Stoick hadn't recognized the ship at first. Maybe he hadn't wanted to.
He had been out for a stroll that morning and had seen it drifting up across the horizon, its small sails white against the rising sun and the mist, its mast pointing toward Berk like an arrow. It took a while for him to realize what it was. Whose it was. Who could blame him? He hadn't seen that vessel in twelve years, and he'd been sure he never would again up until now.
He, Gobber, Spitelout, and six others were there to greet it when it pulled in to shore. It was a small boat. Sturdy. Its sails were painted with the symbol of the chieftain of Berk. Four shields, battered and burned, hung tiredly on its sides. There were scorch marks and holes left and right. It was a broken ship. But he recognized it. Gobber did, too.
"Stoick," he murmured. Stoick shook his head and Gobber was silent.
It seemed like an eternity before the crew disembarked and headed toward the welcomers.
She was the last one to get off.
As she moved, Stoick saw it as though he was watching a long-forgotten dream. Her thick auburn hair, braided into two buns at her chin, shined like copper. Her verdant eyes glittered in the morning light. As a smile flew across her face, a curtain of freckles, opened around it, and the similarity at that instant between her and their son was heartbreaking.
Still at the speed of a slow waltz he had once dreamt, she turned her head and saw him, and, pulling him from his reverie, she let out a joyous cry of, "STOICK!"
And then her arms were around him, and he was knocked backwards by the impact, and she kept saying his name, over and over until it hurt, and as he raised his arms to wrap them around her, he caught his tears and blinked in astonishment at the sky.
"Valhallarama," he whispered.
"Dude, did you hear about the ship that pulled in today?"
Hiccup looked up from the forge to see Tuffnut, Ruffnut, Snotlout, Fishlegs and Astrid crowded around the window, grinning in at him.
"Huh?" He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his sleeve, frowning at them.
Ruffnut scoffed and rolled her eyes. "Guess not."
"We're all gonna head down and check it out; wanna come?" Snotlout pushed the brim of his helmet up with his thumb. Hiccup was still getting used to the idea of his cousin voluntarily inviting him to things.
"Nah," Hiccup replied immediately. "I've still got tons of work to do. And I'll probably see them tomorrow night anyway. Chief's son and all." He liked throwing that title around.
Snotlout snorted. "Since when did that make any difference?"
"Uh, gotta propose a toast for all newcomers at the honorary feast, remember?" It was clear from the tone of his voice that said toasting was not something Hiccup was too fond of.
"Oh, yeah; I remember the first time you did that." Snotlout snickered.
"Yeah, didn't you, like, spill your mead all over their Chief's head?" Tuffnut added, folding his lips in to hide his laughter, which was threatening to burst out at any moment.
Hiccup scowled at them.
"That was an accident, thank you, and I was... nervous."
"Psh, bet Thor's hammer you were!" Snotlout laughed. "Nobody could understand you because you were stammering so hard. You're more fragile than my grandma."
"No wonder they declared war on us," Ruffnut sighed in mock forlornness.
"We lost so many," Tuffnut sniffled.
"If only he hadn't spilled the mead!" Snotlout wailed to the heavens, falling dramatically to his knees. Astrid kicked him, knocking him clean over.
"Ha, ha," Hiccup griped. "That war only lasted for, like, three days, and the only deaths were of sheep."
"Still, it was a pretty impressive kickoff for war season," Snotlout sniggered gleefully. "Your dad was sooo proud."
"Can we just go see the ship already?" Ruffnut snapped.
"C'mon, 'Legs; move those little tree stump legs of yours!"
"Bye, Hiccup!" Fishlegs called cheerfully, waving to Hiccup as the group retreated over the hill.
Hiccup sighed as he watched them go and absentmindedly scratched at his leg. Toothless, who had been sleeping in the corner for most of the conversation, perked up at the depressed sound and chuffed curiously.
"Mm?" Hiccup glanced up as he heard him. "Oh, I'm fine, bud. It's just a really nice day out. Wish I didn't have to work."
"You could always just leave, you know." The all-too-familiar voice popped up in his ear, causing him to yelp, flail, and fall over with a clatter.
Astrid laughed, a rare sound, and in spite of how startled he was, Hiccup couldn't help but be entranced by it.
"I thought we went over the whole 'don't sneak up on me or you'll give me a heart attack' thing," he grumbled, brushing himself off and starting to get to his feet.
"We did," Astrid replied briskly, grabbing him by the arm and hoisting him up helpfully (well, helpfully enough to practically dislocate his shoulder).
"Thought so." He paused. "Wait, why are you still here? I thought you were going with them."
Astrid shrugged, pushing herself up to sit on the edge of the windowsill. She crossed her legs and Hiccup gulped, averting his eyes. She didn't wear her leggings in the summer.
"Figured I'd stick around and try to get you to come," she said, feigning indifference. "I'm not in the mood to be around Snotlout without you there to fend him off."
"Fend him off?" Hiccup burst into laughter at that. "We both know you'd do a better job of that than I would any day."
"True. But... y'know. You're always in here. Get out and breathe, for Thor's sake. Why waste these nice days? We only get about five of them a year."
