“Talk to me!” I repeated while Jack gazed up at me with a light in his green eyes that continued to confuse me. Why was he looking at me so differently than normal?
“Nisha,” he sighed, long and tired, squeezing his eyes shut tight. “Did Nana tell you about something called puberty?”
I nodded slowly, but got my face close to his, trying to force him to open his eyes and look at me. “Yeah. She said it was this thing that happens to girls as they get older. When it's over, I’ll be like her and Mother Frost.”
Leaning back, I rubbed my chest, indicating it when Jack hesitantly tried to crack a single green eye open. “She said that my boobies are going to grow big and then I’ll start...bleeding?” I frowned at that, worried and scared. “I don’t like it. Why would I bleed? Bleeding’s bad. It hurts and means I’m injured, right?”
Beneath me, Jack raised his hands to cover his face, groaning. “I promise, you can trust Nana. You’re not sick and you’re not going to die, okay?”
I glared down at him, lowering my hands from my chest. “How do you know?” I accused him.
“I’m going through puberty too!” He half-yelled at me, throwing his hands down until they slammed against the soft cushions of the loveseat, making me flinch at the anger in his voice. “I can’t look at you the same way and it’s creepy and horrible and all-consuming and I hate it and I don’t know how to stop it!”
I quickly climbed off Jack, startled, and a little scared while he slowly dragged himself back up to a sitting position.
“...Are you okay?” I asked quietly, worried about the twisted expression on his face. “Does it hurt in your chest again?”
He lifted his head limply to look into my face when I took a few steps closer to try and inspect his body to make sure he wasn’t getting sick again. “No, I’m not okay.”
Jack pressed a hand to his chest, the pain in his eyes making my own chest hurt in response. “I’m supposed to be almost twelve, Nisha,” he muttered bitterly.
“I want to be twelve! But no matter how hard I try, my mind’s stuck at sixteen and I’m so terrified. Every time I look at you I can see what you’ll look like in a few years and it makes me feel so weird. I just want to be able to be around you and talk to you like normal, but I can’t. It’s impossible!”
I gulped, reaching out to pat Jack’s shoulder. “I, I don’t really get it, but you’re going through puberty too. ...Nana said it’s normal and you aren’t sick, Jack.”
He raised a hand up to cover mine at his shoulder, face still bitter and irritated. “It’s not normal, though. I’m not normal. …’Cause of this stupid curse, nothing about me is normal.”
I squeezed his shoulder, trying to reassure him. “Don’t worry. When we get older things will be okay. Right?”
Green eyes stared up at me as I stood a few inches over him, their depths dark and filled with exhaustion. “Nisha...if the curse is broken, I won’t be the same person.”
I frowned at this, tilting my head. “Not the same?” I repeated in confusion.
Nodding, Jack lifted my hand at his shoulder and raised it to press against his cheek. He closed his eyes and breathed in deep, leaning into my hand with a broken expression on his face. “...I love you.”
I blinked, a little taken aback, but warm happiness filled my heart. “I love you too, Jack.”
His eyes popped open and he gazed up at me intensely. “Not as a friend and not as just my family,” he stressed gruffly, squeezing my hand a little harder than necessary.
The happiness in my heart slowly faded, replaced with uncertainty. “You don’t love me like that?”
He groaned, the torment in his eyes growing. “Of course I do!” he cried, stretching his arms out to pull me against him in a tight hug. “I love you in so many ways, Nisha. I miss you, so much. I didn’t want to send you away, but I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t. That’s what's so horrible about this!”
While I hugged him back, happy that Jack wasn’t rejecting me again, he continued speaking. “You can’t even understand it since your maturity is the correct age. But mine’s not! …It’s not and it’s killing me. You’re my soulmate and if we had been regular humans we would have grown up like normal kids and eventually fell in love. But this fucking curse!” Jack swore vehemently, shocking me to tense up in his arms.
