(The Moral of the Story)

When Misa Amane opens her eyes, she finds herself staring at the hot pink satin innards of her familiar but prematurely purchased coffin.

She reaches out and touches the fabric, blinking at the sight of it and wondering just what it is doing there. She can't remember; she finds that she can't remember a lot of things. She pushes against the ceiling, but it remains firm and oppressive.

She can hardly move.

She pushes gently at first. Gradually, she begins to push harder, wondering just where she is and why she's there—she can't remember, she can't remember anything at all.

(The air is stale on her tongue, and she wonders why she can taste death.)

The roof is tearing beneath her fingertips; the wood becomes slivers against her bleeding hands. Funny—she can't remember that her hands were bleeding, she doesn't remember when they started. Above her, through the hole in the coffin, she sees darkness, and she can smell earth.

Something about this frightens her—the fact that it is earth that she smells, like she's underground. She claws above her, praying that she hasn't been swallowed whole.

She's out of the earth faster than she expected; she didn't think she had been buried that shallowly, but she can't remember and the air is clean. She breathes it in slowly, savoring the stark realness of it, the indisputable fact that it is air and that she is breathing it in.

She looks around slowly, noticing all the other shallow graves—each one marked with a grey stone with a few scribblings on it. She's in a graveyard: that would explain the coffin. She turns from the hole she created and walks towards the path.

She walks dimly, noting the rhythm of her feet, a simple thump-thump against the earth—almost like the beating of a heart. She stops, listening, feet stalled against the cold grass.

She hears nothing, and in that moment her eyes grow wide in terror. There is no gentle, reassuring thump-thump. She's alone.

She turns in desperation back towards the hole, towards the darkness, reaching out, wondering if she has forgotten it down there. She can't move.

I need to go back to sleep.

She starts walking again, back towards the path that leads her away from the hole; her feet tap out that mocking rhythm. She looks over her shoulder as if searching for someone and then turns back to the path, certain that there is no one there.

Her feet continue tap-tapping all the way home.

"AH HA, I'm underground…"

The Goblin King is sitting beside her on the street corner, watching as the people walk past her hardly noticing her presence. She isn't sure what she's doing there, but something in the back of her mind tells her not to question it, so she sits with him instead. Both of them watch as the world moves past, neither caring.

She's so tired; she wishes that she was sleeping. Then again, it's hard to tell the difference anymore because sometimes the dreams don't go away when she wakes up, and the terror remains in the real world until she can't tell where the dream is supposed to be anymore. How are you supposed to sleep if you're already sleeping?

She's still tired.

The trees wave back and forth as the wind dances through them; their boughs laugh with delight. Misa can only watch them grimly, her hand placed upon her empty chest.

"What are you doing here?" Misa finally asks the Goblin King. He doesn't turn towards her but instead continues to lounge upon the sidewalk, eyeing the people with a calculating glance and a casual smile.

"I'm not," he replies, smiling and waving at a blushing young girl as he does so, laughing under his breath.

"You're sitting next to me."

He doesn't respond, but smiles instead and turns his attention away from her once more. She sees the trees still, but now they are blurred by the dancing fae that have appeared in view, their faces glowing with delight and immortality. She blinks and they are gone—another dream.

"What's wrong with me?" she asks the Goblin King softly, and he sighs as if she is being particularly stupid.

"You sold your heart. Surely you expected there to be consequences." He shakes his head in a mockery of disappointment.

"I won," Misa states bluntly, looking out at the shifting world before her—not her own, but someone else's.

"No, Misa. You paid your dues just like everyone else."

There is something not quite right about this Goblin King. He looks tired; he looks old. It is as if the mortal world has aged him. He is no longer smiling, but simply watches the world dance about him. He looks as fatigued as her lost and lonely heart.

She no longer can find it in her heart to give a damn. "What did I lose, then?"

"You can't feel it beating anymore, can you, Misa?" he asks sharply, his red eyes gleaming as he does; the wild magic dances inside of them, and suddenly she knows.

"I never brought it home," she says softly, horror escaping from her mind and grinding itself into her heart, lost in another world. The people have stopped moving, stopped breathing, as if they aren't real either, but are only illusions created in her head.

The street corner begins to fade beneath her pale and shaking fingers.

"I had to leave it behind, I had to leave it…" She swallows. Her throat is so dry and there are tears welling in her eyes, but she can't feel anything, she can't feel a damn thing. God, she remembers the pain now, the madness when the heart fell into her hands and she knew, she knew even then, that it wasn't hers anymore. She looks over at him, sees that his hands remain white as snow and his face innocent of misdeed—so different from when he appeared in her room.

