Actions

Work Header

Don't Forget to Breathe

Work Text:

Theo can’t sleep. It’s another one of those nights where his chest is caught in a vice, slowly being crushed by the weight of all that he’s lost.

His knee hurts. It always hurts.

He can still hear the sound of it, above the cheering of the crowd and the commentators narration and the other players on the ice yelling.

The sound of him getting hit as he and a group of other players chased the puck, his skates going out from under him.

The sound of his kneecap shattering, a freak landing with the worst possible result.

The sound of his career ending.

Even at this time of night, his phone is still blowing up on his night stand. Colleagues and fans and hecklers and press and god knows who else. He can’t bring himself to unlock it and turn off the notifications. Hopefully the battery will run dry soon. Even when he’s tried not to, he’s still seen snippets of the questions he’s getting.

They all boil down to the same thing - ‘Will you play again?’

No, is the answer. No he won’t.

He was prepared for the worst right from the very beginning, the gut feeling never leaving him in the weeks after it happened. He still cried when his physio gave him the news though. He knows it in himself that he’ll never play again, may never even skate again. Not when his body is constantly protesting when he’s sitting still, protesting even more when he stands, when he moves. There’s still a ridiculous, futile shard of hope lodged inside him that his physio is wrong, that all it’s going to take is time and effort and he’ll soon be back playing for the Cyclones again. However that shard is slowly cracking and splintering away to nothing.

Hockey was everything to him. Hockey was all he had left.

He knows his phone would quieten down if he just took up one of the many interview requests he’s had, or made a public statement, or even allowed the NHL themselves to give the statement for him. At this point it would be more of a formality than anything, confirming what everyone already knows. He hasn’t touched his social media accounts since before the accident, has taken every effort not to be spotted out in public.

He wants to do it himself when he’s ready. He just doesn’t know if he ever will be.

The buzzing of his phone is driving him to distraction. He finally picks it up and unlocks it, ready to silence the notifications, but one catches his eye for a tabloid article he’s been linked to and his stomach drops. It’s old, months old, probably full of all the nonsense they’ve been spouting for months since he still won’t actually speak to them directly. He shouldn’t open it, knows it’s only going to upset him more. Still, he hasn’t been all that great at emotional self-care recently.

Theo Raeken: The End of an Era?

Over the course of the NHL’s history numerous stars have been born, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux among the greats. Both of their careers were cut tragically short due to injury, the loss of them on the ice still an acute pain felt by many even today.

Of late, Theo Raeken’s name has been everywhere, often being likened to the greats of days gone by. Drafted at eighteen straight out of Beacon Hills, California, he wasted no time in showing everyone why he deserved to be on the ice. Over the past six years he has only improved, consistently gaining more points season after season and establishing a name for himself as one of the best players of this generation.

However just like Orr and Lemieux, Raeken’s career may have reached a premature end. During last month’s game against the Riverside Ravens, Raeken had to be taken off the ice after sustaining a knee injury (See video below). The Cyclones star has gone dark on social media since then, and as of yet no official statement on his wellbeing has been publi-

He doesn’t need to read any more. Besides, something else has caught his attention. The top of the video window is on the screen now. All he needs to do is scroll down a little bit. He hasn’t watched it back yet, doesn’t want to watch it, has no desire to see it happen from a different angle when he was right there, can still remember the screams that the impact ripped from his throat. But it’s right there.

Theo presses play.

He sees himself chasing the puck, sees himself hit the ice. He almost wishes he had been shoved or tripped by someone. At least then he would have somebody to blame for all of this. But no, nobody was targeting him, they all just had their eyes on the puck instead of each other. It was an accident, plain and simple. The only person he has to blame is himself. Theo’s knee twinges even more painfully at the memory and he can’t look anymore, he can’t do this. He throws his phone, hears the screen shatter as it hits the wall and goes dark, the room fading to black.

He can’t be here anymore. He needs to get away.

***

Dawn is just starting to break when Theo arrives in Beacon Hills. It’s the first time he’s been back to his hometown since he was drafted. Unsurprisingly it started to feel a lot less homely after his parents died. Hockey was his escape in the darkest time of his life, the one thing which was always there, reliable, constant. Now he doesn’t even have that.

He’s in absolute agony after driving for so long without a break. He’s not supposed to be driving at all at the moment, but his leg’s fucked anyway so what more harm could it possibly do?

He parks around the back of the apartment building Derek owns and goes inside, thankful that nobody seems to be out and about yet. He glances between the elevator and the stairs, then does it again. He goes for the stairs but only makes it up three of them before gingerly coming back down and getting into the lift. There’s stupidity, there’s the level beyond stupidity which Theo’s currently on, and then there’s self abuse. The latter of which would be forcing himself to walk all the way up to Derek’s penthouse apartment.

Theo’s got a key, has had one for years; best friends and all that. He panics briefly for the few seconds it takes between opening the door and entering the security alarm code. Thankfully Derek hasn’t changed it and he gets inside no problem. Things could have become very, very awkward if the alarm started blaring.

His head has barely hit the pillow in Derek’s bedroom before he’s asleep.

***

Theo is woken up by the inferno raging inside his leg.

The sun is high in the sky, shining in through the bedroom window. It’s a testament to how exhausted he was that he slept for as long as he did without being woken up by his leg. The pain is crippling, paralysing, as bad as it was when he first damaged it. He opens and closes his mouth a few times in a silent scream, trying to force himself to breathe. He’s genuinely not sure if he can move.

He was smart enough to bring his crutches when he ran away and helped himself to Derek’s loft. Because that’s what he did, he ran away. He can’t delude himself into thinking he just wanted a change of scenery. However, he was stupid enough to leave them in his car this morning.

Thankfully he was smart enough to bring his pain medication with him. He’s got different strengths he can take depending on how bad the pain is on any given day. He really tries not to use the highest dose if he can help it, but today is definitely a Bad Day. What’s worse is that it’s all because of his own colossal stupidity.

Theo pops a pill out of the blister pack and swallows it dry, lying paralysed in Derek’s bed while he waits for it to take effect.

It’s not until he can’t find his phone that Theo remembers he smashed it the previous night.

That was another stupid move, yet another thing to be added to his list of recent fuck ups. He can maybe do that later though, on account of being slightly delirious from his medication. Taking it on an empty stomach isn’t recommended but he didn’t exactly have much of a choice. He wanted to order a pizza, so not having a phone is kind of annoying.

Meal plans are meaningless when he doesn’t have a reason to stick to them anymore. He could eat pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner if he wanted to. He could have it as a snack too. Hell, he could have whatever he wants. It’s not like he’s got to stay in shape for hockey anymore. Fuck.

When he finally thinks he might be able to move, Theo carefully swings his legs over the edge of the bed and tries to stand up. Even with the medication he’s still a little shaky, supporting himself with the furniture just in case his bad leg gives out or something stupid like that. Just the thought of anyone seeing him like this is embarrassing. He used to be a professional athlete, for fucks sake. Then again, that’s the entire point, isn’t it?

Used to be.

The apartment is empty of everything except some canned food, which Theo kind of expected. Thankfully Derek has a landline so Theo’s able to order pizza after all. Double thankfully the delivery guy doesn’t seem to recognise him; it’s probably the state of his hair, both head and facial.

Theo might have let personal grooming go a little by the wayside. He’s always been able to handle his hair getting a little long on the top, enough of it to slick back beneath his helmet. Just like he’s been able to cope with his signature stubble getting a little long on roadtrips, always managing to artfully straddle the line between scruff and a budding beard.

Now though, his hair is a mess. The top is too long, longer than he’s ever had it, the strands falling into his eyes when he tilts his head down. And his beard - because that’s what it is now, a beard - well… it’s a mess, plain and simple. The hairs are again too long, curling in different directions with no semblance of style. He even spotted a few greys in it the last time he dared to look in a mirror. Greys. In his twenties.

Now, it’s one of the few things he can still do which hasn’t been impeded by the accident. He just can’t really bring himself to care about it right now, is the thing.

***

There’s an urgent knock on the door late the next day and Theo is hesitant to answer it. He considers just ignoring it but then they knock again, firm and insistent. The thing is, Derek’s apartment is supposed to be empty right now.

He pulls himself off the couch where he’s been watching trash TV, his crutches clacking against the wooden floorboards as he hobbles to the door.

As soon as he unlocks it, the door flies open and a fist collides with Theo’s cheek. He reels back, caught totally off guard. But before he’s able to fall a strong pair of arms wraps around him and he’s pulled into a tight hug.

“Don’t scare me like that again, you fucking bastard,” Derek growls, face pressed into Theo’s hair. Of course, of course it’s Derek.

“Was the punch really necessary?” he sighs, rubbing his cheek once he’s able to get a hand out of Derek’s grip.

“Yes.” Derek holds him tighter, and if he keeps going at this rate Theo’s going to have trouble breathing. “We’ve all been out of our fucking minds, Theo. You just left in the middle of the night without saying goodbye to anyone, no note, no explanation, nothing. You’ve not answered any calls or texts. You just vanished. The couple downstairs called me to say they could hear someone in here. You’re so fucking lucky I checked the camera feed before calling the cops.”

Subconsciously Theo knew that coming here would let Derek find him, but that explains how he did it so soon.

“I had to reassure the guys you were still alive, Theo. Some of them thought you might have hurt yourself and I just…” Derek’s voice cracks and he takes a shuddering breath, Theo feeling every vibration. “I don’t know what I would do if I lost you, too.”

Derek pulls away although he’s still holding Theo, his eyes bright with unshed tears. Theo’s hit full force with the guilt, the stupidity, of what he’s done.

“I’m sorry. I just couldn’t deal with it, I had to get away,” he admits.

“It’s fine that you’re struggling, just tell someone next time, yeah?” Derek stares at him intently, clearly expecting an answer, so Theo nods his agreement.

“Yeah. Listen, can we sit down? My leg…”

“Of course, of course.” Derek helps him over to the couch and he sighs when he sinks down into it, the strain somewhat alleviated. Derek waits until he’s settled before sitting down next to him.

Now that he’s got company Theo takes in the mess around him. The empty pizza box discarded on the floor, the beer bottles on the coffee table, the trashy show still playing on the screen that he normally wouldn’t be caught dead watching.

Shame and jealousy flare up in him, entirely unwelcome.

Derek came all the way here and he looks fine. He probably took the stairs the whole way up instead of the elevator, he didn’t have any trouble walking from the door to the couch. He just… did it.

Theo tries to wrangle his emotions into check, knows it’s not Derek’s fault that his body works properly and Theo’s doesn’t anymore. Besides, he knows from experience that being mad at his best friend is never fun.

“So do you need me to tell you that you look like shit, or do you already know?” Derek says matter of fact, no hesitancy in his voice.

“I already know,” Theo replies, clipped.

“Good. You might want to do something about that then.”

“Go out there and get hounded?” Theo scoffs. “No thanks.”

“So you’re just going to hide in here forever? That’s healthy.”

“Do you think I want to-” Theo cuts himself off. He can feel himself getting worked up and if he doesn’t reign himself in then he’s going to explode at Derek. He takes some calming breaths while Derek watches him silently. “Can we not do this right now? Please?”

“Can you help me to the bathroom?” Theo asks, his face heating up in embarrassment. It’s not like he’s asking Derek to help him aim into the toilet or anything. He’s got his head on a little straighter today though and his limitations are making themselves known, and walking is definitely not something he should be doing much of, especially unassisted.

“Of course,” Derek says, helping Theo to his feet. He does his business and finds Derek waiting outside the door for him, face screwed up in uncertainty.

“What is it?” Theo asks.

“I’m just gonna say it. Do you want help showering?”

“Oh.” Theo was kind of vaguely aware he hadn’t washed since the whole midnight flit debacle but hadn’t put much thought into it. He can smell himself now that Derek has mentioned it and it’s not pleasant. “Fine.” He looks back into the bathroom, at the shower which can easily fit both of them in it. He just has one question. “How are we going to…”

“You could sit down?” Derek says. He grabs one of the stools from the breakfast bar and puts it in the shower. It fits, kind of. Derek frowns and says, “It’ll do. Now come on, strip.”

“If you wanted into my pants you could’ve just said, Der,” Theo jokes. Maybe if he makes Derek laugh then he won’t notice the way Theo’s struggling to get his sweatpants off.

“We tried that once, remember?” Derek drawls. “I still stand by our ‘one and done’ deal. Now come on, let me help you?” Derek asks, because of course he noticed. He switches the shower on to let the water heat up while Theo shimmies his underwear and sweatpants down, knowing better than to force his assistance upon Theo. He realises he has no chance of getting these off gracefully while he’s still standing up, unable to bend down to where they’re pooled around his ankles, so he nods and lets Derek take over. Neither of them say anything when Derek glances at the ugly red scar covering the length of his knee. Derek strips down to his underwear himself then effortlessly lifts him up onto the stool, the hot water pounding against his back and already easing some of the tension between his shoulder blades. Not enough of it though, not nearly enough. Theo tries to zone out while Derek washes him but instead he feels every touch, senses every movement Derek makes. He’s never been so embarrassed in his life. He is - was - a professional athlete, and now he needs somebody to wash him. Thankfully Derek doesn’t drag out the ordeal for too long, drying and dressing him and having him settled back down on the couch in no time.

That night they share Derek’s bed, and when Theo wakes up in the morning Derek is gone. He sighs, the pain not giving him any opportunity to doze. It could be marginally better, or maybe Theo just hasn’t been awake long enough for the pain to sicken him yet.

Being alone also gives him the chance to feel guilty about how he treated Derek the day before. Whenever Derek had tried to talk to him about his pain, his emotional wellbeing, the fact he literally ran away, Theo either blanked him or shut him down. They don’t do that with each other, they don’t shut each other out when things become too much. And yet.

The apartment door opens, presumably Derek, and although he’s trying to be quiet Theo still hears it. He hears something getting placed on the kitchen counter and assumes Derek must have been out buying something. He forces himself out of bed and finds Derek emptying grocery bags, stocking the shelves with enough food to feed a small army.

“Derek.”

“I assumed you’ll be staying here for a while,” he says, continuing to put stuff away.

