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you only feel one emotion at a time

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It starts where everything these days seems to end; the hospital. In that aspect alone, it seems fitting: the beginning of the end. But that’s not important right now.

What is important, is that the first time Liam actually notices something, it’s barely even a blip on his radar.

He feels like his senses are dialed up to eleven, a repeating internal mantra of ‘we won, we won, we won, we—‘  echoing in his ears, but barely audible over the pounding of his own heart. It’s all he can hear, and all he can smell is gunpowder and desperation so painfully raw that it takes all the strength in his supernaturally-enhanced body to swallow down the acidic bile that rises in the back of his throat.

And all he can see is Theo taking Gabe’s pain, as the life drains slowly from his bullet-ridden body. It feels like it’s seared into the back of his eyelids, the afterimage of a florescent lightbulb that was burning too bright. He can't stop the stinging in his eyes and it feels like his skin is too small for his body, stretched too tight and thin around his aching bones.

---

(Mason comes straight to Liam’s house after his field trip with Theo through the tunnels; tired, terrified, and a little guilty. They’re lying on Liam’s bed, feet still flat on the ground, shoulder-to-shoulder, the way they do sometimes when everything gets to be too much. Liam relaxes into the feeling of Mason’s familiar, strong arm pressing into his own. It feels like an arm that can catch him — that has caught him — when he falls. They already talked about the important stuff— the Anuk-Ite finding it’s other half, the hunters getting more desperate and more dangerous, the ominous calm before the storm, and the tension so palpable, everyone is just waiting for someone to snap — but there’s something else eating at Mason, he can tell, the way Mason can always tell when Liam’s about to explode, and so stays quiet, letting his eyelids slip shut while Mason picks compulsively at the dried blood flaking off his fingertips.

I told him it was because he didn’t care,” Mason finally says, eyes still focused firmly on his hands, and oh, this is about Theo. Liam’s not even surprised. These days, it feels like everything's about Theo. Liam slides his eyes back open to watch Mason press the heel of his hand into the bridge of his nose, and tries to calm the clenching of his own traitorous heart. “I don’t even know why I said it,” Mason huffs out a sardonic laugh. “He was trying really damn hard to take my pain, and when he couldn’t it was like. . .”

Liam grips his forearm solidly. “I’m sure he doesn’t—“ even care what we think of him, is what Liam’s about to say, even though it’s definitely a lie, albeit a reassuring one, but Mason‘s already shaking his head.

“No, you didn’t—“ Mason massages his temples, shuts his eyes, and groans. “Liam, you didn’t see his face. It was. . . It was like I told him. . .”

And Liam let’s him trail off because he can imagine exactly what his face looked like. I’m a knock-off, Theo had once told him, whispering over the hum of the truck beneath them. He was talking about being a chimera, but Liam’s pretty sure he was talking about being a person too. Like he wanted to be human so much but couldn’t quite figure out how, and Liam’s heart aches because maybe there was a time when he didn’t give a flying fuck whether Theodore Raeken had his feelings hurt, but if there was, it had slipped by, snuck past him, sometime between being the bait and Theo talking him down from a rampage, low voice raspy and condescending and distracting all at once, straight into his ear. Mason finally turns to him, meeting his eyes.

“I don’t feel bad about it,” he says, but Liam doesn’t even need to listen to his heartbeat to know it’s a lie, he can see it in the tension around his eyes, and he’s not even sure which one of them Mason’s trying to convince. “I don't.” Mason flings his newly blood-free hand down on the mattress, stretching like he’s trying to get comfortable, but can’t quite seem to. “He’s a murder. A bad person. Like, really bad. He fought with us, like, a couple times? And we’re just supposed to. . . What? Forgive him?” Mason scoffs. The contemplative silence that follows signals very clearly that he's done talking about it, but Liam can still smell the guilt as easily as he can smell Corey's aftershave on Mason's neck. He doesn't offer up his own thoughts on the matter because these days he's starting to think he might be a little biased. Theo's still kind of a jackass but he's a jackass but he's a jackass who gets Liam in a way that most people (read: literally everyone else on the face of the Earth besides Mason, Scott, and his Mom) don't. He hasn't seen Theo in a little bit, and all of a sudden, he desperately wishes that they were the kind of friends who could seek each other out to check up on each other, but he thinks if he tried, Theo would be confused and wary and kind of offended, so he pushes the thought away, and squeezes Mason's shoulder comfortingly, and they spend the rest of the night quiet, thinking.)

---

Liam's playing the scene in his head as he sees the black lines run from Theo's forearm to underneath his shirt, and he honestly forgets how to breathe at the raw expression on Theo's face, everyone in the hospital hallway frozen to the spot, cloistered around the two broken children on the floor, watching the pain slowly leave Gabe's frame. "Does it hurt?" Theo asks, and Gabe says "No," and Liam's eyes are starting to sting, but he if anyone asks it's because of the gunpowder lingering in the air and not the overwhelming pride blooming in his chest. (No one asks, but Liam thinks it's important to keep up appearances, even if it's just in his own head. Denial, not just a river in Egypt, and all that.)

In the aftermath, Liam loses track of him. Argent, the Sheriff and Agent McCall came to clear out the weapons and take stock of the bodies, and Melissa ushers him, Mason, and Corey into a check-up room to get patched up. Liam turns and scans the room frantically before the view of the hallway escapes him via Melissa's iron grip, but he still doesn't feel Theo's around, which means he isn't here, because these days he can feel Theo's presence like a. . . He doesn't even know what. Liam can't even compare it to anything, but he can feel when Theo's around in his bones. Like an ever-present hum of static, making his heart beat faster and the hairs on his neck stand to attention.

"He left," Mason says, halting Liam's fruitless scan around the hospital, and Liam feels his heart sink, but he still meets Mason's eyes. "I saw him slip out the back right before Argent got here."

And Liam worries as he absentmindedly lets himself be pulled into a hospital room, because he's sure Theo took more than a couple bullets to the leg, and the thought of him limping back to his truck to stitch himself up hurts so much that he almost doubles over; hurts worse than the bruises and bullet holes in his own body. And then Liam worries even more, because without the Anuk-Ite, the obligation to help, Theo has nothing tying him to Beacon Hills. He could go right now, escape the godforsaken town that killed his sister, killed his family, sucked out his soul, sent him to Hell. He could get pretty far in that beat-up truck of his, far enough that Liam would probably never see again, and Liam's feels the adrenaline course through his body again and his heart beats faster, panicked. He can't leave, Liam thinks frantically. He can't leave. I won't let him.

"He'll be fine," Corey says gently, placing a comforting hand on Liam's shoulder, small and warm, and Theo wasn't even limping when he walked over to Gabe's body; not favoring one side over the other, not keeping the weight off either leg, and no one can hide pain that well, not even a Dread Doctor-manufactured sociopath. So maybe Corey's right, and Theo's fine, and Liam lets go of the worry for now, finally letting the relief that comes with a temporary victory seep into him. He sits between Mason and Corey and lies down on the bed, and they mirror him, feet still flat on the ground, shoulder-to-shoulder, the way they do sometimes when everything gets to be too much. Liam shuts his eyes, and lets himself finally relax, for the first time in a long time.

---

The next day Liam finally tells his parents.

He does it for a lot of reasons but mostly boils down to: one, they deserve to know and, and two, he doesn't know how to hide it anymore. Something that started out as a secret between a group of people somehow sprawled and stretched and expanded to overtake anything that had once been normal in Beacon Hills. Nowhere is normal anymore, and he needs to stop using that word because he's pretty sure they're going to have to redefine it . Everything is different, and everyone is different, and everywhere is different. The library is where Scott keeps almost-dying because of his debilitating sense of duty that three years as a "monster" hasn't managed to beat out of him. The hospital is where he and Theo seem to attract danger, and fight together like they were born to do it, back to back, fangs out, claws extended, eyes flashing. The school is where Liam was beaten to within an inch of his control, where Liam remembers feeling powerless, taking hit after hit because it was his fault. Even the goddamn lacrosse field he can't think about without remembering that one psychotic Deadpool assassin who hid a poison-dipped blade in his lacrosse stick, because Beacon Hills truly can't grant them a moment's fucking reprieve.

He knows how to hide the blood on his clothes -- sometimes, he wishes he didn't, but then he sees something like Theo taking Gabe's pain or Lydia's scream crumpling a solid steel door or the pack all squished onto a single oversized couch in Derek's bereft loft, and thinks maybe it's worth it after all -- but not this much blood. And he definitely doesn't know how to explain the weird looks people in town have already started giving him; guilty, resigned, and the kind of terrified that thankfully just results in deliberate avoidance instead of panicked violence. He doesn't know how to hide it anymore, and he's exhausted by of the whole thing, and maybe he and his friends save lives on the regular, but he's barely eighteen, and he mostly just wants his parents. And so he makes his decision and bites the bullet.

He chooses the daytime because he doesn't actually know how they'll react, and his anxious mind has already conjured up every worst possible scenario he can imagine, and the last thing he wants to do is make them feel unsafe in their own home. He hopes the fangs and claws will look less frightening in the light of day, but as he gets back from the hospital and showers off the blood and grime, rebandaging his torso like Melissa told him to do, he plans. He plans as he pulls on new clothes, and he plans as he sits on the living room couch, waiting for the sun to rise and too wired to sleep.

It's almost dawn when he finally allows himself to finally act, because he's been putting it off throughout the night, hoping he could talk himself out of it. Of course they wouldn't disown you, he tells himself. Mom literally shifted her whole life to get you guys out of a bad situation. You're a team. He inhales. Exhales. Dad chose to love you. You're not even his, but he loves you. On purpose. He loves you on purpose. But his hands shake and his heart stutters, and his anxiety grows, and so he packs a bag. Just a small one; his backpack filled with some clothes, cash, food, and a toothbrush. Just in case, he tells himself, because he might know his parents better than anyone in the world, but he's seen firsthand what fear can do to people; how it can turn them into something they're not, and so he resignedly zips the bag up, slinging it over his shoulder.

After some more quiet deliberation, he takes the bag downstairs with him, so he'll be okay if he needs to make a quick getaway, and he sits back down on the couch, watching the sun bathe their living room in beta-gold, quietly planning some more, and trying to quell the dread building in his stomach. His Mom comes downstairs at seven in the morning despite the fact that it’s the weekend, the way she does every day, like clockwork, and he faintly thinks I'm really going to miss you, before he uses the leftover adrenaline from last night to build up his courage and walk up to her. She startles as she catches sight of him, and he probably looks awful -- tired and injured and absolutely terrified -- but he squares his shoulders and looks her straight in the eye.

"Mom," he greets, with a confidence that he definitely doesn't feel. His voice comes out impressively even, considering he's mostly just trying not to throw up. "I think we need to talk."

She's nodding before he even finishes he sentence, like she's been waiting for this, and Liam abruptly feels bad. They're probably worried about him not sleeping well and coming home at weird hours in the night with increasingly bizarre injuries. He wishes he had the foresight to hide the backpack, but its too late and she's already calling his Dad down, and then they're all sitting down on the couch, his parents sharing a look, expectant like they know exactly what he's about to say, and he desperately hopes they're right, because if they've had their suspicions this entire time and still haven’t kicked him out, then maybe there's hope for him after all. And so he takes a steadying breath, before starting from the beginning.

It quickly becomes blindingly obvious that they were not, in fact, aware, and that Liam's werewolf affliction is a complete and total surprise. They look disbelieving, and maybe like they suspect he's on some questionable drugs. Liam almost wishes he was,  because maybe that would be easier (or at least, less complicated), but he resigns himself to what's about to happen, and he's already made it this far, and so he slowly puts up his hand, telegraphing his every movement, and lets his blunt fingernails grow into claws. And no, they were definitely not expecting this; his eyes flash and his Mom gasps and her eyes widen, and his Dad's expression is very carefully neutral, but his heart rate is going through the roof and Liam's seen fear on a lot of people -- his biology teacher, the kids at school, Monroe's hunters, even Mason and Hayden at some point -- but he don't think he's ever seen it on his parents, and he really can't bear to, so he's already up, heart racing and eyes burning, but he doesn't meet their eyes because he doesn't think he has it in him.

"Sorry," he croaks, shamed, tripping over his own feet, trying to get to the bag he had stuffed behind the couch. "Sorry, I'm really sorry," he repeats, the room blurring as he fails to stop the hot tears spilling down his cheeks. "I just--" he tries, slinging the bag over his shoulder with shaking hands, "I just thought you should know, but I'll just--"

"Liam," his Mom interrupts, hand on his shoulder, voice like steel, and he startles a bit because she's right in front of him, and he's been avoiding looking them in the eyes, but his Mom's expression is unreadable. "Let me see." Her hand moves from his shoulder to cup his face, and Liam tries not to lean into the contact, because he doesn't know how this is going to play out yet.

She waves away his confusion. "Liam," she coaxes, more gently, but this time it sounds like she's going to cry, which is somehow even worse. "Baby boy," she says, and now she really is crying, which means Liam's sobbing, but she still tries: "Show me."

And so Liam does.

She cries even harder and his Dad lets out a sharp inhale as her gentle fingertips explore his shifted face, lingering on the pointed ears and fangs, and Liam's honestly at his breaking point, before his Dad finally walks up to them, and he braces for the blow (metaphorically, of course, because even at his worst, Dr. Geyer wouldn't ever be Mr. Dunbar).

"Liam," he says, face looking drawn, like he's aged twenty years in the last fifteen minutes. That's my fault, Liam thinks faintly, and then meets his Dad's eyes. "Liam," he tries again, voice coming out thick. He clears his throat, and puts his arms around Liam and his Mom. "You know this doesn't change anything," he says, and the throat-clearing didn't really help much, because he still sounds choked up. Liam's Mom is still exploring his face, crying quietly in the background. "You have to know your Mom and I love you no matter what," he says, a little desperately, a little out of his element, before tightening his arms, bringing them both closer to his chest, holding them, and assures, voice full of steely resolve: "No matter what."

And Liam? Liam's done. His Dad is gripping his shoulder hard, grounding, and his mom is nodding frantically, and Liam's almost hysterical, and so he finally lets go for the first time in months, right there on the living room floor, and sobs in his parents' arms. It feels like oxygen finally returned to his lungs; the crushing weight of uncertainty lifted off his chest, and they're all crying, but it's so much better than none of them talking at all.

When he finally calms down enough for his sobs to subside into hiccups, his Dad maneuvers a steaming cup of hot chocolate into his hands, almost boiling, just the way he likes it, and the drink -- and the action -- warm him from the inside out.

He finally feels settled when his Mom sights the backpack still slung over one shoulder and furrows her brows. He sees her do it and stiffens, dread refilling his stomach as he hopes she won't ask. But then again, he's never been all that lucky. "Are you going to school today?" She flips her phone up, confirming the date. "Liam, it's a Saturday," she admonishes, still frowning. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Liam thinks it's kind of hilarious that he's been so off lately that his parents doubt he knows his days of the week.

"Um," he replies eloquently, trying to find the words to say  I was worried you were going to kick me out, or maybe make up a believable lie, but if there's anything that's come from this exhausting morning, its that he's done with the lies, so he just comes out with it, as gently as he knows how. "No, I know," he assures. "This, " he gestures toward the bag, ignoring the guilt starting to pool in his stomach, "was just . . . You know." Just in case is what he thinks, and its what he says out loud.

Unfortunately, his efforts to soften the blow are wasted, because his Mom understands immediately, and her face crumples again, and Liam's guilt comes back tenfold, before she just pulls him into her chest, backpack and all, and squeezes him tight. Liam can hear her crying, and can feel the tears forming in his own eyes, and he lets her rock him back and forth, as she whispers reassurances into the crown of his head.

When they're settled once again, emotionally drained, and out of tears, he repossesses his hot chocolate. His Mom is still wiping the tears from her face but she's done crying, and he finally feels like maybe everything is going to be okay. Liam gives them the rundown on the rest of it -- the Berserkers, the Deadpool, the Dread Doctors, before finally concluding with the hunter situation. He tells them about last night, the hospital, and they listen intently, and it feels so damn good to get everything off his chest after spending so long keeping it bottled up.

"Huh," his Dad says, looking like he's still processing.

"So, uh. Yeah," Liam rubs his neck, feeling awkward. Rehashing their adventures is somehow more bizarre than experiencing them. "It's kind of messed up, but we're still trying to fix it. We still need to find Monroe, but for now . . ."

His Dad nods, still speechless. His Mom looks considering, which is starting to worry him, but she doesn't say anything either. He guesses the quiet is supposed to encourage him to talk, but it's just unnerving him . He struggles to find something to fill the silence, before a thought niggles at the back of his brain.

