Chapter 20: Reunited
Chapter 20: Reunited
Chapter 20: Reunited

11th Jan 2013, 8:31 PM

by inhonoredglory

The way he talked when she finally caught up with him, that tenderness in Hiccup's voice. She could tell this stranger boy meant something to him, even if it was just sympathy on overdrive. Hiccup was that kind of person, a caring heart. She loved that about him, but now? Now they needed to focus. She turned to Hiccup, watched the bright moonlight shaft across his face and shadow his eyes in darkness. "We can't afford another distraction, Hiccup," she said, quietly and firmly.

"Astrid, I just thought--"

"You can't help everyone, Hiccup."

She held her breath, saw the boy wince ever so slightly as they walked. Maybe he didn't deserve that snapping remark, but really -- they had to leave the slave child behind. They already knew where Toothless was -- and Toothless was the reason Hiccup was here. Why bring this issue to complicate already impossible matters?

She moved deftly besides him, the street widening and thronging with night life in the aftermath of the dragon raid. He strode ahead towards the great shadow of the Herkja Hall, his face fatally serious, filled with a depth that made her know his mind was still on the child.

As much as she hated to admit it, slavery was normal. Did it appeal to her sensibilities? Was it something she'd do? A revulsion throbbed up her throat, and she looked on ahead, at the people they called enemy here in their midst, the people who tried to destroy Berk, kill Hiccup. Maybe she wouldn't have a problem throwing some people into captivity.

She couldn't judge the practice. It was the prerogative of a conquering people, and Vikings were conquerers. But did that have anything to do with anything right now? Her foot suddenly crunched on a shard of pottery, and she looked down at the random debris. It was glinting in the firelight that flickered orange around them. "Let's think about something else," she said out loud, touched his shoulder briefly and sought his eyes. He didn't meet hers, shoved his head forward. He was maybe just a little bit bitter now?

It didn't matter, so long as they got this thing over with. She angled her head away from him, to the warriors streaming ahead of them in the street. The stony looks and marching feet against the plaza floor, sounds from some new agitation within the Skirra Vél. Hiccup was quiet now, intent on the surroundings. She squinted at him. How would he know what was eating her mind? He dragged her on this mission without her dragon or her axe, their own parents had no idea if they drowned in the high seas, and now the kids and their dragons vanished just as magically as Toothless had on Induction Day.

If Hiccup needed to worry about anybody, he could pick any of his friends.

She felt Fishlegs pushing into her from behind. She snapped a look at him, but his round face looked small, his lips pursed shut and his stare concentrated on the dragon cages to their right. Many Gronckles lumped together behind the bars, cramped atop each other like suffocated rocks. They all looked like Meatlug to her, but to Fishlegs, there wasn't any dragon like his Gronckle. She softened her gaze at him, brushed her hand gently against the soft skin of his arm. Fishlegs peeked at her for a moment, before that look plunged him again into a brooding silence.

She knew what Fishlegs was worried about. The same thing she was. Because Toothless wasn't the only friend missing on this island, and unlike Toothless, she had no idea where they disappeared.

A warrior pushed into her, almost knocked her down. "Excuse me!" she exclaimed and grimaced at him. His eyes snapped back on her, seared into hers. She sucked in a breath, thought maybe, maybe, he recognized her, but no. He wasn't one of the Skirra Véllite Council. He marched onward, urgently onward, towards the Great Hall steps teeming with armored bodies pounding the stairs. She felt something determined in their step, something she knew before, felt back at Berk. She didn't like that feeling, that urgent impatience reeking out of that sudden rush of warriors towards the Hall.

"You okay Astrid?" It was Hiccup's voice, laced with concern, but she didn't look at him. These warriors converging at the Hall -- no, leaving the Hall. Marching, ominous marching towards the dragon cages. Stern eyes and stern steps, taking their posts by the cages. The sheer rush of men, like some order had been given. She knew war enough to feel that. The warriors descended on the plaza below. The lead wave approached the street, intersecting the traffic of produce carts and random people walking who-knows-where at night. One warrior accosted a teen boy ahead of them herding sheep through the plaza. The guy took the shaking kid by the shoulders, spoke sharply as he examined the boy's face. He released the boy and bellowed to his fellow men marching in their direct path. Her heart sparked. Hiccup's eyes narrowed, his face turning away from the blinding moonlight, and she could feel his breathing halt with her own as the warrior's words shouted clear across the night.

