Bit of an old tale, due for revision that will wait until I am finished with it's second installment. Backward way to do things, I know.


Once upon a time in a not so extraordinary place, there lived a young girl with a very vivid imagination. Fairy tales and classic romances were the tools with which she wiled away the hours, her button nose perpetually pressed between the pages of old books. She adored the tales of Princesses finding true love and Princes surmounting incredible odds, always to triumph over evil. Evil itself was always very wicked and easily discenernable, whilst good was very good and always faultless.

What time she didn't spend with these precious tomes was spread over her lawn. She turned rock piles into troll kingdoms and salamanders into mystical guides through perilous quests.

As she matured so did her tastes; her bookshelf expanding to include tales of Princesses finding not true loves, but true selves, and Princes with pathos enough to make one weep. Eventually the tales of destiny swept royalty were bumped completely since the concept was trite and usually historically inaccurate, anyway. The lines between good and evil became blurred, and good was never quite so faultless as it had once been.

Still more time passed. She quit playing in the yard among her troll kingdoms and cut ties with her amphibious spirit guides. She was too busy growing up for all that. The scepters and wands were left lying in the grass and the ice castles of evil sorcerers remained un-seiged. Instead she picked up a bag full of schoolbooks and forgot about the world inside her mind completely.

For years she played at sensible and grown up, but it was not to last. When she turned sixteen, just as in so many of her once beloved (and now so shunned) fairy tales, she underwent a dramatic transformation. For a while she even returned to the cliché notion of princes; largely because she believed she had found hers.

It was a charismatic lad in her freshman English class who reintroduced her to dreams and dreaming. One day he simply turned his midnight velvet eyes towards her and said;

"You've quite the imagination."

She, quite intent on being grown up (and grown ups are no imaginative creatures, obviously), ignored him. She continued to scribble dutifully in her notebook. The prince had smiled, a warm thing that spread to and filled his too blue eyes like starlight, and leaned forward, impishly tapping the margins of her page. The girl's pen quit moving, and she made the mistake of glancing up. She was going to warn him of teacher's wrath should she see, and haughtily tell him to let her alone. She had intended to be indignant. She had intended to tell him to "grow up".

But her mind filled with all those supposedly forgotten passages of love at first sight instead. She struggled against them, futilely, and wound up mute and staring into the Prince's smiling face.

"Making them so grand, I mean."

He continued quite cheerily, then tapped his finger against the page again, directly atop a salamander she didn't remember making, and never actually saw. But it had had to be there; there was simply no other way he could have known.

"Salamanders make terrible guides. They're really too cowardly for adventuring of any sort."

He hadn't broken eye contact, but he had moved her hands aside and shut the notebook.

The Prince called her away from school and the mundane practices of everyday life with promises of magic by way of the bus line. She, so quickly smitten and totally lost to her own common sense, followed with a girlish titter and not so much as a question. The Prince told her growing up was quite over-rated anyway, that magic and wonder were by far more satisfying.

This particular bus station was in an unsavory section of town, covered in graffiti of all colors and assortments. Within lay metallic seats with torn plush covers and a scent better left unidentified.

Yet the girl didn't doubt the Prince. She accepted his every word to be true. Perhaps it was desperation on her part; dreamers are known to go to great lengths to validate their fantasies, especially those who have pushed them aside. But more likely it was the light in the Prince's eyes when he spoke. He had promised her magic. He had regaled her with tales of a forgotten religion, gardens of untold beauty and creatures beyond even his lofty description. He had sworn to her that all he said was perfectly true, and that he would give her something of astonishing worth if she would only come with him.

His trust.

This, perhaps more than the fulfillment of childhood fantasies, held the girls attention. She was very much in love with the Prince, you see, and could think of nothing better than to be held in his high esteem.

For his trust, he would share his greatest secret. Even in this hidden world he would lead her to, it was a mystery, a legend half forgotten. They would be the only ones to know its whereabouts, the truth of its very existence.

It would be their binding secret.

The Prince was ever thrilling with his dark, intense eyes and fast paced tales. There was an eagerness in him, a strangely contagious passion and zeal that made her want to follow.

