The thing about Lila was trouble seemed to follow her everywhere. Magic or not, there was always another curveball to watch out for, always another pothole in the road. And then sometimes there were detours and roadblocks and twists and turns that hadn’t been written on the map. Whatever it was, Lila had to deal with it on her own. Except for today.

Lila clutched at her chest as she staggered down the alleyway, gasping for breath. Her shuffled footsteps left long trails of sticky red on the gravel road, though she couldn’t see how bad it truly was until beams of moonlight hit her. Ignoring it was the best option right now. She could focus on the pain once she got to her destination.

The door came into view first, the dark night and fog obscuring the rest of the house so it looked like it was floating there. It didn’t help that her own vision was blurred, whether from burning tears or exhaustion or both, she wasn’t sure. Stumbling forward, she managed to bang her fist against the metal three times before her hand slid down and smeared it with blood.

Several seconds seemed to turn into several hours as Lila panted, clutching the doorframe for support with one hand while the other stayed pressed up against the gash in her chest. She was shaking all over, her head was pounding, and everything about her was heavy. But she forced her legs to keep supporting her, at least for just a bit longer, just until someone—

The door opened. Lila let out a little whimper of relief as the familiar face she’d been hoping to find appeared in front of her. Knees buckling, she would’ve hit the ground if he hadn’t caught her first. Strong arms steadied her, half carrying her inside. The whole room spun in the semi-darkness, the lights clearly flipped on in a hurry as if he’d been sleeping and only got up to answer the door.

“J-Jordan—” she choked out, blood dribbling from the corner of her mouth down her chin. “I’m s-sorry, I didn’t know wh-where else to g-go.” She coughed and sputtered, and her voice died.

“Shh, don’t talk.” He hadn’t changed in the slightest since she’d last seen him, sandy brown hair spiked up in all different directions, bright green eyes wide with concern, voice low and gruff, but kind. Jordan held her close to his chest as he carried her through the house and into the kitchen, where he sat down in one of the chairs, wood cool against her hot skin. “There’s plenty of time for an explanation later. Let’s just focus on getting you cleaned up right now, okay?”

Biting her lip, she nodded, not saying another word. Two years of radio silence, admittedly her fault, and he was accepting her back into his home like no time had passed at all. Yup, Jordan hadn’t changed a bit. When her head started to feel like an expanding balloon about to burst, she leaned it against the back of the chair and sighed. It was still extremely uncomfortable, but at least this way some of the tension was eased.

Jordan got right to work with a wet washcloth and warm water, gently patting her down. The blue fabric turned a darkish red just from her face alone, but he was able to squeeze it out a few times over a bucket and start over until she was wet, but mostly blood free. He popped open the first aid kit and looked her over, cotton ball in one hand, bottle of alcohol in the other, frowning as if he wasn’t sure where to start.

“My leg hurts like hell, if you need a suggestion.” Jerking her torn leg toward him, voice strained as she spoke, her eyes closed for a few seconds before snapping open again.

Jordan winced more than she did every time he dabbed the disinfectant onto another deep cut, the alcohol bubbling in the wound and turning a nasty greenish color. Lila dug her fingernails into the armrests of the chair, gritting her teeth against the pain that was washing over her now that the adrenaline had gone.

“Buck up, Buttercup,” she tried to say as teasingly as possible, but it still sounded a little tight. “It’s just a scratch.”

“Yeah, a scratch about as deep as my finger. You don’t have to play it off like it’s nothing.”

She shrugged, but stopped once her arm gave a twinge of pain, cringing. “What can I say? I love to play the hero.”

Jordan scoffed. “We live in a world without heroes. Only desperate men and women who dare to pick up a sword and try their best to defend what they love.”

“But isn’t that the most heroic thing of all?”

He gave her a steady look, green eyes meeting her blue ones. That feeling of him playing big brother, trying to see right through the mask she wore, made her skin tingle, and she quirked an eyebrow at him until he looked away.

“So if you’re feeling okay enough to act like yourself, care to explain what happened?” Jordan held out his hand without looking at her, and she took it without a second thought. When he started in with the needle and thread, she squeezed just hard enough so she wouldn’t hurt him, clenching her jaw against the rest of the sharp sting.

“It’s a long story that has to do with why I left two years ago,” Lila said. Jordan had always worked quickly, something she never failed to appreciate, especially now when she dared to look down and saw that he’d finished on her legs and was making his way up her arms.

He bit his lip in concentration, stitching shut another nasty slice on her forearm. Lila held back a remark about her looking like Frankenstein when he was finished, because the only response she’d get out of him while he was so focused was a disapproving look. “Then make a long story short. I’ve got time.”

Sighing, Lila swung her feet back and forth a little bit, trying to figure out where to begin. The best thing to do was simplify, so she said, “The demons were after me, therefore they were after you, which meant I had to leave. Playing double agent only lasted for so long, they found out, and I managed to get away.”

Jordan blinked once, the only sign of his surprise or worry. He was always better at disguising his true feelings than she was, but when she’d known him for as long as she had, she could still tell. “So I’m assuming, since you’re here again, you—”

She nodded. “Killed them all. Every last one, except for the head honcho, of course. Unfortunately she wasn’t there—doesn’t like to get her hands dirty, you know—otherwise I would’ve gotten her, too. But don’t worry, they won’t be able to track me here. I managed to work my illusions to become untraceable, just long enough to get to you.”

“Well I’m glad you’re not dead,” he said with a slight smile, taping one of the more minor cuts on her forehead. “It’s good to hear your voice after two years.”

“Right back atcha, JJ. And thanks for stitching me up.” Lila made to stand, but stumbled as soon as she put her weight on her legs again, clutching onto the chair before she could fall over again. Jordan reached out and grabbed her arm, holding her tight and pulling her over so she could lean against him. She swung an arm around her shoulders, breathing more labored as spots appeared in front of her eyes.

“Sorry,” she said breathlessly, every word a struggle now that the injuries were hitting her full force. “Demon blades—really wore me—out.”

“I couldn’t tell,” he said dryly, grunting a little, not from her weight, but her almost boneless quality. She tried her best to limp alongside him, but her legs were like Jell-O. “You looked like someone had put you through a paper shredder when you came in.”

“There’s blood—on your door. Don’t want—neighbors—asking questions.” Lila’s eyes closed almost all the way, only a sliver of smudgy vision visible to her now.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll clean it up,” he reassured her in a gentle tone. “Let’s just get you to a bed.”

She blinked, and the next thing she knew she was being lowered onto what felt like a cloud. The best mattress she’d ever laid on enveloped her in warmth and comfort, the soft blankets tucking her in against poofy pillows. Even though she ached all over, she felt her lips twitch up just slightly.

“Thanks, Buttercup,” she mumbled without even knowing if he was still standing there.

“Get some rest, Li,” he whispered, then closed the door with a quiet click.

Next Chapter: Melody