The root of all of mankind's troubles, I'm convinced of it, lies in the fact that people are stupid enough to let themselves fall in love.

I mean that. It's nothing but trouble. Love is a fool's gamble—and the house always wins. People die, people kill in the name of that little four-letter word. People do unthinkably stupid things for it. People lie, people cheat, people hurt each other and give others the capacity to hurt them when they let their guard down to that oh-so-lauded biochemical reaction. I've seen guys who had everything--money, power, respect, you name it--throw it all away for love.

If you ask me, that's messed up on a pretty grand fucking scale. I'm convinced it must be caused by a mutant gene or something that years of stupidity and careless breeding has propagated until, like a grand-scale birth defect, it's infected our entire population.

And, in the interest of self-preservation, it's let us go on believing it's a good thing. So not only are we infected on a massive scale, we're not even trying to do anything to cure ourselves of it.

I'd always figured I was one of the lucky ones. Born immune. A rarity among my fellows, able to see through the facade and understand love for what it really was: a sickness. I thanked God I was free of it, of the need for it that dragged so many people down into an emotional tar pit. If I needed to get my rocks off, there were always one-night stands. Anything else was just asking for trouble.

* * *

The sound of the rain woke me, pounding on the tin roof above my head in unrelenting sheets. I opened my eyes, blinking a little, trying to orient myself to my surroundings. I was lying on my back on what appeared to be a table--it wasn't particularly soft, at least, nor terribly comfortable, though apparently that hadn't kept me from sleeping on it. My once-white jacket had been pulled off, folded under my head in a makeshift pillow of sorts, and a ratty old blanket had been pulled up on top of me.

Compared to how I'd gotten used to catching a few hours of sleep, it was practically five-star luxury.

After a few seconds, I heard another sound, close and familiar: a loud, deep snoring. Coach. I blinked faster, trying to get my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but with little luck. I thought I could make out a shadow huddled on the floor by the barred door, and if I focused, I could hear slow, steady breathing coming from that direction, too. Rochelle. Asleep, too, from the sounds of things.

Which only left...

I turned my head again, and there he was. Sitting in a folding metal chair next to the table that had become my bed, his head (for once missing its ever-present ball cap) resting on his arms, one hand curled over mine. From the looks of things, he'd fallen asleep mid-vigil.

Which meant we were in a safehouse, if we were all sleeping. And for the moment, it looked like we were all still alive and in one piece.

Immediate worries assuaged, I closed my eyes, trying to think, and slowly, things began to come back to me.

It happened fast, I remembered that. It was raining, and the safehouse was just ahead. I remembered the pounding of my heart in my ears, the way my lungs were working overtime to keep me going. I'm not much of a sprinter, and I'd been doing more of it lately than I ever really cared to do in my life. I may not be overweight, but I'm not the most athletic guy you'll ever meet, either.

I remembered hearing a chillingly familiar sound--that awful little maniacal giggle. I remembered turning around in time to see its owner loping straight toward Ellis, running a few hundred yards behind me.

I remembered seeing it jump.

After that things got a little fuzzy. My brain had slowed down, doing some set of calculations involving the rain, the slope of the ground, the direction of Ellis' stagger as the thing clawed at his head, and the proximity of another, even more chilling sound: a lost, broken sobbing.

A sobbing that was beginning to turn into an angry, hyperventilating growl, as Ellis was dragged closer to its huddled source.

Coach had been closer, and had reacted faster than me; a few shots of his pistol sent the jockey down to the ground. But Ellis had fallen, too, knocked to his feet, dazed and stunned by the damned thing that had been riding him. Fallen, and wasn't moving nearly fast enough. The growl was getting louder, as the witch grew angrier at the intrusion upon her grief, and I knew in seconds she would attack, in all her clawed fury.

I also knew Ellis, injured and still stunned from the jockey's ride, wouldn't survive such a direct assault.

I'm not entirely sure how I came to the conclusion I did. What I am sure of is that right then, I did something unthinkably stupid.

I shot the witch.