And so she did. She followed him into the seedy bus station and boarded the rickety, numberless bus one gusty October morning.

All he'd told her was true. At the end of the bus line lay a city of magic, a place where trolls and mystical salamanders were real (they were even cowardly as the Prince had described). The cities denizens came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some were feathered and some furred, some tall, and some so round they didn't walk so much as roll.

The girl and her Prince would spend entire days wandering the cobblestone streets of this not-so secret city. A few others did know of it, strange folk with too wide smiles. It was written in these grins, the knowledge of the city beyond the bus line. Years later the girl would be able to pick out one who knew by smile alone.

It was only they who entered that bus station, those who knew of what lay beyond it. It was one of those places you had to know to find; you were either born to it or privileged enough to be invited. It was an incredibly exclusive society, or so it felt, and that only increased the wonder of the place.

The bus line was the only way to reach the city. The girl never cared to wonder why. She never cared to wonder a lot of things, and a lot of never cares tend to catch up.

A year came and went before the Prince took her to the hidden city. While he made her wait, they could only speak of it in hushed tones in the stone alleyways. Sometimes the Prince would wrap his long fingers round her shoulder while they ogled the bizarre, lean forward, and gently whisper its legends in the girl's ear.

It was in an old, long abandoned garden, he told her. Once it had been a center for worship. The details of the religion it honored had long been obscured by time, but some of the city folk could at least recall it had once been.

Some days they would ask the giant green parrot who sold purple, lumpy fruits towards the end of the bizarre. He would spread his wings wide and tell them what he could recall of his granddames stories.

The garden itself was a wonder, he would say, strange flowers and fruits blooming from the trees and shrubs, tiny blue creatures darting between the toes of its visitors. There would be dances held within its sturdy stonewalls, music and merriment extending to the wee hours of morning. He spoke of a royal family who lived in the garden, the keepers of the old religion. They were handsome creatures with dark eyes and captivating natures. They had disappeared with their grand ceremonies without warning or explanation, and the garden had since become wild and overgrown. No one visited anymore. In fact, most had forgotten it was there at all. It was far from the city, in a corner of this magical world no one bothered to go.

Her Prince would then smile his too wide smile and buy a couple fruits, thanking the bird for his stories and then they'd dance together in the center square. The secret was the statue, or rather what lay inside, he'd say as he twirled her across the flagstones. It was of the oldest of the old kings, his great arms extended to embrace the entire world. This was a massive monument, and to know its treasure you must scale the gargantuan thing. The Prince would pull her closer and rest his head on her shoulder, his breath tickling her ear. It was his secret to share with her, he'd say, a world that would be only theirs. The girl's heart would flutter and her face would flush. Her Prince never told her he loved her, and she was never entirely sure if it was simply in his nature to be so intimate. He tackled everything with a shocking intensity, and whatever he chose to show her was shared with a passion she thought must be exhausting. But it never wavered. He was always the same bright, captivating Prince for her.

After a year he led her to the overgrown garden of the missing royal family. They returned twice a week afterward, always after a dance in the central square. They'd play beneath the fat leaves and swollen fruits, the girl imagining them as children in Eden. There were beasts in the garden; dark, wild cats and boars, bears and birds and fish of astounding color. But they were all tame. There was no harm to be found in the forgotten garden. She thought of it as paradise. Rivers snaked within the sacred walls, feeding deep, clear lakes. Here they swam and pestered the strange, pale-eyed creatures who dwelt in the waters.

It took still more months for him to lead her to that sacred statue in the center. Around it had grown a veritable maze of brambles- but the Prince navigated it with ease. She found it awkward, climbing over the extended limbs onto the very head of this giant of a man. She felt clumsy and stumbled most of the way, cursing the Prince's grace. But the Prince was ever patient, smiling a gentler smile as he helped her scale the smooth stone. There was a new light in his eyes when she reached the top; a joy that outshone all others.

For a few moments they sat atop the ancient stone king's head, staring out into the garden, the Prince holding her tight to him lest she stumble again and fall (there were certain perks to being awkward, she supposed). From this height, the massive cats and bears looked small enough to carry. The garden itself was shrouded in a damp, green mist.