"--I don't care if we haven't a scallop's eye of what they look like -- they're spies -- look for spies! Search every blasted corner of every house twice. Then drag them to the Great Hall."

:: ::

Ruffnut twitched her nose, squinted in the ridiculously dull light of the Skirra Véllite Great Hall.

It wasn't everyday you got to sneak behind enemy lines. It wasn't everyday you got to infiltrate the darkest interior of the antagonist and see stuff even spies couldn't see. And it wasn't everyday you got a one-on-one with the big shots of the enemy.

She shrugged, the itchy ropes around her hands tight and stiff behind her back.

But then again it wasn't everyday you got captured either. . .

If only Snotlout wasn't there they might have gotten away with it, too. She leered at the third wheel in their group, the guy on the other side of Tuffnut, the three of them on a long bench in the corner of this cave. She rolled her eyes as she saw him go into the pouting phase of his prisoner behavior. He looked better in the angry phase, at least it gave a semblance of rebellion. This was just . . . embarrassing. "Snotlout, shut your trap," she called.

"What was that?" The captor above them stared down at her.

She snapped back to look at the face that was staring into hers. She felt Snotlout whimper something. She rolled her eyes. "Hey, big boy!" she shouted at their captor, and he snapped back at her, his fat eyes dark and thick with folds of charred, stained skin.

"Your ugly is showing," her brother lolled, the end of his voice lilting into a lisp which she could feel was coming from the pain of the wristbands. She looked over at him, saw the one big, silent warrior pulling taut the rope behind her brother.

The captor in front of them was not amused by their snarky remarks. He breathed heavily into her face and she leaned back, her nose smarting to the strong smell of rotten sweat. "Hey--" she slurred, "I hear bathing is in vogue. You should try it sometime."

He narrowed his eyes at her, those dark eyes glinting with purpose and determination. He laughed suddenly, still looking at her, a jolly sort of laughter thick with a strange density. He was weird, but she got the feeling she might even have liked the guy. He looked tough and probably was good with dragons if he ever got his fat behind in balance to ride on one. But now . . . looking at her like this . . .

I don't think so.

He breathed into her face again and she grimaced. "I got reports of you and your friends hiding in baskets. Now don't tell me that's not suspicious."

"Hey I was bored," Ruffnut snapped, flashing an encouraging grin to Tuffnut. "You need to upgrade your entertainment in this town." She smirked.

"Yeah, get some dragons in this place. I mean . . ." Tuffnut scuffed up his eyes. "That didn't come out right, did it?"

Ruffnut raised a brow. Nope.

"Small talk will get you nowhere, little girl." The big man jangled suddenly, and she noticed a leather strap of hanging metal junk swinging from his belt. Of all the stupid jewelry. The tiny scraps looked like he picked them up from some blacksmith's dump. Haha, wasn't even some cool skull or something. What was wrong with this guy? This was seriously going to make her laugh. "Hey I'm not a little girl, just so you know--" She giggled.

He stomped his foot. "You are if I say so."

Oh poor baby. She frowned, looked up at him. He's getting pouty now. "Um, you hear that? It sounded like wings." She looked around and the man snapped his head up, wary suddenly. "That was the sound of logic flying out your pretty head." She laughed, jabbed her brother in the shin. He howled obnoxiously and sang out, "I think his brain went with it -- watch out for falling debris."

She laughed, snorted. "Oh and don't forget--"

"No one teases ME." A heavy hand grabbed the back of her head suddenly, lunged her forward. She lisped a breath. "--and I don't need a baby telling me otherwise."

"Oh yeah? I don't see a baby anywhere right now . . ."

"Hey, get your hands off my sister--"

"Shut up." He was staring at her, those hard black eyes thick and threatening. She was almost tempted to let the thrill of fear in her heart come out. "Ha!" she laughed in his face, and that slight thing in her nerves dimmed, faded into excitement. This guy thought he was such a big shot. If only he was on Berk, he'd know he was dealing with something dangerous, the three of them. Or--

She looked at Snotlout, swore she saw tears in his eyes.

--or at least the two of them . . .