"I can't." Hiccup put his hands out helplessly. "Gobber would kill me."
"He's not even here!"
"Yeah, but my experience with Gobber has taught me that if he's not here, he's everywhere else." He looked away. "Besides. Dad doesn't need me screwing things up down there."
Astrid sighed after a moment, hopping off the windowsill and walking over to stand beside him. She tangled her fingers lightly in his and squeezed them.
"What have I told you about letting the twins get to you?"
Hiccup chuckled weakly.
Astrid nodded firmly.
"Right. So why are you, then?"
"It's... really not just them. I mean, they're just sort of... solidifying the whole thing." Hiccup rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "They're right, though."
"No, they're not, and you're an idiot for thinking they are."
Hiccup smiled softly at her. "Thanks. I think."
Astrid's cheeks flushed and she looked away, hiding the blush behind her bangs.
"Don't think that was a compliment or anything. I'm just stating the truth."
Hiccup nodded, laughing a little.
She cleared her throat and took her hand out of his.
"Well, if you're not coming, then I guess I'll leave you to your... whatever."
"Have fun," Hiccup said, and he meant it. "I'll see you later."
She shifted tentatively for a moment before grabbing his shoulder and driving her lips into his, practically knocking him out. She pulled off after a moment and his head followed her instinctively, so much so that he almost tumbled forward onto his face.
"B...bye?" he choked out.
"Yup," she replied, nodding in satisfaction, before striding out of the smithy and sprinting up over the hill.
Toothless rolled his eyes.
"She's too good for me, bud," Hiccup croaked, his voice wavering. "She's too good for me."
"Oh, Stoick; I'm so sorry for not having told you sooner! I wish I could've, I really do; but I was stranded on this godforsaken island in the middle of the sea, and I had to make due for myself and my crew, and by Odin it was tough, but I made it – we made it! – and I... oh, Stoick; I've missed you so much."
Stoick was fairly certain that his wife had been saying the same things for hours, but he supposed it was for his benefit, because he was too dumbfounded to pay attention anyway. Her words were of no importance to him – he was more interested in the way her mouth moved when it wasn't on his, in the way her eyes lit up from excitement as she told him about her adventures, in the way she moved her milky, freckled arms excitedly when she would recount tales of the thrilling breed. He wasn't sure what to make of her, much to his shame. He was absolutely ecstatic to see her home – so much so that he swore he would dissolve into very un-Vikingly tears at any moment – but it was so strange, to accept the fact that she wasn't dead, after he'd just gotten used to the idea that she was.
He hadn't any idea how she'd managed to come back alive. No one had come back from that voyage to the Dragon's Nest. No one. Not even a single piece of driftwood.
And yet here she was – sitting across from him. In his house. Their house. The house they had built together. The walls and the floors and the firelight came alive around her like it never had before. The place was real again. It was full and warm and home.
"I'm so sorry, Stoick," Valhallarama said again, putting her forehead in her hand. "You must've been worried sick."
"For a while, yes. But then I realized there wasn't much to worry about anymore. That you were probably dead." He felt horrible for saying the words, but they were true. He was always compelled to be honest with this woman. She was bewitching.
She stared at him, looking almost offended.
"Me? Dead? After I promised you we'd live to be fifty? Valhalla above, Stoick; what on earth made you think I was dead? I can't've been gone for that long!"
Now it was Stoick's turn to stare incredulously. She looked taken aback by his expression – maybe as taken aback as he was by her words.
"That long? 'That long?' Valhallarama, you've been gone for... for fifteen years, damn it all! Of course I thought you were dead!"
She gasped, her hand dropping to the table with a stunned thud.
"F-f-fifteen?" she croaked. "S-Stoick, don't toy with me. I... I can't have been gone for fifteen years! That's... that's impossible! I was only gone for a few months – a year at the most – not for... for fifteen...! I counted every day!"
"You must've lost count somewhere, then." Stoick couldn't help but be angry. He really couldn't. Their boy had grown up without a mother. He had raised their child without a wife. The village had gone without a chieftess. What had she gone without? Certainly nothing that seemed to be worth her acting upset over. "It has been fifteen years since I last saw your face, and our son doesn't even remember what you look like."
Valhallarama let out a small choking noise at the mention of their son, her eyes glistening with sudden tears.
"Hiccup..." she breathed weakly, speaking the name as though it was a holy word and she was unworthy of saying it aloud.
"Yes," Stoick replied roughly. "Hiccup."
There was a long, horrible silence, and Stoick wanted so badly to simply stand up and leave, to retreat into the bed he had slept alone in for so many years, but he didn't.
"He's a man now, Hiccup is," Stoick murmured. "I'm so proud of him."
Valhallarama sniffled at this, sounding as though she were on the verge of some emotional explosion.
"I wish you could have been here... to see him grow..." Stoick let out a great sigh and closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. "It... all happened so fast. One morning I woke up and he... had taken flight. ...Literally and figuratively."
Valhallarama tilted her head quizzically.