He showed her the levers hidden in the king's hair. There were many- and some did not quite so pleasant things. The Prince showed her the appropriate levers and the appropriate sequence, his hands guiding hers as he warned against a few in particular. He told her it was quite important that she remember these things. His head was resting on her shoulder again, his voice little more than a smooth purr in her ear. He had her pull the levers. The stones ground and moaned, and then a door swung open at the very base of the king's neck, revealing a staircase. The Prince disentangled himself, only to take her hand to lead her down the royals gaping neck.

They fumbled down in the dark, as neither had thought to bring a light with them. This was a sign of the Prince's strange and impetuous nature. He hadn't known when he'd sprung from the bushes that morning, smiling and practically abducting her, that that day would be the day he'd show her the secret.

The stairs wound endlessly, and it seemed there was nothing left of the world but the embrace of dank dark and the warmth of the Prince's hand. Which was absolutely fine by her.

Within the statue they found a miniature city, its populace comprised entirely of tiny goblins. They were pug faced and round, with clever fingers and high voices which made the girl laugh. They could be any shade of any color; some even possessed large, darker hued spots. This city extended well beneath the first city the Prince had shown her. In fact, if they listened closely, in certain parts of town they could hear echoes of the world above drifting down. The goblin city had gardens all its own, flourishing markets, and greatly divided districts. There were dances and carnivals on a weekly basis. Strangely, they didn't seem to use any sort of currency. Whatever she and her Prince asked for was simply given.

The girl had great gaudy gowns made, and the Prince fine suits in ridiculous colors. The Prince gifted her with lavish jewels; tiaras and rings the likes her fairy books would stutter over. There were always little presents waiting for her in the city. She traveled to it alone now. The Prince had stopped leaving, he'd found a place to live within the city. He'd wanted her to do the same, but she still had substantial ties above ground.

They would hold parties in the toadstool groves dressed in their fanciful attire, crowned and bejeweled, the Prince always presiding over them with shocking decorum. The girl spent more and more of her time below ground in the goblin city with her Prince.

Then of course, the girls never cares came skipping up behind her. She'd forgotten the sensible things entirely; things like classes and grades. Her parents (being staunch believers in things real and sensible) were gravely disappointed to find she'd ignored both, and would most certainly fail the year without substantial effort to the contrary. Believing she would not willingly put forth such effort, they intervened (as parents often do).

And so, the girl was grounded. Her movements were closely monitored and the elders of her family and school faculty successfully thwarted any attempts she made to reach the bus station. She couldn't get word to her Prince that she had finally been snagged by the net of reality, and he never surfaced. After months with no contact, she assumed he'd given up on her entirely. So the girl, saddened and broken hearted at the seeming loss of her Prince and his kingdom, picked up her books again and trudged off to participate in the mundane practices of everyday life.

She was nearing the end of her junior year in high school, and had to work quite hard to ensure this was to be her only junior year in high school. She'd lost a lot of time underground with the Prince, dancing with dreams.

It was during this time she again matured, coming to realize she needed no Prince and no fairy tales to sustain her. Fairy tales were meant to be simply that- tales. Real life was much better, she thought. Real life and sensible things. And sensible, real women need no silly Princes.

Immediately upon this realization she met the piper's son. Now there was a man in town that people called the piper, due in large part to his skill with pipes. His son had no interest in making music and instead decided to pursue education instead. Despite the pipers disappointment, he supported his son in his academic endeavors.

The piper's son was appointed to aid the girl in her own academic pursuits; mainly prevent her from failing the year. It was he who was beside her as she fought to catch up with her peers. As fate would have it, the girl and the piper's son had a great deal in common. So long as the girl focused on being real and sensible, that is.

One thing led to another and soon the girl's heart was again full, but with the piper's son instead of the Prince. The latter hadn't been seen in quite some time anyway and so it was that much easier to replace him.

Time wore on and years passed. When her parents had lifted their social ban, the girl brought the pipers son to the city at the end of the bus line. And one night, after declaring she would love him forever, she led him to the secret goblin city beneath the statue, her promise to the Prince forgotten. It was a bustling metropolis now. The goblins were even building a proper sized palace. When she asked the happy little creatures why they had decided to undertake such a massive project (especially for them) they simply responded it was the will of the King. She was utterly thrilled with the idea of a goblin King but couldn't be distracted by it too long, because the piper's son dragged her to the surface again, back into what was real to him.