"Hey, so before I told you about the whole, uh, werewolf thing" Liam says, thinking, it probably shouldn't be this awkward to just talk to your own parents, "you guys kind of seemed like. . . You were expecting me to say something else?" And then it's his parents' turn to be awkward, his Dad's expression going carefully neutral again as he shifts uncomfortably, while his Mom looks sheepish. Liam is suddenly dreading the answer.

"Liam," his Dad starts, frighteningly solemn. Liam regrets everything. "You know we love you no matter what."

". . . Yeah?" Liam replies, because he does, and he especially does after their entire afterschool-special in the living room, but now he's worried. "What does that have to do with -- Mom?" He turns to his Mom helplessly. She fiddles with the handle of her mug, and tucks her hair behind her ear, like she's trying to buy time to think up the right words. Obviously, she doesn't take enough time, because what she comes out with is:

"We thought you were finally going to tell us that you . . . Uh," she frowns, turning to his Dad. "What's the lacrosse version of 'bat for both teams'? 'Stick for both teams'? They call them sticks right?" The frown that elicits from his Dad is much more impressive. Liam is very confused and also starting to miss the silence.

"One," says Dad, "don't remind him of that time he accidentally scored for the other team, hon, you know he's still sensitive about that." His Mom nods, agreeing, and Liam bristles, but before he can muster up an appropriately indignant retort, his Dad continues, "and two: I really don't think stick is the word you'd want to go for if you're trying to have a serious conversation about sexuality instead of just, uh. Phallic imagery?"

And that's when Liam finally catches the thread of what the fuck his parents are talking about, chokes on an enormous sip of hot chocolate, and has a near-death experience as it enters is lungs, and is expelled violently out his nose. He groans, eyeing the hot chocolate, betrayed, as his nasal passages try to heal themselves from third degree burns. His Dad looks appropriately sympathetic to his pain, while his Mom just looks like she's trying not to laugh.

"Phallic imagery?" Liam echoes faintly, scandalized and miserable, and his Mom absolutely loses it, cackling, while his Dad looks uncomfortable.

"Yeah," his Dad exclaims, apparently defensive now. "Because it's like, you know -- " and then he makes some truly awful hand gestures that Liam would honestly, genuinely endure trephination for, just to have them burned from his brain. He sees visits to Eichen in his near future. His Mom is on the floor, making noises like she's dying, tears running down her cheeks.

"I'm literally begging you to never do that again," Liam says, desperate. "I'll leave this family. Don't think I won't."

His Dad crosses his arms, narrowing his eyes, apparently unwilling to concede the point, but that's okay, because Liam's thoughts are going a mile a minute. He realizes he's been quiet too long to be considered normal, staring  blankly into the cocoa puddle on the table.

"I'm straight," he says, but his voice sounds strangled, even to his own ears. "I am," he tries again, unconvincingly, going by his Mom's dubious look as she picks herself off the floor and returns to her chair. Liam barely notices, heart racing, and then out of nowhere, his mind conjures up an image of pretty green eyes flashing yellow and a low, grounding voice in an elevator, lying straight to his face, 'I won't die for you'. "Oh my god," he whispers, as doubt floods his mind. His head whips up to meet his parents' eyes, looking between them wildly, "Oh my god, am I?"

And now both his parents look appropriately sympathetic, but Liam's mind is still whirring, because wow do a lot of things make sense now. A lot, Liam thinks, feeling his face start to heat up. When he snaps himself out of his daze, his parents are eyeing him again, his Mom amused and his Dad looking at him in askance. Liam opens his mouth to explain, unsure what he's going to say even as he does it, because it's not like he can explain the realization that it was in fact not that straight to have hate-fueled jerkoff sessions while thinking about his lacrosse rival (a habit he thankfully broke himself out of, after leaving Devenford), when his Mom, bless her heart, thankfully holds up a hand to halt whatever the fuck was going to come out of his mouth, and grants him a reprieve with an amused, "You know what, sweetie, I think that's alright, you've done more than enough sharing today," and Liam's face is on fire. He desperately casts around for a new, safer topic, as  the silence just seems to encourage the reframed scenes flitting through his brain, like this new and exciting revelation unlocked some repressed memories, Valack novel-style.

Thankfully, his Dad takes pity on him. "Are your friends alright?" he asks gently. "After everything last night, I mean. It sounds like things got pretty messy." Messy is an understatement, Liam thinks, but it’s a well-meaning one, so he lets it go.

"Yeah," he replies, before the same thread of worry that bugged him last night makes itself known. Liam frowns. "I think so. I mean, Theo kind of disappeared last night. Even though I'm pretty sure he took a couple really bad hits." Liam's parents don't need to know that really bad hits actually means poison-laced bullets, especially after today's conversation seemed to take five years off their life. Liam feels a hand on his shoulder, and looks up to find his Mom smiling at him, ominously, frustratingly knowing.

"Don't worry," she reassures, ruffling his hair affectionately. Liam scowls, mostly out of obligation, and bats her hand away. Her smile doesn't falter. "I'm sure he'll turn up soon." And Liam returns her smile, sipping his lukewarm cocoa, actually settling into the silence, and thanking whatever deity blessed him with his parents, who really do seem to love him no matter what.

___

He gets his worries assuaged at the grocery store of all places, a couple days later. Liam's scanning his eyes down the crumpled list that his mom pushed into his hands before shoving him out the front door ("You can't avoid them forever, Liam. You don't have to forgive them, but if you want to finish your senior year here, you have to at least get used to seeing them."), one hand trying (failing) to maneuver the cart, when he bumps into someone. He yanks his cart back, apology at the ready, but he feels it a split second before he sees it -- the buzz of static, the smell of pine --  and his head jerks up so fast he almost gives himself whiplash.

"Hey," Theo says,  corner of his mouth twitching in amusement. His eyes scan down, and then back up Liam's body, but not like he's interested; more like he's still expecting to see the blood on it. Liam pretends not to be doing the same, eyes lingering on his left calf, where Liam swears he saw Theo take more than a couple of bullets. But Theo really does seem to be walking normally, so Liam dismisses his worry, feeling much lighter, before his eyes zero in on the three lone packs of Red Bull in Theo's cart. He tries not to show the judgement he's feeling on his face, but he must not succeed because Theo laughs. Liam's eyes snap back to his face, watching his eyes crinkle. He looks good, considering the last time Liam saw him, he was covered in blood, sweat, and gunpowder residue. But then again, he always looks good. Liam has never wanted to punch him more.

So he does, hard.

A pained grunt escapes Theo as his fist collides and Theo gets knocked into the wall of bread behind him. Theo eyes the stacks of bread tumbling to the ground, and his arm goes automatically to the bruising shoulder, massaging it. He looks surprised for a brief instant, before scowling the sore skin like it somehow betrayed him. He furrows his brows and meets at Liam's eyes, bemusement clear on his face. "What the hell," he hisses, "are you playing at?"

Liam's trying not to cry. "You asshole," he croaks, voice thick with emotion that he can't be bothered to hide. He punches him again, in the same shoulder, and Theo cries out, louder this time, frown deepening, but Liam isn't done. "I can't fucking believe you."

Theo looks at Liam like he's lost his mind, but Liam feels like he's the only one with any sanity left. "What are you --" Theo tries, only to be cut off by another swinging fist, but Theo catches it this time because Liam's sloppy and almost sagging with relief. They lock eyes for a brief moment before Theo slowly, pointedly, lets his hand go. Not even a full second goes by before Liam grabs him again.

"Oh my god," Theo says, indignant and exasperated all at once. His arms are coming up like he's planning to defend himself. "Well if you're just going to hit me again --"

And the rest of his protests are swiftly terminated by Liam yanking him by the shoulders into his own chest, hand moving up to cradle the back of his head, pressing him close to his body as his other arm winds around his neck, and he breathes the smell of him in. Theo has gone completely still, completely silent, heart beating a mile a minute, (which Liam can feel like its his own because their fronts are practically plastered together) but Liam's really not in the mood for Theo's weird flavor of emotional repression right now, so he just holds on tighter and silently wills Theo to get with the program, because right now, Liam physically doesn't think he can let go. He apparently arrives at some kind of decision, hesitantly wrapping gentle arms around Liam's waist, and Liam has to hide a smile in the warmth of Theo's neck. He noses at the junction between his jaw and shoulder, scenting Theo lightly, before he realizes what he's doing and very deliberately makes himself stop. Theo doesn't seem to notice, or he definitely would've said something, or gone all horrible and stiff again, but he stays in Liam's arms, pliant and relaxed now, they way he almost never is.

"Are you okay?" Liam asks, because he needs to make sure. "You didn't even stay long enough to get hustled into medical like the rest of us."

"'Course," Theo scoffs, turning his head away from Liam, "I'm fine. Obviously." He uses the duh tone like punctuation, like they're done, but Liam's wolf is really not satisfied yet, so he just takes Theo's words for the reassurance that he thinks they're meant to be, and pulls him in tighter.

"What's this for," Theo murmurs, almost directly against his neck, and Liam tries valiantly to hide the shiver working its way down his spine, focusing on the words instead.

"You left," Liam chides quietly. "After we--" He stops. Tries again. "After everything." And then: "And then I thought you really left, like, just took your truck and booked it, because why would you--? After everything that happened here, there's nothing that's --" 

Theo pulls back a little to meet his eyes, frowning, and the only reason Liam allows it is because he stays within the circle of Liam's arms. Theo searches his face for a while, and Liam quiets, because even he doesn't know how we was going to finish that thought, doesn't have the words describe the panic creeping up his throat when he realized that they might never see each other again. His eyes sting a little, and Theo seems to find something in his face, because his frown deepens. Liam wants to smooth out the line between his brows with his thumb, but his hands are comfortable where they're resting on Theo's hips.

"Hey," Theo says, and Liam's eyes snap back to his. "I wouldn't just go." Liam eyes him dubiously. "At least not," he concedes "without telling someone first," but Liam's still disbelieving. "C'mon, Liam," Theo says, laughing. "Leave? And miss out on all this fun?" He gestures with his free hand to the customers and salespeople eyeing them with trepidation (although why anyone would be worried that they're here to take revenge when Liam is clearly distracted and not in possession of all his mental faculties is beyond him), and then to his and Liam's bodies, still fairly pressed against one another, and his smile morphs into a smirk. "I would never." And they lock eyes again, but this time, the eye contact is so deliberate, and filled with so much intent, that Liam burns, feeling the heat in his cheeks and under the collar, but he finds himself completely unable to move, to break the moment, until a customer clears her throat uncomfortably, and has to swerve her cart with an impressive level of creativity just to avoid hitting them and all the bread on the floor, and Liam coughs awkwardly, extracting his hands from their tight grip on Theo's slim hips, and breaking eye contact, keeping his eyes firmly the ground, because if that shit lasts any longer, he's in danger of doing something very stupid. His conviction is laughable, however, eyes are dragged back up, as if by a magnet, and he watches with rapt fascination as a pretty pink flush spreads across Theo's cheekbones (Oh, Liam thinks. Oh no.). Theo lets go of his shoulders, and he smiles, small but genuine, and says softly "It was really good to see you,", squeezing his shoulder once, before turning around and taking his cart by the handle. He glances back once, punctuates it with a whispered "Dumbass", but it's fond and he's still smiling, before shaking his head and disappearing from the aisle. Liam waits to feel Theo leaving the store with his weird werewolf spider-sense, before he lets himself think, Okay, so maybe I already did the stupid thing, slumping back into the aisle -- and maybe I know what that fucking spider-sense is after all --  sliding down to the floor, head in his hands, until he can figure out how to function again.

He returns to himself about fifteen minutes later. His heartbeat's finally calm, and he can actually focus his eyes enough to read his Mom's (honestly offensive) handwriting, and he's surrounded by bread. He's too embarrassed to explain himself to an employee (even though he's pretty sure they already know), but he's already late and he doesn't have the time to stack it himself. He looks around wildly, to make sure no one's watching, before fixing it the only way he knows how.

The people in the store are looking at him differently after Theo left: sympathetically, knowingly. The cashier is clearly trying not to laugh as she rings up eighteen loaves of bread. "You're the one they warned us about," she says ominously, and Liam goes completely still, blood roaring in his ears. He knew it wasn't over, it couldn't have been that easy, because nothing in Beacon fucking Hills ever -- "In the math problems," she clarifies, and Liam's panicked internal monologue goes quiet as he struggles to process, and something she sees in his expression makes her lose her already tenuous grip on professionalism, as she doubles over, cackling. "Maybe next time," she says, in between peals of laughter, "you want to get, uh. Violently intimate," she gestures to the bread aisle, and then pointedly eyes the alarming amount of bread in his cart, and then snorts, helpless, and Liam feels like his face is on fire, "don't pick the grocery store? I'd have to write you up." She finally stops laughing, but her eyes still are. "You," she says solemnly, handing Liam the receipt, "have made my day. Honestly." And then she starts laughing again, so Liam takes the receipt, and does his best to look like he's not fleeing as he exits the grocery store very quickly (but not so quickly so as to be mistaken for fleeing, because Liam is a werewolf, and fought in a war, and does not flee, thank you very much).He can still hear the people snickering inside, and he resigns himself to finding a new grocery store, one where people don't think Liam apparently ravished Theo Raeken up against the bread aisle.

Well, he thinks faintly, speedwalking through the parking lot, at least it's not fear, and Liam takes it as a win, because he's generous with himself like that.

Chapter Text

The second time Liam notices something, it's months later; almost December.

It's the beginning of Thanksgiving Break, and Liam's looking forward to relaxing a bit, taking a break from college applications, and seeing some of the older pack members back from college. He's looking forward to watching football and gorging himself on his Dad's god-tier pie and trash-talking awful rom-coms with Theo and Melissa.

(The rom-coms were a tradition that they had started way before he ever got involved, but he walked in on them once, laughing so violently he thought they were being attacked, "The Christmas Prince" frozen on the TV screen, paused on that ridiculous frame of the reporter lifting her ballgown up to reveal her I'm Not Like Other Girls converse, and Liam couldn't help his curiosity. So, he settled in next to Theo on the McCall's couch, long line of heat at his side, sat through almost an hour of Theo and Melissa making sarcastic asides with astoundingly similar brands of snark, and by the end, his abdomen was so sore from laughing that he thought he was going to puke. He's been attending their movie nights ever since.)

Liam's looking forward to inviting Theo to Thanksgiving (which he's been putting off until the right moment, because this is a careful situation and Theo's kind of a weirdo about family and Liam just knows that if he doesn't play his cards exactly right, it'll send him running for the hills, so he’s still practicing his delivery), and he's looking forward to forcing everyone to relax for once because everyone who's not still in high school (and Stiles, who finished his fancy FBI program, and is starting at a new, slightly more confidential, and infinitely more intimidating one, very soon) has been working days and nights trying to pinpoint Monroe's movements. Theo has new dark circles under his eyes to accessorize the dark circles that were already there, Scott always looks like he's going to throw up, and even Argent looks tired and drawn these days.

Liam's looking forward to all these things -- he's looking forward to a nice, stress free, week-long vacation.

But of course, because this is the real world, and not some blessed fantasy in which life doesn't suck balls, they spend the first day of Thanksgiving Break in a warehouse just outside of Sacramento, where they guessed Monroe was storing supplies. They were right about the supplies, but due to a slight miscalculation, the warehouse was not as abandoned as they assumed it would be.

I was supposed to taste test pies today, Liam thinks, vindictively smashing the nose of a spastic bald hunter who shot Malia-- and was gearing up to do it again -- with perhaps a bit more force than necessary. He tries not to take too much pleasure in the painful-sounding snap of the man's head back, and acutely fails. Pies, plural.

Liam can hear the usual cacophony of violence behind him; he can feel Scott's roar vibrating through the air, Malia's snarl, the whistling of Theo's claws through the air, Kira's sword clanging as it knocks weapons out of trigger-happy hands (something to be said for bringing a sword to a gun-fight, Liam thinks half-hysterically, as he dodges the bolt of a crossbow), shouts punctuated by distinctive muted gunshots (although whether they're courtesy of Stiles or Argent, he can't tell). The sound, in a manner that would be fascinating to the therapist that he's going to need by the end of high school at this rate, comforts him. His pack at his back, fighting for the greater good.

Liam yanks the gun that the bald hunter starts reaching for out of his hand and parries the butt of it into his temple. The man crumples, and Liam breathes in relief for a second, before turning to survey the situation behind him. He almost wishes he hadn't.

