Chapter no 41 – Evangeline

A Curse for True Love

Finding the arch was easy.

It seemed to take only minutes.

Evangeline imagined the actual journey from Aurora to a hidden arch on the edge of the Cursed Forest couldn’t have been that quick. It had probably taken her and LaLa closer to an hour to find it. But time felt as if it was speeding by. Evangeline’s blood still pumped impossibly fast. Even standing still, she found herself woefully short of breath.

She felt one relief as she entered the clearing: Jacks wasn’t there yet. It was just Evangeline, the phoenix tree, and the slowly setting sun.

Her first time in this clearing, there had been lively musicians playing harps and lutes, courtiers bedecked in all their finery, a banquet table piled high with food, and promises of wishes come true in the air.

Tonight there was just the nervous rustle of leaves as Evangeline drew closer to the shimmering tree. She could hear the leaves quiver and shake against each other, as if they somehow sensed that their time was almost up. The last time she’d been here, all the unchanged leaves had been red and orange and bronze, but tonight they were green as emeralds and dewy grass. She saw the veins of a shaking leaf rapidly turn from green to gold. Then she watched as the gold began to spread across the surface of the entire leaf, as if it could outrace what it feared might be coming. And yet, unless the

other leaves changed as well, this leaf’s transformation would not be enough to protect it from what Jacks would soon do.

Evangeline took a deep calming breath, both for herself and for the fearful tree.

She was afraid as well. She felt as if she shouldn’t have been. She felt as if her faith in love was supposed to be unflinching.

But Evangeline was flinching a lot.

Every light sigh of the breeze made her shoulders tense. The quietest shift of the leaves made her gasp.

On the night she’d opened the Valory Arch, there had been a sense of something inevitable. She’d known that opening that arch was exactly what she’d been born to do. She’d felt that every event in her life had led her to that moment.

Now she was living in the moments after the inevitable, and she felt that, too. Instead of being carved in stone, this moment felt like a fragile sort of tapestry that could unravel with one tug on a thread—or one pull of a leaf.

The clearing brimmed with anticipation; it burst against her skin like sparks from a match, making her feel as if anything could happen. She’d always loved that feeling before, but now it made her as nervous as that little leaf that had just changed from green to gold.

Evangeline had changed as well since the first time she had entered this clearing on her first night in the Magnificent North, when she had believed that marrying a prince could make all her dreams come true. Looking back, her dreams had felt impossible and she had felt so courageous for believing in them. But now she realized those were never her dreams, not really. They had been dreams borrowed from stories, dreams she had clung to because she had yet to imagine her own dreams.

That first night in the North, she would have never dreamed of a future with Jacks. She might have been attracted to him, but he wasn’t what she was supposed to want.

Jacks wasn’t safe. He came with no promises of a happily ever after. If anything, he guaranteed the opposite. He didn’t believe that heroes got happy endings. Loving Jacks felt doomed from the start. But Evangeline had learned that love was more than a feeling. And it didn’t have to be the safe choice, because love was also more powerful than fear. It was the ultimate form of hope. It was stronger than curses.

And yet . . .

She worried that her love might not be enough. Aurora’s last words still haunted her.

It doesn’t matter if your love is the truest love that the world has ever seen. The story curse twisted the truth. It’s not Jacks’s true love who will be immune to his kiss. Only a girl who will never love Jacks can survive the kiss.

Evangeline didn’t like to think about Jacks with other girls. She didn’t like to imagine him caring for them or kissing them or killing them. When she’d first met Jacks, she had imagined that he didn’t really think about them, either. The careless, disrespectful version of Jacks she’d met in his church hadn’t seemed capable of caring for anyone.

But now, when she pictured Jacks on the first day she had met him, she didn’t think about their first awful conversation. She saw him sitting in the back of his church, roughly ripping his clothes and bowing his head as if in mourning or performing some act of penance.

He’d been brokenhearted. Not in the same sense that most people thought of, as if one person had broken his heart. Jacks’s heart had been broken over and over again until it was no longer capable of hope and care and love.

The stories always made it sound as if the girls that Jacks had kissed before had not really loved him. They’d just been girls he’d tried on and then discarded like clothes that didn’t fit.

But now Evangeline wondered if Jacks hadn’t been quite so callous with his kisses at first, if perhaps he had cared for some of the girls before he’d kissed them. Then she wondered if some of the girls had truly loved him. If there had been ones who had believed, just like she did, that their love could be enough to save him, to break the curse. But it never was.

No wonder Jacks thought her feelings weren’t enough. And maybe they weren’t. But that didn’t mean he was beyond saving. Maybe it wasn’t her love alone that would save him. Maybe it had to be his love, too.

Evangeline looked up at the newly changed gold leaf, and watched it sway against another green leaf as if begging it to change as well. Because unless the entire tree was gold, it would all go up in flames. Just like she and Jacks would, if she was the only one who believed in the power of love. The air crackled with something that made Evangeline think of little sparks. Then she felt a tingling on her wrist in the shape of her broken heart


Jacks had arrived.

