we'll find out."

"With all due respect, Chief Stoick," says Gobber, "don't you think you might not be thinking like a chief right now, but like a father?"

"I am his father," says Stoick. "And if I can't protect my son, what hope do I have to protect my tribe?" Gobber opens his mouth to reply, and Stoick cuts him off, standing up. "I've made my decision. Hiccup will be at the forge tomorrow morning to start his apprenticeship." He hesitates, and for a moment Gobber can recognize the old Stoick, from before the funeral, in the look on his face – exasperated, but with a blunted edge of fondness. "Maybe if Hiccup spends enough time around the weapons repairing them, he'll finally be able to use one, or at least pick one up without drawing blood. Or at all."

Gobber decides then and there that Hiccup will be handling nothing but nails and metal joints for at least a year.

"I won't go easy on him," Gobber warns Stoick, and that gets a smile, albeit one that reveals more worried lines around Stoick's eyes than were there before.

"You don't know how to go easy," Stoick says, and that's true enough.

The next morning Hiccup arrives at the forge at dawn, true to his father's words. He is still wide-eyed and unbalanced with loss, and Gobber can see the reasoning in distracting him. Just not in distracting him with sharp objects.

"Welcome to the forge, lad," says Gobber, ushering him in with his left arm, which currently ends in a set of tongs. "Let me introduce you to your new best friend: the nail."

iii.

Even at ten years old, Snotlout is the perfect model of a Viking-in-training. On top of his endless ten-year-old's energy, he's as fierce and driven as an axe to the face, and just about as subtle as one.

So when his dad takes him to Uncle Stoick's house and tells him to go play with his cousin, he isn't particularly excited. Snotlout knows that when he grows up he's going to be the best Viking ever. Hiccup, even at his tender young age, is making great strides at being the worst Viking ever. Snotlout doesn't even make fun of Hiccup when he has to go over to Uncle Stoick's, because nobody's around to laugh at his jokes about Hiccup's face and also Uncle Stoick gave him that Look that one time.

Hiccup is sitting out back behind the house, where the mountain just begins to level off into the village. He's lashing together some sticks in a complicated pattern. It doesn't look deadly, and thus it doesn't look interesting. But for some reason Uncle Stoick and Snotlout's dad think that, as cousins, Hiccup and Snotlout should spend time together so they'd probably be angry if Snotlout went back to the Mead Hall instead.

"What are you doing?" asks Snotlout, and he can see Hiccup's shoulders bow a bit in a wince before he turns around.

"Hi, Snotlout," says Hiccup, about as enthusiastic as a dead fish.

"Whoa!" says Snotlout, staring, "what happened to your face?"

Hiccup's eyes dart sideways for just a second. "Do you mean other than usual?"

"Was it a dragon?" says Snotlout, staring at the inch-long scab on Hiccup's chin. He comes closer, and sits across from Hiccup, leaving room for the twig-thing, whatever it is.

"Kind of," says Hiccup. "A dragon set the house on fire, and the roof kind of...collapsed."

Snotlout has a vision of his cousin, suddenly the coolest Viking to walk the planet, striding out of his burning house, silhouetted by flames as the roof collapses and sends shrapnel flying out and striking him on the chin as he just keeps walking.

Hiccup finishes, "My dad pushed me out of the house before it happened and I hit my chin on a rock."

And it's gone.

"A rock?" says Snotlout.

"It was a sharp rock," says Hiccup.

"Is it at least gonna scar?"

Hiccup looks annoyed. "Probably."

"But that's so cool!" says Snotlout, trying to make the best of the situation. "It's in the perfect place, too – look at it, it's all rugged and daring and - "

"Painful," says Hiccup. "Actually pretty really painful."

"Well, yeah, but you're getting a scar out of it," says Snotlout. "So it's worth it."

"So if I were to say to you, right now, that I would punch you in the face so you'd get a scar, you'd say yes even if it was going to really hurt?" says Hiccup.

Snotlout scoffs. "You couldn't punch me hard enough to scar," he says, and an idea strikes him. "But maybe Tuffnut could. Or Ruffnut, but she might not stop at one."