In the pack's attempts to cutoff Monroe's supplies, they'd learned one crucial preference: hunters, as a direct consequence of lacking the supernatural capabilities of the individuals they hunted, find in strength in numbers. Even in a goddamn storage warehouse, Liam thinks disbelievingly, stomach turning at the sheer amount of bodies strewn across the floor. They're all still alive, just injured. But there's still half of them to go. It’s times like these he misses Lydia and the convenience of her long-range death screams, but unfortunately, her flight doesn’t get in for another couple of days.

And so, Liam throws himself back into the fray, letting the shift take him, slashing, clawing, snarling at anyone with poor enough self-preservation to try taking down the werewolf with anger issues, mowing down hunters left and right. They're too low-level to know how to defend themselves -- mostly lookouts and hired muscle -- and Liam uses it to his advantage, adrenaline surging through his veins as he temporarily loses track of time, stuck in a violent haze. His only moment of lucidity, is when he heard Theo's surprised gasp.

In hindsight, it's surprising that Liam hears it at all, considering how quiet it is in comparison to the battle raging around them. But it cuts through Liam's tirade of takedowns, as his eyes snap to Theo, somehow easily finding him despite the melee. But he looks for just long enough to see what must've caused the gasp, and Liam's blood runs cold. In the middle of Theo's stomach, so far inside that only the hilt is still visible, is a hunter knife, deeply embedded.

Liam screams something that might be Theo's name, but nobody seems to hear him over the fighting, and then Liam hears a loud, desperate roar, before realizing that that's his own too. He's already racing forward, supernatural speed being put to full use, a third of the way to Theo, when something hits him hard in the back of the head, and now it's his turn to crumple. Dark spots swim before his eyes, but Liam mostly ignores them as he tries to get back on his feet to deal with the hunter who clipped him (who, Liam notes somewhere in the back of his mind, behind the part that's been desperately screaming since he saw that knife in Theo's stomach, ironically, is also bald). It doesn't take much to deal with him; a vicious swipe of unsheathed claws to the chest, an elbow to the nose, and he's out like a light. Frantically, Liam turns back to the section of the room he last saw Theo in, fervently hoping he's not too late, before he spots him, stomach knife-free, fighting like he's absolutely fine.

False alarm, Liam thinks, cautiously hopeful, his thoughts slow like taffy, as the numbness starts to fade a bit, and the relief begins to trickle in. Theo's head whips around, like he could feel Liam watching, his face baring some expression too complicated to dissect in the middle of a gunfight, and they lock eyes for a long moment, before Liam has spin around and block another vicious blow to the head, and slips back into the haze that comes with the shift. He lets his eyes flash, and feels the wave of power that rolls through his body, his vision going tunneled and teeth getting sharper.

Like this, it’s much harder to think with his rational, human brain. With the wolf on the surface instead of buried inside, especially just a couple days from the full moon, all thoughts seem to filter through his animalistic consciousness before they enter his own. Which is Liam’s only sensible explanation for why he’s still shifted, snarling and clawing at air, long after the remaining hunters apparently decided to cut their losses, piling into the few SUVs that miraculously don't have bullet holes in the tires. He's brought out of his haze by someone shoving him up against the wall, and he snarls again, fangs unsheathed, but settles a bit at the familiar scent.

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

Liam opens his eyes to find Theo, an appealing combination of concerned and disheveled, frowning at him. Liam grits his teeth. "Happens sometimes," he hisses, through the mouthful of fangs he's trying to force back into his gums, "close to the full moon." Theo's expression goes slack in understanding. He nods, slings an arm around Liam, cupping the back of his neck, and Liam wonders, half-hysterically, if this is Theo trying to help him get his heart rate back down, because if so, he's doing terribly. But the firm hand on the nape of his neck is grounding, and Theo flashes his own eyes, sympathetic, and when he whispers "What three things cannot long be hidden,", Liam is helpless to do anything but respond obediently while he tries to remember how to breathe. His fangs and claws are sheathed within seconds, and when Liam returns to himself and finally tunes into the world outside of the bubble him and Theo had manufactured for themselves, he can hear the angry screech of tires on uneven pavement in the distance, and Argent's disgruntled long-range shooting at car tires. He scans the room, making a brief, perfunctory assessment of the injuries, and breathes a quiet sigh of relief when he sees nothing bad enough to warrant concern.

Argent makes the necessary phone calls, and offers to stay for the cleanup, dismissing the rest of them to go home and get treated for their injuries, quelling Scott's immediate protest with a very intimidating Look. They begin their trek to the tires, feet dragging across the ground with exhaustion. Liam ends up in the front, unconsciously having fallen in step with Theo, everyone else trailing behind them. Unconsciously, Liam's mind scoffs, insultingly mocking, yeah right, before Liam consciously tells it to shut the fuck up. Theo's quiet next to him on the walk, which is fine because Liam is in the middle of a vicious internal argument with himself about being honest about what he wants (the irony), right up until he smells it. Blood. Fresh, not dried.

"You're hurt," he blurts, head whipping to Theo, who looks a little hunted at the accusation. He crosses his arms, defensive, raising his chin in defiance, the dumbass. Liam frowns.

"I'm fine," he scoffs, dismissive, deliberately avoiding Liam's eyes like that's a strategy that's actually going to work. Liam is not fucking having it.

"You're clearly not," Liam says, more panicked than he would like, eyes scanning Theo's body frantically, searching for the source of the blood. "I can literally smell it. That knife did get you, didn't it? I knew it."

"I said I'm fine," Theo says, through teeth that are clearly clenched. Liam can hear his molars grinding, and tries not to wince. But more importantly, he can still smell the blood.

"Oh my god," Liam snaps, finally losing his (honestly admirable amount of) patience, "just let me see,", and he halts their walking so that he can start scrabbling at Theo's crossed arms, trying to pull them apart and assess the damage underneath. Theo's eyes flare the second Liam's hands make contact with his body.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Theo hisses, hackles raised, as he shoves Liam off him hard, before winding his arms even tighter around himself than before. "I said I'm fine and I am." A beat of silence. And then, quieter, sneering: "Fuck off, Dunbar, don't pretend to care on my account."

"Newsflash asshole, I do actually care," Liam can't help but retort, and now his hackles are up too, and he hisses back, "some of us actually have a fucking heart,", because he means 'I'm not like all those people who never gave a shit about you' and 'let me take care of you, dumbass' and 'I'm sorry you had to suffer so much for so long, but I'm here now' and 'yeah, my heart's basically yours, so what?'.

It takes him a whole moment of absolute silence, the pack gone completely quiet behind them, and Theo gone deathly still, arms finally uncrossed, face utterly blank, for Liam to replay the words in his head, and understand what it actually sounded like. No one moves a muscle, except for Theo, whose blank expression spasms.

"Oh," Theo says, very quietly, and his hand comes up to his sternum, almost unconsciously, as he presses hard, and Liam's heart breaks, stomach flooding immediately and painfully with guilt.

"No, hey--" he tries weakly, throat closing up, but Theo doesn't even appear to hear him, starting to walk forward again, eyes blank like he's in a daze.

"Right," Liam hears him whisper, and then louder, to him and the rest of the pack: "Right, I, uh. I have to go." And Liam didn't even notice that they had made it to the cars already, but he sure as hell is aware of them now, now that Theo's advancing quickly on his blue truck, deliberately avoiding his eyes, and Liam's groping around desperately for the right words to fix this, somehow, his heart in his throat.

"Theo, wait," he croaks, panicked, "Theo, that’s not what I --"

"See you around, Dunbar," Theo says, quiet enough that Liam's the only one to hear him, voice devoid of all emotion, eyes fixed firmly on the windshield, swiftly cutting off any further attempts by pulling the car door shut, and immediately flooring it out of the parking lot, merging onto the highway in a maneuver that causes a cacophony of honks that only faintly register in Liam's ringing ears. He can still smell Theo's blood. He barely has the presence of mind to notice the rest of the pack around him, caught up and are eyeing him with varying levels of disbelief.

It's Malia who decides to break the silence. "So your wooing strategy," she says, blunt as always, narrowing her eyes at him, "was to tell him he doesn't have a heart?"

"Solid plan, buddy," Stiles comes up to him, smacking him on the back. Liam thinks he might cry. "I mean it's a little far, but at Quantico, the Behavioral Analysis Unit taught about the effectiveness of negging, so hey, whatever --"

"Stiles," Scott chastises, tone brokering no room for argument. He shoots a similarly admonishing look at Malia, that Liam only sees because he's still staring into the distance. She puts up both arms in mock surrender, making a face.

"I wasn't trying to --" Liam tries, the words sticking in his throat as he tries to get them out. He takes a deep breath, and opens his mouth again, manages a desperate "I didn’t mean --"  before being cut off by a warm, broad palm on his shoulder. It grounds him, Scott's presence.

"I know you didn't," Scott replies, gentle, squeezing his shoulder sympathetically. Liam's eyes sting.

"I have to go after him," Liam tries to insist, meeting Scott's eyes, the words tasting like ash in his mouth. "To explain."

"And you will," Scott says, tone warm and reassuring like it always is, and Liam feels it like a balm on his tightly-wound heart. "But maybe give him a little time first?" And Liam nods numbly, deferring to Scott's judgement, because he's seen what happens when Liam tries to make decisions.

"But Scott," he tries, breaking out of his numbness a bit, unable to let it go. "Scott, I smelled blood on him. Fresh blood."

Scott shuts his eyes, brow furrowed in concentration, and Liam stays still, unwilling to break whatever Alpha voodoo Scott's trying to attempt. After a couple minutes, Scott opens his eyes again, looking lighter.

"It doesn't seem like he's in any pain," he says, and Liam feels a weight lift.

"Are you sure?" Liam asks, unable to keep the doubt out of his voice, because it's not like he doesn't believe him, but it feels like this whole True Alpha thing comes with weird new level-ups every day, and he's never once seen Scott do that before. "Can you feel all of us? In your head? All the time?"

Scott smiles a bit, nodding. "Pack bonds," he explains, tapping his temple with an index finger as Liam stills. His smile grows. "I can feel the whole pack up here. All of you."

---

(Liam shows up at the diner towards the end of Theo's evening shift. It's not an ambush, but it can't really be called anything else. Liam is way past giving a damn, but just to be polite, he orders a slice of pie anyways, like he always does, before settling into his usual spot in the middle of the counter.

"Hey, stranger," Theo says, grinning as he places a steaming slice of apple pie down in front of Liam and slinging a towel over one broad, uniformed shoulder. Liam's mouth waters and he tells himself its because of the pie.

"Hi," Liam replies, embarrassingly helpless to return the smile, before he gains back his wits. "So," Liam says, in a tone that he hopes comes off as nonchalant, "have any plans tonight?" He winces inwardly at how much it sounded like a pickup line, but Theo doesn't even seem to notice, returning Liam's perfectly reasonable inquiry with an honestly, offensively suspicious look.

"No," Theo replies slowly, eyes narrowed and considering as he leans against the counter. "It's my turn to close up, but that's it. Why?"

Liam clears his throat once, twice, to get the sticky-warm apple out of it. "Pack meeting tonight," he manages, overly casual, and that gets a reaction out of Theo. Not an overt one, because he's him, but his puzzling expression is quickly replaced by that awful, blank, neutral one he gets sometimes. Don't hide, Liam thinks, a bit desperately, not from me.

Finally, he seems to sort out whatever's happening in his head, and the blank expression slips right off, as easy as he slipped it on in the first place. "Liam," Theo groans, dropping his head to the counter. Liam manfully ignores the noise for the sake of remaining publicly decent. He's also wishing he chose to sit anywhere other than the counter, which is currently, much too exposed for Liam. He's interrupted from his wistful gazing toward the booths by Theo's long, drawn out sigh. "You've got to stop inviting me to those," he says, whiny, but there's something complicated going on in his eyes, and in the barely distinguishable tremor in his voice. "It's awkward."

"First of all," Liam starts, indignant, "Scott is the one inviting you," because it's true; Scott was the one who said hey, can someone go get Theo, I want his take on this, and Liam might've been the first to volunteer (for reasons he didn't want to examine too closely, and neither did Scott, going by the constipated look he gave him when Liam's hand shot up), because he knows Theo, and Theo is weirdly flaky about pack meetings, and without this ambush, he might try to do something ridiculous like give Scott the information over the phone and then persistently avoid them for the next week. Theo lifts his head up at that, peering at him curiously.

"Yeah?" Theo asks, frowning, staring determinedly down at the counter as he pulls the towel off his shoulder and begins methodically wiping it down. "What does he want?"

"He was going over Monroe's strategy again, said you had a specialty in. . ." Liam frowns, casting his mind back for exactly what Scott said he wanted Theo's help with, ". . . Byzantine battle tactics?"

"Napoleonic," Theo corrects absently, still focused on a particularly stubborn coffee stain on the counter, and Liam's dumb little history-buff heart tries not to find it mind-numbingly hot and fails miserably. He feels himself twitch painfully in his pants and shifts uncomfortably, longing for the cover of the booth once more, and he prays that he doesn't know anyone here, because the situation downstairs is becoming increasingly difficult to hide.

"Right," he says, voice coming out embarrassingly hoarse, clearing his throat a couple times after Theo gives him a strange look. God, his chemosignals must be a mess. Liam shakes his head once, twice, trying to clear it. It's only semi-successful, but he soldiers on valiantly. "And what do you mean, awkward? It's not awkward! Why would it be awkward?" Theo gives him a Look that very clearly says, you're the dumbest person I've met, maybe ever and Liam sets his jaw, unrepentant. "It’s not," he insists, "don't pretend like they aren't your friends," and then when Theo opens his mouth, seemingly to protest, Liam already knows what he's about to say, and he's just, so, incredibly over it today, that he puts his hand right on Theo's mouth, quelling any further bullshit. "You drive me, Corey, Mason, and Nolan around constantly, even though you don't have to. You taught Alec how to control the shift; really control it. You spar with Malia when she needs to burn off some anger and you let Lydia drag you to the mall and dress you up like her personal Barbie doll when she's home on the weekends just because she told you once that it helps her clear her mind," Liam says, determined now, and on a roll. Theo's mouth is warm and soft under Liam's hand, but he doesn't let his thoughts stray in that direction because here be dragons and all that. "You're the only one who has the patience to play Go with Kira, and the only one who understands what the fresh hell intelligence-agency bullshit comes out of Stiles's mouth these days, and Scott and Melissa get antsy when you stay away for too long." The 'and so do I' goes unsaid, but Theo looks absolutely dumbstruck and his scent is doing something complicated, so Liam just relishes the triumph. "Stop avoiding us, dumbass," Liam says, shoving him gently in the shoulder and trying not to smile. "We like you. We're your friends. Your pack." And at that, Theo's expression drops. He pulls Liam's hand away from his mouth gently, and Liam suppresses a shudder at the electric brush of soft lips across his palm. Theo's still holding his hand, and Liam's head is filled with a pleasant kind of white noise, until he starts talking again.

"Liam," Theo says, sounding pained, pleading almost. "Why is this so hard for you to understand?” He lets go of Liam’s hand, and scrubs a hand across his jaw. Liam feels the loss of warmth immediately, and a small, embarrassing noise escapes his mouth, but Theo doesn’t even notice. ”I'm not pack. I'll never be pack." He says the word through clenched teeth, and articulates it like it's in another language, fitting his mouth around the consonants like the word is as foreign to him as the concept it represents. "After everything I’ve done. . ." he says, trailing off into a sardonic little laugh that Liam, frankly, doesn't find funny at all.