She turned. And it was almost like the first time she’d seen him in this clearing.

He’d been so sharp that night, so cold that the fog had still clung to his boots as he walked.

She remembered telling herself that night not to turn around. Not to look. And when she had looked at him, she’d tried to glance for only a second.

But it had been impossible. Jacks had been the moon and she’d been the tide, controlled by his impossible force. That much had not changed.

Heart or no heart, she still wanted Jacks to be hers. But this Jacks wasn’t hers.

There was something in his pale hands, a jar he was tossing as if it were one of his apples. Only it wasn’t an apple. It was his heart.

Evangeline’s own heart broke a little at the sight of him, tossing his heart so carelessly as if it were a bit of fruit that he’d dispose of, instead of something unspeakably precious and beautiful.

The heart looked like rays of sunlight before they melted into the horizon. The jar was full of so many colors, mostly gold, but there were sparks of iridescent light that burst against the jar, making the gold look as if it were pounding.

Meanwhile, Jacks looked completely unmoved. “You shouldn’t be here.” “Neither should you!” Evangeline shouted.

She hadn’t meant to shout. Her plan hadn’t been to yell at him, her plan had been to finally tell him how much she loved him. But seeing him, treating his heart so recklessly and negligently, made her scream, “What are you doing?”

“I think you already know the answer, pet. You just don’t like it much.” Jacks tossed the jar higher up in the air.

Evangeline didn’t think—she just leaped forward with outstretched arms, reaching for the heart. Her fingers touched the jar, but Jacks caught her first.

He put his hand at the base of her throat. His grip was strong enough to hold her at bay, to keep her away from grabbing the heart in the jar. Yet he wasn’t hurting her. His fingers were not bruising in their grip.

Either he was trying to be careful because of the protection cuff on her wrist. Or . . . he didn’t want to hurt her because the nearness of his heart

was giving him some feeling.

The light inside the jar pounded harder, as if it were fighting to break free. And Jacks no longer looked entirely unmoved. His blue eyes were almost feral in their brightness, as if he were trying to fight off the feelings that were creeping back in.

“You should go,” he ground out.

“Why? Because you’re going to burn your heart, and once you do that, you think you’ll hurt me? You’re already hurting me, Jacks.”

She reached out—not for the jar, but for him.

His jaw felt like a rock, hard and implacable beneath her fingers. He clenched it even tighter and shook her hand away.

“If I try to hurt you, the cuff will stop me,” he said roughly. “I’m not talking about physically.”

My heart, it hurts.

And it did. Evangeline had never felt so close and so far away from someone all at once. His cold, hard hand was still on her throat, his eyes were locked on hers. But it was a look that said this was the last time he’d be touching her, the final time.

This was all there was for them.

He wasn’t giving up. He’d already given up.

“How can I make you understand,” he growled, “you and I together don’t end well. We just end.

“How can you know that if you haven’t even tried?”

“Try?” Jacks laughed and the sound was awful. “This isn’t something you try at, Evangeline.”

The laughter died on his lips, and the fire in his eyes went out. For a second, Jacks didn’t look like a Fate or a human, he looked like a ghost, a shell that had been emptied out and tossed in the waves too many times. And once again, Evangeline thought about how his heart had been broken over and over, so many times that it couldn’t hope, it could only fear.

“This is something that gets one chance to be right or wrong, and if you’re wrong, there’s no trying again. There is nothing.”

Silence filled the space between them. Not even a leaf on the tree dared to rustle.

Then so softly she almost didn’t hear it, Jacks said, “You were there, you saw what the cuff did to me when I tried to kiss you.”

Something like shame filled his eyes and Evangeline didn’t know how it was possible, but he looked even more fragile than before. As if it would take less than a touch to break him, as if the wrong word might shatter him into a thousand pieces.

“This is as close as we get,” Jacks said.

He stroked her throat, and she knew that in a second, he was going to let her go. He was going to release her, pluck a leaf, and set his heart on fire.

Evangeline felt terrified to move, petrified of speaking for fear of saying the wrong thing. Her hands were shaking and her chest felt hollow, as if there was a hole and the hope was draining out of her as well, disappearing into the same place that had stolen all of his hope.

But she knew where that place led and she refused to go there. “I love you, Jacks.”

He closed his eyes as she said the word love.

She hoped a little harder. She wanted to ask him to look at her, but all that mattered was that he didn’t let her go.

“I used to wonder if fate was real,” she said gently. “I used to fear it meant that I had no real choices. Then I secretly hoped fate was real and that you and I were fated, that by some miraculous chance I was your true love. But now I don’t care if fate is real—because I don’t need it to decide for me. I don’t need it to make this choice. I’ve made my decision, Jacks. It’s you. It will always be you, until the end of time. And I’ll fight fate or anyone else who tries to tear us apart—including you. You are my choice. You are my love. You are mine. And you are not going to be the end of me, Jacks.”