Hiccup does not look as enthralled by the idea of recruiting a scar as he should. It's times like this that Snotlout wonders if Hiccup wasn't the one found in a basket in the harbor instead of Fishlegs, and then he remembers that Fishlegs is just that weird too.

His attention fully lost now, Hiccup goes back to his little stick whatever. Snotlout watches him carefully lash more sticks onto it, and finally asks, "What is that thing?"

"It's going to be a troll trap," says Hiccup. "See, you put a little bit of fish or something right here, and then when the troll comes in to get it, it trips this and then this part falls down and traps it."

"But trolls are big," says Snotlout, and then, in case Hiccup doesn't get it, "and that thing is tiny."

"It's just to see if the design works before I try to make it bigger," says Hiccup.

"Okay, but why don't you just go find a troll and kill it?" says Snotlout.

"You just said I couldn't punch you in the face and leave a scar," says Hiccup, "so what makes you think that I could kill a troll?"

Snotlout considers this for a moment, then inclines his head in benevolent acknowledgement. Hiccup has a point.

"Well," says Hiccup. "This has been really fun cousin-bonding time, but I think I'm going to go do something else. Anything else. At all."

Perfect. If Hiccup leaves first, then Snotlout can go to the Mead Hall and get punched by Ruffnut without getting a lecture from Uncle Stoick. And if he gets a scar even cooler than Hiccup's, well, even better.

By the time Snotlout gets to the Mead Hall, he's forgotten all about his boring cousin.

iv.

One of the downsides of being on fire duty is that cleaning up and reconstructing afterwards is considered part of it.

It's a summer afternoon, and Berk is balmy enough that Tuffnut doesn't even have his vest on and Ruffnut can feel her toes for the first time since last summer. The mood of the day has shifted from rebuild-the-houses-that-burned-down-in-last-night's-attack to start-sharpening-swords-and-axes-for-tonight's-attack. This means that Ruffnut and Tuffnut get a few hours of downtime to pick the splinters of wood out of each others' hands, the byproduct of a day spent sanding and carrying what will (hopefully soon) become a new roof for their house.

"Ow – watch it, buttbreath!" Ruffnut snaps as Tuffnut removes a particularly long splinter from her palm.

"You wanna do it yourself?" says Tuffnut, flicking the splinter away and giving Ruffnut's head a shove. Ruffnut has him in a headlock in two seconds flat, and Tuffnut stomps on her foot to get out of it, and they settle down again, swapping seats on the rocks on the edge of the village. Snotlout and Fishlegs are still in the village, hammering a wooden dragon's head into the support of Snotlout's house under the watchful eye of his father, Spitelout.

Astrid, on the other hand, is sharpening her axe and pretty much ignoring Ruffnut and Tuffnut like she always does when they aren't actively talking about killing dragons. Sometimes they find her single-minded focus to be funny, or at least jokeworthy, but then they remember seeing her practice her axe throwing and they trade maybe-we-shouldn't glances.

"Last one," says Tuffnut, picking out the last splinter.

"Is it gonna scar?" asks Ruffnut, perking up.

"You wish," says Tuffnut. "Okay, now do mine."

"I could yank 'em, see if I can get some blood," offers Ruffnut. "Get you at least a scab."

"Nah, I'm gonna save my scars for the dragons," says Tuffnut. "You know, try to get one big one instead of a bunch of little ones."

"Lots of little ones make it look like you've been in more fights," says Ruffnut. "Especially if some of them are old."

"But one big one means you really survived something dangerous," says Astrid, looking up from her axe.

"Exactly!" says Tuffnut. "One big one means something – Thor's balls, that hurt! That very much hurt!"

Ruffnut holds up her index finger, one red-stained sliver of wood balanced on it. "Sorry," she says, utterly unrepentant. "Look at it this way – if it's bigger, it must've meant something."

"You're the worst sister ever," says Tuffnut, but his attention is caught by something behind Ruffnut. "Speaking of the worst, it's Hiccup the Useless, the worst Viking ever!"