Liam sets his jaw, suddenly blindingly angry; so angry he can feel the shift lurking right underneath his skin, itching to burst out. "People change all the time, it's called growth" Liam says, sounding furious, completely beyond caring if his eyes are flashing right now, right in the middle of the diner. "People make mistakes, and then they redeem--"

"Liam," Theo interrupts, voice hoarse, a gentle kind of sad, one that cuts through Liam's anger, making him deflate, and makes Liam ache to hold his hand again. "People like me, people who do the things that I did," he starts, before gripping Liam's forearms, grounding, and staring right into his eyes. Liam is drowning in hazel green, throat gone completely dry. He tries to swallow, and hears his throat click. Theo's looking at him like he can see him, down to his very core. "It's important to me that you understand this," Theo says, gaze an intense an unrelenting pressure on Liam's bruised heart. Liam nods, helpless, tongue feeling too big for his mouth. "People like me," Theo tries again, "don't get a happy ending. We don't get redemption arcs." He smiles, sad, the saddest smile Liam's ever seen, and it makes something deep inside him clench. "The best we can ask for, is a second chance," he continues solemnly, "a chance to do better, to try to help instead of hurt, and to hope that someday, the good that we try to put out in the world outweighs all the bad that we were directly responsible for" Theo's hands briefly tighten their grip on Liam before he lets go, eyes suspiciously shiny, and Liam's own eyes sting sympathetically. Theo's face softens, eyes crinkling slightly. "You gave me that second chance," he says softly, flicking Liam on the nose and laughing, uninhibited, when his nose scrunches up in response. Liam's heart skips a beat at the sound. Theo gets serious again, eyes boring into Liam's, their hands so close together on the newly clean counter that their pinkies are almost brushing, and Liam can feel its presence like an electric current. He thinks, fleetingly, urgently, what if I just, but Theo's not done. "You gave me a second chance when you pulled me out of the ground, when you trusted me, when you fought with me. You did." His voice is almost a whisper, and Liam's just thankful he didn't say something horrible like thank you or worse: I owe you, but he's completely at a loss, stunned speechless, because he doesn't have the words to tell Theo just how wrong he is. He used up all his words trying to explain how much Theo belonged with them, and now he has nothing to say at all, but he thinks, with conviction, I'll find the words. He thinks, I'll find the words to make you understand. He thinks, how can someone be so beautiful and so wrong at the same time, and he thinks, determinedly, you deserve to be happy.

He thinks, I'll make you happy if it's the last fucking thing I do.

The moment is broken, by a violent clattering of pans from the kitchen. Theo turns to the source of the sound, smiling wryly, and then turns back to Liam, seemingly arriving at a decision. He gestures with his head toward the parking lot. "C'mon," he says, mouth twitching in a suppressed smile, "I'll get someone else to close. Give you a ride to Scott’s." Liam nods, still subdued, and makes to get up from his stool, when Theo tosses his head back, yelling, "Legs, I've got to go, can you lock up instead?" and Liam barely has the presence of mind to wonder, Legs?, before he hears another, even more violent clattering of pans, followed by a distinctly feminine voice screaming back from the kitchen, "Raeken, you flaky dipshit”, and then an even louder clattering followed by a sigh, and a grudging, ”go have fun" and Theo smiles, shaking his head, and the sharp spike of something that Liam tells himself fervently is absolutely not jealousy, that would be completely ridiculous, is more than enough to rid them of the vestiges of their weird moment, as Theo grabs his keys and Liam follows behind them.

Their conversation is still there, lurking in his conscience, but it's been swiftly shoved to the back of his mind, with the forefront almost completely occupied by a panicked discourse of, is 'Legs' a platonic nickname or a sexy one, as Theo speeds the whole way to Scott's house.

Scott opens the door with a smile, and Theo returns it, while Liam works to hide his own. As he settles in to his usual spot on the couch, watching Theo draw circles on a large map with a red Sharpie, the pack listening with rapt attention, he can't help but notice how settled Theo looks in his own skin here, and in that moment, Liam realizes, Theo can't see what's right in front of him, can't let himself believe it, he doesn't understand. Liam realizes that even though none of them have directly come out and said it, it's impossible for him to be anything but pack. Liam realizes, I'll just have to make him understand.)

___

And that, "the whole pack, all of you" gets rid of the last of the numbness, warmth replacing it instead. Because Theo is pack, officially and irrevocably and unmistakably, just like Liam always insisted he was, even when Theo constantly and consistently denied it, and pack is pack, and that means Liam has a chance to fix this. Liam’s mind flashes back to that evening in the diner, Theo sad and beautiful and impossible, whispering things like, people like me don’t get happy endings, and staring right into his soul, and Liam's stupid little heart is almost incandescently happy to prove him wrong.

It takes almost another full hour to load everything up into the cars, clean up and bandage wounds, and work out who's going with who, as Scott decides last minute to completely ignore Argent's orders, and have some people stay back anyways to help out. Liam spends the hour building up his resolve. I'll find him, he thinks, I'll find him, and I'll explain, and everything will be fine. Liam gets in the back of Stiles's Jeep, settling in as they pull onto the road, mind still echoing everything will be fine, as he slips into an exhaustion nap. They reach Beacon Hills two hours later, and Liam, getting out of the Jeep on wobbly legs, thinks, I'll find him, but first I'll give him some space.

It's not until later that they find out that Theo went straight to the bridge in the woods where Tara died, after arriving in Beacon Hills. It's not until later that they discover that Monroe had issued orders; orders to watch Beacon Hills, watch the comings and goings of the McCall pack alpha. Monroe's hunters, as a rule, or perhaps as a tradition, tend to favor communication via messages transmitted in complicated ciphers over a secret radio frequency. They're mind-numbingly long, (something Mason had complained about loudly and often when it was his responsibility to transcribe some of the messages), for the sake of thorough descriptions to make up for a lack of pictures and visuals. It's not until later, that they discover Monroe had issued a command to grab "Liam Dunbar, the McCall beta with yellow eyes, recently spotted most frequently in a beat-up, blue truck, see: attached license plate number".

And so, when a yellow-eyed beta in a blue truck is spotted in a secluded section of the woods, completely isolated from his pack, who they confirmed to be hundreds of miles away, it's Christmas-come-early for three smug, armed-to-the-teeth, hunters. Theo has lived with the Doctors for nine years, and has spent eight of them as a spy. The hunters wouldn't've stood a chance, had he not been completely off his guard, vision blurred, ears pounding with the blood rushing to his head. By the time he smells them, the bullets are already in his stomach.

It takes the McCall pack two hours to reach Beacon Hills. They arrive less than fifteen minutes after Theo Raeken had been dragged, kicking and screaming, through the woods, before being thrown into a black SUV. The wolfsbane in the bullets knocks him out, and he doesn’t wake until hours later, but by then, it’s much too late to try and fight back.

Somewhere in Beacon Hills, the real Liam Dunbar is lying on top of his covers, wide awake, still in the clothes he fought in, anxiety mounting for no discernible reason. But first I’ll give him some space, repeats Liam internally, this time with conviction. And so he ignores the unexplainable pit growing in his stomach, shuts his eyes, and forces himself to fall into something resembling sleep.

Theo wakes up to total and complete darkness, stale air, and the cool, unmistakable feeling of metal at his back. His veins turn to ice, and he thinks please, I'll do anything. Theo wakes up to the sense memory of a hell he stupidly thought he had escaped from when he climbed out of the ground, and he thinks please, please, please, not again, before promptly passing out.

Chapter Text

The third time Liam notices something is, easily, the absolute worst. Not even the worst out of his moments of realization, but the worst week of his life. And he nearly got murdered all those times before.

It starts like this: Liam thinks But first, I'll give him some space; a promise to himself, which is broken, swiftly and efficiently, after three days of uncontrollably mounting anxiety. He hasn't seen Theo since the warehouse, and Theo missed his scheduled strategy meeting with Scott, Stiles, and Argent the other day, and he might be avoiding Liam, but he wouldn't skip out on a meeting that important without any notice, just because he was upset (especially when he knows that time is of the essence, and  he definitely knows it was Stiles's last day before he had to head back to D.C.), so Liam can't help it; he worries.

You're supposed to call back after three days, Liam justifies, staring at his phone and trying to build up the courage to hit the call button, laughing to himself, at himself, that he's been relegated to using hook-up rules just to try to talk to his. . . Friend. Friend, his mind scoffs, disbelieving, but Liam's long past telling it to shut up, and now mostly just puts up with the mocking, because it's good practice for when everyone else finds out just how gone Liam really is for an emotionally repressed moron with green eyes, a blue truck, and a ledger soaked in red.

Liam stares at the phone screen for almost an entire fifteen minutes. (Not to look for Theo's contact information. Of course not; Theo was number four on his speed dial, and had been almost since they hit a ghost rider with a car. Mason gave him a very strange look the first time he found out -- unwarranted, in Liam's opinion. It's not a big deal. It's not.)

Theo's name stares back from the screen, almost mockingly. The screen is almost offensively bright at this time of dawn, and he has to squint just to look at it. It takes him another five minutes to place the call, and he tries not to be too disappointed when it goes straight to voicemail. Never one to give up easy, Liam calls back again. And again. It's on the eighteenth attempt, that he finally decides to change tacks. Absently, he wonders if Theo blocked his number, while he dials three on his speed dial for Mason and waits for him to pick up, pacing the length of his room.

He does, after exactly two rings, just like Liam knew he would, because Mason is nothing if not consistent. Liam doesn't even give him a chance to ask what's up, before diving straight in: "I need to find Theo," he tries, voice pleading, "I said I would give him space, and I did. It’s been three days." Liam can hear Mason's eyebrow-raise. "And I don't think he's taking my calls," he finishes, deflating. He hears a drawn out sigh from the other end of the line, which Liam privately thinks is a little unfair, but he ignores it, because he's a good friend like that.

Liam,” Mason groans. “Can this not wait until a more reasonable hour?”

“Mason,” Liam whines, because he knows how much Mason hates it, before unleashing a very convincing tirade of please please please please please that Mason cuts off with a muffled “oh my god, fuck you” and Liam tries not to be too smug about his victory (and fails horribly), waiting patiently through the rustling noises at the other end of the line, as Mason seemingly sits himself up.

"Why don't you just go to his place?" Mason tries, exasperated, voice more awake now, but still sleep-raspy. Liam feels a little bad, but the anxiety he's been feeling for the last couple days swiftly overpowers it. Mason yawns. "Stage an ambush or something."

"Right," Liam replies, nervously picking at the skin around his fingernails. There's a couple moments of silence, as Liam tries to figure out exactly how to address that particular suggestion, and the glaring hole in that plan. "Right, so, uh, about that."

"Liam," Mason snaps, somehow even more exasperated than before. "Man, it's like six in the morning, just spit it out."

"So," Liam continues, "so", he repeats, still trying to find the words, but he can sense Mason's rising agitation, even through the judgmental silence on the line, and so he spits it out, all at once, words coming out in a vaguely coherent rush: "So I kind of. . . Don't exactly, uh. Know where he lives?" There's a beat of silence. Then another.

"You. . ." Mason starts, sounding a little stunned, a lot disbelieving. Privately, Liam's a little impressed with himself, because he remembers Mason staunchly proclaiming that absolutely nothing could shock him anymore, after his time in the supernatural world. But mostly, Liam's embarrassed. Mason seems to recover from his bout of speechlessness admirably. "What the fuck?" he says, sounding absolutely incredulous, and Liam winces. "Liam, what the fuck. You guys hang out, like, all the time."

"Yeah, I know that, but," Liam hisses, getting defensive now, "But, we always hang out at my place, or in his truck, or at the preserve, or the diner, or -- whatever. It hasn't really come up."

"It hasn't come up," Mason echoes faintly. And then, incredulous again, "It hasn't come up?"

"Oh my god," Liam snaps, embarrassment manifesting into anger now, the way it always does, but Mason doesn't deserve it, so Liam takes a deep breath before he tries again. "It hasn't come up," he repeats, "He's never invited me to his place, and, like, you know Theo, he's a pretty private person, so." Another beat of silence. It's unnerving. Liam tries to find the words to fill it, because he's weak, and silence makes him nervous. "I was just respecting his boundaries," he tries, cringing as soon as the words leave his mouth.

"Respecting his boundaries," Mason echoes again, voice rising in volume. Liam hears a smothered laugh from the other end of the line, and then non-smothered one, half-hysterical. Liam frowns. He's been worried about Mason's mental health ever since he found out about the supernatural -- for an entire week, all it seemed he could say was "Intense" -- but it's starting to seem like this Theo conundrum has finally broken him. "Yeah," Mason says, sarcasm clear in his tone, even in between the peals of alarming laughter that keep escaping, "because when I think of people who are good at 'respecting each others boundaries' I definitely think of you and Theo." And then he laughs some more.

Maybe he needs more sleep, Liam thinks guiltily, starting to regret this call a bit, when a loud groan from the other end of the line interrupts his thoughts. Liam hears a dull thunk like Mason just dropped his head onto something hard. "Liam," Mason says, muffled. "Liam, I love you. But you're an idiot." And Liam frowns, an indignant, "Hey--" already bursting out, but Mason ignores him completely, continuing, "If there's literally one person on the face of the Earth that Theo would invite to his sketchy mystery home, it would be you." Liam blinks.

"I. . . Don't follow," Liam says, the bemusement he's feeling clear in his voice. He hears another, louder groan.

"I hate you," Mason says, still muffled, and Liam smiles a bit, finally letting himself get his hopes up. "I hate you, like, so much."

"I know," Liam reassures, trying to keep the grin out of his voice, as he starts sliding socks onto his feet, one-handed. "I know, buddy."

"Like, so much. You're the worst." Mason says, but his voice is distant, but Liam hears movement in the background, and he beams. "The worst person I've met, maybe, like, ever. And I met Jackson Whittemore that one time."

"Probably," Liam agrees, laughing. "I'll see you in twenty?”

“See you in twenty,” Mason agrees sportingly, because he’s the best. And then he grumbles “You owe me a venti, Dunbar. A fucking venti. None of that grande bullshit.” before hanging up, and Liam can’t help but chuckle, shoving his feet into sneakers and taking his Mom’s car keys off the hook by the door, closing the front door with a quiet click behind him. It's as he's fastening his seatbelt that Liam sees the message Mason sent in the puppy pack group chat.

emergency pp meeting at the usual place, 20 min, it says, because liam's a dumbass

Liam maturely resists the urge to groan and thump his head into the steering wheel, but it's a close thing.

Liam's phone vibrates twice, and he reads the replies, first, from Nolan -- It costs you $0 to not abbreviate puppy pack like that -- and then from Corey: wts in it fr us, because Corey's kind of a dick under that wholesome exterior. Mason sends back, he's buying us breakfast :), and this time, Liam lets himself face plant into the steering wheel, because he deserves it. It's another vibration that makes him pull his head back up, also from Mason: also theo if you read this pls call liam back he's a lil stupid but I promise he means well, and Liam scowls, puts his phone back in his pocket, and pulls out of the driveway.

He doesn't stop until he gets to Starbucks, where, instead of ordering verbally, he just shows the cashier the group chat, because some (read: one) of those orders are way too fucking messy for Liam to try reciting, and the last time Liam got two pumps of toffee nut syrup instead of three, Mason wouldn’t speak to him for a whole day. The cashier looks like Liam just placed him in front of a firing squad, and Liam winces sympathetically, placing an extra twenty in the tip jar. Fifteen minutes later, Liam walks out with two coffees, a muffin, and a gargantuan club sandwich. He carefully places the food in the passenger seat, before pulling out again, and heading to the usual place.

The usual place was a small clearing in the preserve, close enough to the refurbished Hale house to be Hale property, but far enough from the main road to grant some semblance of privacy. No one could see them from this section of the woods, and anyone trying to eavesdrop would have to contend with Derek's angry eyebrows and a growly, this is private property, since he’s taken to staying there instead of the loft, ever since he came back to help with the hunters. Liam and Mason discovered it mostly by accident, back when they were running around the woods, half-hysterical about ghost riders.

Liam parks his car deep enough in the preserve that it's not easily visible from the outside, grabs the food and drinks from the passenger seat, and shuts the door with his foot. He hears the car lock automatically with a beep behind him, and he starts up a light jog toward the usual place. It takes him barely any time to reach the clearing, where everyone else has seemingly been waiting. Mason and Corey look half dead, standing, but leaning on each other for support. Nolan's sitting on a rock, drowning in an enormous sweatshirt, arms wrapped around himself, wearing shorts that are definitely far too short for public decency, and for late November. Liam's almost blinded by the flash of early sunlight reflecting off his pasty thighs. Alec's still in pajamas too, lying flat on the floor, face down in the dirt.

When Liam enters the clearing, Alec perks up a little at the smell of food, Nolan startles a bit and falls off his rock, and Mason's eyes snap to him, before he breaks away from Corey. Corey doesn't stop leaning, but doesn't tip over either. Liam's a little impressed, and privately thinks it might be a chimera thing, because Theo has a kind of gravity-defying grace too. Liam's broken from his reverie by frantic rustling, as Mason advances on him with an almost supernatural speed, eyeing the Frappuccino nestled in the drink carrier in Liam's hands with unholy glee, smile manic. Concerned and a bit terrified, Liam pushes the entire drink carrier into Mason's greedy hands before he can lose a finger, and then hands Nolan his muffin and tosses Alec the sandwich. Alec makes a happy noise, unwraps it, and immediately stuffs a third of it down his throat. Corey wraps his hands around his mocha (apparently just to feel the warmth of it, because he doesn't move to take a sip) and looks on with morbid curiosity.