He didn't much care for fairy tales and magical cities beyond bus lines as they all seemed rather pointless. She barely had time to wonder at her former Prince's suspicious absence. She was far too busy to think of old, silly loves. She had other things to do, after all. A job to busy herself with and an apartment to pay for. She had her boyfriends parents to cater to and said boyfriend to moon over. A normal life with all the trappings. A real and sensible life filled with real, sensible things.

Long after she shared with him her precious city, the piper's son broke her heart, taking his love away with him to university. He claimed he needed space, that he needed to find himself and an entire list of perfectly sensible reasons people use when they tire of their lovers.

The girl was understandably devastated. She forgot about her own applications and acceptance letters, realizing she didn't much care for those learning institutions. She'd simply wanted to follow the piper's son. So, since her legal educational requirements had been met (and then some, she was the proud if not so excited owner of a liberal arts degree), she fled again to the city at the end of the bus line. For days she wandered the bright streets, growing sicker and sicker from her broken heart.

Hearts are such tricky things. If a wounded heart is not properly treated, it can become infected and eventually kill the owner. The girl had not sought proper medical attention because she'd thought the whole concept silly (honestly who suffers from broken hearts these days?). Instead, she quietly observed the central square from shaded tables, watching lovers of all ages whirl over the cobblestones. She found the green parrot and bought a purple fruit, though she hardly enjoyed it. She haunted the old alleys, moving beneath a dreadful, sick haze. Often times, the girl would think herself back in the days before the piper's son, before even the goblin city. The city beyond the bus line was newly discovered, and she was being led about by her heart strings, which were firmly yet gently held in the hands of her former Prince. Then time would right itself in her fevered mind, and she would cry for all she was worth. Even this world had become hallow without the piper's son, the one aspect of her life he'd refused touch.

Briefly, she thought of her former Prince. She wondered where he had gone to, if he was happy. But this never lasted long. Her mind inevitably looped back to the piper's son, and she would again dissolve into a salty puddle.

Finally, she admitted to the damage her heart had inflicted upon her. She knew that it was too late for simple treatment; she would have to have the muscle amputated or die from the infection. The years spent with the piper's son had greatly sobered the dreaming, romantic girl enough to accept such treatments. Unfortunately, there was a thick poison in her mind now too. And this warped and twisted her thoughts until she believed she could not possibly part with her heart, for without it she'd lose her love of the piper's son. How could she possibly go on without that? It was die with love or die without, and so she found her way back inside the secret goblin city to seek a quiet place to pass on.

The goblin city was not as quiet as she remembered, was thrice as crowded as the last time she'd been and the castle had been completed. And there, walking the streets in finery befitting a king was her old Prince. She took little notice of him, so focused was she on finding that ditch to expire in. He was understandably surprised when he found her, a great black bruise on her chest pumping poison through her veins as she lay in the gutter, waiting for death.

The former Prince did not pause for thought. He had her taken to his castle, laid gently in his chamber. He had the windows closed and then he ordered they be alone, demanding his servants to shut and lock the doors behind them.

He knelt by her side, brows knitted with concern. He reached forward and took her hand, looking quite chivalrous on his bended knee. He said it was very good to see her, even under such dire circumstances. He told her he knew of her visit with the piper's son, and that she was forgiven for breaking their promise, forgiven for abandoning him, forgiven for all she'd put him through. Then he asked if it was that boy, that common thing she'd taken to his city who had broken her heart, for he knew immediately what ailed her. To all this, the girl only nodded weakly. The Prince held her hand and told her softly that he had traveled the whole of the world while they constructed his palace, in search of a cure for his own broken heart. The Prince had loved her dearly, you see, and didn't understand words like grounded and school and real life. So when she'd left him he'd assumed it was for good.