"I'll ask you once again -- who, how many, and what do they look like?" The man tightened his grip around the back of her head. She lolled her eyes at him, tried to look bored, because in all honesty, that's what she was. Sarcasm was a lifesaver at a time like this. Who knows what would have happened if they just shut up or . . . acted like Snotlout. She'd just die.

"I asked a question, little girl."

"Oh you did? Sorry I was doing something more exciting -- in my head. Like I said, booooored . . ."

Tuffnut snickered proudly. "Yeah, I totally black out when I'm bored to death." She could feel a wariness in his voice, a slight hesitation. She'd have looked over, but the creep still had a hand around her head, blocking her view. What was going on with Tuffnut? It almost sounded like . . . worry? For what?

She felt a nudge on her boot -- her brother. She blinked, her eyes still locked to the angry man in front of her. Chill, Tuff, I'm okay . . . Did he really think she couldn't take care of herself?

"Come on, we told you everything!" It was Snotlout's voice, and he was still in the pouty mode. "Do we look like spies?"

Shut up, Snotlout . . . The idiot was going to give it all away. The hand let up on her head a little and she took the inch and jerked back out of his grip.

"Do we look stupid?" her brother said. Trying to cover up Snotlout's revealing remark.

"Stealing two wild dragons? You tell me." Their captor stepped back, looked at each of them.

Snotlout, don't go saying that they were our dragons. If he did that, then he'd win all the awards of stupid. But it was true -- who'd have thought Belch, Barf, and Meatlug would be here? With a bunch of wild unruly dragons? In a cage, the poor things. It made her mad. These dimwits weren't going to see the end of it once she got out of here and got back on the dragon. They were asking for trouble. Which was just the way she liked it.

Suddenly something struck the air. Sharp, piercing. It filled the expanse of the Hall with a deep low sound punctuated by high-pitched yaps. A loud hum, an excited, happy, familiar hum coming from below, from inside the weird depression in the middle of the Great Hall.

Toothless?

"Hey, is it just me, or is there a dragon down there?" she blurted. The man glared at her in confusion and Tuffnut's face blanked, but the dragon hummed again in eager response to her voice. That wasn't a Zippleback. So that's where they hid him. Poor guy probably hadn't heard a familiar voice in ages--

"What are you trying to pull, girl?" The man's eyebrows bristled darkly, crudely hiding his eyes. He pushed his face close to hers, but the happy dragon yapping soured his attempts at intimidating her. She grinned slyly. He snorted into her face, then snapped away and shouted across the Hall.

"Shut up dragon!"

The dragon did not shut up. In fact, his excited sounds increased and melded into something more gravelly, a pointed hum close to a growl. Toothy's got choice words for you, Mr. Ugly. The man looked almost silly half standing and half crouching, his gold bracelets jangling uncertainly at some dragon in a hole spitting insults at him.

"Dragon caught your tongue?" she snickered, and suddenly the man was glowering over her, his fist flying into her face. Dang that felt good. Except when her helmet went flying and she couldn't grab it back. "That your best shot?" She laughed. This guy wasn't dealing with no baby. That was warm up with Tuff and her.

"Shut up." He threw his other fist at her, and she winced at the sudden tenderness in her eye. She heard something, it sounded like Snotlout. Maybe he was at the crying stage by now. And then Tuffnut, her brother, she could feel him moving next to her, sharp jabs of motion that she couldn't make out with the spinning going on in her head, saying something-- "You pig. Only I hit her."

"You really think you can do something?"

"Get your hands off my sister."

"And what position are you in to say that?"

"I said get your hands off."

"Oh I will . . ."

Ruffnut blinked, got her eyesight in gear finally, mumbled a random insult she couldn't even articulate, and then-- the tough hands on her hair again. Boy, this was so old. "Yeah, grab the girl," she sighed, and kicked the man's shins. That would teach him.

The hand got tighter, pulling at her scalp. It still wouldn't beat the time Tuff and her had played this game before. This was small potatoes. Still. She opened one eye, saw a sudden seriousness in Tuff's face. Which wasn't like him. At all. Tuff?

"Take your hands off." Her brother was fatal now, deadly serious.

Tuff, it's okay. Chill!

"Not until you tell me what you know." Something cold touched her neck suddenly, and she smirked. Going the violent route, eh? Don't give 'em zip, bro. She eyed him, nodding. He caught her drift, but she didn't get a return acknowledgement, not like the way she knew one, not with a smirking nod or a wink. He was still serious, and this meant trouble. Tuffnut, what's wrong with you?