"Are you going to eat that entire thing for breakfast?" Corey implores, judgement palpable in his tone. Alec makes a face at him.

"Leave me alone," he says, "Still getting used to the metabolism," except Alec hasn't paused his eating, and so it comes out muffled, barely distinguishable, and absolutely disgusting. Liam eyes him warily as he inhales another third of sandwich, because Alec hasn't quite mastered the art of eating and breathing at the same time, and someone has had to Heimlich him on more than one occasion. In the dirt next to the rock, Nolan picks at his muffin. When Liam looks at Mason, he has downed almost half of his truly enormous drink, that was at least half pure sugar. Liam worries for Mason's heart, which is beating at almost double time, and also for himself, because that manic glint is stuck in Mason's eye now, instead of fading with sustenance like it usually does.

"Okay," Liam announces, when everyone is done with their breakfast, satiated, much more awake, and much less likely to try to maim him for the early-morning wake-up call. "So, I kind of said something, that may have caused Theo to currently be avoiding me. And I can't find him, because there's a slight chance that he blocked my number. Or is just dodging my calls." And then, because he's unable to help himself, Liam adds, "But it's been days, and I don't think anyone's seen him. And I'm starting to get worried."

"What'd you say?" Nolan asks curiously, eyebrows inching towards his hairline as he fiddles with his muffin wrapper. Liam tries not to squirm.

"It doesn't matter," he snaps. "What does matter, is we need to fucking find him." He takes a deep breath, trying to calm his anxious heart, and maturely ignoring Nolan's muttered "Touchy," for the sake of staying unshifted and on topic.

"Why don't we just tell Scott?" Alec suggests, brows furrowing. "And then he can do his whole--" Alec waves his hand around his head vaguely, which Liam takes to mean True Alpha voodoo, and Liam tries to come up with a convincing rebuttal, because just because Alec's young and his default solution is usually  'Go tell Dad', doesn't mean it's a bad idea. It's just something that Liam can't do this time. Thankfully, Mason saves him, because he's a good friend.

"We can't do that," Mason says, side-eyeing Liam. Alec's frown deepens.

"Why not?" he asks, tilting his head in askance like the goddamn puppy he is. It's very difficult to be annoyed with him, but with this line of questioning being pursued, Liam manages.

"Because Liam's too embarrassed to explain to Scott that he doesn't know where Theo lives," Mason replies, rolling his eyes, and it's not like he's wrong, but. Still. Liam's face burns and he also takes back everything he ever said about Mason being a good friend. Everyone is silent for a very long moment, and Alec's frown has somehow deepened even further.

"You. . . " Nolan tries, sounding more than a little disbelieving. He shakes his head, blinks, and then tries again. "Dude," he says, incredulous, "but you guys hang out like. . . All the time."

"Oh my fucking god," Liam hisses, absolutely done with the awful people he can't believe he ever called his friends. Mason looks unbearably smug, and Liam's hackles raise. "I am sure as fuck not doing this again." They all stare at him, eyes wide, eyebrows raised, and Liam steamrolls over any further pointless questions with a firm: "Theo hasn't visited a pack member in days. We don't know where Theo is and we need to find him. It's not that goddamn complicated. So can we just fucking go already?" He doesn't even wait for a reply before he spins on his ankle, turning, toward the section of the preserve where his car is parked.

Liam steps out of the clearing, full of righteous annoyance, only to be halted by a warm hand at his shoulder. He turns, to find Mason's sympathetic eyes, and he deflates. "It's okay to be worried, you know," Mason says carefully, and Liam's embarrassed all of a sudden, for being so dramatic. "We've got your back," Mason says, because he is, in fact, the best. "We've got your back, and we've got Theo's. We'll help you look for him, obviously."

Liam lets out a long, grateful sigh. "Thank you," he grumbles, because he's still vaguely mortified, even though Mason deserves better, but Mason just smiles back at him, reassuring. Liam squares his shoulder, drawing in a steadying breath. "Okay," he says, "So, Alec and Nolan can come with me to check the diner, and you and Corey can go to the Sheriff's station and see if anyone's seen his truck around, or something. Put out an A.P.B., or whatever they call it."

Corey snorts, says "You watch way too many cop shows," at the same time that Nolan asks, "The diner?" and they all turn to him instead. "Why are we checking the diner? Don't you have Theo's shift schedule, like," he gestures vaguely, "memorized?"

Liam's face goes hot because it's not like that, okay, and not not-like-that in the way that Liam walked into a tree the first time he made Theo laugh, really laugh, and told himself it was because he was having coordination problems, it just ended up being Liam who always went to the diner to tell Theo pack stuff and invite him to meetings and hang out with him and--

Liam shakes his head, grits his teeth, and steamrolls over the brief flash of mortification, in the way that a decade with I.E.D. has taught him how to do. "Maybe," he concedes, through a jaw that’s clenched so tight his head is starting to hurt, "but he told me his Thanksgiving schedule was different. Hence," he waves his arm, a bit aggressively, "diner".

Thankfully, it's dropped fairly quickly, and they all nod in semi-acquiescence, and before he knows it, he's piling into his Mom's car with Alec and Nolan, and pulling out of the preserve.

Liam's never been to the diner when Theo wasn't there to greet him; a fact that he realizes when he steps inside, bell ringing to signal his entrance, and it feels inexplicable empty, despite the patrons crowding the booths and tables. He tells Alec quietly to check outside, sniff around the parking lot for Theo's scent, and he nods obediently, exiting swiftly.

Liam can tell Theo isn't there as soon as he steps inside, because his bones don't start fucking vibrating the way they do when he's around, but it can't hurt to ask, so he steps up to the counter, where a vaguely-familiar looking girl is carefully pouring coffee, lips pursed in concentration, dark curls hanging in front of her eyes, and even though he's never seen her face before, somehow he knows exactly who she is.

"Legs?" he tries, and her face immediately contorts into an angry frown, as she snaps, "That's Shreya, to you," in a tone that's, honestly, unwarrantedly aggressive, but Liam winces as he realizes she probably gets all kinds of creeps in here trying to call her whatever they want, and he's already opening his mouth in apology for his presumption when she finally finishes pouring her coffee, snapping her eyes to his, and they go wide in recognition. Her face lights up. She really is very pretty and Liam flashes back to Theo calling Legs, over his shoulder, terribly fond, and he tries to quell the reflexive, idiotic, jealousy that spikes low in his gut.

"Bread sex boy," she crows, very loudly, looking absolutely delighted, and a lot of the customers have turned to watch the commotion, expressions ranging from curious to scandalized, and Liam honestly just wants the ground to swallow him whole. Where's Kira's hell sword when you need it, Liam thinks faintly -- as he catches Nolan just barely suppressing laughter out of the corner of his eye, and oh, great, Alec is back from investigating the parking lot, looking faintly ill like he pointedly does not want to know -- immediately regretting the internal joke as soon as he makes it, because Theo has refused to tell him what happened down in Hell, cleverly deflecting all his thinly-veiled attempts to find out, but Liam has seen the way he goes quiet and still sometimes, eyes seeing something (or someone) who isn't there, while his heart rate spikes and his scent sours with fear. And now, Liam's back to thinking about Theo again, which seems to take up the majority of his higher (and, ahem, lower) processing functions these days, but it also puts him back on topic. He shakes himself and turns to the girl who clearly still thinks about Liam buying a concerning amount of bread during her shift at the grocery store months ago. Liam hasn't bought anything there since, because the one time he tried, he caught sight of the shiny new Public Decency Reminder nailed to the brick in the front, and it looked like it was laughing at him (and then he really got the hint when the fucking manager saw Liam and flicked his eyes toward it pointedly), so now he drives the extra twenty minutes to the one on the other side of town.

"Theo," Liam tries frantically, with a truly mortifying voice crack escaping his throat in his desperation to change the topic. Shreya's grin widens, turning into a smirk -- not unlike that of a shark's -- that makes Liam emphatically uncomfortable.

"Yes, six P.M. apple pie, extra scoop of vanilla ice cream?" she prompts, her voice honey-sweet and suggestive; knowing, "Yes, Liam Dunbar, what about Theo?"

"You know my name?" he blurts, surprised, and then, as he realizes the implications of that, just a little pathetically: "Theo talks about me?"

"Have you seen him recently?" Nolan thankfully cuts in, taking enough pity on Liam to overcome his social awkwardness and just come out with it. "Does he have a shift today?" Shreya's smile falters, and concern begins creeping its way into her face. Liam is suddenly filled with dread.

"No," she replies, a worried frown marring her pretty features as she shakes her head. "No, he said he was cutting down his hours this week, but he hasn't shown up for a shift in days." She shrugs, scent going a little guilty. "Our manager called him, and then I called him, but when he didn't pick up, we just assumed he was taking some sick days to spend time with family. He's never taken one before so he has, like, a bunch saved up."

"Theo doesn't have any family," Alec corrects, and Liam feels a brief flare of protectiveness surging because Theo does have a family, it's called the fucking pack, but it's interrupted by Shreya's very surprised, "Really?", and Liam deflates a bit, because now is not the place.

"What about his adoptive Mom? Brother?" she asks, and all three of them are helpless to muster up a more helpful response than staring back blankly. Her frowns deepen, "Melissa?" she asks, stretching the name out like she's speaking a different language, or like they're especially stupid. "Scott?" she tries, and Liam fights a smile, feeling warm, because she gets it.

"Yeah, they're close enough," Liam relents, letting the smile loose, before remembering why they're there. He shakes his head, "But, no. No one has Theo in three days." He tries to keep the worry out of his voice, but he's pretty sure he's unsuccessful, going by the note of fear that enters her scent.

"You don't think. . ." she starts, eyes widening, before casting a cautious glance around the room, seemingly to check that no one's paying them any attention, and dropping her voice down into a whisper: "Werewolf hunters?" And at that, Liam's open palm slams down on the table, harsh smack reverberating around the room, but he barely pays it, or the shallow dent it forms, or how she, Alec, and Nolan startle violently, any attention, because there are only two people who know about their pack; those who were them, and those who hunted them, and Liam knows that the majority of this town falls into the latter category, but he's really not comfortable with Theo's colleague-friend-girlfriend-Legs person being one of those.

"How the fuck," he growls, danger clear in his voice, just like he intended, "do you know what Theo is?"

Shreya smacks her palm down, right next to Liam's, with enough violent force that he worries a little that she made a matching dent right next to his. Maybe she's a supernatural after all, he thinks absently, as her eyes narrow dangerously and he begins to sweat. "First of all," she says, tone even and measured, low and threatening, and Liam doesn't gulp, but he doesn't not gulp either, "this is my place of work, so you better pipe the fuck down unless you want me to forcibly remove you from the premises." Her teeth are clenched and her legs are flexed furiously, to reveal pure fucking muscle, and Liam might've made a slight miscalculation. Nolan squeaks, and Alec cowers behind him, clearly having been taught the importance of a covered, defensible position by Theo himself.  So that's why he calls you Legs, Liam thinks faintly, as she looms over the counter intimidatingly. "In fact," she starts, teeth bared, "the only reason I'm not doing that right this second, is because I know about you and him, and--" and here, Liam's brain does a very disorienting record scratch because, uh, apparently his crush is so fucking obvious that a girl who has met him twice (and is Theo's maybe-secret-girlfriend) has noticed, and that conclusion is so fucking mortifying that he only tunes back into the conversation to hear the tail end of whatever she's saying, as she begins to gesture sharply in front of his face: "--this fucking mess of an overreaction is just some," she wiggles her fingers, "protectiveness. Which is good. He could stand to have more people in his life who are protective of him. But I'm not a goddamn hunter, and I definitely didn't drink the psychotic-ass Tamara Monroe Kool-Aid." She wrinkles her nose in seeming disgust. "I don't pick up a machine gun when I'm scared. This isn't The Purge, Jesus. I lock my doors and cover my windows and hide in my cellar like a normal person."

Liam blinks. Nolan untenses a bit. Alec steps out from behind him, sheepish. Shreya huffs and rolls her eyes.

"I figured out about him," she says, glare starting to soften a bit, "because the Likes-Attract hypothesis, along with basic goddamn statistics, posits that if you're some kind of werewolf, then so is he."

"Me?" Liam asks, completely bewildered, because he's just apparently an open fucking book these days, huh? Clearly he needs to be more careful if some random girl, who wasn't even involved in the Monroe situation, can read not only that he sort-of, maybe, likes Theo, but also the secret he's kept since freshman fucking year. "How'd you know about me?" She raises an eyebrow, challenging. Liam is suddenly extremely wary.

"That day when we were cleaning out storage," she says, the corner of her mouth twitching as she clearly tries to hide a smile, and Liam chokes, because he remembers that day, oh fucking hell, does he remember it. It's notable in the fact that this visit to the diner was before he even liked Theo; in the time between the ghost riders and the hunters, the uncharacteristically scorching summer, when the town was quiet enough, but Liam was still keeping tabs on him, because after all, Theo was his responsibility. And so he came to the diner, ordered a slice of pie, and glared at Theo for a solid two hours in hopes that it would intimidate him into not doing anything nefarious for a while. Theo, to his credit, just rolled his eyes and ignored him for the most part, and everything would've been fine except Liam was a little tightly-wound because it was the night of the full moon, and he was feeling extra petty that day, and so he passive-aggressively stayed after hours while Theo ran some errands around the diner, and it was absolutely fine until Theo changed out of his uniform to accommodate the rising temperature, and starting lugging heavy boxes out of storage, unpacking them carefully, and Liam choked violently on his pie when he looked up to see Theo in his full, bicep-rippling, sweat-slicked glory, because honestly, his tank tops and goddamn skinny jeans should be declared illegal, Liam thought, eyes helplessly flitting between his impressive, flexing thighs, and the appealing stubble dusting his jawline. By the time he had finally hacked his pie back out, Theo was bent over, picking up another box, and Liam could feel his eyes flaring as they settled on Theo's ass flexing in his jeans, and Liam remembers his arms looked enormous and all Liam wanted to do was pin his wrists to the wall, taste the line of sweat that dripped down his collarbone, and sink his teeth into the long line of Theo's neck, before he came back to himself, absolutely mortified at the apparent object of his, well, objectification, and forced the shift back down, ducking out frantically before Theo could smell the arousal on him, and chalking it up to hormones running high on the full moon, completely normal and heterosexual, of course, because past Liam was an idiot, and a master of self-denial, and also, apparently, thirsty as hell.

"Whatever you're thinking about," Alec hisses, looking positively green, breaking Liam efficiently out of his reverie, "Stop thinking about it." And Liam flushes painfully remembering, right; werewolf, chemosignals, and Shreya looks way too delighted as she crosses her arms over her chest; smug almost.

"Yeah," she says, and that's definitely some smugness, "I know you weren't noticing much besides," she coughs, clearly to hide a laugh, but it's pretty unsuccessful and Liam just flushes harder, "the obvious, but I was there too. I saw your eyes flash." Her grin widens and she leans closer. "And," she says, almost conspiratorially, "I'm the one who ordered the replacement for that chair." She gestures toward a chair at an empty table that's clearly brighter and newer than the other ones, and makes a clawing motion, before bursting into the cackling laughter that's haunted Liam since that fateful grocery store visit, and Liam doesn't remember clawing a seat cushion to death because of Theo's flexing arms, but he definitely believes it happened because he remembers the absolute rush of adrenaline that came with the sight of sweat-glinting skin in the early evening sunlight, and yeah, the claws coming out, that checks out, but that doesn't mean he isn't unbelievably mortified, because this entire diner visit has been kind of vaguely humiliating, but the reminder of him wolfing out because he couldn't keep his hate-boner (suspicion boner?) in his pants definitely takes the goddamn cake.

"Okay," Nolan cuts in, looking confused -- and Liam hopes he's not expecting an explanation after this because there's no way in hell he's rehashing this shit -- and eyeing Liam and Shreya like their both short of a marble, or perhaps, a few. "Thanks for your help. We're pretty sure it's not hunters," he reassures, "because we would've noticed their presence in town, but we'll keep looking for him, and keep you updated, and, uh, can you just. . . Keep an eye out?"

Shreya nods in acquiescence, accepts Liam's apology about the subtly-dented counter, and gives them three free coffees, waving away their payment with a brief, "On the house, because you're Theo's," and Liam fights the reflexive blush that rises up his neck, and the heat that pools in his gut, at Theo's, even as Alec starts looking ill again and Nolan rolls his eyes, still smiling, and Liam drops a crisp twenty into the tip jar before they wave a goodbye to Shreya and set out for the parking lot once more.