He told her he had found it, and was quite willing to fix hers. It would take time, he explained, and she would have to remain in the goblin city for at least a year. But the pain would be gone entirely. It would be as though she'd never loved the piper's son at all. At the end of the procedure, he would return her heart, polished and new and free of hurt.

The girl's head was still thick with the heart's poison and she was quite sure she'd die as soon as he removed it. After all, how could she live without it? How could she breathe without her love for the piper's son, regardless of whether he cared for her in return?

The Prince took her silence as acceptance and ordered preparations for the procedure be made immediately.

And so the Prince, now King, carried out the delicate surgery. He had the swollen and infected organ gently removed- and then he whisked it away to where he could work on it in peace. It was an incredibly time consuming, difficult process. Love, when soured or scorned, becomes a deadly thing you see. A ravenous, merciless tumor which will devour all the healthy tissue within a heart; and when it is through with that will set to destroying the rest of the poor soul housing it. Inside the organ now was nothing more than diseased, rotten flesh. But heart-skins are resilient things, and never are destroyed by loves lost. So this the King was able to save, peeling it away for later use.

As for the cancerous innards, he deposited it in a small jar, suspending the loathsome thing in liquid.

He spent much of his days creating new stuffing for her heart; soft cotton and feathers, bits of gold dust to make it radiant and strong, and curing the old skin. Cleaning the infection and loosing, slowly, the hold the piper's son had upon it.

The girl had not died after the surgery. In fact, after the King's servant's fed her a very specific mixture of herbs for a number of days, her head was clear of the piper's son and ache entirely. She found life to be not much different without her heart; perhaps it was even more enjoyable. She was free of that need to love, the need to feel. She could think without any emotional attachment. So, light and free, the girl wandered the goblin city.

One morning the King appeared from some mysterious, shadowy room in the back of the castle, telling her it was only waiting now. Waiting for the skin to properly cure or his threads to be crafted, there were a number of things that simply required time.

For a while, they flirted with the past. They spent hours walking the perfectly manicured paths of his gardens, or simply talking about the different roads they had traveled over their years apart. He was as he'd always been, it seemed. She did not notice his nature was slightly subdued. Or that his smile wasn't quite so wide, and the starlight that filled his eyes was not nearly as bright. He, in turn, could not see how the quality of her laughter had diminished, how lack luster her dreams had become. Her own smile had halved. This was, of course, due to their missing and doctored hearts. They no longer possessed the ability to detect such subtle changes in former loves, since they simply didn't care enough to notice.

They still got along splendidly. They hosted parties in the gardens, dressed in their gaudy garb, bejeweled above and beyond even the wealthiest kings or queens. They held balls in the castle, invited royalty from other kingdoms; from other hidden places. There were many, the King explained. Pockets of magic scattered throughout the world, a royal family to preside over each as they saw fit.

They lived as they had before reality had sunk its claws into the girl, often times strolling through the massive garden which hide the entrance to the goblin city. As they walked, he'd tell her fantastic stories. Or he'd carry her away and show her fantastic sights, sharing with her all the fantastic things he'd discovered in his travels.

LEFT OFF REVISION HERE GAHD

She did not miss the world above in the slightest. She told him of life above ground and finally set him to rights concerning her leaving. And they laughed at coincidence and the love lost, hollowly, though neither noticed.

Finally, a year passed, and the King presented her with her new heart. The stitches were sewn with fine gold thread, and it beat healthy and strong in her chest. He told her that the skin could still feel love, but warned eventually the new stuffing would absorb the emotion (somewhat). He walked her through the process, teaching her everything he had learned; though he warned her never to perform such a complex procedure on herself. If her heart was ever broken again, or if she just tired of what she felt, she could return to him and have the skin cleaned, the stuffing replaced. It was wonderful having such control, he claimed. The girl thanked him, not feeling all that different with this new heart than she'd felt without it. But she did happen to remember the family and friends she'd abandoned above. She realized she should return, if only to part with them properly.

She promised she would return, someday. The King consented and when she left, changed the stuffing in his own heart again. She'd leaked inside, somehow.