“Already half a man in my mind, barely starting to grow in my body, but I love you like a full-grown man in my heart, and I would sacrifice myself and this world if necessary for you in my soul.”
I pulled back as tears began to leak past Jack’s green eyes, a tight lump growing in the back of my throat as hot tears of my own threatened to drop.
“Everything about this situation is wrong, but no one can help. Not Father, Mother, or your dad. Not Nana or any of the servants or my brother or sister. The only one who can help is the very person for whom my feelings are so twisted and strained.”
Seeing my tears, Jack’s expression completely broke down and he kissed my cheeks and forehead, trying to gently wipe away the evidence of my emotions. “Please, Nisha, don’t cry. I can’t...Nisha I can’t stand seeing you cry. It hurts my heart so much. I’m so sorry. I know you don’t understand. I know I’m not making any sense. All of this was too soon. I should have just kept it bottled up for a few more years. Gods!”
Jack held me close, rocking the two of us as we broke down in each other’s arms. Like two young children, we cried for a long time. But, after what must have been half an hour, I began to calm down.
Pulling back, I gazed up at Jack quietly. He wiped at his eyes, sniffling, staring at me in return. Eventually, a small smile and tiny snort of laughter escaped him, making me frown. He playfully poked at my forehead, his smile growing.
“Despite everything, I think I’m glad I told you. It was hurting me so much, trying to bottle all of the darkness in my heart. Even if you don’t understand it or forget about it when you grow up, I’m still glad.”
He lowered his head and leaned it against mine, squeezing me tight. “I hope the curse never breaks.”
Shocked, I tried to pull out of Jack’s arms, but his hold was surprisingly strong, especially considering I’d just beaten him in a wrestling match earlier. “What are you talking about?” I demand in fear. “If the curse isn’t broken, you’ll be sick forever!”
He gazed down at me, a maturity in Jack’s eyes that reminded me of Father Frost when he looked at me sometimes. “But it’ll also mean that I’ll love you forever. I never realized how bad jealousy towards one’s self could be until just recently, Nisha. I hate the thought of you loving anyone besides me. This me,” he stressed gruffly, brushing his lips over my forehead.
“I don’t want anyone else to be allowed to have these quiet and close moments with you. Just me. Only me. ...For the rest of our lives,” he sighed, his breathing growing ragged.
He shifted to press a hand against his heart, while his body began to grow hot and paler. A look of panic and hate cut across his face as he growled and shouted in a rage I’d never seen from him before. “No! Damn it! No! I don’t give a damn if you are me, I won’t let you have her!”
From there, things quickly began to escalate and it wasn’t long before adults got involved and I was kicked out. Standing outside his door, fear grew inside my heart as I saw an IV stand being rushed down the hall by one of the shadow servants.
The memories kept flowing in, like a movie on fast forward, while time passed and my world steadily grew darker as Jack refused to get any better.
Eventually, the fast-forwarding stopped a few weeks past my eleventh birthday. Jack had just turned twelve that day, but his birthday celebration hadn’t happened.
He'd remained in the same condition since the last time I’d gotten to see him for longer than ten minute visits twice a week if he was actually conscious and strong enough to talk. His lungs struggled to breathe while his body burned up with a temperature of over a hundred and five, at worst, and a hundred at best.
Since it was his birthday, I was determined to congratulate and spend time with him. I snuck out of my bedroom and into his in the middle of the night. I knew they never locked his door, in case the machinery he was hooked up to alerted his condition spiking and they had to rush in to treat him.
The only light in the room was the moonlight filtering through the window by Jack’s bed, the curtain having been left wide open to let the sunlight in earlier in the day. His dark brown hair seemed softer in the pale light of the moon, lending an ethereal effect to his profile.
Jack woke up at the sound of the door opening, his small, haggard face brightening a little at the sight of me. "Nisha," he murmured quietly, coughing again. "You aren't...supposed to be here."
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