“Have you eaten yet?”

“Nope.”

“I’ll start breakfast,” Theo sighs.

It’s later that afternoon when the false domesticity comes to an end.

“Listen, I really can’t stay much longer,” Derek says, pausing the movie they’re watching. Theo hasn’t been paying much attention to it anyway. “We’re playing the Ravens tomorrow, I need to get back.”

Theo kind of wants to beg Derek to stay forever, to just not go back and hide out with him here. The thing is, Derek might actually do it if he asked. Call in sick with a ‘family emergency’ and stick around a bit longer. He can’t do that though, as much as he might want to keep Derek close. He’s already lost his own career, he can’t be the downfall of somebody else’s.

Normally Theo would ask about the guys and a tiny, minuscule part of him still wants to. Derek hasn’t told him how the team or the guys are doing and he hasn’t asked. Theo’s made it perfectly clear that he can’t handle anything or anyone to do with hockey right now, Derek being the exception.

Derek’s always been the exception, ever since their parents both died in the fire at the community centre when they were both teenagers. They were pulled even closer into each other’s orbits through tragedy and helped each other deal with it as best they could. They’ve been inseparable ever since.

“Do you have time for another beer?” Theo asks instead, forcing himself to keep his voice neutral and very much void of any panic or desperation that thinking about hockey causes him nowadays.

“I would,” Derek says, levelling him with a stare. “If you hadn’t drank most of them before I got here.” Theo grimaces even though he knows Derek doesn’t really mind. “I’ll go out and get some more. Will you still be here when I get back?” he asks pointedly.

“Yes, Derek,” Theo says.

“Theodore.”

“Derekdore.”

“That has literally never been funny,” Derek says. He stands up and pats his pocket to make sure his wallet is there. “Back soon.”

Derek isn’t back soon. Or at least, he’s taking much longer than he should just to buy some beer. Then again, local celebrity and all that; he’s probably been stopped for photos and autographs and general catching up with all the people they used to know. Normally at this point Theo would be sending a text, if he actually still had a phone. Instead he tries to focus on whatever nonsense is playing on the television, distracting himself with it until Derek finally reappears.

“Beer,” he says instead of explaining why he’s so late, uncapping two of them and handing one to Theo. They clink their bottles and Theo eyes Derek dubiously. He’s got that look on his face that says he’s trying to work out how to tell Theo something. Derek takes a drink of his beer and Theo takes one too, not taking his gaze from the side of Derek’s head. Derek side-eyes him and finally lowers the bottle from his lips. “Here,” he says, pulling a phone from his pocket and handing it over. “It has all the numbers you need in it.”

“Derek,” Theo sighs. “How much?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“And what numbers do I need, exactly?”

“You’ll see,” Derek says, dismissing Theo in the way that always makes his hackles rise. “I also booked you in for a physio appointment at the Geyer Sports Clinic, since I’m assuming you still haven’t told your own physio you left the area.”

“Derek, I-”

“It’s in two days time, ten o’clock. It was the earliest I could get, Dr. Geyer doesn’t have any spaces at all tomorrow. He’s only fitted you into this one as a favour to me.”

“Derek, seriously, I-”

“He’s a great guy, you’ll like him. Now, you’re going to go to this appointment and you’re going to be there on time.”

“I don’t need you to micromanage my life!” Theo snaps.

“Well somebody needs to,” Derek glares back. “Fuck knows you’re not doing it yourself.”

Theo’s about to say something he’ll regret and he absolutely cannot do that to Derek. Instead he closes his eyes and breathes deeply through his nose, willing his anger to dissipate. He knows Derek has his best interests at heart.

“You will go to this appointment,” Derek says firmly, the same threatening undertone that tells Theo he’ll fly all the way back to Beacon Hills and drag Theo to the appointment himself, if he has to.

“Okay,” Theo agrees, because there are some things he knows better than to argue with Derek over.

“And you’re going to tell me how it went afterwards.”

“Okay,” Theo repeats.

“Theodore.”

“Derekdore.”

“Still not funny.”

Unfortunately Derek really can’t stay for much longer. He has to leave that evening to make sure he’s back in plenty of time for the Cyclones next game. Theo tries not to be too bitter that Derek is leaving him for the ice. At least he doesn’t need to worry about the score or the leaderboard now. There are still four beers on the table; looks like his evening plans are sorted.

***

Theo’s knee is still incredibly unhappy after the events a few days previous. It’s a struggle to physically get out of bed again, his leg throbbing as he fits the brace to his knee and forces himself to his feet. He categorically will not take another one of those pills this soon. They’re supposed to be taken as and when required, but Theo absolutely refuses to acquire any kind of dependency on them. No, today he can grin and bear it.

He’s getting cabin fever again already through, needing to get out even though out equals people. He knows it’s not healthy, what he’s doing. He knows. Withdrawing from people, actively avoiding them, he had gotten past that. After his parents died he was like that, but Derek and hockey helped him become more sociable again. Now though, it feels like he’s right back at square one. He doesn’t want to have to avoid people, they all just make it so difficult for him to interact with them. They still all only want to know one thing, and the people of Beacon Hills will undoubtedly be worse. He and Derek put Beacon Hills on the map, after all. That’s not intended as arrogance in any way, it’s just a simple fact. Beacon Hills wasn’t known for anything before he and Derek got drafted.

He eventually wills himself to leave Derek’s apartment, continuing his sensible streak by taking the elevator down instead of the stairs.

The streets aren’t too busy, but busy enough that Theo’s wary of being out in public for too long. All it takes is one picture or one tweet for everyone to know where he is suddenly, and reporters will undoubtedly be flocking to him before he knows it.

Seeing Beacon Hills again in proper daylight, it brings back his longing for what the town used to mean to him.

Suddenly Theo really, really misses his parents.

Theo drives to the graveyard, cautious for himself yet also making sure he’s not a hazard for anyone else on the road. He parks and carefully lowers himself out of his truck, grabbing his crutches while he’s at it; that’s a mistake he really needs to try and avoid in the future.

Theo walks through the rows of gravestones, the dates becoming more and more recent with every passing row until he finally reaches his destination.

The Raekens and the Hales, side by side.

There are already fresh flowers at both graves, which is very lucky considering Theo didn’t bring any himself. Either Derek put them down at some point during his brief visit, or someone else did. Either way, he’s grateful.

Theo’s knee throbs and he slowly, slowly lowers himself to the ground, ending up in a sitting position. It’s marginally less painful than standing, but not by much.

Theo traces their names on the gravestone with his index finger and the ache in his knee fades away into the background, inconsequential compared to the grief of their loss.It’s always been too big for words, a gnawing ache in his chest where they used to be.

Whoever said it gets better is a liar. He’s simply gotten better at masking the emotions.

It seems just like yesterday when he received that phone call, the one that ripped his teenage life apart. His parents had barely ever been ill when they were alive, the thought of one of them actually dying when he was that age never even crossed his mind. The prospect of losing both of them was unfathomable. And yet.

He had been lost, very lost, for the rest of high school. He threw himself into hockey, becoming almost obsessive in his aim to be on the ice as much as possible. He would push his body to the brink, skating faster and faster in circuits in the hope of outrunning the pain of his loss. Maybe if he went fast enough then his heart would be like the ice after the rink is closed for the night, smoothed out and polished by the zamboni. Unfortunately it never really worked. They may be smoothed over, but the cracks are still there underneath.

When he wasn’t throwing himself into hockey he was throwing himself into fights. He runs a finger down the bridge of his nose, still slightly crooked from the time another kid broke it. He had relished it, the pain. It had given him something else to think about for a little while other than his parents being dead. After all, real pain is emotional pain.

Hockey had been a blessing, really. Something that he could actually focus on, something which he actually became good enough at to go pro, to become one of the biggest names in the sport. It helped him along the road to making his own way in the world, the way his parents should have had many more years to guide him along.

But now the road has crumbled at his feet, opening up into an endless abyss. His parents are gone and hockey is gone and Theo is just falling through the darkness.

Theo blinks and comes back to the present. His face feels damp and when he scrubs at it, he finds that he’s been crying. He wipes away the rest of the tears and tries to centre himself with his breathing.

He’s a little calmer now, ready to go back to Derek’s apartment. Only Theo quickly finds a rather significant issue with that.

He can’t get up.

His bad leg has locked up, a fiery blaze of pain shooting through it when he tries to move. He can’t bend his knee at all to try and get back up, and he can’t shift onto his front either to get up that way.

He’s stuck.

Well, there is one option. Call it stupidity, but Theo’s entirely unwilling to use his parents’ fucking grave as a support to get back to his feet.

He’s genuinely starting to consider phoning the emergency services for help when he spots someone a few rows over. He tries moving again but it just gives the same result, a now-familiar burst of pain in his leg.

“Hey!” Theo calls.

The guy startles and looks around, trying to find whoever called out to him.

“Over here!” Theo calls again, holding one of his crutches up in the air.

“Oh shit,” he hears the guy say to himself, and then he’s jogging over to Theo. “Are you okay?”

“I’m…” Theo’s cheeks are burning with embarrassment. He was a professional athlete and now here he is, stuck on his ass. “I can’t get up,” he admits, his eyes burning with the threat of tears. Even through his embarrassment, he knows he recognises the guy but he can’t remember his name.

“You’re okay, Theo. I’m gonna help you up.”

The guy moves behind him and wraps his arms around Theo’s front, pulling him up. Theo gets his good leg on the ground, aware he’s putting too much weight on it. The guy still has an arm around Theo’s waist as he bends down to pick up his crutches.

“You called me Theo,” he says instead of thanks.

“Uh, yeah? Because you are Theo?” The guy says, brow furrowed. “Liam Dunbar, we went to school together.”

“I knew that.” Theo did not know that.

“Sure,” Liam laughs. “Listen, how did you get here? Did you walk? Drive?”

“I drove,” Theo says, adjusting his crutches and getting away from Liam’s hold. “See you later.”

“Woah woah woah,” Liam says, getting in front of Theo and blocking his path. “Not to be a dick but you were literally stuck on the ground. There’s no way I’m letting you drive anywhere.”

“You don’t need to let me do anything.” Theo’s face still feels hot and he grits his teeth, glaring at Liam. ”Get out of my way.”

“Only if you let me drive you home,” Liam counters.

Theo continues glaring at Liam, who steadfastly doesn’t move out of his way. Liam raises an eyebrow at him and the corners of his mouth turn up into an amused smile. They both know Liam’s going to win this.

“Jesus, fine. Here.” He throws his keys at Liam none too gently, storming off - to the best of his ability - to his truck.

Liam opens the passenger side door for him and Theo kinda hates him for being so damn courteous and polite.

Theo gives him directions and Liam pulls up outside Derek’s apartment building.

“What apartment are you in?” Liam asks.

“The penthouse.”

Liam blinks at him. “Please tell me there’s an elevator.”

“Yeah,” Theo laughs. “There is.”

Theo digs in his pockets to find the apartment key, glancing up at the camera before unlocking the door.

Liam whistles appraisingly. “Fancy.”

“It’s not mine,” Theo says.

“Derek Hale’s, right?”

“Yeah, it’s Derek’s.” Theo makes a beeline for the couch and sits down, sighing in relief. “Thanks, by the way. I don’t think I’ve actually said that yet.”

“No, you haven’t,” Liam smirks. “And you’re welcome.”

“Do you want a drink or anything? There should be beer in the fridge.”

“Sure. You want one?”

Theo nods. “Thanks.”

Liam’s back in no time, sitting next to Theo on the couch and handing him a beer. They clink bottles and both take a sip. Theo keeps his in his hand while Liam sets his down on a coaster on the coffee table.

“So what do you do nowadays anyway?” Theo asks. The question kind of surprises himself. A little while ago he hadn’t wanted anything to do with Liam, now suddenly he’s attempting to make casual conversation with the guy.

“I’m a personal trainer at the Geyer Sports Clinic. My dad owns the place.”

“Oh, cool. I’ve got an appointment there for,” Theo waves a hand at his leg. “Y’know.” He takes another sip of his beer. “Derek says the place is great.”

“It is,” Liam nods. “I’m not just saying that because my dad’s the owner and because I work there, the staff are all great. Whoever you’re booked in to see will do everything they can to help you.”

Theo believes him. He doesn’t doubt Derek, and even if it is his family’s business, Liam seems refreshingly honest. Even now that they’re talking about it, he’s kept his gaze anywhere but on Theo’s leg, and if he wants to ask about it then he’s doing a damn good job of hiding it.

Theo’s phone pings with a text, still so new that he hasn’t set it to silent mode yet. It’s probably rude to check it mid conversation but there are so few people who it could actually be.

Derek: I spy with my little eye…

Theo with a cute guy ;)

Theo: *middle finger emoji*

That damn camera feed at the front door. Theo’s got a good mind to cover it up, stop Derek spying on him. He did kind of break into the apartment in the first place, and he’s sort of been squatting here ever since, but that’s besides the point.

“I’m cute, huh?” Liam smirks, peering over Theo’s shoulder at his phone.

“His words, not mine,” Theo says. “Although,” he shrugs, looking Liam up and down in a very, very obvious way. Liam laughs and he considers it a victory.

It’s a bit awkward at first, Theo’s social skills having well and truly turned to mush, but Liam helps to carry the conversation, filling him in on what’s been happening in Beacon Hills over the past few years. Theo starts on a second beer while Liam continues to nurse his first, totally drawn in by the story of how and why Liam’s dad decided to open up the clinic. Suddenly he’s hit with the thought that he wishes he had taken notice of Liam when they were still in high school. He knows why he didn’t, of course. Back then, anyone who wasn’t Derek didn’t matter, simple as that. He didn’t want anyone else in his life.

“...So we went out for dinner to Coyote’s the day I got my accreditation. It was great, just a really good day all round. Then we come home and there’s a message on the house phone and--” Liam hesitates, his face darkening.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Theo says when it looks like Liam isn’t going to continue.

“What?” Liam blinks.

“You were at the cemetery. People don’t usually go there unless someone they know has died.”

“I didn’t really… He wasn’t…”

“Hey, you don’t need to tell me anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Liam looks at him appraisingly for a few seconds. “Thanks.”