:: ::

Hiccup held his breath, squinted in the firelights inside the Great Hall. He thought he heard something farther within, a growl or a hum. But the people were too loud. The fresh waves of humanity pulsed past him out the door he'd just entered. It hadn't been hard to get in here; the spies' identities were unknown, and the reports had instilled an alarm that distracted from the three teens slipping into the Hall. But just how did the Skirra Vél find out? That disturbed him more than anything.

He sidestepped into the shadows behind a pillar. Astrid on his right moved with him, and Fishlegs did the same. More like a hollowed-out mountain than a building, the Hall inside reverberated with the bluster of men and women seated at tables, their axes and swords and bows laid by their sides, their heads hovering over their mugs in strained mutterings. A certain agitation in them, an alertness despite the dulling effects of the mead. The smell of alcohol was heavy the air and stuck to his forehead. It shouldn't have bothered him, he'd felt it all his life, except now it mixed with the sweat filming his cheek and clamming up the insides of his clothes.

There was a sharpness in the air, he could feel it. The place was under high alert. He could hear snippets of it in conversations as they passed one Viking to the next. With reports of spies among the people, no doubt somebody from the higher echelons would arrive at headquarters to quiet the anxiety. It could be Heather, her Council, or the chief himself. Perhaps someone from the voyage to Berk, someone who could positively identify any Hooligans among them. It could mean trouble.

He had to act soon. Before he messed up again.

He edged outside the pillar's shadow, suddenly felt bare without that comforting darkness concealing his steps. He felt Astrid's presence move with him, her breathing audible near his right ear. The Hall swept beyond him, innumerable tables and chairs underneath the dome ceiling black and far above. Dragon heads adorned the walls everywhere, frozen in majesty, their open jaws screaming wrath above his head. A vast pair of Timberjack wings stretched high above him, the wingtips fastened among the pillars like a colossal bedsheet nailed to the sky.

Yet the most breathtaking sight wasn't the dragons. It was the center of the Hall. Where the majority of human festivities should be located, the floor dropped into a gulf of space. He couldn't see the bottom, only the near-vertical slopes of rock descending into the depths of the mountain. Webs of chain strung out across the crater's mouth, the spaces between the chains too wide to prevent a person from falling through. It had only one purpose. To keep a dragon captive for all to see.

So this was the dragon cage. More accurately, a dragon arena.

He eyed the people milling there, mugs in one hand and weapons in the other, strolling along the rim of the enclosure and peering inside. Some kind of . . . attraction. A spectacle.

Suddenly, a hum.

He stopped and blinked. Astrid halted and Fishlegs almost collided into him from behind.

A dragon, humming. A gentle lilting he hadn't heard for so long, a purring deep and low and unmistakable.

He stared at Astrid, opened his mouth.

Only a Night Fury made that kind of sound. Only Toothless.

A pulse beat through his heart, hard and urgent, a chill down his legs. Toothless. After all this time. After all that had happened, his friend -- he had to see him. That desperate urge washed over him, made his heart happy, elated for a minute. Hiccup jolted away from Astrid, ran. Somebody's curt voice whispered a warning behind him. It was Astrid, but he didn't care right now. He knew what she was saying -- be careful, watch out. He just wanted to see Toothless again.

The mess of bodies in front of him were blocking him, getting in his way. Carrying too many hammers and bows, axes and swords, for such a so-called peaceful gathering as a night of drinking in the Hall. He plunged into the suffocating masses, the arms and legs and metal mail and faces turning on him, surprised eyes and irritated voices. So many, too many. Get out of the way. He gritted his teeth. The dragon humming grew louder and pointed and laced with a thrill of excitement. The hum throbbed into him, pierced through the noise of everything. The yearning quiver in that dragon throat, the rhythm of expectation so near, so close. His heart fluttered. Toothless knew he was here.

But there was something else in that hum. The rasp, that pensive break in the purr, like the dragon's throat choked. He could feel Toothless straining, struggling, his cries sparking loud and wheezing tightly. Something was wrong.

Hold on, bud.