It was a fair day in October when she returned to the surface, and it was as though the whole world was happy to see her. Only she barely felt it; just a tightening of the skin around some soft cotton, feathers, and gold dust. She had spent well over two years in the goblin city, and yet life had not much changed in the world above. Fairy tales were still simply tales up here. In her absence, the piper's son had returned. He'd looked for her, even, only to find she was no longer there. Somewhere in the corners of his mind he'd always expected her to be waiting for him. But to his great surprise she'd moved on. For a while, he drifted, listless and lonely. Then he struck up something of a relationship with her cousin. It lacked closeness of any sort, but in the very least it kept the notion of loneliness away. And the cousin was very much like the girl, in some respects. So on the nights the cousin did not keep that oddly persistent loneliness at bay; he'd close his eyes and envision he was with the girl again instead.

The girl did not see much of the piper's son as she was bidding her old life farewell. She'd already said her goodbyes to him in the goblin King's bed, nearly dying. It was there she'd said goodbye to the notion of a real life with love. She could do just fine without it; the magical world of the goblin King and her own imagination were so much more dependable, anyway. But one day, as she was preparing to leave the upper world for good, the piper's son approached her.

He stood in the doorway of her childhood bedroom, his voice quiet. There was wanting in his tone, not that she could tell.

"Are you going to ask me back?"

He asked,

"Or will you give me up?"

It was his eyes that struck her. In them was reflected that very first feeling they'd shared, back in the days when she could not meet his eyes for the very emotion in them made her so giddy she could hardly breathe. The heart-skin had constricted, crushing feathers and mashing gold dust, but not feathers nor cotton nor gold can feel, so she wasn't bothered. She finished closing her suitcase and looked away, the feeling already gone.

"I've already given you away."

She said, and left again for the city beyond the bus line.

It took her years to return to the goblin city. She had wanted to live on her own for a while, with this new heart that beat yet didn't feel. She explored not just the city beyond the bus line, but the world beyond it. She gathered her own stories and saw her own fantastic sights. Only they were not nearly as fantastic as she'd always imagined they'd be. In fact, it was almost dull.

She traveled the world above, too. She hunted the secret places the King had told her of, spent days and months and years in these hide-aways for fantasy. She was always welcome, always treated as a visiting queen. Yet this too lacked the thrill she'd envisioned.

When she had her fill of it, she returned to find the castle crumbling and the city nearly deserted. She asked whoever she could find what had happened to the goblin King, but none could answer her. The heart-skin constricted again, and this time she heard feathers snapping as they were crushed between cotton and the mashes of gold. For a moment she truly felt sadness. For a moment, she was near to tears. But it was only a moment. It was easy to forget it had ever been. Gone with the very next heartbeat. She moved into the crumbling castle, and there she remained for still more years. She was waiting for the King to return so they could resume their walks and conversations. She was waiting for her magical world to mean something again.

It wasn't the King that returned to her, but the piper's son. He found his way to what were now the ruins of the goblin city and searched for her, knowing somehow that this was where she must be. It took him days, but he combed through every abandoned home and shop until at last he reached the castle. He found her in the overgrown gardens, staring blankly into the riotous growth. She was waiting, of course. The goblins had informed her of his arrival. She hadn't rushed to meet him. Hadn't bothered to greet him at all.

He approached her slowly, carefully. He told her he missed her. His tone was slightly pleading, though she didn't notice. He told her he was tired of the mundane practices of everyday life without her to remove the mundane. She only stared at him, with the heart-skin pulled so tight she feared this time the seams would split. But the golden threads were strong, they held. In another moment, that feeling too was gone. She took a breath and looked away from him. She told him about the goblin King changing her heart. She said she could do the same for him, if he so desired. She said she was sorry if she had broken his heart,

"…but don't kill yourself over it. Let me take care of it. Or send you to someone who can."

She really just wanted him to go away. What did she care about love? The piper's son didn't want to play in her magic world; she had no reason to bother with him. The piper's son shook his head.

"I'm asking you to take it back."

He said slowly, carefully.

"At least try."