The atmosphere is decidedly awkward now so Theo puts on a movie. It was good enough when Theo was ignoring Derek and for whatever reason Liam isn’t actually leaving, so he figures it will be good enough to let Liam gather himself again. He picks something mindless with lots of action, something you don’t actually need to pay attention to in order to follow the plot. Liam shuffles a little bit closer and even though he hasn’t said as much, Theo can tell that he’s grateful.

“It was my biological dad,” Liam says out of the blue. “Who died.”

Theo pauses the movie mid-explosion, giving Liam his full attention.

“I didn’t talk to him for years. After Coyote’s, after getting my accreditation, it was him who had left a message on the phone, saying he wanted to see me. I know you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead but he…” Liam sighs, a weariness behind it that shouldn’t be coming from a man of Liam’s years. “He was really shitty to mom and I when I was little.”

Theo rests a hand on Liam’s shoulder. “What I said before still stands. You don’t need to tell me, I won’t push you.”

“No, it’s fine. I want to tell you,” Liam says, taking another moment before continuing. “He was an alcoholic. He got worse and worse and mom eventually had to kick him out. Like I said, I hadn’t spoken to him for years. Then he just suddenly contacts me out of nowhere, saying he wants to see me. It turns out he was sick and he knew it, and he just wanted to fucking… absolve himself of his guilt before he died, or what the fuck ever. His alcoholism had caused so much internal damage that he was told another drink would kill him.” Liam’s voice shakes and he takes a few breaths in and out, trying to subtly scrub his eyes with the back of his hand. “He drank.”

Theo wraps an arm around Liam’s shoulders and Liam comes willingly, letting Theo pull him into a hug.

“I hate him for making me care about him again,” Liam whispers into his neck.

Theo holds him tighter and Liam fumbles for the remote, resuming the movie but staying close to Theo. It becomes a little awkward as they barely know each other, but Liam seems happy to be held and Theo is happy to keep holding him.

Liam finally sits up when the movie finishes, embarrassment tinting his cheeks red. “Sorry for kind of breaking down on you, I don’t even know where that came from. I literally was not planning to talk about him.”

“Don’t worry about it, really. Venting to a stranger can be easier than to someone you know.”

“Thanks,” Liam nods. “I should probably be getting home, but can I give you my number? Just in case you need anything, or want to chat, or something. Maybe we could become, uh, not strangers?”

Theo hands over his phone and Liam types his number in. “Not strangers sounds good,” he smiles.

***

Predictably, Theo is sore when he gets back from his appointment at the Geyer Sports Clinic.

His appointment was with Dr. Geyer himself, a kind African-American man who kept his questioning merely to what he needed to know, rather than delving into the gossip side of things. Theo can see why Derek likes him.

They had gone over the usuals; his pain levels, effectiveness of medication, testing his range of movement. Theo had also given Dr. Geyer all the relevant permissions so he and Theo’s former physio could share information. Just like his old physio, Dr. Geyer had suggested swimming, helpfully mentioning that the Clinic has a pool. And, just like with his previous physio, Theo declined. It was bad enough letting Derek see his scar, let alone a pool full of total strangers. No, swimming is decidedly not for him anymore.

On his way out Theo spotted Liam through the window of the gym. He looked like he was with a client but still waved back at Theo, a smile lighting up his face. They spent the previous evening texting about nothing in particular and he’s a little wary of the swoop his stomach did when he saw Liam again, but he won’t fight it. Even if nothing else comes out of it, more than anything Theo needs a local friend, someone close by to talk to in person rather than purely phone or by text. He absolutely isn’t grudging Derek his job, his career, his lifestyle; after all, it’s the exact same one Theo had until recently. He just wishes Derek wasn’t always so far away.

***

The weeks pass by like that, Liam coming round when he’s finished work and hanging out with Theo. More often than not he’s accompanied by dishes of food, his mom Jenna always seeming to cook to excess and loading the extras off on him. Theo definitely isn’t complaining, the food is delicious. He needs to thank her profusely if he ever meets her.

Theo has been giving Liam any excuse he can think of to get him to come over, and more often than not, it’s been working. Liam has had family dinners among other obligations that he hasn’t been able to get out of, but other than that he’s been over most nights of the week.

He’s definitely caught Liam checking him out more than once, and honestly, Theo doesn’t mind. Saying Liam is easy on the eyes is an understatement, he’s gorgeous. Also, Theo’s leg doesn’t seem to be scaring him off for some reason. Theo doesn’t want to push his luck too much by making the first move, he wants Liam to prove that his feelings are reciprocated, that’s he’s actually serious about making something more out of this friendship. Hopefully he won’t have to wait too long.

***

Thankfully it’s a mere few days later that Theo seems to get his chance.

“I could get us reservations at Coyote’s if you wanted,” Liam says nonchalantly during a pause in the video game they’re playing. “We could get dinner.”

Theo’s chest does that uncomfortable thing that leaves him feeling slightly nauseous again. “Um, I don’t know if we should, I mean…”

Liam’s looking at him and Theo feels more ridiculous with every word that comes out of his mouth. He doesn’t even know what he’s saying really, he just knows that he doesn’t want to go out in public. Going out just means people pestering him, taking pictures and posting them on social media, the press getting wind of where he is and following him around, harassing him for information he doesn’t want to provide.

He didn’t mind it before. It was just a normal part of his life, fans talking to him and having his photo taken. Of course there were days when he didn’t want to do it but he knew how lucky he was to even be in that position, to have people who looked up to him and spent money to see him and the other guys play.

The thing is, every day is like that now. He doesn’t want strangers to talk to him. He doesn’t want people to photograph him. He doesn’t want people gossiping about him. He just wants to be left alone. Sadly he doesn’t have that luxury.

“We don’t have to,” Liam says, except he’s not looking at Theo anymore and he sounds upset and fuck, Theo’s fucked up.

“No, we can go out,” Theo quickly interjects. “It’ll be nice. I haven’t been there for years.”

Just like that Liam’s face lights up again, causing him to look uncannily similar to an excited puppy. It’s ridiculously endearing and in that moment Theo kind of thinks Liam could ask him to do anything and he would do it.

That night Theo’s pulling on some nice clothes, partially to prove to Liam that he owns something other than sweatpants, and partially to help himself feel a little bit more human again. His work wardrobe practically only consisted of sportswear and suits, and he’s just made the unfortunate discovery that no longer working out the way he used to has caused his proportions to change, his specially tailored outfits no longer fitting him properly. The realisation has put him in a bad mood before he’s even left the house. Sweatpants are easy to pull on due to being so loose, but actual trousers and jeans are more difficult to get on due to his leg. Hyperaware of the time, of the fact that he’s almost definitely going to be late, Theo keeps on the pair of jeans he’s currently wearing that don’t fit quite right, adding a belt so they at least stay around his waist. He adds a comfortable sweater and he’s ready to go. At least he finally sorted out his absolute mess of a beard and his hair before coming out.

When he finally gets there Liam is hanging around outside the restaurant, looking every part the guy who’s been stood up on a date.

“I’m so sorry,” Theo says, hobbling over to him. “I really didn’t mean to be as late as this. I didn’t mean to be late at all, I swear.”

“Okay,” Liam says, voice flat as he holds the door open for Theo. “After you.”

“Thanks.” Well this is officially off to a horrible start. Surely it can only get better.

“Reservation for Dunbar? We’re a bit late, sorry,” Liam says to the waitress. She leads them through the busy restaurant and Theo tries to look as inconspicuous as possible when passing by the other customers, praying that nobody will recognise him and pester him. They get shown to a table at the back of the restaurant, somewhat shrouded from the other tables.

“Yes?” Liam says when Theo raises an eyebrow at him. “I thought you might want some privacy.”

“That’s really considerate of you. Thanks,” Theo says, full of sincerity. Liam smiles, seeming to be warming up to Theo again after the frosty reception he gave him outside. It’s not long before they’ve looked through the menu and placed their orders. “So how’s the rest of your day been?”

“Not bad,” Liam shrugs. “Spent some time with my mom because she’s complaining that she ‘barely sees me’ anymore. I video chatted with a friend for a bit too. How about you?”

“Eh, just the usual,” which is code for nothing of interest. It’s pretty obvious that he doesn’t really do much with his time, but actually admitting it is a little embarrassing. “I fixed, y’know… this,” he says, motioning to his face.

“Yeah, it’s nice to see there’s a handsome guy under there after all,” Liam smirks.

Theo shakes his head and smiles into his drink, glancing around the restaurant.

And that’s when he notices the phone being pointed at him.

They were so commonplace in his life before the accident that he had more or less learned how to block them out, to just get on with things without fixating on them being everywhere. Now though, when he’s had a break to that exposure, he feels like a rookie again and overly aware of every movement he’s making, of the fact it’s being documented. He knows the pictures or video are going to end up on social media somewhere, the restaurant will probably get tagged, there will probably be some crazies trying to identify Liam if he’s in the shot too.

“What’s wrong?” Liam asks, following his line of sight. “Oh,” he says, voice clipped. He stands up and before Theo can stop him, Liam’s approaching the other table.

Even over the hustle of the restaurant, Theo can hear Liam’s less than civil, “Would you quit pointing your camera at us? It’s creepy as hell.”

Theo should really go over there and try to de-escalate the situation before it gets any worse. He doesn’t want Liam to get in trouble because of him, and the rational part of him doesn’t really want the guy filming him to get in trouble either. Normally he wouldn’t have had any problem with it - or not much of one, anyway - but he just doesn’t like cameras anymore.

Theo’s halfway to his feet, pulling himself out of the booth when Liam storms back over and sits down.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Theo says. “Thank you.” He puts as much sincerity as he can mange behind it, wanting to show Liam he truly appreciates the way he’s looking out for him.

“No worries,” he scowls, shoulders rigid and any sense of casualness gone. “It’s pretty fucking weird that people just film you. He’s still watching us.”

“You get used to it,” Theo shrugs.

“You shouldn’t have to,” Liam says, looking at the other guy as he speaks rather than Theo, even though he’s out of earshot and won’t hear him. “Celebrity culture in and of itself is just ridiculously creepy. Being in the public eye shouldn’t mean you revoke your right to privacy.”

“Do you want to go somewhere else?” Theo asks, hoping Liam won’t assume he wants to end the date completely. “We can leave if you’re not comfortable with the attention.”

“It’s not that it bothers me,” Liam sighs, glancing around again. “It’s that I can see it’s bothering you. This is supposed to be a nice dinner but I feel like it’s getting ruined.” Liam averts his gaze, choosing to stare at the table instead. “The food hasn’t even arrived yet,” he laughs bitterly.

Another guy approaches their table, phone also at the ready.

“Theo Raeken?” the guy asks. He doesn’t look like a reporter but he’s still probably a fan, so Theo throws on his PR smile anyway.

“That’s me, how can I help?”

“I knew it was you. Can I get a picture? My friends will be so jealous.”

Theo bristles at the comment but he tries not to let it show. He used to hear stuff like that all the time, people not actually being interested in him as a person, he just needs to try and build up his tolerance again.

“Sure, no problem,” he says. The guy leans in and snaps a few photos.

“Thanks dude, you’re cool,” the guy says, grinning as he walks away.

“Sorry about that,” Theo says. He reaches for his glass to take a drink when he notices Liam is giving him a weird look. “What’s wrong?”

“What was that?” Liam asks.

“What was what?”

“That thing you did with your lips. Because it wasn’t a smile.” The corners of Liam’s lips turn upwards, teasing. “It was like you were an alien and someone described smiling to you and you tried to imitate it. Badly.”

“Alright, I get it,” Theo snaps. “I’m a bit rusty on the whole publicity thing, big deal.”

Liam shoots him a troubled look then drops his gaze, his cheer visibly deflating. Theo is really making a mess of this. He shouldn’t have snapped at Liam, especially not when they’re out on a date. Their first date, no less. He’s still not entirely sure what Liam sees in him, especially not when Theo’s acting like this, but he wants the night to be good. Liam deserves it for putting up with his moodiness.

The weird tension between them is thankfully broken by their food arriving.

“How’s the fish?” Theo asks. It’s big, easily covering one side of Liam’s plate.

“Good,” Liam nods. “You wanna try a bit?”

“Sure,” he says, reaching over with his fork to get a piece Liam has already cut up. Liam blocks him with his own fork though, a metallic zing ringing out at the contact. Theo’s about to ask what he’s doing when Liam gets some fish on his fork and reaches across the table. Theo quickly gets the idea, smiling and opening his mouth as Liam feeds him. He closes his mouth around the fork, still smiling at Liam before finally releasing it. “Yeah, it’s good,” he agrees after swallowing. “You want to try mine?”

“I wouldn’t mind. I’m a fan of meat, after all.” Liam looks at Theo from under his lashes, his lips parted just slightly in anticipation and honestly, Liam knows exactly what he’s doing.

“We’re in public,” Theo reminds him and just like that, the moment breaks. Liam glances around the restaurant, obviously remembering people could be watching or a camera could be pointed at them. Theo sighs internally, cutting a bit of his steak and feeding it to Liam. He still smiles a bit around Theo’s fork but it’s a lot weaker, none of the flirty atmosphere from a moment ago remaining.

“Nice,” Liam nods, quickly going back to his own fish. Theo sighs out loud this time and Liam gives him a look before pointedly staring back down at his own plate.

This really isn’t going the way Theo wanted it to.

“I’ll get this,” Theo says when the bill gets brought to them. They made it through the rest of the meal without Theo snapping at Liam again, and thankfully nobody else approached them for pictures, although a crowd of girls had been giggling and watching them from a few tables away.

“No?” Liam scoffs. “At the very least we’re going halves.”

“We’re really not,” Theo says, pulling the bill back towards him. The waitress looks between them awkwardly, holding the card machine for them to pay. “It’s my fault tonight sucked, the least I can do is pay for your meal.”

“You think tonight sucked?”

Just like that, Theo’s put his foot in it again. “You were fine. You were great. It was all the…” Theo waves his hand.

“Was there something wrong with the food?” the waitress pipes up.