He squeezed through a sliver in the wall of Vikings, heard chiding grunts as he pressed past the last set of elbows. His left shoulder twisted and he hissed. His hand flew up to his wound and he pressed it hard through the clothing, through his coat and his flying harness hidden underneath. Why did that have to hurt right now? He heaved a breath, willed his mind to shut it out. The thick smell of mead sickened his mouth suddenly. He shoved forward, broke through the line, and stumbled into the open. Suddenly no people in front of him, only yawning space and interlocking chains spreading out below him like nets floating in a sea of air. He shoved his hands ahead of him, tried to catch his balance as his feet edged the lip of the sudden precipice plunging before him, the smooth cavern rock slipping down, down into the far, flat, dark and boundless floor below. An arena floor.

And Toothless on the opposite side. But--

He gasped.

What happened to you?

Froth discolored Toothless' mouth and dripped from jaws muzzled too tightly. The dragon struck away from the wall like a mad animal, the rope tethering him and pinching tight his neck. A crack split down his shoulder, the flesh bright and raw, and dark red tainted his black skin and pooled under his feet. Fresh blood. It splattered his black flanks and wings, stained the floor deep and ugly.

Hiccup shut his eyes, his chest throbbing, his heart knotted, black and seething.

What have they done to you?

Excruciating pain shot into his shoulder suddenly. He clenched his jaw, bent over, his mind dizzying, numbing, repeating over and over. How could they?

He suddenly felt the presence of the people behind him, staring. He didn't have to look, could just feel them, hear their murmuring interest on the scene below. How can they watch this? Just watch. Emotion choked inside him, shoved up his throat and knocked him breathless. He opened his eyes again, stared down at the Night Fury, suddenly felt like one of the spectators, dispassionately watching a dragon in a ring. Maybe they staged fights in here, humans versus dragons. Maybe it was a tradition, like their prize dragon hunts. Maybe--

Snap out of it. He couldn't conceive of any logic to explain the scene below. Sure, he should have seen this coming, knew these people had no qualms about killing dragons like Vikings throughout the ages. Yet -- to see it with his own eyes, done to his best friend.

He focused on Toothless again, noticed his right front leg lifted above the floor with only the claws scraping the ground. Toothless shuffled in an awkward three-legged gait, avoided placing his full weight on that foot. The tear in his shoulder must be deep. He needed care immediately. Hiccup bit his lip.

Yet Toothless purred softly, seemingly naive to the severity of his condition. He flicked his tail and his eager eyes glanced up towards the ring of spectators lining the tops of the walls. He was watching them, searching them. Toothless was looking for him, he could tell.

Hiccup backed away from the arena's edge, just enough to hide himself from the dragon's sight. Something pricked inside him as Toothless muttered uncertainly for a moment, then hummed again with eager anticipation. As much as it pained him to say . . .

No, bud, not yet.

If Toothless saw him now, how would the dragon keep back his excitement? They'd been separated far too long -- he himself could barely contain his feelings right now. It only took one happy call, a signal of recognition, and these people behind him might see it, might realize.

He had to get to Toothless unseen. And man, was that going to be easy. This ring was the absolute centerpiece of the Skirra Vél Great Hall, and Toothless was the center of attention, even at this hour of the night. He wasn't even thinking how he'd get to Toothless way down there, and then get Toothless out of here. Could Toothless even walk with his injury?

He slapped a palm on his face, the sticky moisture scrunched into his eyes. He slipped his fingers up his forehead, through his hair damp with sweat and stress and the smell of mead. His vision suddenly caught a bob of blonde hair to his left. Astrid, staring into the arena. He almost doubled back, didn't know how long she stood besides him. Her eyes didn't bother to return his gaze. They furrowed deeply and roved with the movements of the dragon below. A mix of emotion on her face, the lips pinched tight and slightly colorless.

"Don't let him see you," he whispered through the side of his mouth, watching the Skirra Véllites around him warily, their movement vague and thankfully ignorant of him and Astrid. He gave her a knowing look, saw a flash of understanding between them. For a moment he was surprised. But it wasn't a time to question her trust now, if it was a trust he could count on beyond this. She fell back with him, milling into the wall of people, and stepped close besides him.

"The saddle," she said softly, still searching below.

The saddle. He almost glanced back over the ledge, but he didn't need to confirm what he already knew. There was no saddle, stirrups, or rigging. Only the prosthetic tail, but that wasn't much good without the rest. Heather must have needed the stuff to fly Toothless. What, did she take it all off and -- got rid of it?