Ruffnut twists around, and sees Hiccup carrying a hammer that's half as big as he is, Snotlout and Fishlegs following him. Snotlout has that look in his eye that means he's really laying into Hiccup, while Fishlegs looks like he's trying to make himself as small and unobtrusive as possible. Seeing as he's bigger than anyone else in the village other than Stoick the Vast, who is, after all, vast, it's not doing much.

"Oh, hey, guys," says Hiccup. "The gang's all here. So great to see you. As always."

"Hiccup the Useless," Snotlout repeats, an edge of a sneer in his voice. "I like it! Whose house are you planning on destroying tonight, Useless?"

"You know, I didn't really have any plans – I prefer to make it up as I go along," says Hiccup. He hasn't broken his stride, which to be honest is less of a stride and more of a steady shuffle. "Keeps things interesting."

"How many times did you get out and not catch a dragon with one of your little machines last night?" asks Snotlout.

"Maybe you can make a machine to burn down the village for us – it'd save the dragons a lot of time," says Ruffnut, snickering.

"Hey, how many Night Furies have you caught by now?" says Tuffnut.

In her peripheral vision, Ruffnut can see Astrid roll her eyes, but Astrid isn't irritated enough to actually stop them. Ruffnut doesn't blame her for being annoyed, but Hiccup seems used to the teasing by now, and really, he should stop getting the village destroyed if he can't handle people talking about it.

"Maybe you guys should rethink the whole Viking thing and go into comedy instead," says Hiccup, still walking. He says over his shoulder right before he goes over the last hill between them and the village, "You've got a real promising future there, or something."

Ruffnut shakes her head. "Snotlout, you're cousin's weird."

"One of your braids is caught in your helmet's horn," Tuffnut tells her, and Ruffnut mutters a curse and takes her helmet off to untangle it.

"I'll have to remember Hiccup the Useless," says Snotlout, throwing himself down on a rock next to Astrid. "Don't you think that's clever, Astrid?"

The look Astrid gives Snotlout is not at all appreciative of his wit. "He might surprise everyone, you never know."

Tuffnut laughs out loud at that. "Yeah, maybe one day he'll catch a Night Fury."

Snotlout's usual tendency to agree with Astrid just because she's Astrid isn't enough today. "Trust me, Astrid," he says. "There's nothing surprising about Hiccup except maybe how surprisingly bad he is at anything Viking, and there never will be."

v.

Winters have always been the top item on Fishlegs's list of things he would change about Berk, and the blizzard outside is just one example why. It's a raging, blustery snowstorm, with snow that refuses to settle and instead scuttles across the remains of last week's ice storm in waves and fronts. The wind howls a counterpoint to the creaking of the longhouses, and Fishlegs once again curses his timing.

"Well," says Hiccup, hauling Fishlegs's hammer back towards him. "The good news is your hammer is fixed. One of the bolts keeping the rock in was loose." He lets the hammer settle on the ground with a thud, and gives a rueful glance towards the window, where snow is sneaking through the gaps. "The bad news is I think you're stuck here for a while."

Fishlegs looks towards the window, trying not to get nervous. "Do you think anyone knows we're here?" he says. "What if the storm keeps going and we starve to death or have to eat each other? Do you think that's how Gobber lost his leg, that he had to eat it in a blizzard?"

"I...really don't think so," says Hiccup, giving Fishlegs an odd look. "And we're not going to starve to death. Gobber keeps a stash of pickled eels and smoked fish in the back room."

"Oh." Fishlegs calms down a little at that.

"Do you, uh, want some?" says Hiccup. "Fish, I mean."

Fishlegs listens to the shrieking wind and considers how long they might be stuck. "Maybe we should save it," he says. "Just in case." He looks at his leg nervously. It doesn’t look delicious, but who knows, maybe after a few days it would start to look more appetizing. Best not to risk it.

"Right," says Hiccup, and settles in his own stool. The silence drags on for long moments, as Hiccup drums his fingers against his stool uncertainly and Fishlegs looks around the workshop, letting his eyes land anywhere but on Hiccup.

"What's that?" Fishlegs asks eventually, pointing.

Hiccup turns in his stool to look. "Oh, that's – it's machine to, uh, throw a bola. For the Vikings who...might not have the best aim. Or strength. Or height."