The girl was shocked by his audacity, but didn't possess the ability to be angry for longer than a second or two. She did have the capacity to remain frustrated, however. She grabbed his hand, roughly, and dragged him through the decaying halls. She took him to the King's old chamber and showed him a hidden shelf. The chamber had once been bright with both light and color, and marvelously clean. Now it was a den for spiders, rats, and drab, faded shades. She'd discovered the shelf while picking her way through the castle, during some year of her stay. The shelf had been hidden behind a bureau, which had splintered and sagged. Upon it sat two hearts, in separate jars. One was the diseased heart of the King himself, and the other was hers.

"There,"

She said, pointing.

"You want me to swallow that filthy thing?"

The piper's son simply stared at her. She dropped his hand and looked away.

"You're selfish, you know. Horribly selfish."

The heart-skin constricted repeatedly, and she flashed between anger and frustration with each wrenching beat, her tone shifting to suit her morphing mood. It would seem the remains of her heart had not forgotten the piper's son entirely. Risk it for love, it whispered. Sacrifice for the mere chance of it.

The piper's son said nothing. She argued with herself, argued against taking back that pain.

"It might kill me."

She pleaded, the heart-skin pulled tight and for a few moments, she could feel her own indecision. She could remember needing to please him. She felt it again, somehow. Lonely must have leaked into her stuffing.

The piper's son remained silent.

Heart-beats came and went. All was silent save her breath, the occasionaly shifting of feet. She argued with herself, with the fleeting feelings of need. And then, with a sigh, she reached into the proper jar, pulled out the swollen, infected organ and swallowed it whole. The infected tissue assaulted her feather stuffed heart, replacing the stuffing. It tore through all the patient care the goblin King had put into fixing her.

We can heal, the heart-skin whispered, there will always be scars but we may yet heal. It tried so to soothe her fears, distract her from the pain as she took the burden of loves rejoiced and loves lost again.

It took a long while to cough up the cotton, feathers, and gold dust; but the piper's son stood besides her as she retched out the stuffing of her second heart. He waited in silence, his eyes on her quivering back.

Just the chance, her aching heart whispered again. What would we not give for the magic of that chance? And though the pain was incredible, though she was dizzy and feverish and sure she would be ill and in bed for days afterward; she conceded that there was nothing she wouldn't sacrifice for that simple chance. When he thought her finished, the piper's son took her hand.

"No."

She whispered, taking her hand from his. He raised his eyebrows and watched her shaking on the floor, still coughing up a feather every minute or two.

"It wasn't for you."

And now she was weeping; clutching her chest and hoping that hope alone could stave off the foul toxins her heart now carried.

"I want it…to be mine."

She rasped, knowing she could take as long as she liked to get the rest of it out, the piper's son wouldn't speak. So she wheezed and cried, listening to her tears splash meekly against the stone floor.

"I want my love to be mine."

She said finally.

"I don't want- I can't be defined by who I care for. I will,"

She inhaled deeply, though her body still shook,

"I will live as I wish to live, and be myself. If you intend to ask anything else of me you can just be damned."

The effect of her words was greatly spoiled by the great, heaving sobs the followed it, but the piper's son finally moved. He scratched his hand. The girl, who had been a woman for some time now (though she had been quite slow to admit it), wept harder and tried to collect herself. She wanted that chance, desperately. She wanted to love and be loved. But she didn't want to lose herself to it. She could no longer become the relationship she sought. She couldn't allow herself. The woman let her forehead lean against the floor, pulled her arms round her middle and wailed. She found herself mourning time lost more than the men she'd loved.

"It wasn't for you, it was for me."

The statement was broken by sobs. The piper's son tore his eyes from her back, fixing instead on the remaining black lump on the shelf. The only sound for a long time was the woman's crying. The sobs eventually slowed. She dried her eyes and picked herself off the dusty floor. She didn't turn to face the piper's son. Neither spoke another word. The piper's son left, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder as he did.

And then the woman was left alone, in the goblin King's dreary chamber. For a long time, she simply stood, her own gaze drawn to the withered and wasted remains of her former Prince's heart. She wondered again where he had gone, and if he would ever return. If he would ever realize the mistake he'd made.

The woman left the chamber, then the palace entirely. She wandered into the streets of the broken goblin city. She gathered those that remained and set them to work reconstructing the castle and city itself. She would restore the kingdom she had so loved in her youth, and she would rule it, waiting for no one.