He felt her hand touch his arm. She turned to him, her one unhidden eye very wide on him. Shafts of darkness screened her face and made it difficult to discern her thoughts. But her fingers squeezing his arm gently, said something, felt something he felt. After all, her own dragon was wounded. That must have hurt her just as much as he hurt now. Maybe it cleared her head a bit, made her see things new again. Like him and what he was trying to do.

She glanced down, her fingers still touching his arm, then turned up again. Hard lines and sudden urgency. "Hiccup," she whispered, almost unheard in the murmur of the crowd and her wary eyes on them. "I know you don't need any more problems right now, but -- " she edged her body close, gritted the words so quiet and pointed. "I saw the kids."

He opened his eyes at her, moved his head ever so slightly. She responded.

"They got escorted out of the Hall just now. Under guard."

His mouth dried. He shook his head, but her eyes nodded. He turned and stared into the great depression, stared at the lower half of the arena walls lined by several heavy doors. He feared this. All the time he tried finding them, knew they'd get to town on some foolhardy notion of their own. "Where's Fishlegs?"

"Trailing them. I had to find you first." The tone of her voice, the grating irritation within the concern. He nodded, still searching the lattice of chains below and before him, how widely spaced they spread over the pit's ceiling. They caused the panic about spies, didn't they? Somebody, Snotlout or Tuffnut or even Ruffnut, doing something stupid and then getting caught. That would be just like them.

He stooped down and reached his hand over the air, grasped one of the hanging chains bolted into the ledge he stood on. He did, after all, bring them here. If he had come here alone, he risked only one life. He knew what these people were capable of, he knew what he was getting them mixed up in.

He gambled with their lives.

And now, the Skirra Vél caught their spies.

He edged forward to the ledge carefully, made sure Toothless did not see him. He scanned the rough sloping surface of the rock that dropped away into the distant pit below. It wasn't perfectly vertical. So . . . it might work. He felt Astrid stoop besides him, felt her mind working. Prodding him. "The Skirra Vél can do anything to the kids," she said slowly, deliberately.

He looked at her, a bit incredulously. I know that, Astrid.

"They might not have much time."

"What are you saying Astrid?"

He watched her eyes, the uncertain glimmer in them. Uncertainty. That was something strange. She lifted her head, choosing her words. "Are you saving Toothless first?"

He didn't look at her. So that's it. He didn't think it was a choice. Whatever next step he took, he'd need Toothless. "I can't leave Toothless."

"You can't leave the kids."

"Who said I'm leaving them? There's three of us." He felt her pause breath, let the implications sink in. He kept looking past the chains, kept calculating an idea in his mind. It could work, if he had a distraction to help him. A big distraction.

Her voice broke in, as sharp and critical as a whisper could be. "So I go get the kids, and what -- you bust Toothless out by yourself? That's your plan?" The tone of incredulity in her voice didn't surprise him. He wasn't sure about it himself. But, now that he'd seen exactly where Toothless was, the exact obstacles in his way and the way to bypass them, he couldn't stop now.

"I can't help anyone without Toothless," he said, more firmly, more in his mind than out loud. It was true. Whatever jam the kids were in, he'd need his dragon by his side. "Astrid, just -- watch the kids, don't do anything yet. Just . . . wait for me," he voiced, hoped she'd heed it.

"I'm not letting you do this alone." Her voice rose, and he sensed a few random faces turn their way. Astrid's face hardened, her own eyes piercing with determination.

"We need to move. Now." Her slender hand slid her bangs slightly away from her face, but they stopped midway, left the hair to fall back and conceal her eyes. She was standing up, ready to move into the crowd.

He wasn't ready. She couldn't leave like this, leave without even hearing his full plan. He needed her.

He stood up and stepped into the crowd after her. "Astrid, listen to me," he barely breathed, afraid his thoughts could be heard before he even spoke the words. He could see the mouths around him murmuring, the curious glances their way. Or was it suspicion?

He forced himself to smile. She was almost walking too fast, but he reached and grasped her hand, winced as his left shoulder complained. The rigid way she half-turned to him, the keen awareness of the throng around them. He could feel the slickness of her palm. He neared his face to hers, saw her face backing away, the confusion in her eyes.

He neared his cheek to hers, spoke into her ear. "Just hear me out." He tried to look nonchalant. She nudged her face close to his, spat into his ear, "I bet I can come up with a better plan."