“No, no, the food was lovely. Thank you,” he smiles. “Stop it,” Theo tells Liam when he sees him reaching into his pocket for his credit card, not quite holding back the bite in his voice. “I told you, I’m paying.” He smiles at the waitress again, who looks decidedly just as awkward as Theo feels. “Here,” he says, handing her his card. He puts his pin into the machine, selecting the option to add a tip.

“Thank you sirs, enjoy the rest of your night,” she says, leaving them to it.

“Thanks,” Liam says grudgingly, discreetly helping Theo to his feet even though he could get up fine himself. Even now, after Theo literally said their date sucked, Liam is still trying to protect him from the people around them, trying to shield how poor Theo’s mobility is from them.

“You are not the problem,” Theo reiterates when they get outside.

“You didn’t even want to come out tonight,” Liam reminds him. “I could tell you didn’t want to but I pushed you into it anyway.”

“No, no, that is absolutely not what happened. You asked me out and I said yes, because I wanted to go out with you, because I like you. You didn’t force me into anything.”

“I still feel bad,” Liam sighs. “Can we have a do-over? Try this first date thing again? Maybe somewhere with less people.”

Theo genuinely can’t believe his luck. After that absolute train wreck of a date, Liam wants to go on another one with him?

“I’d love to,” he smiles, warmth filling his chest. This is the feeling he’s been craving all night, the one that only Liam seems capable of giving him.

“There it is,” Liam says, brushing a thumb against his cheek. “Your real smile, not that awkward PR thing from earlier. This one is way better.”

“Stop it,” Theo laughs. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“Dude, it really was.”

Liam’s smirking at him, showing his teeth, and that’s when the realisation hits Theo.

"You know what?" Theo says, determination making his eyes flash. "No. I don't want a do-over date."

Liam is startled, his eyes searching Theo's face, the beginning of heartbreak making them dim. Theo steps closer, cupping his face, uncaring for once of who might see. "I’m not ending tonight on a bad note like this. It's still early enough to salvage this date, don't you think? We could get ice cream."

Liam lights up again, just like he did when Theo initially agreed to go on the date. “How many scoops can I get?”

Theo laughs and takes his hand. “You can get as many as you want.”

Liam beams at him. “As long as I get to pay this time.”

“Ugh, fine,” Theo sighs dramatically. “You’re so stubborn.”

“Oh yeah, sure, I’m the stubborn one,” Liam scoffs.

They continue bantering until they get to the local ice cream parlour, which would normally have been a pretty quick walk if not for Theo’s leg.

“What flavours are you getting?” Theo asks, considering chocolate for himself.

“Hmm, I don’t know. I kind of want strawberry but I also kind of want mint.”

“Mint and strawberry together?” Theo screws his face up. “No thanks.”

“Yeah, sounds pretty gross. The mint would totally ruin the strawberry. How about cookies and cream?”

“You do you, dude.” Theo turns to the cashier who is clearly used to this level of indecision and says, “One scoop of chocolate, please.”

“You’re rushing me,” Liam whines.

“Oh my god, you’re literally a child,” Theo laughs, taking his ice cream cone.

Liam finally decides on strawberry and mint - despite it sounding weird - and pays for them both as promised. “Where will we go now?” he asks as they leave the parlour, taking a lick from his top scoop.

“I haven’t been to the park for a while. We could go there, sit down for a bit or something.”

“Cool cool. How’s your leg? Do you want to go back and get your truck or anything?”

“I’m good, thanks,” Theo says. It really hasn’t been too bad tonight as far as pain levels go, it’s been much worse. Obviously that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with but at least he didn’t need to cut the date short or anything.

What still surprises Theo is just how considerate Liam is. He’s been taking measures all night to try and ensure Theo’s comfort, and that isn’t even taking into account everything he’s done for Theo since they met. Liam is increasingly looking like the piece of good luck Theo deserves after his accident.

They take their time walking to the park, taking the occasional lick of ice cream as they chat along the way. They can’t hold hands now which is a bit of a nuisance, since Theo has his ice cream in one hand and his cane in the other. Liam sticks close to him anyway, not once pacing off ahead even though Theo has no doubt the slow pace is annoying him. It annoys Theo, anyway.

They sit on the first bench they find, the cooling even air leaving Theo’s bum cold when he sits down.

“This actually kind of works, you know,” Liam says, taking a lick from both his strawberry and mints scoops to prove a point.

“If you say so,” he replies, still sceptical. He glances down to his own cone, his single scoop quickly depleting. “Do you want any of mine before I finish it?” Theo asks, holding his cone out when Liam confirms.

Liam takes a lick, looking into Theo’s eyes as he does so before pulling back. “Chocolatey.”

“Oh, you’ve got…” Theo leans over and brushes his thumb against the side of Liam’s mouth to wipe away a smudge of chocolate ice cream. Liam is still looking at him and it’s more than just the setting sun which is making his eyes look dark. He’s gorgeous and Theo knows what he wants, exactly the thing to help salvage this date. He hasn’t done it yet and neither has Liam, but this is definitely as good a time as any for their first. “Can I kiss you?”

“I was starting to think you were never gonna ask. Yeah, yeah you can,” Liam smiles, closing his eyes in anticipation.

Theo closes the distance between them, cupping his cheek properly where his thumb was still lingering as he kisses Liam. There’s a brief shock of cold from the ice cream but it quickly dissipates as they move their lips against each other. It’s only when he feels a trickle moving down the side of his hand that Theo remembers about his ice cream cone and reluctantly breaks the kiss.

“Ice cream,” he mutters before pulling away. Liam’s eyes widen and he looks first at his cone, then to the ground where what was left of his ice cream is currently lying.

“Well fuck,” he laughs. “Note to self, finish ice cream before kissing.”

“Noted,” Theo says, finishing what’s left of his chocolate scoop and throwing his cone in the bin. Liam passes his over and Theo bins it too. “I’ll buy you a new one next time.”

“There’s gonna be a next time, huh?” Liam smirks. “You think we did a good enough job of salvaging this one?”

“I would say so, yeah,” Theo smirks back. “Now where were we?”

The evening chill eventually sets in and the pain in Theo’s leg spikes, bringing their date to a close. They walk back to Theo’s truck hand in hand, and Theo drives Liam home.

“Good night, Liam,” he says once they’ve stopped outside Liam’s house, leaning in to give him another kiss.

“Night, Theo. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, sounds good.”

Theo waits until Liam gets inside his house before driving away, and he smiles all the way home.

***

Theo wants to get out of Derek’s apartment. No, he needs to get out of it. He can’t stay there forever. Besides, all it would take is for the elevator to break down and Theo would be monumentally fucked. No, he needs his own space again.

After a good half hour of holding his phone, hovering over the contact to make a call without actually doing it, he finally phones his agent, Lydia. She picks up in half a ring, excusing herself from whatever meeting she was in before thoroughly chewing Theo out for disappearing on her. It was the least he deserves, honestly.

After telling her about his plans, Lydia is more than happy to get his house up on the market, dealing with the sale entirely by herself. All Theo has to do is collect what he wants to keep from the house and Lydia will do the rest, getting his furniture shipped over or disposed of as required.

Liam kind of looks like he’s going to pass out when Theo tells him, until he clarifies that he wants to stick around in Beacon Hills. In typical Liam fashion, he actually offers to help Theo look for a place and before he knows it, he’s signing his name against a three bedroom house. It’s detached with a manageable garden, far enough from the city centre to be quiet yet still close enough that it’s an easy drive - or walk, if he’s feeling up to it - to get there. The house really isn’t anything fancy, especially for someone with the budget that Theo has. He’s not looking for fancy though; he’s no longer interested in the mansions, in the status symbols, in the vulgar displays of affluence. No, he’s interested in a home, and that’s what he hopes he’s found.

It also turns out estate agents become much more interested in you when they realise you’re a cash buyer. Theo had to try and stop himself from physically balking at her charm offensive.

Liam goes totally above and beyond what Theo expected, actually going on a little road trip to Theo’s house on his next day off, helping him box things up and load them into his truck. The drive had been great, chatting away with the windows rolled down, singing along to the radio in between Theo needing to get out and stretch his legs for a bit.

The first thing he does before moving in is get the downstairs bathroom ripped out, converting it into a disabled shower room; he’s not going through that debacle with the stool again. He also gets railings installed at the front and back door, little things that will make his life easier. One of the bedrooms is downstairs and while it’s good to have it there if Theo needs it, he absolutely refuses to compromise on sleeping upstairs as often as he’s physically able to.

***

Theo hears Liam before he sees him, the other man yawning as he pads down the stairs. He’s still adorably rumpled from sleep, a crease on his face from the bedsheets.

“Morning,” Theo says once Liam’s at the bottom of the stairs. It’s still early, not that it really makes a difference. Theo’s always up first, his leg tending to disrupt his sleep. Sleep tends not to come back very easily once he’s awake, so getting up and actually doing something is usually preferable to just laying in the darkness.

“Morning,” Liam replies, joining Theo on the couch and kissing him. Theo smiles into the kiss, expecting him to pull away but he doesn’t. Instead he keeps it going, pulling Theo against him so that Theo’s head is tilted down against Liam’s.

“What’s brought this on, huh?” Theo asks when they part.

“Just like kissing you,” Liam says, reconnecting their lips. Theo can’t really argue with that. “Especially in your fancy new house.”

“It’s not that fancy,” Theo laughs. He’s officially been in the house for three weeks and so far it seems to be everything he was looking for. Liam has stayed over almost every night so far and honestly, it feels like he’s supposed to be there.

They continue making out and it’s great. Theo wants more though. Despite how often he’s stayed over, both at Derek’s loft and here in the new house, kissing is all that they’ve done. Liam’s doing all the right things and saying all the right things but he hasn’t actually pushed for anything further yet, and Theo’s getting a little hung up on it.

He enjoys making out with Liam, but as Theo breathes through his nose the discomfort in his gut grows and grows until he finally breaks the kiss.

Liam opens his eyes and frowns immediately at Theo, obviously seeing the conflict on his face. “Is something wrong?”

“Do you want me?” Theo asks.

“What?” Liam blinks, surprised. “Theo, of course I want you.”

“Then why haven’t you tried to take things further yet?” Theo tries not to sound petulant but he’s not entirely sure he succeeds.

Liam sits up properly so that he’s eye level with Theo. “Because I was going at your pace, I didn’t want to rush you for anything you weren’t ready for.”

“Seriously?” Theo stares at him. “I haven’t pushed because I’ve been going at your pace!”

“Oh my god,” Liam laughs. “So all this time we could’ve-”

“Apparently,” Theo pouts. Liam really likes him just as much as Theo likes him after all. Theo had just been to preoccupied with his own issues to let himself believe it.

“Aww, don’t sulk,” Liam says, still laughing at him. “How about I… make it up to you?”

Liam’s voice has dropped, a tone Theo hasn’t heard before, laced with desire and intent and shooting straight towards his crotch. He trails his fingers against Theo’s shirt slowly, so slowly, dragging them upwards until only his fingertips are touching Theo’s chest.

“Liam, please,” Theo whines, not caring how needy he sounds. It’s been a long time since anyone’s touched him. There’s nothing stopping them now though. They’re both on the same page, they want each other.

“What do you want?” Liam asks, eyes dark as he pulls Theo’s shirt over his head.

Theo wants more, more. “Anything,” he says.

“Anything?” Liam bites his lip, teasing, looking up at Theo from beneath his lashes. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

“Yes, anything, just touch me.”

A devious smirk dances across Liam’s lips and then he’s on his feet and undressing Theo. He pulls off Theo’s sweatpants, his underwear coming along with them.

“Up,” Liam says, tapping Theo’s thighs as he gets on his knees.

Theo lifts his legs to the best of his ability, swallowing in anticipation. He assumes Liam’s going to suck him off, and it’s been so long since he’s had anything other than his own hand near his dick that he’s not sure how long he’ll actually last. Liam doesn’t do that though. Theo ends up gasping in surprise when Liam licks a stripe up his hole instead.

“Oh fuck,” Theo breathes, using his shoulder blades to shimmy himself further down the couch and into a better position.

Liam grips his hips, pulling him even closer as he buries his face against Theo’s ass. He licks up and down, alternating between pushing his tongue against Theo’s rim and sucking on it. Theo tries gripping onto the couch but that doesn’t work, so instead he grabs a handful of Liam’s hair and tries to keep his bad leg elevated with his other hand. It’s becoming a little difficult to keep it up but he refuses, absolutely refuses, to let it ruin this for him.

“Good?” Liam asks, not noticing the struggle Theo’s having as he goes back in.

“Yeah,” Theo grimaces, not sounding as convincing as he was trying to. It feels good, it does. It feels great. His leg just absolutely is not cooperating; it’s started to shake against his will. While normally this would be a good thing, the tremors are bringing pain along with them which are starting to overpower the pleasure.

And then his leg seizes up.

“Stop, stop,” Theo grits out, his jaw clenched tight, eyebrows furrowed in pain.

“What’s wrong?” Liam asks, up on his feet in an instant.

“My stupid fucking leg,” Theo grunts, half annoyed, half embarrassed. Liam helps him up, first into a proper sitting position, then up onto his feet. Theo breathes deeply through his nose, a hand on Liam’s shoulder for support while Liam hooks an arm around his waist. With Liam’s help he does a short circuit around the room, trying to alleviate the cramp in his leg.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Liam shrugs once they’ve done a circuit back around to the couch. “We can just find another position, one that’s easier for you.”

There Liam goes again, making everything sound so simple, just working around Theo’s injury instead of being crippled by it like Theo is himself sometimes. Theo was fully expecting that they were just going to stop now, but Liam’s proved him wrong yet again.

“Yeah?” he asks, still unsure.

“Of course,” Liam smiles, leaning in to press a kiss against his nose. “Now where were we…”

Theo yelps as Liam squares his hands underneath Theo and lifts him up.

“God, I love that you’re strong enough to do that,” he says after the initial surprise has passed, wrapping his legs around Liam’s waist to the best of his abilities. It really ends up being one leg wrapped around him and one leg kind of jutting out to the side. He ducks his head, attaching his lips to Liam’s neck as Liam carries him upstairs to the bedroom.