"You bastard."

The magic stirs about him and the street reappears, trees sprouting between the cracks in the pavement. His smile grows all the while as the dream grows about her. She looks up and realizes that the sky has been painted violet; the magic washes across it until she no longer knows if it was ever blue.

His face no longer seems human. The angles become more distinct in the growing light; his bones become a bit too long and too fine, his eyes too sharp and scarlet. The magic wraps itself between his pale fingers as he holds it before her, offering what's left of her heart, and he laughs. He laughs.

Then he is gone.

"Love without your heartbeat."

Sometimes she still feels it there, aching in her chest, and she'll look down in surprise because she doesn't feel any different. She still feels impassioned and apathetic, and her brain tells her that nothing will change this and that the Tin Man is a lie. Yet it will be there, its phantom thumping still there in her chest, little more than a casual dream that will never be fulfilled.

She doesn't like it. She wishes it would stay away, go back to where it came from and just leave her alone.

She stands in line for food at a coffee shop; she no longer remembers the name, nor does she care, and she watches as the people shift and twitch in front of her while she remains perfectly still, listening to that phantom beating. When she reaches the cashier she can't help but notice how the employee stares at her from behind that flashing smile, those eyes wide in fear as she takes in Misa's pale face.

She asks what Misa would like to order, and Misa suddenly realizes that she doesn't really feel like eating anything. She isn't hungry anymore, just like she isn't heartsick anymore—it's just a ghost of a feeling there. Something she should be feeling right now. She hasn't eaten in a while, she's realized. the feeling is a ghost, just like the heart.

She walks out of line to stand outside the shop whose name she still doesn't know or care to know and wait for the Goblin King to appear. He does that, sometimes—usually at times like this. He'll simply be there standing next to her and smiling, always smiling. He says that he's just in her head and that he isn't really there; this might be true, but she's not entirely sure it makes much of a difference.

"You do realize that it's a parasite," he says, leaning casually against the window. His eyes watch her lazily, as they always do when he arrives.

"What is?" she asks for clarification in her dead, uncaring tone. She's fairly certain she already knows the answer, and that the answer doesn't matter anyway.

"The Labyrinth, of course." He grins, this time, as if he finds this somewhat ironic. Perhaps it is.

She stares at him blankly, unsure of what emotion she is supposed to convey. She once might have felt shock, betrayal, even, although she can never be sure about things she used to be able to feel. Now, however, it is not a surprise; she only feels a dim acceptance, feels herself nodding slightly, as if this were the most natural thing in the world.

"It's eating your dreams, but you already knew that," the Goblin King continues casually, watching his hands in mock interest. Misa simply stares. "Eating all the humanity from you through that pitiful, thumping, bleeding heart of yours. Soon there will be nothing left—and can you guess what happens next?"

"No," says Misa without regret or thought alongside it, no longer caring that she has not even a hint of her future left.

He smiles, and for a moment she almost thinks that he's not going to tell her, that he's going to leave her the luxury of doubt and ignorance. For a moment she considers thanking him for that. Then he'll leave again, and she'll stay again, and the world will keep on turning again, and it will go on and on and on…

But he doesn't, and she doesn't.

His grin is speaking, a soft crooning tone that is meant to torture, as if he really wants the words to hurt. No Misa, the grin says, that road is much too simple much too painless and even though you don't have a heart I think you deserve some pain. No Misa, the grin continues, the road I have planned for you is much longer and much darker and it won't end—it will go on and on and on and on…

The Goblin King's grin breaks and the words fly from his lips. "You do realize that you are dying."

It isn't a question so she doesn't nod; she simply stares flatly at his delicate features and wishes that she were somewhere else instead.

"Although, dying, perhaps, isn't the best choice of words. Dying is much too clean, too precise. You are fading. Look at your skin. You can practically see through it already—you are fading out of this world, but you aren't fading back into mine." He pauses, watching her reaction, watching for that horrified expression with the words 'I know' written across her pupils. She says nothing, no longer knowing, no longer caring.

She moves this time, away from him, not quite wanting to hear but not motivated enough to stop him. She walks stiffly away, ignoring the delighted look in his eyes, just walking her feet, dragging in that half-hearted rhythm. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump

He follows on dancing feet and steps in front of her, blocking her path. He's still smiling, still grinning, as if this show keeps getting better and better.