"You haven't even heard mine."

"I've heard enough."

"No." He grasped her elbow, pinched it tight and kept it there. A surprise on her face, the widened eyes at him. He wasn't hurting her? No -- she was a tough girl. The piqued air of curiosity around him, the heavy moistness dripping down his neck and the agitation to get something done, anything done. He firmed his gaze at her, tried to muster as much authority while still looking up at her. The peril of the kids, of themselves, of Toothless down below -- he knew what he had to do. She had to listen.

"Astrid, I need you in this. It won't work without you."

Her eyes quieted at his words, tolerated the moment he sucked in his breath. She was giving him a chance.

:: ::

The net of chains glinted just as sharply above him, the people muttered and stared like every night, and the rock walls rose just as high and coldly as before, but something new, something eager and happy and yearning sparked inside Toothless. He hummed again, pointedly this time, almost impatiently. He could feel it, that Hiccup was here.

He did hear a familiar voice, that slim girl, the troublemaking duo with her brother and always arguing. Such a silly girl, one he never took seriously, until today. If she was here, Hiccup couldn't be far behind.

Right under this very dome, above him in this very crowd. He'll see him again -- he'll see him. He moaned loud and eagerly up at the arena ceiling and slapped his tail with vigor, didn't even care at the spray of blood hitting him from the pool below him. Hiccup always found him, always. Every time they got separated, Hiccup made things right again. He didn't know how the boy did it, but he'd never leave him for dead. If only he could see that boy now, jump on the kid and lick his face silly.

He huffed a breath, snorted suddenly. He raised his head again, scanned the myriad of faces lining the top of the ring. How many times he looked at these endless, gawking faces. When was Hiccup's face going to peer over the edge? Toothless clacked his jaws as sharply as possible underneath the mouth strap. He uttered a high-pitched yap followed by a deep, watery cooing, the rippling velvet sound echoing across the rough sloping surfaces above him. The sounds attracted few new stares from the audience above. He'd been doing it for so long. Humming, cooing, yapping, even growling. Hiccup must have heard him by now.

He lowered his head from the search above, stared back into the shimmering red pool lapping underneath him. The muzzle chains around his mouth clinked with his downward movement. He flicked his ear flap, only made the chain clink against the leather again. Such an irritating sound, even more irritating to have strapped all over your head. Hiccup could get it off him, right? He glanced to his right, eyed the tension of the rope fastening his collar to the wall. The rope, the muzzle, the collar, the wall. The people, ringing high above him, watching him. He shifted his weight on his feet, winced at the slice of pain in his shoulder. Something crept inside him, dampened the elation he'd been feeling this night. Even with Hiccup, this might not be so easy.

Pow, pow -- POW!

He jolted and roared.

Explosions, flashing light. Bursts of fire pulsed up the dome, the momentary heat flashing over him even from this distance.

It was above him.

The dome rumbled. Humans screaming. He leapt to the wall and planted his front claws on the stone, tried to scale it. The fire from his wound seared into him, but he didn't care. He craned his head up, tried to spy the cause of chaos above him. The orderly ring of spectators dissolved into a shouting mess of running men. Their boots thundered the floor above him. The curving surface of the dome throbbed with a new ambience of bright flickering light and the unmistakable smell of vicious burning just out of sight. He flared his nostrils. It wasn't dragon fire, but it was hot, and it moved fast. He lifted his ear flaps, his breathing quickening. The snapping sound of wood cracking in heat. He caught sight of a flicker of flame licking a banner's edge and consuming the fabric. The haunting glow lit up deeper parts of the dome, an areal projection of the fire's ravaging course.

The place was on fire.

He roared a moan into the fiery air. Hiccup had to get out of there.

"Toothless."

The voice, that gentle, calm, unmistakable voice. Toothless craned his head up towards it, his front feet still planted on the sloping stone. Directly above him, far yet so close, peering over the edge of the arena and backlit by brilliant fire, was that face.

That kid, that short, silly, awkward, wonderful kid.

Hiccup!

