“Dude, what the hell took you so long?” Jake asks as he stands up, shooting me a nervous glance and then quickly looking away.

    Aaron replies, “Well, let’s just say I ran into a little company.”

    All of a sudden, somebody bursts out of the forest. They’re covered in dirt, mud and plants, and they whack it off of themselves.

    “Damien?” I gasp as I stand up. Dizziness and nausea hit me and I sway, and he and Jake spring forward to catch me, but I keep myself up by holding onto a low tree branch. “What are you doing here?”

    “Well, I decided to take a hike since you said you couldn’t do anything, and then I saw your friend Aaron here riding through the forest on a quad, and I figured he might know what was going on, so then I followed where he was going and here you are!” He grins at me and then asks, “And what the hell are you doing?”

    “Well, uh, you see, uh, I had to, uh--”

    “Work on that science project some more!!” Jake cuts in. “This time, the ice cream flavor is blueberry!” He wipes some of the blue goo off of himself, licks it off his finger and holds back a grimace as he makes a ’mm’ sound, and gives a thumbs up.

    “Right…well…um…sorry if I sort of ruined your…uhh…project, Demi, but I sort of wanted to ask you something.”

    My heart starts to race as I think of all the possible things it could be and I stutter, “S-sure, ask anything.”

    “Well…umm…it’s sort of--” He breaks off as he finally takes me in. “Demi, are you hurt?”

    “Me? Oh, uh,” I look down at myself and just realize how I’m covered in cuts, bruises and blood. “nah, not really. Just a few bruises and--”

    “Here, lemme see.” He pulls me over to him, sets me down on a log and reaches into his backpack and gets out a first aid kit.

    “Damien, really, it’s nothing.” I flinch as he starts to help my wounds. Usually, I think it would have worked, but…it just hurt. Like, really hurt. And I knew first aid, and I knew that he was doing everything right, but it just…hurt.

    “Is this okay?”

    I force a smile and reply, “It’s perfect, thanks.”

    I get sucked into his beautiful hazel eyes as he grins. “Okay, good.”

    “I really appreciate this, Damien. It’s so nice of you to--”

    “If you’re not gonna treat her wounds right, then don’t treat them at all.” Jake grabs my elbow, forces me up and pulls me along with him out of the clearing and into the woods.

    “Jake, what are you doing!?” I hiss, jerking my arm out of his grip.

    “That,” He points at a long cut on my forearm, “is a scratch from a Locht. And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s blood is seeping into it, and that can damage you. A lot.”

    He pulls me along to a river bank, gets his own E.M.H. specialized first aid kit out of his backpack, gets out a bandage and dunks it into the water, then lays it on my skin. I got to admit, it did feel better. A lot, better.

    I wanted to say thanks. Not just for helping my cut, but for a lot of things. Everything. Saving my life--two times now, not including the first time I ever met him when he pulled me up from that hole the Snipe made--, being my best friend, making me feel safe and protected…

    But instead, different words of a totally different emotion fly from my mouth. “What the hell is wrong with you!?!”

    Jake stops and looks up to meet my gaze. “Excuse me?”

    “You…” My voice trails off, and I shake my head as he removes the wet cloth and wraps my arm in a bandage. “You always just barge into my life and take control of things!”

    He looks up again as he wraps the end of the bandage around and protests, “I’m just trying to protect you, Demi.”

    “Well stop!” My voice starts to rise, and I close my eyes, taking deep breaths in through my nose, trying to calm down. “Please, stop. I’m not a little kid anymore, Jake. I can look after myself.”

    I open my eyes to see his are cast over to the side, watching the stream flow by in gentle, silent strokes. He keeps his firm grip on my arm for a second and then lets go and murmurs, “I’m sorry.” He silently picks up his stuff and starts walking away, then disappears into the trees.

    I sit there for a while, my back pressed against an ice cold rock, watching the stream. It was so beautiful, so graceful, yet if you fell in it, it could kill you. Such things weren’t a shock these days.

    Closing my eyes, I soak in the sun and sounds of the forest. The rustle of leaves beginning to fall, the chirping of birds singing wondrous songs, the smell of fresh grass, fragrant flowers and mud, the soft thumps as animals scurry across the dirt floor…

    My eyes slowly close as the rock I’m leaning against collides with warmth from the sunshine, and feel myself start drifting away and then…

    I jump, startled, as something cold pierces my skin. I stand up and look all around, but don’t find anything.

    Another pierce. My skin covers in goose bumps and I start to back away from the scenery, which now looks too perfect.

    Yet another pierce. Each bone in my body pops and cracks as I turn and start to run into the forest. More pierces, occurring faster now, jabbing my side and legs and neck. Black splotches appear before my eyes and my brain starts to go fuzzy, but I keep running.

    Seeing a figure ahead of me, I run faster, but my feet fall asleep and I find myself moving slower. Then my legs, then my waist, and I shout to the figure, “JAKE!!!!!!!”

    Jake wheels around to look at me, and answers my call with the shout of my name, but I have already passed out before he could even take a step towards me.