(1) Learning How to Laugh

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Learning How to Laugh 
— a fairy tale inspired RotG fic —
c  h  a  p  t  e  r    o  n  e

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The Nightmare Queen is very much enjoying her stay at the Bunnymund Castle. The shock finally seems to be wearing off of the princess and Koz feels more powerful that she has in a while. The amount of terror emanating off the girl seems endless. She’s been feeding for hours now and she’s beginning to lose control of the shadows. She’s never gotten such a power boost from one person before.

Koz wants to stay but she can only hold so much energy. If she loses control and the shadows run wild…Koz will explode. Literally. The mares will run wild and shadows will have no one to guide them. With the Sun as weak as it is (burning out is actually a possibility in the next few millenniums), night will rule. Moon will gain control for as long as it can shine; its moonbeams hurt the shadows. All the living will die without warmth and the Moon’s power source will vanish. The stars will weaken and their stardust won’t be able to reach the shadows. The fear will die with the living and as a result, the mares as well. The shadows will emerge as sole victor.

With a considerable amount of her new strength, Koz commands the shadows to curl away from the princess and collects the fear in obsidian orbs. Her most trusted mares carry them as new eyes and Koz takes care to blanket them with all the negative emotions in the world. Her mares will answer to only her; the shadows have no way of corrupting them. Koz opens a hole in the darkness and leads her mares through. The shadows will be attracted to such power so she mounts her best mare without worry and seals the portal.

The princess wakes at the Nightmare Queen’s departure. A scream is trapped in her throat and she can’t swallow it down. She holds her breath until her chest burns and the scream turns into a soft whine. She patiently waits it out and breathes again, sucking in air with carefully timed breaths. She isn’t allowed to start hyperventilating over a stupid nightmare.

Her body is still shaking and it isn’t fair because it’s not even real so why should it have such a real effect on her? She’s alone. The only one who can see it. Her world. And maybe (no, definitely) she’s being greedy in wanting to share it with someone. She’d like to have someone for her to latch on to, please.

Aster needs to stop pretending. Being in denial makes reality worse and her dreams are just out of control. She used to like sleep. She’s a big girl – sixteen in a couple of days – and, sure, she can blame Barney for ruining her after she gets over it. If she ever does. But, no, that’s not right and she should really have some self-confidence. She needs to let go. Her parents died, so what? She has a kingdom to rule. Alone.

“Grow up!” she finally snaps when tears prickle at her eyes. They threaten to actually fall until something startles them right back in.

Soft, pitiful cries of what must be the puppies from across the hall suddenly fill the air and just as suddenly, Lulu, their mother, barks sharply to shush them. Surely she wasn’t that loud? Maybe one of the puppies had a bad dream and disturbed the rest. Maybe something from outside startled them. Maybe that something was someone from inside.

It would be so like North to check up on her just to make sure she’s sleeping well. Which she obviously isn’t. Aster curls back under her blanket and feigns sleep. If North doesn’t buy it, well, she’s a princess. She can command him away.

The door opens quietly, hall light shining into her face. She can’t suppress a wince in time. After being in the dark for so long, light hurts.

North’s footsteps aren’t quiet at all – big Russian man takes big Russian steps – so Aster can feel him stopping beside her bed. “I know you’re awake. Devushka, please talk to me.” He gently runs his fingers across her shut eyelids; she doesn’t flinch.

“You hurt, I know. Too sudden. They died before their time. The entire kingdom grieves. As princess, you have just a week for grief. Then you must take the crown and rule your people. Aster, four days have already past. Is not good for the kingdom.”

Oh no. No this again. Aster gathers all her annoyance and puts it into a loud, rumbling snore. Hopefully she won’t be able to hear him.

North raises his voice. “It might be easier for you to-”

She coughs really loudly and flops over so her stuffed bunny’s huge ears covers hers.

North sighs and rubs her back. “You should eat more. What good will it do anyone to make yourself sick?”

Aster bites her lip hard to hide her smile. It actually worked. North is usually impossible to distract. So playing sick makes him shut up. She needs to write that down after he leaves. It won’t be long now. Aster just has to bore him until he leaves. She starts up her snore again.

“But if you met a nice boy and chose to share your kingdom, you wouldn’t have to worry about anything,” he says real quickly, real close to her face.

She can’t block out his voice fast enough.

He’s so close that she can smell his trademark chocolatey cinnamon scent while holding her breath, not even trying, and his perfume (it isn’t natural and doesn’t smell a thing like cologne) is so sickeningly strong and makes her want to puke. Or that could be the not-news. He nags at her so often she sometimes has nightmares about it. It’s impossible to not listen.