"So that was pretty useless," Alec says, characteristically unhelpful while he productively kicks a small rock across the painted parking lot concrete. "All we learned is that we can't take Liam out in public anymore." Liam spares him a brief, obligatory, "Fuck you," before letting it go, and getting into the car again, because it's not like he's wrong.

He lets Nolan and Alec pour into the car and down at least half a cup of coffee each before he even makes a move to put his keys in. He's about to start the car when his phone rings, Mason's name lighting up the screen. Liam swipes, and puts it to his ear. "Hey, man."

"Hey," Mason replies, almost perfunctorily. His tone is off, and Liam doesn't like it. "Did you guys find him?"

Liam groans, scrubbing a hand across his still-sleep-crusty eyes. "No," he huffs, letting his head thunk against the cool glass window. "He wasn't there. Apparently he hasn't shown up for a shift in days." He takes an indulgent swig of satisfyingly boiling coffee to ease his mounting anxiety. It only sort of works. "Did you?"

"Well, we found something," Mason says carefully, and at that Liam sits up straight and puts his phone on speaker, because something's clearly wrong. "Liam, it doesn't look good."

"What do you mean?" Liam asks, panic creeping up his throat and bleeding into his voice, "What happened? Is he okay?"

"Liam," Mason repeats, and then the line goes very deliberately quiet, like Mason's trying to come up with the words, but Liam's way too frantic, and has a hair-trigger even on a good day, let alone on a day this close to the full moon, when he hasn't seen Theo in days, and is becoming increasingly worried about it. Nolan puts a steadying hand on his shoulder, but it doesn't help this time.

"Mason, what?" Liam snaps, even though Mason doesn't deserve it, because he's suddenly terrified, and he thinks if Mason doesn't answer in the next five seconds, his stomach is going to force the coffee back up his throat and expel its contents right onto the steering wheel of his Mom's pristine car.

"We think," Corey tries, smooth, even voice cutting through the increasingly oppressive silence that was pervading the line. His voice drops down to a horrified whisper, as he tries to continue; breathes, "Liam, we think he's homeless."

For a second, Liam's mind goes completely blank, the words ringing in his ears and bouncing around his head, and he can't process them. The car is completely silent, and so is the other end of the line. Nobody moves a muscle. And then, Liam understands, and some tangled feeling rises in him, so sharp and swift, that he's just barely able to drag in a ragged, heaving breath before the spots swimming in front of his eyes can coalesce and overtake the rest of his field of vision, and he feels a gentle hand on his neck for a moment, the soothing balm of pack, before the panic, anger, nausea slowly ebbs to a more manageable level.

"Thanks," he chokes out, wincing at the taste in his mouth, bile burning in the back of his throat, as Alec maintains the reassuring contact. Alec shrugs it off, and hands him back the phone, where it dropped underneath the seat. Nolan's still stock-still in the passenger seat, staring blankly ahead, eyes wide.

"What the fuck do you mean, homeless?" Liam manages, heart ceaselessly pounding through his chest, dread mounting in his stomach.

"The Sheriff said we could check the reports," Mason says, matter-of-factly, "And so we looked up his truck, and all that came up was a bunch of reports from deputies who gave notices -- to a teenager matching Theo's description -- for loitering in his truck in prohibited areas. They said they had to wake him up, every time, to get him to move." Liam feels like he can't breathe, like all the oxygen was sucked straight out of his lungs, and now he can’t seem to get enough air, even as he wheezes a couple helpless breaths in. Mason continues, voice low, careful, troubled and a little guilty, "It looks like he's been living in his truck. These reports stretch back all the way to the beginning of the summer. I don't think he's had a home since he came back."

"How--?" Liam tries, words sticking in his throat as his eyes start stinging, but he forces them out: "How could he--? We would know if he was--"

"Liam," Mason admonishes, gentle, and for all that his tone is free of judgement, it does very little to abate the strangling guilt closing itself around Liam's unprotected neck and making his heart clench so hard that it's a miracle it keep beating afterward.

And Liam's panicked mind flashes back, back, back, to dark bruises hanging under tired eyes, the smell of exhaustion and fear acrid in the truck, waving off concerns and questions and offers to stay the night, and then, like a program overloading with too many inputs, his mind goes completely quiet. He says a quick, "I have to go," to Mason, and Mason must hear something in his voice, because he's observant like that, and he tries a concerned, almost frantic, "Wait, Liam--" but it mostly falls on deaf ears, because Liam ends the call, and his mind his still blank.

It's blank as he gets back into the car, Nolan and Alec eyeing him with considerable concern. It's blank as he pulls out of the parking lot, accelerating down the empty road at breakneck speeds, and it's blank as he pulls into the McCall's driveway. It's blank as he pounds on the door, and it's blank as Scott opens up, and the blank numbness only fades when he steps inside and is assaulted by the smell of pack. And that's when the anger starts to filter in instead.

Quick, so quick that Scott, with all his alpha reflexes, doesn't even have time to block it, Liam has him pinned against the wall hard, held up by his collar, Scott's startled, "Liam, what--?" falling on deaf ears as Liam's blood positively boils and his teeth and claws come out, unbidden but not unwelcome, he growls, certain that he must seem positively feral right now, but not giving a flying fuck, because. Well.

"Did you know?" he all but screams and it's meant to come out threatening, but he mostly sounds like he's going to cry, and he can feel Nolan and Alec behind him, alarmed and trying to pull him off ineffectually, but it's like batting flies away. He grips Scott even tighter, so tight that his claws cut straight through Scott's shirt and into the meat of his own palms, and the pain grounds him, just a little bit, as Scott casts his eyes around Liam's face, scrambling in Liam's unforgiving hold. Liam flares his eyes, a threat, and Scott flares his back, red meeting gold as a reassurance, as a reflex, as he replies, bewildered, "Know what? What are you t--" and Liam knows that the only reason Scott's still pinned is because Scott is letting him, and that, combined with the Alpha red that soothes something primal under his skin, is the only reason he loosens his hold on Scott a bit, letting him down, but keeping him pressed against the wall, because Liam needs this, or he feels like he's going to come apart at the seams, completely unravel right here in the McCall's living room.

"Did you," Liam chokes out, "Did you know that Theo was homeless?"

And a punched out sound escapes Scott as his expression goes slack with shock, flailing hands stilled, and Liam is determined to stand his ground, glaring, before their both jolted out of their one-sided stand off by the sound of glass breaking, and Liam jumps, as his surroundings finally filter in.

Alec is standing off to the side, commiserating, and Nolan stands next to him, raking his hands through his hair reflexively, still looking fairly green. Malia and Kira are frozen in their spot in the living room, Kira stretched across the couch and Malia sprawled across the floor, some kind of board game on the coffee table between them. In the doorway, hands still open, palms facing up, is Melissa, tray of smashed drink glasses lying shattered at her feet, horrified shock bleeding into her face before she curls her hands around her gaping mouth.

"He was homeless?" she asks quietly, sounding absolutely heartbroken, and that takes the last of the fight out of Liam as he numbly detangles his claws from the punctures in Scott's shirt before all but collapsing into Scott. "Why," she tries, sounding absolutely miserable, "why wouldn’t he say something?"

Scott grips Liam, in an awful role reversal of a couple moments ago, but his grip is grounding, reassuring. "I didn't," he promises. "Liam, I swear, I didn't know," sounding just as miserable as Melissa did, and then, curious, but carefully free of judgement, "You've never been to his house? And you didn't think that was a little strange?"

Liam's thrown and bewildered and honestly kind of angry that this is getting turned back around at him, hackles raising at a rate quicker than contact with Scott can manage to soothe. "No," Liam spits, bristling, "Why would he invite me over?"

And the room goes silent, Kira and Malia eyeing him dubiously, Melissa looking torn between a sob and a laugh, and Scott giving him the most pitying look he's ever received, and Liam is still confused, so he tries again, slightly less angry, but no less determined, "Why didn't you know where he was living, Alpha?", spitting the honorific with a vitriol that makes Scott wince, before he squares his shoulders and looks Liam straight in the eye. He looks like he's facing a firing squad and Liam feels a subtle spike of smugness, before Scott seemingly decides on his excuse.

"I didn't want him to feel like I was his parole officer," Scott says, back to miserable and guilty, "So I didn't ask." And then, he looks hesitant for a brief moment, before soldiering on, "And I thought that you guys hung out there, and I didn't want to make it seem like you had to tell me, when you clearly didn't want." And Liam furrows his brows, says, "Tell you what?" but it's drowned out by Scott mustering up some of that True Alpha courage and explaining, carefully, tone slow and deliberate, "I was just trying to respect your boundaries," and Liam feels a rush of combined annoyance and gratitude that almost drowns out Mason's exasperated "Oh my god, there's two of them," before Scott seems to realize that the remaining occupants of the room are still hovering around, watching them.

He tightens his arms around Liam's shoulders, faces the rest of the room.

"Did you?" Scott asks, eyeing Kira and Malia, tone neutral, and then he casts his glance around the room. "Did any of you know?" A beat of silence. Then another, and Liam starts to relax a little bit because he could not be held accountable for his actions, if someone decided to speak up and admit that--

"I did."

Liam, along with the rest of the room, turns to Argent, leaning nonchalantly in the kitchen doorway like he was going to escape this confrontation alive. He looks regretful, but not guilty, and it stirs up a complicated mess of emotion's in Liam's gut that he doesn't have the presence of mind to dissect right now because he's too busy trying to keep himself from jumping across the room and raking his claws right through Argent's throat. Scott's arms tighten around Liam's shoulders even more like he heard Liam's thoughts, and hey, Liam doesn't know how this whole pack-bond  bullshit works. Maybe he did. He's about to spit something out, probably something scathing or offensive or blood, going by the warm liquid pooling in his mouth from where a fang punctured the inside of his cheek, but Scott beats him to it.

"Why," he asks, a little desperately, "why wouldn't you tell us?"

Argent looks tired but defiant, remorseful but uncowering, tipping his chin up. "As you have told me many times," he starts, crossing his arms and looking Scott straight in the eye, "you're an adult, and this is your pack," and then, quieter, tone unreadable, "it's not my place to interfere in how an alpha decides to punish an omega in his territory," and a growl escapes Liam, a threatening "Omega?", but it's almost completely drowned out by Scott, voice rapidly climbing octaves as he all but squawks, "Punishments?" but Argent seemingly ignores it, setting his jaw. "I thought you knew." He turns, doing a brief survey of the room, looking surprised, almost betrayed, "I thought all of you knew. You should be able to smell it. And anyways, its an effective form of punishment," he says, looking begrudgingly impressed and Liam has never wanted to tear someone's head off more than in this moment, but he reigns it in, because Argent opens his mouth to seemingly elaborate. "Always lurking on the edge of the pack, knowing he's never going to be a part of it, conditional acceptance, thinking he's only being used to help with Monroe, not sleeping, barely eating . . ." he trails off, face completely blank as he says, carefully, "it's a very powerful form of punishment for someone with his . . . History. So you'll have to excuse me if I assumed it was some kind of," he pauses for a beat, then another, before he seemingly decides on "penance."

Scott whispers, angrily, determinedly, "but he is a part of it", but Liam is distracted by Melissa, who swivels her whole body to face Argent, and Liam recognizes the look on her face, the same look she wore as she whipped out a cattle prod in a hospital all those months ago. "You would let a kid be homeless," Melissa seethes, through clenched teeth, "for penance?" and Liam has never been more scared of someone in his life, but the wolf inside him is vindictively smug at the threat to Argent, who's looking a little hunted now, even though the expression (like all expressions on his face) is barely perceptible.

"It's not my place," he echoes, "To dictate how an alpha disciplines the weres underneath him."

Melissa seems to grit her teeth even harder, eyes blazing, snaps, "I'm sorry," sounding the least sorry Liam's ever heard a person sound, "What the f--"

"I only found out," he cuts in, unreadable expression gone, replaced by something that screams exhaustion, "because I followed him one night."

"I," Scott tries, looking thrown. "You what?" and Argent doesn't wince outwardly at the accusatory threat in his tone, because he's Argent, but Liam swears he sees it pass through his mind. Argent seemingly arrives at a decision, crossing across the room and sinking down into an armchair, deflating like all the fight as been sucked out of him for once, and all that's left is the overwhelming sense of being done.

"It was back when I still didn't trust him," Argent says, letting out an uncharacteristic sigh. "About a month after Monroe escaped."

 

---

 

Argent rolls up the map sprawling across the dinner table, effectively concluding the meeting, and the people around the table start rising, breaking off, chairs screeching as they drag across the wooden floor and making plans to go out and get some dinner, but Argent's too busy observing Theo, who's been suspiciously jumpy the whole meeting, now sitting stock-still at the empty table, staring blankly into space.

"You good?" Argent asks, keeping his tone carefully neutral, and it makes Theo jump, jolting him out of whatever reverie he was in as he blinks and takes in the room around him, faces Argent again, and pulls an unconvincing smile onto his face.

"Yeah," Theo says, getting up slowly from the table. "Yeah, of course."

Argent catches Malia sauntering up to Theo from behind, but Theo doesn't, because he's still apparently not firing on all cylinders, so he startles when she slings an arm around his neck. "Hey," she says, eyeing him, a little like the way Argent's been eyeing him, but with notably less suspicion. "Are you coming? We're going to Galini's for dinner," and Theo looks a little disproportionately hunted, so Malia continues, "We're meeting Mason and Corey there," and then apparently delivers what she thinks is the winning blow, "Liam would be pretty disappointed if you didn't show," and Theo flinches, almost imperceptibly, before slanting a half-betrayed, half-admonishing look at Malia, and Argent thinks, interesting, right as Theo seems to regain his wits, shaking his head and deftly escaping her hold.

"Sorry, I can't," Theo says, deliberately nonchalant, brushing the offer off along with her arm on his shoulder. "It's pretty late. I, uh. I have to go," he finishes, in possibly the most suspicious way possible -- so suspect that Malia starts giving him a strange look -- looking fairly shifty as he escapes through the front door while the pack is distracted cleaning up the living room and trying to sort through the pile of jackets and wallets in the corner. Distantly, Argent wonders how Theo was ever deceptive enough to tear apart the McCall pack when these days he seems to wear everything right on his face, as he follows the pack out the front door, locking it behind him and dismissing them with a perfunctory, "I'll meet you guys there," before getting into his car and pulling out of the driveway, tailing Theo's truck and fervently hoping that it's nothing nefarious (because maybe, he thinks, begrudgingly, just maybe, somewhere along the line, he's started to like Theo), but mentally resigning himself to being disappointed, because people are usually pretty disappointing.

He's surprised when, instead of going into the sewers, or to meet with some villain in the woods, all Theo does is pull his truck into the edge of the preserve, and then park. Argent maintains his distance, shutting off the headlights and turning off his car, and waits for something to happen. Maybe this is the meeting, he thinks, maybe this is some kind of drop spot. And so he waits, and then waits some more. He's been sitting in silence and stillness for almost an hour, waiting for something, anything to happen, when he finally decides that he's going to have to make the first move. Argent has had patience drilled into him since he first picked up a hunting gun, but he'll be damned if he misses dinner just because he's waiting for Theo Raeken to do something suspicious, and so he gets out of his car, and approaches Theo's warily, gun drawn and pointing towards the ground, safety off, until he's right upon it, and then he almost drops his gun out of surprise.

He's sleeping, Argent realizes, half-hysterically, if anything he thinks could ever approach hysterical instead of practiced and even and measured. He's sleeping in his truck, in the middle of the woods, because he is, sprawled across the back seat, using his jacket as a pillow and what appears to be some flannel as a blanket. And, for once, without considering the consequences too much, he raps on the glass of the backseat, only for Theo to startle violently awake, and scramble in the other direction, back to the car door on the other side, hands up to protect his face, as he heaves, "I'm sorry,", not even looking in Argents direction, says again, "I'm going, I'm going, don't worry," as he frantically pushes his makeshift pillow and blanket into the corner and starts climbing into the front seat -- and something in Argent's chest twists unwillingly, just a little -- which is when Theo finally looks up enough to meet Argents eye. He blinks.

"Oh," Theo says, and Argent raises an eyebrow, because he's really not sure how to address whatever's happening here, but it seems like the safest option. "It's just you," he says, deflating a little bit and relaxing before he seems to take in the situation and tenses again. Argent gestures towards the window, and Theo moves to roll it down, takes a deep, measured breath in, followed by a gusty exhale, and then asks, "What do you want?", giving Argent a look like he's the one doing something weird.