“Liam! Liam!” Theo yelps again when Liam pretends to drop him on the floor. “You’re an asshole.”

Liam just laughs, beaming down at him. He lowers Theo onto the bed on his back, hands roving up and down Theo’s body and riling him up again.

“So,” Liam says, eyeing Theo’s erection appreciatively. “Do you want to continue where we left off? Or do you want to try something different?”

“Continue, definitely,” Theo says, hooking his thumbs into the waistband of Liam’s sweatpants. “You should take these off though.”

“Alright,” Liam laughs, stripping off. “Try rolling into your stomach? If lying on your back doesn’t work.”

“I want to see you though,” Theo pouts.

“You’re not gonna be seeing much of me anyway when I’m down there,” Liam smirks. “Now come on, over.”

Theo gives a put upon sigh and rolls himself onto his stomach, lifting his bad leg to allow Liam to put a pillow underneath it. He shivers as Liam spreads his cheeks and teasingly blows against his hole. Then his tongue delves back in and it’s like they never took the break at all, he’s riled up all the way again. Liam knows just what he’s doing, licking and sucking and occasionally pushing his tongue against Theo’s hole, pushing past the rim and causing him to groan in pleasure.

“So good,” Theo praises, reaching back to try and grip a hand in Liam’s hair and pull him closer against his hole. Theo slowly ruts back and forth on the bed, getting some much needed friction against his cock. Between that and Liam’s ministrations on his hole, Theo is quickly approaching the edge.

“Li,” Theo says, giving his hair a light tug to get his attention. “I’m really close.”

Liam just smirks up at him, giving him one last lick before crawling up the bed to join Theo. “I take it you don’t want to cum on the sheets.”

“I’d rather not, to be honest. Changing them is always a pain.” He leans in, giving Liam a quick kiss then rolls over again onto his back. “Wanna give me a hand?” he asks, glancing down at his leaking cock and back up to Liam.

“It would be my pleasure,” Liam says, taking Theo in his hand and jacking him off hard and fast, teasing officially over. Theo cums hard, so much better when it’s done by someone else, and breathes heavily as he tries to bring himself back to the present.

“C’mere,” Theo grumbles, searching out Liam’s lips. Liam’s on him in an instant, kissing him while Theo gets a hand back in Liam’s hair. His leg still hurts, it always hurts. It’s not cramping up though, which is the main thing.

They stay like that for a while, lazily making out with their bodies pressed against each other. The cum is drying against his chest and while normally he doesn’t give it the chance to do that, right now he doesn’t want to do anything other than kiss Liam.

Theo puts more heat into the kiss, breathing heavily through his nose as Liam matches his pace, all too aware of the fact that Liam hasn’t cum yet.

“I think it’s your turn,” Theo says, his voice more of a deep rasp than actual words. “Tell me what you want, baby boy.”

“I just want to get off, to be honest,” Liam says, his grin slightly lopsided. “We can go slow later.”

“If that’s what you want.” Theo spits into his palm and takes Liam’s cock into his hand, circling the head a few times and eliciting a moan from Liam, his eyes fluttering shut as he lays back on the bed. He fondles Liam’s balls with his free hand, no doubt adding to the sensation while he jacks Liam off.

“A bit more spit?” Liam asks.

“No problem,” Theo nods, spitting into his hand again, increasing his pace on Liam’s cock and balls until Liam’s arching off the bed slightly into Theo’s grip. Liam’s beautiful, with his eyes closed and his cheeks flushed, chasing the pleasure that Theo’s giving him. Theo could honestly admire him all day.

Liam shudders and groans, and then he’s cumming too, spurting against his stomach. Theo milks the last few drops out of him then lets go of his cock.

“Was that okay?” Theo asks.

Liam smiles up at him, a pleased expression on his face. “It was great. Give me a kiss.”

Theo lays down again and connects their lips, Liam snuggling up against his chest while they kiss. He could get used to this.

***

They’re having a lazy day together; Liam doesn’t have work so they can spend the day however they like. It’s been a few months since their first date and they’ve gone on quite a few more since then. They’ve tried to stick to reasonably simple or private things to minimise the risk of getting interrupted but more often than not, Theo spends a portion of their dates talking to fans, taking photos and giving signatures and having short chats with them. After the first time he’s regained his PR skills, seeming to do and say all the right things until they get left alone again.

It’s occurred to Theo more than once that they haven’t actually made their relationship official. Neither of them have actually asked the other one to date them, they’ve just been spending all their free time together and Liam stays overnight almost as often as he stays at his own house. He’s content to let things keep going as they are though, and Liam seems equally happy.

They’re cuddling on the couch, watching a movie when Liam’s phone buzzes with a text.

“So mom wants you to come over for dinner.”

“She does?”

“Yep,” Liam nods.

Just like that, Theo’s anxiety setting switches from low to highhighhigh. Things have been going great between them. Theo’s been actively working on his temper, trying not to take things out on Liam when the pain is bad. In turn Liam has gotten a lot better at reading him, knowing when to make jokes and knowing when to just be there. He’s not tiptoeing around Theo in any sense, they’ve just gotten past their teething problems. Honestly it’s going better than Theo ever expected it to.

He had known this moment was bound to be coming, he had just hoped he could put it off for a little longer. Theo’s parents have almost been dead for ten years, he’s not sure he knows how to act around someone else’s.

“Are you sure?”

“About dinner, or about you?” Liam teases, trying to calm him down.

“Both?” Theo grimaces, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly.

“Come on, it’ll be fine.”

Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, just having dinner with a few people. He used to do it all the time; at formal events, with the team, just some small intimate parties for some friends.

This is different though.

For one thing, he’s been a bit of a social catastrophe over the past couple of months, to say the least. Then there’s the fact that Theo likes Liam. Likes him a lot, actually.

He really doesn’t want to mess this up.

“You okay?” Liam asks when they pull up outside his parents’ house.

“I’m fine.”

Theo is not fine. His knuckles are white from how hard he’s gripping the steering wheel. He and Liam had both hoped that letting him drive would calm him down a bit. It doesn’t appear to have worked.

“We can still cancel if you want,” Liam says, rubbing his arm. “Mom and dad’ll understand, it’s not a big deal. We can just do dinner some other time.”

“I’m not cancelling,” Theo says, voice firm. Jenna and Dr. Geyer have probably gone to a lot of effort tonight, he’s not causing them to waste that. “Can we just sit out here for a minute first though?”

“Of course, of course. We can take as long as you need.”

“You don’t want to go inside and see them?” Theo asks.

“Nope, I’m waiting with you.”

Theo smiles and leans over to kiss him. “Thank you.”

Theo breathes in and out, in and out, willing this unwanted nervousness to go away. He knows it won’t be that bad. He already knows Dr. Geyer and he has absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Jenna is great.

“I don’t want to fuck this up,” Theo admits.

“You won’t,” Liam says casually. “They’re just my parents. They’re like, the least scary people ever. Unless you get on the wrong side of mom, that is. But that’s really difficult to do though, I’ve only seen her mad like, twice in my entire life.

“Hi honey,” Jenna says to Liam when they finally go inside, giving him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“And you must be Theo,” she smiles, as if she didn’t know he was coming over tonight. She gives him the same quick hug and kiss on the cheek. “Call me Jenna, it’s lovely to finally meet you.”

“And you,” he smiles. “Thank you so much for all the food you’ve been giving me, it was all delicious. Liam’s told me so many good things about you.”

“Sounds ominous,” she says, giving Liam a sly smile. “Let’s hope I live up to my reputation. And the food was my pleasure, really. Come on, come through. I’ll start putting the food out. Liam, offer Theo something to drink.”

“Beer?” Liam asks. “There’s probably wine too, if you wanna be fancy.”

“Beer’s good, thanks.”

There are dishes galore set out in the middle of the table, full of hot, steaming food. Considering everything he’s already had from Jenna, he’s not at all surprised. It’s going to be a help yourself deal tonight, apparently.

Dr. Geyer stands up from where he’s sitting at the table and outstretches a hand for Theo to shake.

“Evening, Dr. Geyer,” Theo says.

“You’re in my home, it’s David now,” he smiles. “Good to see you, Theo.”

“Thanks David, you too.”

Jenna sets out the plates and Liam returns with drinks, handing Theo his beer and sitting down next to him. Then they eat.

It turns out Jenna is an incredible woman. Theo honestly shouldn’t be surprised, if the way Liam turned out is anything to go by. She almost embarrassed Liam half to death, regaling Theo with all of his less than flattering childhood stories, including one instance when Liam decided he didn’t want to have a bath so he ran out into the street naked.

Theo even tells them some of his own childhood stories, some things he had actually forgotten until another story reminded him of it. Speaking about his parents is nice, comforting almost. Maybe one day he’ll be able to talk about hockey and feel the same way.

“Where are you staying tonight?” Jenna asks Liam.

“I was gonna go back to Theo’s?” It comes out more like a question, that ingrained need to seek permission from one’s parents coming through despite Liam being an adult in his own right.

“That’s fine,” Jenna smiles, hugging him. Once she releases him she hugs Theo too, more careful than Liam yet still surprisingly firm. “It was lovely to meet you, Theo,” she says. Theo’s not even looking for any trace of negativity, he totally believes her.

“You too,” he smiles. “Dinner was lovely, thanks for having me over.”

“It was my pleasure, really. I hope I’ll see you again soon. And thanks for keeping this one out of trouble,” she says, flicking her eyes to Liam.

“Rude,” Liam mutters, but he’s smiling.

Theo catches Liam smirking at him while he’s brushing his teeth. He spits and rinses, wiping his mouth on a hand towel.

“Just say it.”

“If you insist.” Liam closes the distance between them, wrapping his arms around Theo’s waist. “I told you it’d be fine.”

“Yeah, you did. I had nothing to worry about. I still don’t really know how I ended up with all the leftovers though.”

We, technically, but yeah. Mom kinda does that,” Liam shrugs.

“Why don’t we go over there more often, anyway? The whole not having to make my own dinner thing was pretty awesome.”

Liam rolls his eyes, Theo just catching the movement at the edge of his vision. “Don’t even joke about it. That’s the type of thing she would probably do.”

“Awesome, let’s go back.”

“Why do I like you?” Liam mutters, detaching himself from Theo’s waist. “Right, come on. I need to be up early for work in the morning.”

“Gross.” That’s one aspect of Theo’s job he doesn’t miss. He doubts he’ll ever be the type of person that’s able to lay in bed until lunchtime without getting bored out of his mind, but it’s nice to be able to lay there and stay warm for a bit after waking up. On the days where his leg lets him, that is.

They both get undressed, Theo making sure to lay his clothes out nicely on a chair - his leg brace included - while Liam leaves his in a pile on the floor. Theo’s tried telling him they’re less likely to get crinkled if he stops doing that, but it’s no use. Because of that Liam’s in bed first, so he holds the sheet up for Theo to crawl in beside him.

“Thanks for meeting them,” Liam snuggles up against Theo, laying his head on Theo’s chest and wrapping an arm around him. “It really means a lot to me that you went through with it. You’re all important to me so I really wanted you all to get on with each other.”

“Yeah, I wanted it to go well too. Your parents are awesome, by the way.”

Theo reaches over to turn off the bedside lamp then burrows back down, resting his cheek against Liam’s hair.

***

Theo’s feeling restless. He’s been fine all day, now suddenly evening has arrived and it’s like he’s been hit with a second wind, like he actually has energy again for once. The thing is, his useless body just isn’t up to burning it off. If this was before - before the accident, before his life essentially ended as he knew it - Theo would go for a run, or a cycle, or do laps around a rink if he was close enough to one.

His body can’t do any of that now though, so instead he’s stuck feeling like his skin is too tight and trying very hard not to cry.

Swimming is supposed to be good for knee injuries, to help strengthen the muscle. His old physio suggested it, David suggested it, Liam suggested it. Hell, Theo himself knows it’s a good idea. But the thought of being around so many people, of having to strip down to just swimming trunks, of people seeing his scar, makes him want to throw up.

“I need to do something,” Theo grumbles. His body is coiled tight, ready for action, sparks spreading through his veins and jolting his limbs into movement whenever he stays too still.

“We could go on a drive?” Liam suggests.

“No, like, exercise.”

“How about a walk?”

Theo grimaces.

“A cycle?”

Theo scoffs and Liam rolls his eyes.

“Fine, we can go swimming. Take it or leave it.”

Theo glares at him, waiting him out to see if he’ll suggest something else, something more appealing. He doesn’t. Instead Liam holds his gaze, barely even blinking, making it very clear how serious he’s being.

“I don’t want people to stare at my scar,” Theo admits, and Liam’s face softens.

“It’s normally quiet at this time of night. What do you say?”

“... I have enough money to hire out the entire pool. How much is it?”

Liam bursts into laughter, a smile lighting up his face. “You’re actually ridiculous. You’re not hiring out the pool just so you can swim by yourself.”

“I’ll do it.”

“No Theo, you won’t.”

“I’m calling your dad.”

Liam lunges at him, grabbing his phone and holding it out of his reach. “No you’re really not, oh my god.”

“Liam give it back,” Theo pouts, making grabby hands at him.

“Nope, it’s mine now, you can’t be trusted with it. I’m not giving it back until the pool closes-” Liam’s eyes widen and Theo can physically see the lightbulb moment hitting him. “I have keys to the Clinic. We can go when it closes, it’ll only be an hour.”

Theo blinks. “You’re serious?”

“I mean it’s probably dumb, and I don’t know how happy my dad would be if he found out, but yeah, why the hell not? If that’s what it’s gonna take to get you into the water then we might as well try it.”

“So you’re kind of the best,” Theo grins, kissing him.

The wait is almost excruciating but they finally drive out to the Clinic, Liam unlocking the doors and disabling the alarm, then relocking the outside door again. He flicks the lights on for the pool and Theo gets changed, frowning down at the bright red scar which he normally keeps covered up. He’s more than ready for it to fade away to a fleshy pink or a lifeless white, and for it to take all his negative thoughts away with it.