"Oh, like you?" says Fishlegs without thinking.

Hiccup's face looks pinched for a moment, but he says, "Pretty much just me, yeah."

On one hand, there's no telling how long Fishlegs and Hiccup are going to be stuck in this smithy and antagonizing Hiccup, whose reputation for destruction in the village is unmatched, is probably not the best idea. On the other hand, the question becomes increasingly obvious... "Haven't you...tried something like this before?"

"But this time it's going to work," says Hiccup, and Fishlegs recognizes the innate Viking stubbornness in his tone.

"...yeah," says Fishlegs. If Snotlout were here, he'd probably make some joke about hasn't it already worked, like, twenty times? I mean, how many Night Furies do you need to catch?, but he isn't, which means that Fishlegs doesn't have anything to prove to him. Instead he doesn't say anything.

"What's it like, being on the fire team?" Hiccup asks.

"Oh my gods, it's so cool," gushes Fishlegs. "We get to see all the dragons up-close and watch them burn the houses down before we go put the fires out. Their fires are all a little different, have you noticed? Snotlout thinks the Monstrous Nightmare's is the coolest, but I think he's selling the Gronckle short. Did you know that it eats rocks? It takes rocks, and eats them."

"That's...certainly intimidating," says Hiccup.

"Your dad said that if we survive until the next round of Dragon Training, I could be in it," says Fishlegs. "He said that my knowledge of dragons would come in handy there."

Well, actually, his exact words were "that weirdo will finally have a use in Dragon Training" and he rolled his eyes while he said it, but Fishlegs thinks he understood what he was really saying just fine.

"You get to be in the next round of Dragon Training?" says Hiccup, and there's a definite hint of jealousy in his voice.

"Uh," says Fishlegs, increasingly aware of the potentially-dangerous territory of this conversation. Ruffnut and Tuffnut have a bet with Snotlout about when Hiccup will start Dragon Training. Ruffnut and Tuffnut put down their best helmets on "never," while Snotlout bet his mace that it would be "five minutes before dying a terrible, fiery death." "Maybe?" he says.

"I'm going to go through Dragon Training," says Hiccup, his face set with determination. "And I'm going to kill a dragon and show everyone."

Fishlegs doesn't have to ask show everyone what. "I'm – sure you will," he lies.

The wind whips up a vicious howl, and the window-shutters shake. This is going to be a very long blizzard.

vi.

The summer solstice is Hiccup's favorite holiday, mostly because it's one of the few times a year that he actually feels warm. In past years, his father has started the bonfire off by giving a speech about how the Vikings of Berk have conquered fire and will conquer the dragons, killing them all, rah, rah, go Vikings, and so on. This year he didn't bother, just lit the tinder and boomed, "I already gave my speech at Snoggletog! Get on with it, then!"

Needless to say, the amount of mead he already consumed at that point is best described as "copious."

Hiccup usually spent the solstice as close to the bonfire as he thought he could sit without stray cinders setting his clothes on fire, especially after that solstice when he was seven which he wasn't particularly interested in revisiting. This was mostly so that he could gather as much heat in his toes and fingers as he could, in the hopes of maybe keeping feeling in them for a few extra days this year, but it never seemed to work.

It was a tradition he continued this year, although it was mostly because Toothless liked the bonfire and had settled down close to it. Most of the dragons had, actually; this is the first year that the solstice on Berk has been celebrated with more than one bonfire. The entire island is dotted with them, circled by dragons, suffusing the whole village with a golden glow and just a slight haze of smoke.

Hiccup leans back against Toothless's ribcage, and Toothless obligingly adjusts his wing so that its joint isn't digging into Hiccup's back. Hiccup pats Toothless's neck in thanks, and Toothless gives a low, pleased rumble, the vibration of it passing from his chest to Hiccup's.

"I was wondering where you were."

Hiccup cranes his head back to look at Astrid, who's standing above him with a look of unmistakable fondness on her face.

"Heyyyy, Astrid!" he says, maybe a little too loudly. "I've been here since the bonfire lighted. Got lit. Lot? You know what I mean. Fire."