"Why didn't you go for dinner with the others?" Argent asks, because it's the easiest question to posit right now, and because he's learned that Theo doesn't care enough about their relationship to lie to him, so unless he's really doing something nefarious, asking him is usually the least annoying way to extract information out of him.

Theo sighs, scrubs a hand across his jaw and knuckles at his eyes before he seems to take Argent's fake-neutral tone for what it is -- thinly veiled suspicion -- and just decides to answer. "I don't get paid until tomorrow," he says, sounding resigned. "Spent the last of what I had on gas this morning."

"You were sleeping," Argent prompts, deciding he's just going to address this head-on, the way he does everything else, and trying to contain his annoyance when Theo just rolls his eyes in response. Argent narrows his eyes threateningly, a practiced expression, and Theo still looks offensively unimpressed, but he answers anyways.

"Yes," he says, slowly, like he's speaking to a small child, and Argent has to suppress his instinctual need to actually punch him in the face, but then Theo seems to withdraw a bit, a wave of exhaustion seeping across his face. "Don’t get much sleep these days," he says, tone unreadable and face blank, "but I like to at least try for a couple hours", dragging up an infuriatingly smarmy smirk, and Argent knows it's a front, but he can't help but snap, "You know that's not what I meant," before regaining control over himself after two even breaths, and trying again, carefully, "You were sleeping in your truck."

Theo furrows his brows, clearly bewildered. "You knew that," he says, slightly accusatory, and Argent lets his other eyebrow creep up to meet the first, and then Theo tries again, a little hunted, a little vitriolic, very defensive: "Where did you think I was staying? The Hilton?" and Argent drops both eyebrows, gives him a deadpan look to hide how very bewildered he is, because honestly, he thought about it in an absent sort of way -- Theo staying at his old house where he threatened his Dread Doctor-hired fake parents, Theo staying in his old home in the sewers, Theo squatting in someone's abandoned home -- but he never really considered what options Theo has had, and that's how he comes to understand, he's been living in his truck. And then, slower, to process it, He's been living in his truck the whole time.

"Why," he starts, and then stops, before his voice can do something uncharacteristic. He starts again. "Why wouldn't you tell someone? If you need help? It's not like you to be worried about taking advantage of someone," he says, sneering through that last bit, but it's all a front, something to cover up the tangled feeling rising in his chest because, god, when will this shitshow of a town ever cut these kids a break. He stops that train of thought, just in time to see Theo's expression go completely blank, completely unreadable, even to Argent, and he thinks there he is, he thinks there's the Theo who was good enough at hiding things that he fooled the entire pack.

"They already know," Theo says, tone carefully neutral, and Argent stills, because, what. Theo sighs, a gusty, resigned, tired one, says "they've all been in this truck before. They can smell it. They've very tellingly never asked to come over, or where I'm living, or whatever. They know." And that keeps Argent paused, he thinks at Scott, slightly impressed, mostly horrified, wow, kid, didn't know you had it in you, but Argent isn't the same ruthless man when he came into this town, and he thinks, a split second before the words come out, god, I've gone soft, before he offers, "I've got space," and now it's Theo's turn to go completely still, and it's not like Argent regrets it, but he preemptively feels a thread of dread in his gut as he imagines the issues this will cause with Scott, if he was finally manning up enough to punish people in his territory. But even if Scott's an alpha -- a true alpha -- and Argent doesn't really have the right to interfere, this is a little above werewolf power hierarchies, and so Argent continues, because in for a penny, in for a pound, says "You don't have to do this anymore. Come stay with me for a bit," trying to keep his voice devoid of all emotion, but the effort is wasted, because Theo doesn't even seem to notice, shaking his head as soon as it comes out of his mouth, and Argent's stone-cold heart sinks.

"Thanks," Theo says, eyes facing firmly forward, fixed on the windshield and deliberately not on Argent, "Really, thanks," he echoes, and Argent is thrown by the genuine pure gratitude in his voice. "But, this isn't less than what I deserve," he smiles wryly, but even the dry expression doesn't reach his eyes. He gestures towards his truck. "In fact, it's probably more than I deserve. We reap what we sow, and all that. We all have to pay for our sins." And then, he says, much quieter, almost a whisper: "and this is just my penance, I think." Argent nods, feeling completely discombobulated, like the floor was pulled out from underneath him and he's still falling. He thinks of another boy, one with a rough childhood and fucked up parental figures and who needed a home; who Argent gave a home to, eventually. Sure, he had a freezer in the basement instead of an underground Hell, but Argent still can't help but see the parallels, and he feels a little numb as he turns back around, begins the trek back to his car.

"Hey, Argent," Theo calls, and Argent turns back around slowly, wondering if Theo changed his mind after all, before he sees his face; the wry smile turned sad, eyes suspiciously shiny, and actually meeting Argent’s for once instead of avoiding them. "How much can you change and get away with it, before you turn into someone else," he asks, voice sounding thick, and then a laugh escapes him, half-hysterically, coming out like broken glass, like it cuts his throat on its way out. "Before it's some kind of murder?" And Argent feels way out of his depth, doesn't know what he's supposed to say to that, but it appears Theo wasn't waiting for an answer, as he dismisses him with a sardonic little wave, rolls the window up, and crawls back into the back seat, sprawling out again, and Argent waits for Theo’s eyes to shut, before pulling a crisp one-hundred out of his wallet and stuffing it into the small space between the window glass and the door.

Argent walks back to his car, feeling numb. Before he knows it, he's sitting in the front seat, staring at the blue truck, looking small against the backdrop of the tall, intimidating preserve, and he knows that he needs to get back, but he can't bring himself to start the car yet.

He sits in silence for another hour, thinking and thinking and thinking, before he sees the time, and starts the car. The drive home is fairly a blur, because he can't bring himself to take the turn to the place where the pack is eating, and so he just scarfs down three pieces of toast when he gets home, washing it down with some bourbon, before lying down on top of the covers, still fully dressed, staring up at the ceiling, completely exhausted, but wide awake.

He doesn't sleep that night, and he doesn't bring it up again. Neither does Theo.

 

---

 

The room is silent as Argent finishes, only cut through as Kira breathes a horrified, "Oh my god," and Malia tangles her fingers with hers -- support, solidarity, comfort -- and Liam suddenly misses Theo so fervently that something grips him inside the chest and clenches and clenches and clenches and Liam feels ill.

"Jesus," Melissa echoes, agreeing, eyes shiny.

"He thought we knew?" Scott asks, sounding choked up, like there's something caught in his throat. "He thought we would just-- We would just make him--"

"He thought you knew," Argent concedes, scratching at his stubble absently, "and so did I." And Liam's just. Done.

"Please," he tries, throat closing up, "Can you guys just please help me find him? We've been looking for him everywhere and we can't, and I'm worried."

"Of course," Scott says, blinking quickly, like there was something in his eye, reassurance like a balm on Liam's frayed nerves. "We've got you. And, we've got him. We'll find him." A promise. A guarantee.

"I remember where he parked that night," Argent offers, looking dead tired in his chair, as he rubs his thumb and forefinger across his eyebrows, and then focuses in on his temples, like he's trying to massage a migraine out. "We can try there first."

They pile into cars and then search the border of the preserve without any success, before they venture deeper in, hoping for some luck. It's thorough, but it's slow work; at least until Liam realizes just how well he can smell Theo even though the scent seems old, and they decide to use his nose (though Scott gives him a very weird look when he realizes exactly what Liam is following), instead of just scanning the whole thing. It only takes them thirty or so minutes to find the truck. It takes them thirty minutes to find Theo's bullet-ridden truck right next to the bridge where his sister died, five seconds to smell blood and wolfsbane and fear, broken leaves on the ground absolutely covered in dark, congealed, blood, fifteen minutes for Scott to calm Liam down from a full-on rampage, as he sees red and completely loses control over the shift at the first smell of Theo and wolfsbane, claws out, fangs painfully pushing out of his gums, vision completely tunneled, and veins flooding with adrenaline. He can't stop, and Scott can't make him stop, and in the end, Scott decides there's nothing to do for it but to knock him out, because Scott's an ass.

 

---

 

He wakes up in the middle of the McCall living room. It's completely full, Malia and Kira taking over the loveseat, practically on top of one another, Lydia, apparently right from the airport, sitting on the floor in front of them, somehow still prim and proper, Corey, Alec, and Nolan, clustered right next to him, while Mason's lap is what he's apparently been using as a pillow. Derek and Argent are sitting in the armchairs, and Scott's standing at the front of the room, scrubbing a hand across his jaw. They're all talking over each other, and it's absolutely deafening, and in hindsight, probably what woke Liam up in the first place. He sits up, waving off Mason's apologetic smile, before tuning into the conversation, just catching the tail end of Lydia, saying, admonishing, really, "-- don't even know how long they've had him. Why'd you guys let him go off the radar for three days."

Scott's eyes flick to Liam for a split second, and then back to Lydia, as he replies, deliberately nonchalant, "It doesn't matter" and Liam can't help the residual guilt pooling in his stomach, the fear and anxiety and panic he's working himself into because oh my god, they have Theo. He thinks, oh my god, they have Theo because of me, before Scott turns to him, snaps, "hey, stop that," and Liam takes a deep breath, and forces it back down, because right now there's a better use of his energy than self-loathing, and the cacophony of people shouting over each other continues.

"Stop," Kira says, and it echoes through the room, reverberating powerfully across the walls as everyone falls dutifully silent. Something about her, when she came back from the Skinwalkers, inherently commanded respect, even from the Alpha, because no one could quite decipher the constantly-knowing look in her eyes when she returned; like she had already learned all there was to know. He asked her once, about how she seemed more settled, more comfortable in her own skin, and she just replied, time passes differently there, replied, I spent a very long time learning, and Liam would have been annoyed with the cryptic nature of her answers, if he wasn't kind of scared to know exactly what it was she had learned down there. "He was taken," Kira says, "so it doesn't matter. All we need to think about, is how to find him."

"He was taken in the middle of the woods," Lydia muses, picking absently at the chipped polish on her fingernails. It reminds him of the blood on the cracked leaves in the preserve, and Liam has to look away. "No cameras, which makes it difficult to identify the vehicle that took him."

The room stays quiet, before Scott offers, slowly, "we may not need cameras," scratches the stubble on his chin and says, contemplatively, "The full moon is tomorrow night," and then his eyes flick to Liam again and stay there, and Liam's anxiety spikes a bit, but mostly, he's just ready. Ready to do whatever it takes. Scott continues to eye him, clearly thinking, before he says, "We'll have to talk to Deaton."

He smiles a bit, still sad and scared, but just hopeful enough for Liam to be able to breathe again. "But, I think I have an idea."

Chapter Text

"So you understand what you have to do here?" Scott asks, for maybe the thousandth time, and while normally it would be kind of endearing how cautious and worried Scott is, right now Liam has someone very important to see, and the only thing keeping him from it is Scott's relentless mothering. Liam can tell the moon is about to come up by the late golden light filtering through the windows of the McCall living room, which means it's almost time, so he’s not exactly sure what Scott’s hoping to accomplish by drilling him on this now. Argent, Melissa, and Lydia are the only ones in the living room, courtesy of Deaton's guidelines which strictly warned against too many pack members crowding up the house during -- too distracting and too dangerous.

Argent is typing away on a military-grade looking computer, presumably preparing for Liam to adequately obtain some kind of useful information about Theo's location. Lydia's sitting on the couch — sketching out a complicated series of hexagons so beyond Liam's comprehension that he can't tell if it's supposed to be weird banshee voodoo or just organic chemistry — invited for the sole purpose that she would be able to tell if something starts going horribly wrong. Melissa sits on the floor, not fidgeting exactly, because she's far too even-tempered to ever do something so benign, but just sitting there, worrying, because she refused to not be present when they told her the plan, dismissing Scott's attempts to get her out of the house for the night swiftly and efficiently with a no-nonsense "Sorry, who was it that brought you back from the dead? Twice? Not a chance, kiddo, you're not doing this without me." Everyone's antsy about the plan, the anxiety palpable in the room, even though Melissa, Argent, and Lydia are some of the most steadying, confident presences he knows. Everyone's worried it'll work, worried that it won't, but no one so much as Liam, because he feels like he's going to burst out of his skin, like it's just going to split and slough off his body, the way he has since they found out Theo was taken. It's only been hours and he feels like he's losing his mind.

"Yes, alpha," Liam replies, spitting alpha in the tone someone would say mom, and trying to quell his mounting annoyance because honestly, but all it garners is an admonishing look from Scott that could rival Jenna Geyer's. Liam would be impressed if he wasn't so impatient.

"Liam," Scott chastises, scrunching his eyes shut and rubbing his temples, evidently exhausted, and Liam starts to feel a little bad. "This is important. If you don't follow Deaton's instructions exactly, it could be dangerous for the both of us, and maybe even the rest of the pack. And these herbs only flower in the week before the full moon, which means we only have two tries worth."

"Scott," Liam echoes, in the exact same tone, "I know," and then, because he knows Scott is going to keep worrying otherwise, recites dutifully, the way he has three times already: "Claws straight in at the first light of the moon, focus on Theo and only Theo," privately, Liam thinks, that . . . really won't be that difficult, but externally, he's still reeling off, "Stay centered, stay focused, don't get emotional," and there lies the real challenge of the night, because Scott and Deaton made it abundantly clear that if he didn't stay unexcitable enough to maintain the stability of the connection, it might collapse altogether, but Liam is pretty sure that whatever he's about to see isn't going to be something he can compartmentalize, because Theo was taken by hunters, and god, how the fuck is going to pull this off? Stay focused almost directly translates to "Stay anchored" but he hasn't seen his anchor in three fucking days, because he's somewhere out there, probably being violently tormented by vindictive hunters. Liam's practically choking on the preemptive dread that seems to be flooding his entire body, and he's so anxious that the shift is lurking right underneath his skin, causing an uncomfortable itching sensation all over, but Liam tries to reign it in, because he's pretty sure that if he shifts during, he'll actually break Scott's brain, and that's . . . Not ideal.

Scott's nodding along absently, mostly just paying attention to the changing light, but looking satisfied enough to where Liam feels like he can stop, shoulders slumping as he relaxes into the armchair, the slackness in his limbs completely belayed by his nervous racing heart.

"It's time," Scott announces, eyeing the dwindling golden rays that paint the windowsill. He pulls a Ziploc bag of vials out of his backpack, unzipping it and laying each glass vial carefully on the floor, seemingly in the order they're supposed to be mixed in. Everyone has stilled completely, abandoning their distractions to watch Scott pull out a proper mortar and pestle and begin uncorking vials, expressions betraying various levels of judgement, because somehow all of them have experience in mixing magical herbs except Liam.

("Can't Lydia do it?," Scott had asked Deaton, as they stood around the examination table in his office, absolutely littered with small potted plants and empty vials, "Her second major is chemistry, and she's always doing those," he waves his hand vaguely, "wolfsbane experiments. This," he winces, but it seems mostly directed inward, "This is too important to mess up." Deaton's already shaking his head, firmly, and decisively.

"It has to be the alpha," he explains, "It helps establish the connection. It’s a symbol of trust, a key to the alpha's mind given to his or her beta." He snips carefully at a generically green plant. "If it wasn't something that had to be done by the alpha themselves, it would make a non-consensual mind meld possible. But don't worry too much; the procedure is fairly rudimentary." The plants all honestly look the same to Liam and it really doesn't help that all the labels are written in what appears to be Celtic runes, because Deaton is, once again, the most extra person Liam knows. Deaton differentiates them with ease, calling out names absently as he takes cuttings and places them carefully into glass vials, sealing each with a stopper. "Take note of the order," Deaton intones, and Scott nods dutifully, pulling out his phone.

"Mugwort," Deaton says, placing the vial onto the metal examination table with a gentle clink, "for lunar magick, lucid dreaming, and psychic ability," and even Liam doesn't know how he hears the 'k' in magick from Deaton's verbal intonation but he thinks it might be a druid thing. "Coltsfoot," he continues, clink, "for divination, visions, and internal healing, Angelica," clink "for summoning strength, Horehound," clink "for mental clarity and dispelling illusion, Blue Vervain for astral travel and Vervain for second sight," clink clink "and," he says, with a finality that lets Liam think oh, thank god because Scott is looking sufficiently intimidated, and Liam is feeling worse and worse about this plan with every clink of a vial, but clearly, he spoke, or rather thought, too soon, because Deaton continues: "Peppermint and Bearberry for psychic awareness, Wormwood for psychic vision, and Fennel Seed for psychic protection" clink clink clink clink, and all the times Deaton has said 'psychic' is enough to give Liam a migraine while Scott seems to be having an aneurysm, staring at neat line-up of vials, looking completely daunted.