Liam’s sitting by the side of the pool with his feet in the water when Theo finally comes out, tapping away on his work tablet; he decided that he can justify being here at this time of night if he’s doing actual work too. He smiles when he notices Theo, keeping his gaze firmly trained on his face - and maybe his torso too - but not on his scar. Liam’s seen it a couple of times now and he doesn’t mind so much, but he’s grateful all the same.

Theo looks over the side of the pool, anxiety making a reappearance in his stomach.

“I’m right here, you’ll be fine,” Liam reassures him. “Do you want a hand getting in?”

“No, it’s fine, I can do it.”

“Go on then,” Liam teases, and it’s enough for Theo to steel his nerves and lower himself down the steps into the water. It’s cold, chilling his body briefly while he adjusts to the temperature. He floats for a minute, unsure about actually trying to do any of the strokes he knows. They all involve kicking and using his legs, and it’s probably going to go horribly.

“I can’t do this,” he says.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you can totally do it. You’re already in the water, come on. Swim a length - hell, even swim a width - and if you want to stop after that, then fine.”

“Liam-” Theo warns.

“No, Theo.” He stands up and crosses his arms, looking down at Theo. “You need to try it. I’ll block the steps if you don’t, it’ll be like you’re in The Sims. Cause of death - too stupid to figure out how to get out of the pool.”

“You’re such an asshole,” Theo laughs, splashing water up at him. Liam yelps and ducks back, laughing too.

His anxiety tries to rush back into him, mimicking the rippling water to create a tumultuous swirl in his stomach, but he won’t let it. Liam’s right, he’s already come this far, he can’t quit now.

Theo breathes and kicks off from the side of the pool.

He’s swimming.

Being on the ice always grounded him, allowed him to forget everything else and just focus on his blades cutting a path in whichever direction he wanted to go. Swimming, though, is the opposite. He feels weightless, allows the water to sluice past him as he kicks his way to the other end of the pool. And that’s when it hits him.

He’s actively using his leg and there’s no extra pain.

The realisation is so overwhelming that he could cry. He finishes his length of the pool, so zoned out that he didn’t even realise Liam was following along with him until he jumps into the pool and wraps his arms around Theo.

“I’m so proud of you,” he beams.

“Li, it didn’t hurt. I swam and it didn’t hurt.” Theo laughs loudly, his joy and disbelief echoing around the room. “Holy shit, I love you. I actually love you.”

Liam’s elation is equally as palpable, his grin splitting his cheeks. He lifts Theo and pins him to the wall of the pool, kissing him hungrily. He wraps his legs around Liam’s waist and he’s weightless, totally weightless in the water. “I love you too,” he breathes between kisses, attaching his lips to Theo’s neck instead.

Theo is weightless. Totally weightless.

***

“Do you have any plans today?” Liam asks one morning.

“Not really, why?”

“We’re going for a drive.”

Theo is immediately suspicious, and it doesn’t help that Liam keeps glancing over at him once they’re in the truck. He sticks the radio on, loud enough that they would need to shout over it to talk to each other.

It’s not until they’re slowing down that Theo realises where Liam is taking him.

“You’re not serious.”

“I might be?” Liam says, the picture of innocence. “I just want to take a look. Come on, humour me?”

Theo glances at the Beacon Hills Animal Shelter sign then back to Liam, who’s giving Theo his best puppydog eyes.

“Liam. I can barely walk. How am I supposed to look after an animal?”

Liam just smiles and leads him inside, making a beeline for the dog enclosure. Theo tries not to focus on the fact that he’s clearly been here before.

Theo tries not to let his gaze linger on any of them for too long because he knows how susceptible he is to animals, knows he would try and take every single one of them home if he could.

It doesn’t work.

There’s a pitbull in one of the cages. All the other dogs either look sad or angry, but this one starts wagging its tail when Theo looks at it. The dog slowly hobbles over to them, sitting as close to them as it can from inside its cage.

“Well, Melon’s certainly taken a shine to you,” the worker says cheerily. “She’s an old girl, been here a while. If people don’t get put off by her breed, they get put off by her mobility issues.”

A fierce wave of protectiveness washes over Theo at that. Maybe it’s because it hits so close to home, but he’s sure the anger he’s feeling is palpable. How dare people overlook this beautiful dog just because she has some trouble walking?

He only agreed to come inside to humour Liam, but damn it, he’s taking this dog home with him.

The worker informs him there’s a cooling off period before they allow anyone to adopt a dog. Emotions can run high at the shelter, and the employee explains that they don’t just want to get all the dogs out of there, they want to ensure they’re going to good homes. And, well. Theo can’t really argue with that.

***

A few short days later, Melon’s coming home with them.

The forms are filled out, the money is handed over, the dog supplies are acquired.

Theo still can’t believe Liam talked him into this. Oh, who is he trying to kid. One look at her face and he was totally gone.

As soon as Melon works out what’s happening, her entire demeanour shifts. She goes from a five to a solid ten on the excitement scale, jumping at Theo and Liam and tugging on her lead, yipping and bounding about awkwardly on her bad leg. Theo needs to hold onto Liam’s shoulder for extra balance; Melon is strong.

“Do you think she’s happy?” Liam laughs, bending down to give her cuddles.

Theo smiles between the two of them. “It’s possible.”

They get to the truck and Liam gets in the driver’s side. Theo deliberates for all of half a second before opening up one of the back doors. Melon tries jumping up but doesn’t get very far. She tries again and then whines at Theo when she can’t get up, and his heart breaks a little. The truck’s too high for her to get into by herself.

“Come on then, girl,” he says softly, unintentionally shifting into a baby voice, boosting her up from behind so she can get up onto the back seat.

Liam doesn’t say anything about it, just like he doesn’t say anything about Theo getting in the back seat with her too, continuing to soothe her with the baby voice when Liam starts up the truck and drives them home.

Theo stays in the middle seat, more or less allowing Melon to move around as she pleases. She looks out the window for a bit once she’s calmed down, Theo keeping a supportive hand on her back. She tries to climb over into the front seat once, but Theo stops her before she gets too far. After that she’s happy walking over Theo to sit on his left side, finally lying down with her head on his leg. It’s like she can sense his right knee is the bad one.

“Good girl,” he smiles, petting her. She stays like that for the rest of the journey.

Melon’s mostly fine when they get her back to Theo’s place too. He lifts her out of the truck and takes her lead off once they get inside, letting her explore and get used to her new surroundings. She sniffs around, cautiously at first and then happily, tail wagging as she goes around. Liam sits down and Melon goes over to him, getting some pets before resuming her exploring. They made sure to leave all the doors open before they left, giving her a free reign of the space. Theo’s a little worried she’s going to pee inside once or twice, but thankfully she doesn’t do anything.

Theo joins Liam on the couch, setting his cane down on the floor. The smiles on both of their faces are ridiculous.

“So, we have a dog now,” Theo says.

“We?” Liam asks, smile getting brighter.

“Yeah, we. We have a dog now.”

“Mom thinks she’s adorable, by the way. Dad must be working, he hasn’t replied yet.”

Obviously she does, Jenna has good taste. By the way, are you staying over tonight?”

Obviously,” Liam repeats. “I’ll just call mom now.”

Liam goes over to the window and Theo tries not to eavesdrop too hard, although it’s kinda difficult when they’re in the same room.

“Hey mom,” Liam says. “Yeah, better than the pictures,” he laughs, turning to grin at Theo. “I’m gonna stay over here tonight. Alright, will do,” Liam laughs again and Melon comes back through to investigate the sound. “Yeah, love you too. Bye.”

Liam comes back over to the couch, plopping down next to Theo. “So mom wants more pictures, and she wants to meet Melon too.”

“I’m sure we can arrange that,” Theo smiles.

“Melon no,” Liam says, pointing his finger at her when he realises she’s getting ready to jump up on the couch, then pointing to the dog bed at their feet. “God, I feel bad telling her off. So yeah, just a warning that that’s gonna happen. Probably soon.”

They encounter their first problem with Melon when they to go to bed that night. Theo’s just taken off his knee brace and gotten into bed next to Liam when it starts. The crying.

“We’re not letting her in,” Theo says.

“I know,” Liam agrees.

They had agreed it between them during the cooling off period, what boundaries they were going to set for Melon. The main ones were she’s not to go up on the furniture, and she’s not to sleep in their room at night.

She cries. And cries. And cries.

“Liam,” Theo warns when Liam gets out of bed.

“I’m not letting her in. I’m just gonna check if she’s okay.”

“Fine,” Theo rolls his eyes. He honestly thought he would be the one to break first, not Liam.

“Hey girl,” Liam coos when he opens the door. “What’s wrong, huh? Oh no, no, you’re not getting in here, nuh uh.” He closes the bedroom door behind him and Theo’s left alone.

He’s by himself for long enough that he’s almost asleep by the time Liam comes back.

“Fuck, you’re cold,” Theo hisses when he gets back into bed.

“Sorry,” Liam says, not sounding sorry at all. “I let her outside for a bit, wanted to check if she needed the toilet. And…”

“And?” Theo asks.

“And I might have moved her bed outside our door?” Liam smiles sweetly, wrapping his arms around Theo and kissing his cheek. Theo hisses and squirms at the cold. You’d think he’d be used to it by now, considering what his career was.

“God, you’re so weak. The bed stays on that side of the door, I mean it.”

“Alright, alright, no Melon in the bedroom.” Liam snorts and starts laughing. “Sorry, sorry. No Melon in the bedroom. God.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Theo laughs.

“You love me,” Liam counters.

“Yeah, yeah I do.”

***

It turns out Melon helps with the anxiety Theo feels when going out in public. If she’s there then he has something to focus on, and more importantly other people have something else to focus on. She’s a pretty good get out clause for conversations he doesn’t want to deal with.

She’s also just such a wonderful, lovely, affectionate dog, especially for all the stigma surrounding her breed. She really is a wonderful addition to the family.

***

Theo idly scratches Melon behind her ear, smiling at her as she tilts her head to try and get the best angle.

"That good, huh?" he asks.

Melon just keeps tilting her head and Theo turns his attention back to the TV, fruitlessly flicking through the channels to try and find something decent to watch. It's remarkable that there can be so many channels to choose from and yet nothing worth watching on any of them. This is just another part of why Theo misses being as active as he used to be. If he was bored then he could just go out for a run, or go out on his bike, or head to the gym, or any other multitude of activities to keep him occupied. But now he can't. He's stuck here, nothing appealing to do, and bored. So, so bored.

Liam's staying with his parents for the night, a true rarity nowadays. He's spending more and more time at Theo's when he's not working, coming straight over instead of going to his own house. Theo's not-so-secretly pleased about the whole situation, really, and Liam knows it. Now the thing is, Theo doesn't consider himself to be a clingy person. He likes his personal space as much as the next guy; in fact, he probably likes it a lot more than he should. It doesn't do anything to hide the fact that he doesn't really know what to do with himself without Liam being here. He could text, or maybe even call. But he also needs to be able to function as an individual, not depend on Liam to keep him entertained.

Melon has enough of getting that ear scratched so she rolls over onto her other side, half on top of Theo now to get the other ear scratched.

"Ridiculous, ridiculous dog," he coos at her, leaning down to press a kiss to her head.

He resumes flicking up the channels, trying to find something that catches his eye. A quiz show he doesn't particularly care for, an episode of a home renovation show which he's already seen, some trashy reality show, the Cyclones game--

The Cyclones game.

Theo's frozen, the remote still held static in the air, not wanting to watch yet unable to make himself look away. The sight of them all, even as small as they all are on the screen, has him longing for them; for all their constant banter and chirping, for the camaraderie of being a team unit, of being out on the ice and playing with them.

"And Hale scores!" one of the commentators cheers, Theo only tuning into what they're saying because he heard Derek's name. Derek's doing a victory lap of the rink, his grin visible even through his helmet as the other Cyclones try to pile on top of him.

He misses it all so, so much.

Theo's heart and his leg both ache, synchronised yet disjointed, leaving him unable to differentiate which one hurts worse.

A tongue starts lapping at his cheek insistently, a soft whine following suit.

"I'm okay," Theo sighs, burying his face in Melon's fur and hugging her tightly. "I'm okay."

Maybe if he repeats it enough times then he'll actually start to believe it.

Melon keeps trying to lick him and Theo doesn’t stop her, grateful for the unwavering love she has for him. Although he doesn’t have hockey anymore, at least he has her. At least he has Liam too, even if he’s not here tonight. Theo’s not going to pester him though, he needs to prove - just to himself, if no one else - that he can cope for a night without him.

Theo finally glances back up at the TV. The period has ended in the time that he’s spent moping, now they’re showing a replay of Derek’s goal again. The remote is on the floor, dropped sometime in the midst of Melon’s lick attack, and Theo thinks maybe, just maybe, he could leave it there for the moment. Instead he unlocks his phone and opens up his texts to Derek, grimacing internally at the last two Derek sent to him which have gone unanswered. He needs to do better.

Theo: Nice goal ;)

The third period starts up and Theo sets his phone back down, cuddling into Melon instead, the beginnings of a smile dancing on his lips as his boys rush back out onto the ice.

The Cyclones won. The joy he feels is a surprise but it shouldn’t be; they’re his team, after all. Melon can tell that Theo is in a much better mood and in turn it’s cheered her up, running about excitedly when Theo takes her outside. He still doesn’t know how she does it, to be honest, when he knows that her leg hurts too.

When he’s outside his phone starts ringing with a video call request from Derek. He had kind of expected it after his message so he answers, and is met with Derek’s face beaming at him through the screen.

“You watched the game?” he asks.

“I did, yeah.”

Derek’s grin grows impossibly wider. Theo can hear the other guys in the background. From the looks of things they’re already back on the road, travelling to their next destination. That’s one thing Theo definitely doesn’t miss, anyway.

“Are you outside?”

“Oh, yeah, just letting Melon out. Melon!” he calls to her and she hobbles over. “You gonna say hello to Uncle Derek?”

“She’s adorable,” Derek coos when Theo lets her see the camera. “Hi Melon, are you being a good girl for Theo?”

She tilts her head, confused at hearing her name and Theo’s on the screen.