"The dragons you've seen on the island," Stoick explained. "You know, the ones that almost gave you a heart attack just for being here. He's responsible for that. He stood up and taught us all that we didn't need to fight them. That we could live in harmony with them. And now every morning he takes off into the sky on the back of a Night Fury."
Valhallarama gaped in disbelief at him.
"A Night Fury?"
"Yes. Thing makes a mess of the house, I tell you. He calls it 'Toothless.' Silly name, because the beast obviously has teeth." Stoick swished his mead around in its mug pensively. "Hiccup's going to be seventeen in two months. Hasn't filled out a bit, though; he's still a bloody toothpick. Doesn't have a single stub of a beard growing, either."
"Don't lie to me, Stoick." Valhallarama said it so quietly that for a moment Stoick wasn't sure if he'd heard it or not.
He blinked at her. "What?"
In one swift, terrifying motion, Valhallarama smashed her hands onto the surface of the table, causing every bit of silverware on it to jump into the air, and heaved herself from her seat.
"DON'T LIE TO ME!" she screamed, and it was like the roar of a bloodthirsty Nadder. In that instant, Stoick saw her as the warrior he remembered, as the tempestuous, russet-haired slip of a girl who had smacked him around much like Astrid did to Hiccup, but he did not cower under her presence as he once had, instead standing just as she was, their eyes level.
"Lie?! Lie?! Do not call me a liar, Valhallarama! Everything I've said is true! Every second of living without you here is true! Every question that my boy has asked me about his mother, the mother he never knew, the questions I could never answer, are true! Every day that has gone by that I have looked to the skies and wondered if you were up there watching me is true! Every damnable tear I have shed blaming myself for your death is true! Everything! All of it! EVERYTHING!"
He panted after that outburst, winded by anger and sadness and frustration, and he was stunned when he saw Valhallarama's eyebrows fracture over her eyes to make way for an expression of such astounded sorrow that it shattered him. She staggered back and collapsed back onto the stool, her shoulders shaking violently, and she buried her face in her palms, and wept.
Stoick had never in his life seen Valhallarama cry.
He made a motion to go toward her, to kneel beside her and pull her head into his shoulder and hold her, to cradle her and share her tears, but he was interrupted by the sound of the front door creaking open, and by the sound of uneven steps – one soft and booted, one metal – making their way across the floorboards.
Before he had any time to react, Hiccup was in the dining room, grinning that goofy, oblivious Hiccup grin.
"Hey, Dad!" he exclaimed happily.
Hiccup blinked and noticed the woman on the stool, and he shifted hesitantly before approaching her and extending his hand in greeting.
"Welcome to Berk, traveler," he said in a comically formal voice. He glanced over his shoulder at Stoick. "...was that right? Did I do that right?"
Stoick nodded dumbly.
Valhallarama stared at the open palm before her, and her eyes slowly roved over Hiccup, taking in every precious inch of him, before finally falling on his face. Stoick swore she was going to start crying all over again.
But instead she took Hiccup's hand and shook it lightly, murmuring, "thank you."
Hiccup loosened in relief at the acceptance of his hospitality before turning away and heading for the stairs.
"It's a great night out, Dad, so I'm gonna saddle up Toothless and we're gonna go for a flight with Astrid. Don't wait up for me; we'll be out late." Stoick opened his mouth to say something. "Ah, nope, nope; I know! Keep the stirrups tight, stay within ten miles of the island, and don't die. I got it, Dad." He grinned charismatically at both Stoick and the visitor before speeding up the stairs and calling down, "don't forget to wash those dishes!"
The silence that followed Hiccup's brief presence was not an uncomfortable one, but it still made Stoick feel terrible and encumbered, and he was almost relieved when Hiccup came thundering back down the stairs, saddle and tailfin in hand, and bolted out the door into the summer night.
After a while, Stoick walked slowly over to Valhallarama, pulled up a stool, and sat beside her, putting his arm around her shoulders and drawing her close. She rested her head on his shoulder without complaint.
"What happened to his leg?" she whispered.
"Lost it," Stoick replied heavily. "In a battle with a dragon two summers ago. ...He saved us all."
"And Astrid?" Valhallarama sniffled quietly. "Who is Astrid?"
"The Hoffersons' girl. She's a thin little thing, but tougher than the gods would ever grant a woman. She's fiery, you know. Got spirit." He sighed, long and free. "He's in love."
"Is she, too?"
Outside, the cry of a Night Fury resonated through the darkness. Stoick grasped Valhallarama's hand.
"Come to the window, quick. He's probably taking off."
Valhallarama nodded and the two dashed to the window, peering out at the sky.
Sure enough, a distinct black shape shifted across the stars, beating its wings joyously, spinning and plummeting and soaring through the breeze. A loud, ecstatic whoop echoed out over the cliffs – Hiccup – as dragon and boy glided out over the whispering sea.
Valhallarama rested her head against Stoick's shoulder and watched, her breathing soft and proud.
There were many things that she would have to explain, and many things she would have to wake up for, but for now she was happy to see her son doing the thing the gods had created him to do, and she'd never seen anything so beautiful.
Welcome to Berk, traveler.