He practically bit his tongue yapping his name, his muzzle chains jangling happiness and his tail slapping every floor and wall surface in sight. He leapt up the wall, tried to reach just halfway to him, but the slippery surface slid him down on his haunches at the bottom. He snarled at himself, and the wound spiked him in pain for a moment. He called up to the boy stooping on the ledge, opened his eyes wide to get a good look. The same grin, the same thin little arms and legs bunching under him and the eyes full of love. Toothless hummed deeply, yet narrowed his eyes. There was something a bit off in the way the boy moved. Just . . . something.

"Toothless just -- calm down." Hiccup almost laughed. The wide brimming smile -- the radiance. A radiance that he realized he missed so much. Hiccup waved at him, and Toothless leveled off, held his breath as Hiccup started doing something funny with his legs. Bending over, sliding his body through the ceiling chains, grabbing a chain, and putting his legs over the edge--

Hey, wait a minute--

"Catch me."

Hiccup let go.

He was sliding down the wall straight for him.

Toothless squealed and moved fast. He stood almost vertically, his front claws scratching for the tiniest traction on the wall. He planted his head squarely against the near-vertical surface. In a moment two small feet thudded against his forehead, a soft leathery one and that sharp metal counterpart. He grunted at the push of momentum as the little feet shifted weight and moved over. Knees pressed against his head, little hands grasped his ear flaps for support and little legs dangled over the side and blocked his eyesight. He yapped at the crazy, unbalancing bundle on top of his head. He wanted to see it, lick it, nuzzle it. Just feel him again. Safe and sound, the two of them, without the madness that had happened.

Suddenly he felt a face pressing into him, near the top of his head. A little nose between his ears, the wisp of hair softly brushing his scales, the small fingers clasping his skin. The body on top of him suddenly held still.

He held still.

He could feel the body throbbing something soft and deep. Silent, wordless, and wonderful. "I missed you too, bud."

He felt the fingers moving, the knees adjusting and legs shifting off his head. Toothless backed away from the wall and slid down, gritting his teeth at the necessary pain to do so. His claws splashed into the pool below. He felt the body stiffen on top of him. He hummed at the boy, tried to sound encouraging. Hiccup never did see him hurt like this before. A spark curled in his chest, made him grumble slightly. I'm okay. He yapped and lowered his head, let Hiccup slide off and touch the floor. He snapped his eyes up, saw the boy--

He jerked his head back suddenly.

He hadn't seen it well from afar atop the ledge, but now-- The red eyes and strained face and -- his arm. The way the left one cringed and stiffened when he moved his arm or lifted his fingers. Hiccup was in pain.

Toothless throated something sharp, eyed the boy carefully. Hiccup grinned and patted his nose. The right hand reached for his leather muzzle. Toothless flicked the hand aside.

"Hey--"

He was confusing the boy, but he had to see-- he feared something that had been playing in his mind wordlessly for a while. If these people were really at war, and war was something he knew too well, and if Hiccup was affected by it, the fact that he was the chief's son if nothing else--

He snuck his snout into Hiccup's left arm, towards his shoulder. The boy yelped slightly and he almost backed off, but the smell. He flared his nostrils and breathed. He pressed his nose into the fur coat, could feel the scent through the strange bulkiness. Blood.

He knew it. They'd hurt him, too. He knew it wasn't an accident, this injury on his friend, he could feel an evil intent in it, and he growled, hissed, the anger piercing him. War with dragons he could understand, war among the many peoples he could understand, but war on this kind, gentle boy, this Viking he called friend -- that he could not understand.

"Toothless--"

The sound of his name jolted him and he nuzzled up to the boy, closing his eyes. The boy's fingers jostled around the harness trapping him, slipping over the latches on the leather straps. A slight gasp escaped him as he reached the right side and the gash that was still fresh. "We're gonna get you better, bud," Hiccup's voice came quiet and determined, and his little hands moved faster over him, frantic, as the sounds above increased suddenly, the hum and noise threatening and fast.

"There's a boy down there."

Toothless shot his head up, and Hiccup's hand froze on his side. The high dome rang with the sharp murmur of people. Then an awful silence. The firelights died, the smoke thickly lingering, the sounds sharper and questioning, directed down at them. Several hands pointed, and suddenly the dome broke with splitting, ravenous shouting.

Toothless let out a vicious roar, hatred boiling out of him. He could fight now, he was free, and they wouldn't get away with it. But Hiccup's hand on his snout suddenly, the flashing eyes full of meaning and urgency.

"Later bud. We got to go. Now."

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