Well... hi there, guys! I'll bet any amount of money that ALL of you have forgotten about me by now, which is fine, I suppose, because it's just what I deserve.

I know it's been a long, long time since you've heard from me in terms of the 50 prompt challenge. Five months, to be exact. And I have a wealth of explanations for it, seeing as how life has a charming habit of piling all of its tribulations on me at once – not only did it drain every ounce of energy and sanity I had to make it through my spring semester of college (and hey, it paid off, all A's and B's), but as soon as I find a reprieve in coming home for the summer, I discover that my father is dying of cancer and likely will not make it through July. Needless to say, I haven't had much time for fic-writing.

I'm not sure if regular updates will resume, and I'm not going to try to make them. I haven't forgotten about this project and, with God as my witness, I swear here and now that I will finish it. I'm almost halfway done! I don't know how long it'll take, but I'll do it, even if there's nobody around to see it by the end.

Well, enough of my jabberin'. This fic was inspired by this beautiful track from the original soundtrack of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. Listen to it in the background as you read; the experience will be enhanced.

And now, I give you my usual final words:

Enjoy!

Hiccup can hear rain falling outside.

He can hear logs crumbling in the hearth.

He can hear murmurs coming from beyond the closed doors.

There is a certainty to all of them, an inescapable presence. As he stands in the dim, drafty pit of the all too large room, eyes gazing blindly at the floor, he is aware of one thing above all else, and that is that he cannot breathe.

He keeps trying. He keeps trying to gather air in his chest, to steal it from the suffocating emptiness that surrounds him, but he can't. He can only blink every now and then and wonder, raggedly, distantly, what is happening, and why it is happening to him.

The mantle on his shoulders is heavy and hot, like the corpse of a fallen friend slung over him as he runs from battle. His hair falls past his eyelids, clouding his vision – or are those tears? – and his fingers twitch at his side. His prosthetic foot is cold and cumbersome. He swallows and it almost rips his throat open. Everything around him is dry and hollow, except for the edges of his eyelashes, which feel damp, scared.

A candle goes out, and the door slides open. Someone slips in and approaches him, slowly, and stands beside him.

He feels fingers gather in his.

"Hiccup?" It is Astrid, soft and strong and, and gods bless her today and eternally, she is everything he could never be.

He can't reply to her. His voice has fled, cowering in the corners of some distant nighttime.

"They're waiting for you," she whispers.

"I," he swallows again, that same dry lump. "I know. Just… just give me a few more seconds…"

"Hiccup." Her voice is gentle. "They need you."

He hasn't looked up from the floor since she entered, and still can't bring himself to do it. The murmurs outside are dissipating, replaced by faltering silence. He feels Astrid squeeze his hand.

"I can't," he chokes. "I can't do this, Astrid; I never could—"

"Shhh." Now her other hand is on his shoulder. "Yes, you can."

"No, that was…" He can feel his voice, wrought with an onslaught of tears. "This was… this was all him. I could never do this kind of thing, and he…"

"He'd be proud of you," Astrid tells him, and at last he raises his head to look at her, and her smile is sorrowful. "He'd be so proud of you, Hiccup."

"B-But this… I… never…" His sentences are snatched from him before he can even begin them, and he wants to crawl upstairs into the bed he has known for years; he wants to hear snores rumbling through the house; he wants to hear irritated grumbling echo each morning amidst the sound of a chirping dragon; he knows that if he feels any more alone he will collapse under the weight of it all.

But he has Astrid. He has always had Astrid.

"I'm not meant for this," he whimpers, his eyes searching hers helplessly. "I can't go out there and disappoint them; I can't… ruin them like that…"

Astrid looks at him as though he has lost all sense, as she often looks at him. But her brashness has been left behind along with her briskness, and she only holds onto his fingers and raises a hand to his cheek and he relaxes into it, his eyes closed, his brow sinking.

"He knew you could do this, Hiccup. They all do. They know you'll be—"

"This isn't me, Astrid!" He croaks, and he wraps his arms around her tightly, clutching to her, frightened of letting go, more frightened than he has been of anything, more frightened than he felt as he approached the club-tail of the Green Death. "I can't lead them into… into something like this; I'm not… I'm not Dad! Look at me!"

He steps away and throws his arms out, disgusted with himself. "I'm as scrawny as I was four years ago! I've barely reached nineteen moon-cycles! I'm still… scared of everything, and I'm still clumsy, and I'm weak because of this… this thing!" He shoots a hateful glare at his metal foot. "Gods, I don't…"

He pushes his palms against his eyes, crouching in on himself until he's on the floor, curled and pathetic. "I don't know what to do without him. How could he do this to me? How could he leave me like this? How could he drop this war on me and expect me to be able to lead the island into battle? I'm so scared! Astrid, Astrid; I'm so scared!"

He weeps then, too tired of trying not to anymore. The cold emptiness radiating from his father's bed, now his, pierces through his every sense. The unwashed dishes, the helmet gathering dust on its peg, the dying fire, the total and utter and bone-cracking silence, and he regrets every moment he spent disappointing him, wanting to run out into the night and never come back, wanting to soar through foreign skies on Toothless' back and never need to look behind him in regret. But he can't run anymore. The house is enormous and freezing and as he feels Astrid kneel beside him and gather him in her arms, he weeps.

"Don't be," she says, and he thinks of a time when a show of such weakness would have made her recoil in disgust.

They remain like that, together, for a short time, but to him it feels like fortnights, but then her hand is under his chin and she brings his face up from its refuge in the smoothness of her slædur. She runs one thumb beneath his right eye, brushing away tears, and kisses him, deeply and faithfully. She stands, then, and he stands with her, no longer staggering.

"They believe in you," she whispers. "We all do. No matter what happens, you will never let us down."

She extends her hand to him and he gazes at it without moving.

"Come on," she says, and beckons him to the door. "Toothless is waiting outside. You always get better when you're next to him."

Before Hiccup takes her fingers and allows her to lead him out into the snow and the crowd, he watches her for a fleeting moment, watches the flickering orange light of the embers wash over her silken cheeks, illuminating her faint little spray of freckles on her nose, freckles that disappear in crinkles when she laughs. He turns his head behind him and takes in the home, his and his father's – his eyes rove up to the high beams of the ceiling, and, briefly, he can hear echoes of red-bearded laughter in them.

His gaze returns to Astrid, who is patient and silent, and at last he ghosts his fingers beneath hers, kisses the back of her hand, and approaches the door beside her.

He inhales – the lump is gone – and opens the door.