“Adorable,” he repeats while Theo gives her a cuddle. They go back inside and Theo settles himself down on the couch while they continue talking. Suddenly a head looms over Derek’s shoulder and a lot of cursing ensues while his phone gets shaken about. When it finally stops, Corey is beaming at him through the screen instead.

“Theo!” he says and suddenly there’s a reverberation effect of a dozen different guys all saying variations of It’s Theo! and Video call with Theo! and Seriously? For real?

“Hey, Corey,” he beams back, laughing at all the different guys trying to poke their heads into the call. “I’ve really missed you guys.”

“We’ve missed you too. Oh my god, is that Melon? She’s adorable.” Just like before, her ears twitch when she hears her name, but she doesn’t react other than that this time since she doesn’t recognise the voice.

It’s almost a fight for Corey to keep hold of the phone but he can be pretty crafty. He finally hands it over to Brett, and after they’ve chatted he gets passed around the rest of the guys. They all chat until Derek’s phone is nearly out of charge, and Theo doesn’t stop smiling for the rest of the night.

***

People in Beacon Hills know who he is, that’s just a fact. Most people have been respectful when they’ve spoken to him, for which he’s grateful. Like everywhere though, there are always assholes. There have been the people who insulted his playing yet still wanted a selfie, the ones who only want him to confirm or deny he’ll ever play again.

No matter what the circumstances, the negatives always tend to weigh more prominently in your memories than the positives, and he always dreads going out because of the prospect of running into these types of people.

There’s also the fact that Melon doesn’t care she’s got a bad leg. The fact she walks and runs funny? Not an issue to her. She just gets on with things, not crippled by self consciousness the way Theo’s become. If a dog can do it then surely he can too.

She’s a pretty good conversation partner when Liam’s not there too. Theo talks and Melon listens - or sometimes she doesn’t listen - to him. He can just say whatever he wants and she doesn’t have the ability to dispute it. There are some things he’s still trying to come to terms with himself, things he’s barely ready to admit out loud, let alone to other people. But with Melon, he can practice. He talks until he’s hoarse, getting some of his demons out, and all the while she lies with her head perched on his thigh, gazing up at him with her tongue lolling. As long as he’s scratching behind her ear or rubbing her belly, she’s perfectly content. If only talking to humans was as simple.

***

Melon’s pretty antsy this morning. Theo knows it’s because she wants to go for a walk, but he just… doesn’t want to go to the park today.

He’s going through a ‘people are exhausting’ spell at the moment, and even the people who mean well are just a little bit much. Pleasantries so rarely stay at just pleasantries in Beacon Hills, people wanting to know everybody else’s business even if they’re not necessarily digging for information. Theo’s tired of it.

“You wanna go for a walk, huh?” Theo asks her. Melon barks in response, running around at his feet. “Haha, okay, okay. Let’s go then.” Theo grabs all the necessities, as well as the keys to his truck. “We’re gonna try something different today, aren’t we girl?”

Other dog walkers have casually mentioned the nature trails out of town, but Theo’s usually been so busy trying to find a way out of the conversation that he’s not paid all that much attention to where they actually are. Still, today seems like as good a day as any to find out. If nothing else, they’ll definitely be quieter than the park.

Theo helps Melon into the passenger seat then gets in the driver side himself. Melon’s technically supposed to stay in the back of the truck, but well… it’s Theo’s truck, and what Liam doesn’t know won’t kill him.

“Are we going for a drive?”

Melon thumps her tail happily, tongue lolling out the side of her mouth.

It only takes a few minutes to get out of Beacon Hills and on the road to Beacon Heights. Theo keeps his eyes peeled for any rest stops that look like they have nature trails connected to them, and luckily it’s not too long before he finds one. He pulls off the road, parks his truck and helps Melon get out. She seems pretty excited by the change in scenery and all the new things for her to sniff.

They set a leisurely pace, Theo waiting until they’re a reasonable distance away from the main road before taking off Melon’s lead and letting her go where she wants.

Theo closes his eyes for a moment and inhales, taking in the fresh air. Beacon Hills isn’t smoggy by any means, but the air feels purer out here. The noise of vehicles on the road is muted, the natural sounds of the woods blending in with them.

The sun’s shining through the trees, leaving patterns of the leaves on the ground. It’s warm enough outside that Theo’s comfortable in just a t-shirt, although he’s got a windbreaker tied around his waist anyway, just in case.

It’s the perfect kind of healthy, natural isolation that even Liam couldn’t get mad at.

Theo gets his phone out and opens the camera. “Melon,” he calls to her where she’s wandering about up ahead. She turns around and Theo taps the screen a number of times, capturing the perfect shot of her looking right at the camera.

“My gorgeous girl,” Theo coos, scratching her behind the ears when she comes over to see him briefly.

He attaches the best picture to a text and sends it to Liam. Or tries to send it to Liam, anyway. The service is ever so slightly poor out here between the trees, just one bar. It takes a couple of tries for the picture to finally send, but he knows Liam will love it.

The ground’s a little more uneven than in the park, Theo’s cane becoming more of a hindrance than a help in some places. Still, it’s nothing he can’t manage. He could definitely get used to walking out here.

“Right, let’s go back,” Theo says, turning around once he decides they’ve gone far enough. Melon, now behind him, runs to catch back up to him. Theo needs to be careful with his leg. It’s definitely stronger than it was, the pain sometimes more of a hum than an ache, and his stamina is building back up too, little by little. He needs to make sure he doesn’t overdo it though. He knows he’ll be tired when he gets back, but it’s totally worth it.

***

It quickly becomes evident that Theo pushed himself too far.

Maybe it was the walk itself that did it, or maybe it was the cleaning he did on top of that when he got home because he still felt energised, but his leg seized up earlier in the evening and it’s been spasming ever since.

He sighs into the darkness of the bedroom, briefly breaking up Liam’s light breathing and Melon’s snoring; the No Melon in the bedroom rule didn’t last very long. He adjusts the pillow underneath his knee again and wills the pain to stop so he can just get to sleep.

***

Theo wakes up to yet another blaze of pain in his leg. He scrunches his eyes and breathes deeply through his nose, willing the pain to go away even though he knows it’s futile.

A week. An entire week of this shit. Usually when the pain flares up this badly it lasts for two days, maybe three tops. But no. A week.

He feels around on his bedside table for a drink but doesn’t find anything. That’s when he realises he forgot to bring another bottle upstairs last night. Frustrated at himself for forgetting something so simple, Theo forces himself to breathe slowly in and out through his nose in an attempt to calm himself down.

Trying not to wake Liam, Theo slowly manoeuvres himself out of bed, hobbling towards the door. Something tangles between his feet and he nearly ends up on the floor, blindly windmilling his arms in the darkness and thankfully grabbing hold of the dresser. He pants, relieved he didn’t fall and hurt himself, then shuffles over to the door, the offending article still wrapped around him.

“Seriously?” Theo snaps when he switches the bedroom light on, finding Liam’s shirt from last night at his feet.

“What’s wrong?” Liam asks, voice scratchy from sleep, sitting up in bed and blearily rubbing his eyes.

“I nearly tripped over your fucking shirt, that’s what’s fucking wrong.”

“Sorry, I’ll pick it up,” Liam says, getting out of bed. Theo’s too angry to appreciate his lack of clothing.

“Oh yeah, sure, you’ll pick it up. A lot of use after I’ve nearly broken my fucking neck. Again.”

“Would you quit swearing at me?” Liam bites back, fully awake now and scowling as he untangles the shirt from between Theo’s feet. He throws it to the side of the room, safely out of harm’s way. “There, done.”

“And it’s still on the floor. Awesome, Liam. Just awesome.” Theo goes out into the hallway, Melon appearing at his side instantly. She must have been woken up by the shouting.

“No, no, don’t walk away from me Theo.” Liam grabs his shoulder. “If you want to do this then let’s do it, but don’t start it and walk away.”

“Do what, Liam? Tell you not to leave your clothes lying everywhere because I keep fucking tripping over them? You’re fucking ridiculous.”

“I told you to stop swearing at me.” There’s fury in his eyes, dark and dangerous. His voice is level, jaw clenched and chin jutting out, head tilted slightly upwards to look into Theo’s eyes.

“Oh what, am I hurting your feelings?” Theo scoffs. “Us hockey players swear a lot, didn’t you know that?”

“But you’re not!” Liam yells in his face. “You’re not a hockey player!”

Theo’s throat closes up, all the fight draining out of him and being replaced by hurt. Liam’s face drops too, immediately realising what he’s just said.

“Theo I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean-“

“Fuck you, Liam,” Theo whispers, turning on his heel to hobble down the stairs. “Fuck you.”

Melon whines, cutting through the silence. Theo stops a few stairs down to see her standing between him and Liam, not sure which one of them she should follow. Her ears are flat against her head and the wounded expression in her eyes is unnervingly human. The guilt in his chest ramps up higher, hating that he’s caused her to look like that. He glances higher, up to Liam, and the pain in his eyes matches Melon’s.

“Stay,” he tells her, his voice pitifully choked even to his own ears.

He continues hobbling down the stairs and neither of them follow him. He goes to the kitchen and gets something to drink from the fridge, the whole reason he even got out of bed in the first place. He leans against the sink and stares out into the predawn light, occasionally taking sips of his energy drink until half of it is gone.

He’s drawn out of his thoughts by two sets of footsteps coming down the stairs, one a bit more disjointed than the other.

Liam appears, having put some clothes on. Melon doesn’t join them, no doubt anticipating round two and wanting nothing to do with it.

Liam doesn’t speak at first and Theo doesn’t turn around to acknowledge him. Instead he just keeps staring out the window, watching the sky become a little pinker as daybreak approaches. He can hear Liam fidgeting, hear his breathing, but he’s also keeping his distance too.

“I didn’t mean it,” Liam says eventually. “I only said it because I knew it would hurt. I shouldn’t have done it though. I’m really sorry, Theo.”

“You wouldn’t have said it if you weren’t at least thinking it,” Theo mutters. “But don’t worry, I know it’s true. I know I’m just a has-been, clearly I’m not good for anything anymore.” Liam makes a noise like he’s going to interrupt and his face is darkening again, but Theo keeps talking over him. “What the hell are you even getting out of being with me anyway?” He’s forcing himself to keep standing even though his leg is killing him. He can be just as stubborn as Liam when he wants to be.

“Don’t you dare,” Liam says lowly, that familiar fire back in his eyes. “Don’t you dare try and make our relationship out to be some kind of one sided thing, that I’m not in love with you. That’s bullshit and you know it.” Liam paces around, face seething. Liam can just do that, walk at whatever speed he wants and do it without a limp, without being in pain. It’s infuriating.

“Yeah, well. It’s not like I-“

“God damnit Theo, would you give your pity party a rest for two fucking seconds and realise that I’m here because I want to be? If I didn’t want to be here, if I didn’t want to be with you, then I wouldn’t be here, simple as that. If you seriously want me to go then fine, I’m gone. But I’m telling you now, if I leave I’m not coming back and you’ll regret it.”

It would be so easy. With just one word Theo could throw himself back into his self-enforced isolation. He wouldn’t need to put up with Liam’s almost constant presence, clothes being left on the floor all the time for him to almost trip over, his reminders to take his medication when he actually needs it, his easy conversations, his reassurances that Theo’s injury doesn’t define him, his stupid smile…

“I don’t want to fight anymore,” he admits, defeated. It’s far too draining, he doesn’t have the energy to expend on it. “I’m just being an asshole and taking it out on you even though you don’t deserve it. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too,” Liam says, wrapping himself around Theo’s back. “I really didn’t mean it, I should never have said that.”

Theo doesn’t say it’s okay because it’s not. Liam knows it’s his biggest emotional sore spot and he used it against him. “Can you help me sit down?” he says instead, because he’s an idiot and left his cane upstairs.

Sensing that the fight is over, Melon reappears and follows them, jumping up on the couch in anticipation of them going there. Theo leans into Liam’s side, slowly hobbling over to the couch with his support, sighing at the mild relief it provides when he finally sits down.

Melon rests her head against Theo’s good leg and Theo stays attached to Liam, snuggling against his chest. He matches his breathing to Liam’s, trying to find comfort in the repetitive in and out, in and out while Liam slowly runs a hand up and down his back.

“It just hurts so much,” he says, and then his shoulders are shaking and he’s crying and Melon is whining again. Liam just holds him tighter, whispering reassurances to him and reminding him to breathe as the sun finally rises high enough to split the sky.

With one hand on Melon’s head and the other tightly gripped in Liam’s shirt, Theo breathes.

***

It’s just kind of gradually happened over time. Some of Liam’s books have found their way into Theo’s bookcase. One of the dressers in Theo’s room is slowly but surely filling up with Liam’s clothes. Half of the video games scattered around his entertainment system are Liam’s, even one of the consoles is his.

Liam lives with Theo in every way except the official way. Theo thinks it’s time to change that.

“Melon,” Theo calls. He can hear her padding about in the kitchen. She comes through to see him, tongue lolling out the side of her mouth while Theo scratches behind her ears when she gets close enough.

“What a good girl,” Theo coos. “We have a present for Liam when he comes home, don’t we?” he asks her, taking the spare key from his pocket. “Do you want to give it to him?”

Melon doesn’t reply - not that he would have expected her to - but her ears perked up when he said Liam’s name, so he’s taking that as a yes. He ties the key onto her collar, making sure it’s secure, and smiles. Now all he has to do is wait.

Theo knows Liam’s home because Melon runs to the front door and starts yipping. Sure enough, the door opens and Liam’s voice fills the entryway, the tone he only uses with Melon.

Then, suddenly, his voice stops.

He comes through to where Theo is, the key in his hand and his face a picture of surprise. “What’s this?” he asks.

“Well,” Theo says, unable to stop himself from grinning. “Melon likes you a whole lot and she always gets sad when you have to go to work. And she thinks it’s kind of silly that her other daddy doesn’t have his own key yet.” He stands up, taking Liam’s hands in his own. “She wants you to move in properly, since it’s the best way to solve all those problems.” Then, phrased almost as an afterthought, “I’d quite like it if you to moved in with me, too. What do you say?”