Closing my eyes, I released a huff of air that was almost, but not quite, a laugh. Christ. Oh Jesus merciful fucking Christ, I was an idiot. I shot a witch. On purpose. What the hell was wrong with me?

"What could possibly be funny?"

I blinked, turning my head, trying to see from the somewhat awkward angle. My eyes had finally adjusted some, and I could see Rochelle's eyes glittering in the darkness, watching me. Not asleep after all, apparently. Either that, or she was an even lighter sleeper than I was.

"Not a damned thing," I said, surprised at just how gruff my voice sounded--how weak. Had it been that bad...? "What happened?"

"You don't remember?"

"Not a lot after I shot the bitch, no," I admitted, shuddering--I did remember the scream, and the sight of that gaunt face twisted in horrible fury as she'd raced toward me, claws outstretched. I had a feeling I'd be remembering that for the rest of my life, however long that turned out to be.

"No, I guess you wouldn't," she said dryly. "She knocked you out pretty fast. We thought she'd killed you. She nearly did."

"Better luck next time, huh?" I cringed, shifting my weight a little, trying to find a more comfortable position on the tabletop. Beside me, Ellis groaned a little, stirring at the movement; without thinking, I reached up, laying a hand on his curls and stroking until he stilled again, drifting back to sleep.

When I looked up again, Rochelle was watching me, an unreadable expression on her face. I felt myself flush, growing oddly defensive, though she hadn't said a word. "So what happened?" I repeated, more to break the awkward silence than anything else.

She shrugged. "We killed her," she said. "Ellis and I patched you up as best as we could, and coach carried you here. That's about all." She eyed me shrewdly for a few minutes, then said, "You saved his life, you know."

I shifted again, my fingers curling automatically in Ellis' hair in a gesture that felt vaguely possessive. "He was in a tough spot," I said, not sure what about that statement made me feel I had to I felt I had to defend myself. "It's happened to all of us."

"It was still a pretty big chance to take."

"He was in bad shape," I argued. "If I hadn't, she'd've killed him."

"You weren't doing so hot yourself," she reminded me. "That spitter took a lot out of you."

I scowled. "Look, it was a bad situation all around, but we got out of it okay, didn't we?"

She didn't respond, instead letting her eyes drift to Ellis, and my hand, which was now thoroughly tangled in his hair. I almost removed it, but a surge of defiance made me leave it there, and I watched her watch us, challenging. Say what you're thinking or leave me alone, Ro.

But when she looked up at me again, she was smiling wearily. "He was really worried about you," she said softly. "He hasn't left your side since it happened. I didn't think he was gonna let go of you long enough to let Coach carry you in here."

I blinked, startled by the revelation, and looked down at the young man sleeping next to me. "Oh yeah?" I said weakly, not entirely sure how else to respond.

"Nick..." she hesitated, and when I looked at her again, I could see the worry in her eyes. "I know we tease him," she said after a second. "But Ellis...he's..." she trailed off, biting her lip.

But she didn't have to finish. I knew exactly what she was saying. "He is," I agreed softly, stroking his hair again. "Don't worry, Ro. I'm not gonna hurt him."

She relaxed then, smiling at me, apparently satisfied with my answer. "Good," she said, turning away and closing her eyes, and I felt absurdly like I'd just passed some kind of test.

A few seconds later, her breathing evened out again as she slipped back into sleep. Deciding she had a good idea, I settled back again, beginning to let myself drift. But I left my hand in Ellis' hair, wanting it to be there when he woke up--wanting him to know I was all right. Wanting to tell him everything was going to be okay, even when I knew it might not be. Wanting to tell him not to worry about me--that the very best thing he could do for me was keep himself safe. Wanting to promise him that I would do anything to make sure of it, even if it meant taking on a whole horde of witches.

And then things fell into place, and I finally understood. I bit my lip against a groan, rolling my eyes at myself wearily.

I was right, I reflected. Love does make you do stupid shit. Only it turned out I wasn't as immune to it as I'd assumed.

And the hell of it was, I couldn't even bring myself to be upset about it. In fact, I was feeling downright giddy.

Grinning like an idiot, I closed my eyes, and let myself slip back into sleep.

* * *