"Did your dad let you have mead?" asks Astrid.

Hiccup looks guiltily down at the cup by his side. "Apparently I'm a hero, and heroes get mead," he says. "Just one cup, though." In the interest of fairness, not to mention self-awareness, he adds, "I think that's really all it took."

Astrid smothers a giggle. "I can see that. Do you mind if I join you?"

Hiccup pats Toothless's stomach, eliciting a huff from Toothless. "Sure! Pull up a Night Fury."

Astrid sits down next to him, close enough that their shoulders are just touching a little bit. "I was a little worried when you left the feast early," she says.

"Why?"

"I don't know," Astrid admits. "I mean, Snoggletog didn't go all that well this year - "

"It went fine, once we found our dragons," says Hiccup. "Toothless even gave me my helmet as a present. And a lot of drool. And my fake tail I made for him, but I gave that to him first so it doesn't count."

Toothless growls a little in disagreement, but is either too lazy or doesn't actually care enough to lift his head to look at Hiccup to drive the point home.

"Does not," says Hiccup.

"I just - I know you get overwhelmed sometimes,” says Astrid, and it’s true. And a recurring source of conversation for the two of them. Going from village pariah to village hero and also the only one who actually knows anything about dragons was a little unexpected, to say the least, and sometimes Hiccup just gets the urge to hide in the force and finally perfect that troll trap. Astrid, whose main activity during the day is solitary axe-throwing, gets it, and doesn’t seem to mind talking about it.

“And you've been kind of quiet lately," continues Astrid. "Which is weird, because you're...you."

Hiccup narrows his eyes. "Was that supposed to be a compliment?"

"Actually, yes," says Astrid.

"Oh," says Hiccup. "Okay, then." He frowns. "I haven't been that quiet lately."

"Sometimes you just get this...look in your eye, when you're looking at us," says Astrid. "When we're all with our dragons. It's hard to explain."

Hiccup thinks about it, which at this point in the evening – and his cup of mead – is not particularly easy. He has been feeling something weird sometimes, mostly when he's in the ring with new equipment or strategy ideas with the rest of his class of dragon trainers. There's something about seeing the look on Snotlout's face when he's stroking that spot on Hookfang's snout, right behind her horn where the scales get almost soft, and he looks like he still can't quite believe what he's doing – or when Ruffnut and Tuffnut finally managed to turn both of their dragon's heads upside-down at the same time and keep flying. Or when he sees how Fishlegs gets all gentle with Meatlug's baby dragons, even though they're not nearly as baby as they used to be. Or when he sees Astrid...well. When he sees Astrid.

It's a strange and not unpleasant weight in his stomach and knot in his throat, a lifting of his heart and a sudden feeling of disbelief. Part of it is the knowledge that he did this, he made it happen, and there's more than a little pride there. And there's the way people listen to him now, even Snotlout when he's trying to rile up the new recruits and Hiccup tells him to lay off a bit. It's something in the way they look at him, like he's a person and not a nuisance.

It's how he finally got Toothless and his father to get along, and freezing the moment in his mind when Toothless let Stoick lay a light hand on his snout. Just thinking about it makes the feeling come back, and he tries to identify it.

"I think," he says to Astrid, slowly, "that I'm just happy."

"You're quiet when you're happy?" says Astrid, raising an eyebrow.

"I guess," says Hiccup. "I mean, I don't really have a lot of experience at it, so..."

Something sad flashes in Astrid's eyes, and her expression changes. "Well," she says, her voice light. "I guess the point of experience is that you're always getting more of it, right?"

"I could get used to it," Hiccup admits, and Astrid smiles at him. He inches slightly closer to her, and realizes with dismay that he's still not quite taller than her – so instead of his original plan of stretching an arm across her shoulders, he instead lays his head against her shoulder.

Astrid is still for a moment, and Hiccup can almost feel the uncertainty in her until she leans her cheek against the top of his head.

The weight is back in his stomach, and it doesn't feel like a burden. Instead, it's something solid and unmoveable, a contentment so deep that nothing can shift it.

Yeah. He can get used to this.
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