“Fuck,” Liam laughs giddily, launching himself at Theo and almost knocking them both over. “Of course I’ll move in with you.” He guides them back until they’re falling onto the couch, Liam pinning him down and kissing him with such intensity that Theo almost can’t breathe. “We’re having sex, by the way,” Liam pants against him.

“Good to know,” Theo laughs, letting Liam pull him to his feet and lead the way upstairs.

“Wow,” Theo says, trying to gather his breath as he pulls off the condom and ties it. Liam flops down onto the mattress next to him, chest heaving, and Theo will genuinely be surprised if he moves again today. “I should ask you to move in with me more often.”

Liam just grunts, his eyes closed and a dopey smile on his face. Theo kisses him and they make out slowly, lazily, without a care in the world. They’ve got all night, there’s no rush.

“I should speak to my parents,” Liam says eventually.

“I already did.”

“You did?”

“Yeah, I told them I was gonna ask you. They both seemed pretty happy about it.”

“You’re the best,” Liam smiles, kissing him again. “I should call them or go and see them, or something. They’re probably wondering why I haven’t done it yet.”

“I’m pretty sure they’ll know why you haven’t done it yet.”

Liam flings an arm over his eyes and groans. “Dude. No. I don’t want to think about my parents thinking about me having sex.”

“Too late,” Theo grins, kissing him again then shuffling down the bed, making his way to Liam’s cock. He takes it into his hand and it seems to consider coming back to life. After he coaxes it back to full hardness he takes it into his mouth, officially commencing round two as Liam makes a sound of approval and tangles a hand in Theo’s hair. After all, they’ve got all night.

***

Liam moves in that weekend.

There’s honestly not all that much still to move, considering how many of Liam’s things have made their way to the house anyway. It just takes a couple of runs back and forth in the truck and they’re all set. Theo can’t really do much of the heavy lifting despite his upper body being perfectly fine. Instead he sticks to unpacking the boxes that David and Liam have carried in. Jenna spends more time spoiling Melon than actually helping with the move, but at least it keeps her out from under all their feet.

Theo cooks dinner for them all as a thank you, to show his appreciation for welcoming him into their family. He’s pretty sure that Melon’s begging got her food from every single plate. She’s a crafty girl, he’ll give her that.

He’s still wondering how he got so lucky with Liam. He’s been so endlessly patient, so genuinely kind, literally the light to counter Theo’s dark.

After David and Jenna go home - but not before a few more cuddles with Melon - Theo leads Liam up to bed, tired yet content after the long day they’ve had. He’s still got a bit of energy left in the reserves though, and he’s pretty sure Liam does too.

The sex is just as good as the last time.

***

Everything is going great. He was staying over most nights anyway, but having Liam by his side when he goes to sleep and night and when he wakes up in the morning never fails to make Theo feel warm inside.

The pain is still there, of course. It’s always there, but he hasn’t had any more freak week-long spells of agony, much to his relief. He’s had the occasional bad day of course, it always fluctuates.

Swimming has been a big help though. He wishes he had taken it up earlier, but at the same time he knows he wasn’t ready. Having something specific to actually focus on, to have an actual daily routine again beyond just when he decides to walk Melon, has been a lot of help. The rush of getting into the water isn’t quite the same as getting out onto the ice but who knows, maybe one day it could be.

He misses hockey, of course he misses it. But he can talk about it now, he can watch his team play without totally freaking out. He accomplished so much during his time as a player, so many achievements that he shouldn’t be boxing away and never speaking about again.

Theo has a box to find.

That’s how Liam finds him when he gets home, sitting on the floor of one of the spare bedrooms, taking apart all of the boxes containing his old stuff.

“You okay?” Liam asks, sitting down beside him to give him a kiss.

“I’m good,” Theo smiles.

“What’re you looking for?”

“My hockey stuff.” Theo motions to the steadily growing pile of medals and trophies behind the door. “There’s still more in the boxes somewhere. I earned them. I’m proud of them. I want them on display.”

“We can do that,” Liam agrees. “You should be proud of them. We can get a big cabinet, or put up some shelves, or something. We’ll put them wherever you want.”

“Dinner first, maybe? I’m starving.”

“Sure,” Liam laughs, helping Theo to his feet. He’s been down on the floor for a while, he’s a bit stiff. “We can order takeout, whatever you want.”

After dinner they spend the rest of the evening in the spare bedroom, Liam rubbing Melon’s belly while Theo relays the stories of how he won all of his awards. Talking about it all has never felt so good.

***

“I think I’m ready,” Theo says.

Liam looks at him with wide eyes, pausing the movie they’re watching. He sits up properly to give Theo his full attention. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I can’t put it off forever.” He strokes Melon, curled up against him on the couch. So much for her not being allowed up here. “It’s not gonna be fun, but I don’t feel like I’m gonna have a meltdown if I get asked about it now?”

Liam nods in understanding. And he does; he understands professional athletes, he understands Theo. “Well I’m with you every step of the way. You know that, right?”

“Obviously,” Theo says. The pride in Liam’s smile leaves Theo feeling a little embarrassed. “I’ll wait until the morning to call Lydia but… yeah. I’m ready.”

***

Theo calls his agent, Lydia. More than anything, he thinks she’s just pleased to know he’s okay. She chats with him for a while, just about general stuff and actually catching up in person for once rather than sending emails back and forth. Theo might be guilty of having ignored some of her emails too after she sold his house for him. She doesn’t explicitly mention it, but it’s very heavily implied that Theo shouldn’t do it again.

Lydia gets back to him later in the day, an excruciating, anxiety-laden number of hours later, having arranged the best deal for an exclusive interview for him that she can get. It’s going to be all access, from the accident itself through to the recovery process, to what he’s doing now.

Theo’s not poor by any means. He’s set for most - if not all - of his life really, as long as he stays sensible. Any additional money he can make helps though, considering he doesn’t technically have a source of income anymore. Who knows, maybe if he becomes good enough at swimming then he can compete in that.

There’s just one more thing he needs to do before the interview…

***

One by one, the Cyclones all barrel into Theo’s house.

It feels good to introduce Liam to them all, for the most important people in his life to finally intersect, though some of the older players already know him. Apparently David has worked for the team before in the past, which explains why Derek trusts him so much. Liam had tagged along back then, wide eyed and bushy tailed, and the way they ruffle his hair is clearly familiar to him.

Theo’s quite surprised he didn’t know, that neither Liam or David have ever mentioned it. Maybe they just assumed he already knew, or maybe they hadn’t thought he was ready to hear it and simply forgot to mention it again.

The chirps about him not having grown an inch since then come thick and fast, and Liam laughs as he flips them all off. It’s strange, seeing how familiar he already is with some of them. It feels right though.

Lydia has ordered enough food to feed a small army.

They all dig in, and Theo just looks around, basking in their company, a few slices of pizza sitting untouched on his plate. He tracks Melon, thumping her tail happily and looking up at Brett, begging for food. She’s already been round four of the other guys and gotten something from each of them.

“You okay?” Liam asks quietly, bumping his shoulder.

“Yeah,” Theo says, looking to smile at him. “I’m really lucky.”

Liam smiles back at him and Theo ducks in to press a kiss to his cheek, laughing at all the whoops and jeers they get. None of this would have been possible without Liam. And he’s so grateful.

He tucks back into his food. Around a bunch of super active dudes like a professional hockey team, food is a precious commodity and it’s eat or be eaten, and he wrestles with Corey for the last slice. Corey eventually lets him have it, and Theo smirks at him as he takes a huge bite.

After the meal he stands up, beer in hand, and the guys all turn to look at him.

“I want to thank all of you,” he says, looking around the table, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “You all deserve better than the way I’ve been treating you since-” He takes a steadying breath and continues. “Since my accident. I worried you all when I left without saying anything, for which I am deeply sorry. I just-“

He looks down, struggling for words. He’s imagined what he’ll say to them all a million times, but now that he’s standing in front of him it feels inadequate, that no explanation will truly justify his actions, will truly earn him their forgiveness.

“I was in a dark place, mentally. I still am, some days,” he admits. “I wasn’t thinking about anything other than myself, of getting away. Hockey was everything to me, and it was gone.”

“Theo,” Derek says gently. He waves him off. He needs to say this.

“It took me a while to realise that there’s more to life than hockey,” Theo admits. Garrett gives a mock offended gasp, drawing a chuckle from the rest of the guys, and Theo smiles at him. God he loves these guys. “You guys are my family,” he finishes. “I’m not gonna forget that again, I promise.”

“Good,” Nolan says firmly. “We know where you live now dude, you won’t be able to ghost us again.”

He nods, head ducking down.

Derek holds up his glass. “To family,” he says. Theo glances at him and smiles. They all hold up their glasses. “To family.”

Theo tilts his head back, swallowing down his beer and drops back into his seat next to Liam, who’s giving him a big goofy grin.

“Dork,” Theo says affectionately. Liam just shrugs and takes his hand, linking their fingers together.

 

It’s inevitable. You can’t get the Cyclones together without it ending in a huge Mario Kart tournament.

It’s super competitive; Derek’s standing at a white board, keeping score of who’s won how many games, and everyone else piles up behind the couch cheering on either Liam or Brett, the final two.

“My money’s on Brett,” Nolan yells, waving twenty bucks in the air.

“Oh please,” Garrett scoffs. “Brett hasn’t won once this whole year, you’re just on his side because the two of you are boning. Newbie’s definitely got this.”

Nolan sputters indignantly while Brett remains suspiciously quiet. Theo had thought something was going on between the two of them, had honed in on the looks they were giving each other at the table, but that definitely confirms it.

“Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is Davies?” Corey jeers from where he stands next to Theo.

Garrett glares at him, but pulls out his wallet. “Fine. Twenty on the newbie.”

Suddenly money is flying around the room, and Derek flips the board to the other side to keep track of it all.

“Would you guys shut up?” Brett complains.

“Man, watch your elbows,” Liam snaps, pushing Brett’s arm away from him. That’s another tradition; the shoving and cheating and distraction. Never has a game of Mario Kart been played without some form of interference from the other guys.

Theo smiles, giddy on the atmosphere, so comfortable and familiar. He’s home.

***

Melon’s barking at the door when he gets home. They tried to get her to stop doing it but it was no use.

“Hey girl,” he sighs, bending down a little to pet her. His leg is worse than it was this morning, stopping him from bending too far. Talking about it all day has maximised his awareness of it, increasing the pain along with it. He and Liam had kind of anticipated something like this might happen, so he had taken some medication along to the interview with him. He didn’t take anything while he was there though, wanting to be alert as possible while being interviewed and for all the subsequent professional stuff. He’ll take some now though; he’s better at not being stubborn about taking it. He might still not be totally at ease with the fact he has to take them, but he’s a little more accepting of the help they can give when he needs it.

“Welcome home,” Liam says, kissing Theo and wrapping his arms around him. He doesn’t comment that Theo’s clinging onto him a little. “You okay?” he asks softly.

“It’s been a long day.” That’s really the understatement of the year. Liam helps him over to the couch, although for once it’s really moral support over physical support. Theo sighs as they sit down, staying wrapped in Liam’s hold. “They played the video. My accident. I knew it was coming, it was agreed in the terms. But still.”

“They still shouldn’t have done that to you,” Liam scowls. Theo can feel him tensing up.

“I agreed to it, remember?”

“I know, I know.”

Melon whines at them both from where she’s jumped up on the couch, pawing at Theo’s side, jealous that she’s not being included in the cuddles. Theo looks up at Liam and they both laugh when they make eye contact.

“C’mere, girl,” Liam says, opening one of his arms out for her. Melon clambers over the two of them, slotting herself into the space Liam has opened up. “I love you,” Liam tells him, and the words never fail to excite Theo.

“Love you too.”

The interview is done. The world knows he’ll never play hockey again. He’s mentally and physically exhausted, but the weight is lifting off of him by the second.

***

Melon goes straight to Theo’s truck now whenever he or Liam try to take her for a walk. Apparently she enjoys the nature trails just as much as Theo does.

He and Liam are walking along hand in hand and Melon’s off her lead, excitedly hobbling ahead of them and sniffing near enough everything in sight. She occasionally looks back at them to make sure they’re still following, even though she’s really not that far ahead of them.

“I’m really proud of you, y’know,” Liam says out of the blue.

“Yeah?” Theo asks, lighting up at the praise.

“Yeah. Look how far you’ve come.”

Theo knows he means much, much more than just how far they’ve walked today.

Theo might not have hockey anymore, not in the physical sense. He’s not at the stage of pulling a pair of skates on again, of getting to experience the rush of freedom being out on the ice used to give him. He’s not sure if he’ll ever be able to again, if his leg - despite the progress he’s made with it - is physically up to the challenge of doing so.

The emotional impact isn’t so bad nowadays, however. He might not like the fact that he may never skate again. He can live with it now though. He still has his connections, his friendships, even his memories.

Besides, hockey isn’t his only sporting love nowadays. He thinks back to his first swimming competition the week before, the almost nostalgic thrill of competing relighting a fire in him he thought had been extinguished forever. Liam and Derek had both been there, cheering him all the way to seventh place in his para-athlete classification. A podium finish might be a long way off but it doesn’t matter, he’s determined to get there and nothing is going to stop him. He made a space front and centre in the cabinet where he’s displaying all his hockey trophies and medals to motivate him. Some day a swimming medal is going to go in that space. He can’t wait to fill it.

After the competition he saw an article he had been linked to on social media.

Theo Raeken: The Dawn of a New Era?

He hadn’t opened it, not interested in what the press are saying about him anymore, but the headline had tickled him.

He’s got new memories to make with Liam and Melon, the perfect family he never expected. He’s got Derek and the rest of his hockey teammates and friends, all comfortably slotting themselves back into the holes where he cut them out of his life. He’s got his new para-athlete swimmer friends and rivals, incredible people he never would have dreamed of meeting. He’s got a new professional goal he wants to achieve and really, he can’t complain about that. He can’t complain about any of it.

Theo kisses Liam’s cheek just because, smiling giddily while Melon continues to sniff about. He takes in the two loves of his life, the nature trail surrounding them, all the positives that are counteracting the negatives he’s faced since his accident.

And he breathes.