North continues at a slower pace, like he’s saying that this is important and you have to listen.

He can ramble forever without stopping to breathe. He spoke slowly when he had to confirm the death of her family. She couldn’t listen and he repeated, repeated, repeated until she could. Fear makes his words meaningless again.

Who said it was bad news anyway?

Aster breathes.

North reads her mind and waits. He changes the somberness of his tone to a plastic over-bright enthusiasm that makes her cringe.

“On Saturday, there will be many, many nice boys here. I sent out invitations days ago and you will see them in order of rank. Most suitable first and so on. If you cannot decide, there will be voting. Not public, do not worry. I will be of much help.”

What? He never told her this before! Just six more days… She needs to delay this. How, how, how? He’s serious about the voting, he must be! North can’t joke about something so important! This is the future king! Six days… How is this a good idea? So much pressure… The King, her Husband in six days! Six! Days! King! Her!

North laughs; she startles.

North has the kind of laugh she thinks every grandpa has: a deep belly-laugh that rumbles straight from the heart. It’s the kind of laugh that crinkles up his old eyes and makes his brows rise to meet his rapidly receding hairline. It’s the kind of laugh that scares the bleeping Bleep out of you when you aren’t expecting it.

“What?” Aster says defensively. Her nerves are a mess – it’s not her fault! She would never react so badly during the day when she would actually be expecting something like this! It’s probably two in the morning; why isn’t she sleeping? Why is he still laughing? It wasn’t funny at all! As her legal guardian and caretaker, North is required to not do these things.

“You are horrible liar,” he says by way of explanation, wiping tears – actual tears! – from his eyes. “Come here.”

No. She will not. She feels very much insulted and – hey! Aster finds herself being scooped up in his huge tattooed arms and having the life squeezed out of her. It feels…good. But she supposed to hate him still (he’ll never take her seriously if her grudges last half a second) so Aster arranges a frown on her face and bites her tongue hard enough to ensure it’ll stay.

“I worry about you,” he murmurs to her hair. North is silent for a brief moment, then exclaims his brilliant idea: “I will sleep here tonight!”

“I-I…” Aster’s mind races for a suitable excuse. “North, please don’t. I’m, um, not…a baby anymore – I’m practically sixteen! You’re, like, a hundred! I don’t want you in my b – room! at night. Not now, not ever. Why are you even here? I never asked you to even – arrgh! Get Out! Leave! Now, North!”

At first, she was worried that she didn’t sound angry enough. Then she almost said ‘bed’, which brought horrifically repulsive and graphic images to mind with North and her and the bed and ew times infinity and where can she buy a really good mind bleach? And now, Aster is genuinely concerned she hurt North. Though he doesn’t look it, he’s actually really sensitive.

As ruler of Bunnymund Castle, North must obey her. But she is just fifteen, eleven months, two weeks, and two days old. He’s been her caretaker since she was an infant and Aster knows for certain he didn’t listen to her back when she was a babe. But she wasn’t ruler then. Now she is. But North is still North so why would he – hey.

He’s standing at her door. Maybe because he thinks she’ll apologize and invite him back in. As bad as she feels, she doesn’t. She can’t. She didn’t do anything wrong. Not really.

“North,” she says impatiently, not unkindly.

“Aster,” he retorts automatically. It takes longer for him to pick out the right words. “Do you really want me to leave? Really really want me to?”

“Yes. I do. Good night, North.”

His face hardens. “Good night…princess.”

No teasing warnings about the boogeyman and bed bugs. No term of endearment. Nothing.

Aster has to hear his heavy footsteps fade completely before she unfreezes. It takes a few swallows to clear up the nasty choked feeling swelling in her throat. It travels to her eyes next and makes them itch. She doesn’t dare blink.

“‘Ms’rry,” Aster tells her empty room.

Her voice is quieter than a whisper and she has to strain to hear herself. What she does hear is slurred to the point of incoherency.

Right. Apologizing. She needs to practice that before trying to tell North.

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a/n: NaNo’s over. That means I get to edit and string together my jumbled mass of 37050 words. Hardly any of it’s in order so I have a lot of work to do. The bits and pieces are labeled as ?, ??, ??? … ’cause I just wrote the interesting stuff and decided to ignore narration. 

Here’s the mandatory disclaimer: Don’t own Rise of the GuardiansThumbelina, or The Little Mermaid

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