"I think you know what's happening to you; you're just too terrified to admit it. You're going to disappear. Not even dissolve—you are going to fade. Like a ghost."

She feels the glimmering of anger. Yes, she knows she's a ghost, of course she does. Does he think she's stupid? That she's learned nothing in that goddamned imaginary world he rules? She's not like those others, the ones that stayed behind, who still haven't learned their lessons. Misa knows this, she knows all of this—she just doesn't like saying it because he can't make her and he knows it.

She just stares at him with those blank, empty eyes, waiting for him to say it, to rub it in her face, to gloat just like she knows he wants to. Because if he didn't want to, why the hell would he keep coming back? Why would he even bother if he knew where she would end up?

He says nothing—he only grins.

"He always lies."

She stands on the sidewalk beside the gutter, looking up at the stars she can barely see, when she notices that the lamp post is transparent and that the light is swinging back and forth in her vision. Like a pendulum, it hangs and crosses above her, blotting out the stars until there's nothing left but a white blur across her vision.

She closes her eyes and the lamp post is gone.

Misa enters a room and finds that her wishes have turned into fishes and that it is the Goblin King who invitingly displays his net. Her feet tap out that limping rhythm they have grown so fond of—thump-thump thump-thump thump-thump

She stands by him and watches as the fish dance before her, each with glazed, desperate eyes, writhing and squirming, drowning. She wants to ask which fish is which wish because she can't tell anymore—they're all drowning and all dying. Things look the same to her. But before she can ask, the fish are gone and she's standing before a row of doors.

The Goblin King is still there, and this time he is talking. "When is a door not a door?" he asks her with the fey grin he sometimes wears.

She blinks, still thinking of fishes and wishes and the casting of nets, but she thinks about the answer also.

"When it's a jar," she says but doors don't turn into jars, they remain doors. She cocks her head, because that isn't the answer to the riddle; the doors are jars, but then why do the doors stay doors? They should all be jars now.

He shakes his head from side to side as if in pity. "So sorry, but that's not the right answer."

"You're lying. The doors aren't doors when they're a jar. I know this." She is frustrated and is surprised at this, thinking herself beyond feeling. This makes her smile a little—it makes her want to laugh in his face because she still has something left.

"No Misa, a door is not a door when it is a door." He grins again, never faltering, and steps closer, drawing her into his arms as if she were a child in need of comfort. In that moment she enviously hears the thump-thumping of his own immortal heart.

She wants the doors to go away, and they do, but they are not replaced by jars.

She is watching her own hands fade, and this time she knows she is in reality. She sees the people rushing past, not noticing her transparent bare feet or her fading yellow hair—she is only a shade to them. Later they may remember seeing a blurred figure in the glass. She looks for the Goblin King but he is not there; she is not sure whether or not she is relieved. She is fading.

She starts walking, thinking the movement might keep her in the world, might keep her here a little bit longer, in the world and out of the chaos that is inside her head, away from the fading and the…

She is dancing in the crystal ballroom, but this time she is in a maid's outfit and he is in a black tailcoat. They are waltzing as if they have never stopped and the world is falling down down down…

Her feet stall on the pavement and she looks up to where the sun has grown low in the horizon, cursing her fishes and her wishes and her jars and her doors…

Her feet are dangling over the abyss and this time she thinks she might actually jump. She isn't sure yet, she just needs some more time, some more time before…

But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn't already have…

"It's against the rules to throw other people's heads!"

"I am dying," she says, but no one is listening. Even the Goblin King is gone and it is just her now.

She repeats this phrase to herself. "I am dying."

I know this riddle, she thinks. A door is a door but when it isn't a door it's a jar. Because that is the answer and has always been the answer. That is the riddle, and she is dying.

She has been fading for a while, longer than she can count, longer than she thought, but it seems now that she is dying.

She tries to smile but the thing is crooked and jagged and hates the dimensions of her face.

Oz never did give nothing…

"It's a crystal. Nothing more."

"I wish…" she begins, but then stops, thinking of the dying fishes. Which one should she pick? There is an entire sea of them before her and she can hardly tell the difference.

A warning runs through her head, reminding her of the last time she wished for something. She ignores it and continues to observe the fish. Her hands are fading, she can't see them anymore, she's trying to remember if they're still there.

Sometimes she thinks they are and yet…

Sometimes they're not.

"Nothing to be afraid of…"

Give nothing to the hollow man…