“I think I already am.” He opened his eyes and they dripped red tears.

“Let me go, Evangeline.”

“Tell me you won’t set fire to your heart, and I will let you go.” “Don’t ask me to do that.”

“Then don’t ask me to let you go!”

His eyes bled more tears, but his hand held tight to the jar. “I’m broken. I like to break things. Sometimes I want to break you.”

“Then break me, Jacks.”

His fingers tensed against her neck. “For once I want to do the right thing. I can’t do this. I can’t watch you die again.”

The word again scraped against her like a thorn. “What do you mean,


“You died, Evangeline.” Jacks pulled her closer until she could feel the ragged rise and fall of his chest as he rasped, “I held you in my arms as it happened.”

“Jacks . . . I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never died.”

“Yes, you did. The night you opened the Valory. The first time you did it, I didn’t go with you.” He went silent for a moment and then she heard him think, I couldn’t say goodbye.

“It was only you and Chaos,” he whispered. “As soon as his helm was off, he killed you. I tried to stop him—I tried to save you—but—”

Jacks opened and shut his mouth as if he could barely get the words out. “I couldn’t. When I got there, he had already bitten you—and he’d already taken too much blood. You died as soon as you were in my arms. The only thing I could do was use the stones to turn back time. I was warned that it would cost me something. But I thought it would cost me. I didn’t imagine it would take from you.”

I’m sorry, he thought.

“You don’t need to be sorry, Jacks.” “It’s my fault,” he gritted out.

“No it’s not. I didn’t lose my memories because you turned back time. I lost them because Apollo took them from me.”

Jacks looked murderous for a second. Then just as quickly, he shook off her words. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you died. And if you die again, I cannot bring you back.”

“So you’d rather live without me?” “I’d rather you live.”

“I am living, Jacks, and I am not going to die anytime soon.” Evangeline closed her eyes and then she kissed him.

It was a kiss like a prayer, quiet, almost pleading, made of tremulous lips and nervous fingers. It felt like reaching out in the dark, hoping to find a light.

Jacks’s lips were slightly sweet and metallic, like apples and bloody tears as he whispered against her mouth, “You shouldn’t have done that, Little Fox.”

“It’s too late now.” She wrapped her hands around his neck, drawing him closer as she parted her lips. Slowly the tip of Jacks’s tongue slipped inside. It was a gentler kiss than she would have imagined. Less of a fever dream and more of a secret, a whispered dangerous thing that might escape

if he was too reckless. His hands were careful as they moved to her jacket. One by one, with gentle flicks of his fingers, Jacks undid the buttons.

Evangeline’s legs forgot how to work and her lungs forgot how to breathe as he slid off the jacket and let it fall to the ground.

She’d been wrong before. Her life hadn’t been full of moments leading to the Valory Arch. Every moment of everything had brought her to this place. It had taken all the heartbreak, all the almost love and the wrong love, to know that this love was true love.

Glass shattered. He’d dropped the jar—and as soon as he did, the kiss took on new life. It felt like stars colliding and worlds ending. Everything was dizzying and spinning. He kissed her harder. She held him tighter, fingers bruising on the back of his neck before slipping into his soft hair.

Evangeline never wanted to pull away. But she was starting to feel light-headed. Her eyes were closed. But she could see stars.

“Little Fox—” Jacks’s panicked voice broke the kiss.

I’m all right, she said, or she tried to say. Evangeline couldn’t quite get out the words. Her head was spinning too fast. The stars were spinning, too. Little constellations behind her eyes.

Her legs gave out. “No!” Jacks cried.

Then Evangeline felt his arms catching her as she fell. She tried to stand, tried to move, but her head would not stop spinning.

“No!” Jacks screamed. “Not again!”

He dropped to the ground with Evangeline in his lap. She could feel his chest shaking as he held her.

Jacks—she thought his name. She couldn’t speak quite yet, but she could open her eyes again. The stars had left them and now the world was slowly coming back to focus. First the sky, all indigo and violet. Next, she saw the tree, all glowing and gold.

Then there was Jacks.

He looked angelic and anguished. His beautiful face was drained of color. Tracks of blood fell from his eyes down his pale cheeks.

“Don’t cry, my love.” She carefully wiped his tears with her fingers. “I’m all right.”

She gave him a wobbly smile.

His eyes went wide and as blue as a clear sky after a storm. “How is this . . .” he trailed off.

It was a little endearing to watch. His sulky mouth gently parted as he seemed to forget how to speak.

“I already told you. You are the love of my life. You are mine, Jacks of the Hollow. And you’re not going to be the end of me.”

“But you were dying.”

“No,” she said, a little embarrassed. “I just forgot to breathe.”

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