"Right," Scott says weakly, "easy.")

Scott dumps them in, one at a time, confident and sure in his movements -- Liam's pretty sure that Scott's been reviewing his notes for hours now -- and then mashes them carefully with the pestle, and Liam's anxiety mounts because, okay, this is really happening, doesn't stop compounding in his gut, even as Scott dumps the smashed herbs onto the floor and molds the paste into their distinctive pack symbol --  the two circles that lie burned into Scott's arm and into Liam's consciousness -- before flicking the lighter on, and lighting the paste on fire. A strangled sound escapes Melissa, and Liam would be sympathetic for the scorch marks that this is probably going to cause, but it's taking most of his concentration to just breathe correctly.

When the paste has burned to ash, Scott scrapes the powdery blackened remains back into the mortar, places a spoon into the bowl, faces Liam solemnly before his expression cracks a bit, breaking into a small, sympathetic smile that Liam takes more comfort in than he's willing to admit. "Ready?" Scott asks, and Liam nods his affirmation with much more confidence than he feels, grabbing the mortar out of Scott's hands and dumping the powder unceremoniously down his throat, immediately fighting his need to gag and retch it all back up because Jesus. It coats the back of his tongue like some kind of demented pixie dust, and burns all the way down his esophagus, but Liam hasn't been able to taste much anyways since they found Theo's blood on the forest floor, so he bears it fairly well, definitely better than he expected when Deaton first explained it to them.

"Okay," Liam says, with conviction in his tone and ash in his mouth and adrenaline in his veins, says "Let's do this," before immediately unsheathing his claws, and plunging them deep into the base of Scott's neck.

For a second or two, there's nothing but hazy darkness.

("You're his alpha," Deaton said pensively, facing Scott, "and you," he says, turning to Liam, "are his anchor," and Liam freezes because, what.

"Wait, hold on," Liam can't help but cut in, because Scott's just nodding along like nothing's wrong. "That's not, uh." He stops. Tries again. "That’s not really it. He's my anchor, he doesn't need -- " Liam clears his throat, rubs his neck awkwardly, because wow, explaining an unrequited attachment to his supernatural father and a chaotic neutral druid is not somewhere he ever envisioned himself to be, but. "It doesn't go both ways," he finishes, only slightly pathetic, but Deaton gives him one of those calculating looks that makes Liam feel like he's a specimen being dissected on the examination table, and Scott just hisses, "Liam, not now,", turning back to Deaton with a firm, "Yes, I know, and I know the full moon is tomorrow, and I read about a myth in one of the journals from the Hale basement, about the Hartford true alpha, and how under the moon, a beta could maybe tap--"

"--into the pack bonds of the alpha," Deaton finishes, as a considering expression takes over his face. "I'm familiar with the publication, but it may be just that. A myth," he says, detachedly sympathetic, and then, thoughtfully, "but you're right to deduce that it would be much more stable if the betas being connected through the alpha's bonds were anchors in their own right, tied to each other without the pack bond. Maybe with the right herbs . . ." he trails off, eyeing a complicated-looking calendar on the wall that Liam doesn't have the mental strength to try and decipher. It has English dates on it, but also, like, astral projection maps. And, of course, Celtic runes. Always with the fucking Celtic runes.

"Okay," Deaton says, and Scott lights up, before Deaton puts a halting hand up. "But," he prefaces, "It's  dangerous. There are lots of rules you'll have to follow. And, there's a chance that it may not even work, so try not to get your hopes up too much.")

And yet, against the advice of a medical professional, Liam had indeed gotten his hopes up, and as his field of vision remains dark, his heart starts to sink. He looks down at himself, morbidly curious, and almost startles when he realizes he's transparent, like some kind of phantom.

And then, his vision starts to clear, objects solidifying and the room coming into sharp focus, and Liam almost wishes he was back in the blank darkness.

Lying prostrated on a propped up metal surface, almost like Deaton's examination table, but angled forward so that Liam can see everything, is Theo, wrists and ankles wrapped in thick cuffs, bruises littering his bare torso, right cheekbone horribly swollen and discolored, and two angry looking whip marks across his abdomen, and Liam notes, detachedly, the violent, protective surge of anger that rises deep within him, but he dutifully compartmentalizes it, the way he promised Deaton and Scott he would, and internally promises himself that he'll make someone pay, later, as he realizes that there's another person in the room.

Standing in front of Theo is a man holding a whip, and Liam has never wanted to strangle someone with their own weapon more than in this moment, when the phantom ringing in his ears quiets enough that he can finally tune into the conversation.

"--could do this all damn night, Dunbar," the man -- the monster -- spits vitriolically, and Liam takes a reflexive, startled step back at his name, because, what. But the man isn't even facing Liam, eyes still fixed on Theo, and . . . Can anyone even see Liam?

Theo laughs; a horrible, gasping, sardonic one that has Liam's insides twisting uncomfortably. "You're gonna have to try harder than that," he says, infuriatingly mocking like he always is, and Liam thinks, chastising, why do you always have to provoke people, before freezing, and realizing, wait.

"They told me that the McCall beta was too mouthy, but I didn't quite believe them," the hunter says, smile sharp and vicious as a predator's, and Liam feels nauseous. "I'm not allowed to rough you up too bad, because you're really just here to reel in Alpha McCall. But," he says, considering, and then casting a mock glance around the room. "We’re the only ones here, Dunbar," he smirks, and Liam thinks, Oh, thinks, Oh, god no, thinks no, please, no, not like this.

And then, the hunter raises his whip, cracks it loudly and violently against Theo's chest and Liam can't help the desperate, unbidden shout of Theo's name that spills from his lips in what can only be called a wail, but Theo shows no signs of hearing him, and Liam feels the helplessness rise, quick and pervasive, constricting his throat as the hunter raises his whip, cracks it twice in quick succession and Theo doesn’t even flinch, but a cry escapes Liam as he stumbles towards him, towards the glinting metal surface Theo's propped up on.

"Theo," he tries, tripping over his own feet to get to the front of the room. "Can you hear me?" But even as he asks, he can tell that Theo's completely deaf to Liam's pleas.

Look at me, Liam wills, with everything he has, please, and then, like he somehow heard Liam's thoughts, even when he couldn't hear his voice, Theo looks sharply up, eyes locking right with Liam's, and that, direct eye contact after two days of nothing and one day of complete and total panic, makes something sharp rise in Liam's gut, tangled and indecipherable but pervasive, and he's drowning, he's drowning in green, and all of a sudden it's far too much, he feels like a recovering addict who has just relapsed, losing his mind on his first fix, and the last thing Liam sees is another crack of the whip, before he's thrown back violently, forcefully, and when he comes to, he's on the floor of the McCall living room, blinking spots out of his eyes, claws coated in blood.

"Scott," he says, strangled, clumsily scrambling to his feet and placing shaking hands on Scott's shoulders. He's still rubbing the blood off the back of his neck but Theo's wide eyes are burned into Liam's retinas like the afterimage of a lightbulb. "Scott," he repeats, desperation clear, "Scott, you have to send me back, I didn't have enough time."

And Liam's waiting for Scott to say, "Okay, no worries", to turn back around, but when Scott removes his hand from his neck to grip Liam's shoulders, his heart sinks. "Liam," Scott says softly, gentle, sympathetic, and Liam's eyes start to sting. "Look outside," he prompts quietly, and he does, catching the sparse morning sunlight that's filtering through the blinds, and Liam collapses into Scott with a sob that he can't contain, as hot, helpless tears pool in his eyes, and he hates himself, just a little bit, for it.

Scott catches him, like he always does, grips him tight, grounding, palm at the nape of his neck as Liam heaves embarrassing, choking sobs into his shirt, feeling like he can't get enough air, and Scott is shushing him gently, murmuring something that Liam thinks might be comforting, but Liam's not having it, because he doesn't fucking deserve comfort right now.

"It's my fault," Liam chokes out, barely coherent, "It's all my fault," but Scott just pulls him in tighter, hushes him, whispers firm and determined, "It's not, of course it's not," and Liam cries even harder because Scott doesn't get it, he doesn't understand, and so Liam tells him as much.

"They think he's me," Liam manages, throat painfully hoarse, and Scott stills at that. "That's why they took him. That's why they have him." And now he's getting loud, loud enough to wake Argent, Melissa, and Lydia, who are all passed out around the living room.

"They what?" Scott whispers, horrified, and Liam's chest pangs in agreement. "How do you know?" And Liam explains, furious tears ceaselessly spilling, rehashes the taunting and whipping and "Dunbar" and the moments up until Liam's fucking feelings whisked him out of the vision, right as their eyes met, leaving Theo there to rot, because apparently that's all Liam's good for these days.

"And he just took it," Liam says, laughing a bit, but it just comes out as another sob. "They called him Dunbar and hit him and he didn't correct them, he just took it." And then another sobbing laugh escapes his throat, half-hysterical and physically painful. "Why wouldn't he say something?"

Scott looks sad and thoughtful and guilty and determined, but he doesn't reply, just drags Liam as tight as he can against himself, squeezes him so hard that Liam's bones creak, and Liam cries some more, right there on his alpha's shoulder, in the early light of morning, as the McCall living room's occupants gradually awaken, one after the other.

"What I don't understand," Liam says, voice barely above a whisper, because he feels like if he hears anything louder right now, he's going to come out of his skin, as he waits for the four chocolate chip Eggo's he forced into the two slots in the McCalls' ancient-looking toaster, "is how you didn't know he was taken, or" he rephrases, "how you didn't know he was being tortured," voice cracking. Scott looks pained, but Liam can't not think about it. "What happened to pack bonds?" Liam spits, more violently than is probably fair, but he just watched Theo be tortured in Liam's name, so Liam's way past what's fucking fair. "Or was that just a lie?"

"What?" Scott blurts, absolutely scandalized, "Of course it wasn't a lie, why would you even say that?" And then, a pause, where he seems to gather himself, before continuing, more gently, "the bond feels different for everyone. I don't know if it's because literally none of us are the same species, or if it's because of their relationship with me, or maybe if it's just how they deal with emotions." He takes a long sip of his too-milky coffee. "Theo's bond has always been a little . . . Numb." Scott lets out a long, tired sigh, scratching at the stubble on his chin. "Like a limb that fell asleep. Honestly, I think it's because of how much he suppresses. But sometimes, some things filter through -- things that slip past his walls -- and it's like pins and needles, and then I can feel it. Even now, I can't feel his pain. He just seems . . ."

"What?" Liam prompts, desperate, "He just seems, what?"

"Determined," Scott says quietly, and Liam's heart skips a beat in his chest. "Hey," Scott grabs Liam's arm, abandoning his mug to look Liam straight in the eye. "Whatever you did, when you were there," Scott says, "it surprised him so much that I could feel the shock from both of you. You interacted with him. Do you know how rare that is? For shapeshifters to be able to manifest for each other, even with the anchor connection? Do you understand how strong that connection has to be?" And Liam didn't, so he thinks, huh, even as he shrugs it off, looking drawn enough that Scott accepts the dismissal and they spend the rest of the meal in an exhausted kind of silence.

When Argent asks him if he remembers anything about the place, if they have any leads, all Liam can manage is a hoarse, "I didn't notice," and "I wasn't paying attention", the words tasting like bile in his mouth, and Argent looks the most sympathetic Liam's ever seen him, but that doesn't stop Liam from feeling completely and totally useless. He still feels like he's going to be sick as he collapses onto the bed in the guest room and falls into a restless sleep, the morning light creeping it's way across the room and the moon disappearing from the sky completely.

He dreams of helpless green eyes and a wolfsbane-coated whip.

 

 

 

---

 

 

 

The next night, Liam's prepared.

He woke sometime in the late afternoon, feeling even more tired than when he went to sleep, but too wired to try for a couple more hours of rest, and he spends the rest of the evening talking himself through it.

This is for Theo, he thinks, you're going to keep your mind clear, and you're going to pay attention to your surroundings, for Theo.

He plans and he pep-talks himself and he mostly just gets in the way of the other people bustling around Scott's house, unsuccessfully trying to cross-reference a collection of maps with various agglomerated locations of hunter strongholds and traffic cameras in the area. Argent and Agent McCall have already come to blows nearly three times, Lydia has turned the kitchen into some kind of homemade laboratory, much to Melissa's chagrin, and Mason and Corey stopped by to eat takeout with Liam for dinner in the guest bedroom and calm his anxiety for a bit. It doesn't work very well, but he appreciates the effort, and dutifully accepts their forehead kiss and warm hug respectively, because he might not have Theo to anchor him, but Mason and Corey are practically the next best thing.

By the time they're in the living room again, the McCall house cleared out except for the usual suspects, the light of sunset rapidly dwindling, Scott asking, "Are you ready?" Liam can nod his affirmation with confidence he does feel, because he's prepared for the absolute worst, and this is important, so he can't mess this up. "It'll be stronger tonight," Scott reassures, hand squeezing Liam's shoulder, "your connection, because of the full moon. It'll tether you better."

This is for Theo, he thinks again, for good measure, right before his claws enter the back of Scott's neck again, who's important, too important to mess this up, and for a split second, he hears Theo's voice from a couple weeks ago, when it was just the two of them who had stumbled upon a small hunters' cabin, fighting side-by-side, back-to-back, until Theo had taken a poisoned arrow to the shoulder, and stumbled backwards, backed into a corner, and Liam had to all but drag his half-wolfsbane-paralyzed body through the woods, even though he was exhausted himself.

Liam remembers his hands around his shoulder, forehead pressed to Liam's own, grounding. Liam, Theo said, tone perfectly even, face so close Liam could feel his breath skate across his lips, making Liam lick them reflexively, eyes locked with Theo's own unrelenting gaze. Liam, you've got this, he said, I don't trust anyone, right? But I trust you, breathing going ragged for a second, but his arms never leaving Liam's own. I trust you with everything, Theo breathed, and Liam's breath hitched, unable to look away, even though he could hear the hunters gaining on them. He'd thought God, what am I supposed to do with that, a desperately touched kind of awe, before gathering the last of his energy and taking the rest of Theo's weight, thinking I've got you, thinking, I've always got you.

He thinks of anchoring green eyes, wide and surprised and alone, laid out vulnerable in front of a monster with a whip, Liam thinks, he's too important, remembers, I trust you with everything, thinks, here goes nothing, before correcting himself, here goes everything, and then unceremoniously plunging his claws into the meat of Scott's neck, one last time.

Everything goes black.

When the room starts to clear, Liam pushes down the reflexive spike of fury and anxiety that rises from the familiar surroundings. They're in the same room as before, but the man with the whip is gone. Theo is still laid out on the table, far too many lashings across his chest and stomach. His ribs are starting to show a bit and his left arm is bent in a way that looks broken, his cheekbone still horribly swollen, and the dark bruises set in under his eyes makes Liam realize, in an absently horrified sort of way, he hasn't slept. He hasn't slept since they took him.

The image is almost too much, and Liam's stomach turns as a violently pervasive spike of nausea nearly bowls him over, nearly overwhelms the worry and anger and helplessness that keep bubbling up, despite Liam's best efforts to keep them under control, before he remembers, your connection will be stronger tonight, because of the full moon, and it seems to be holding true, since right now, Liam has devolved into one big tangled mass of emotions, and he hasn't been spontaneously expelled from Scott's mind yet. The ringing in his ears hasn't abated yet, and he takes the time to actually take a look around.

There's a small window on the side of the room, completely uncovered, and it must be freezing in here, in late November at night, there's no way Theo's not at least mildly hypothermic and the thought sends a sympathetic shudder down Liam's spine, even though he can barely feel the heat of his own body. From this angle, Liam has a clear view of the full moon.

It's strange, the way the room is cast into light and shadow, the center of it coming sharply into focus, while the spaces around and behind the corners are vague and hazy, until Liam realizes, thoughts slow, I'm tethered to Theo, realizes, this is Theo's field of vision, and honestly, it's pretty impressive how much he managed to mentally map out just from the way the florescent light hits the corners of the room, because Liam's pretty sure all he would be able to even see behind himself, let alone all the nooks and crannies of the place he's being fucking tortured in, because it's not even a closed room or anything like that, it's just a space, like they just found some junction between hallways that was big enough to be used as an apparent torture chamber, and cuffed Theo up there, and Liam is suddenly, irrationally angry, so angry that he nearly doesn't see her, until he manages to notice that he's completely missed, yet again, the fact that there's another person with them.

Standing in front of Theo, hands on her hips, is none another than Tamara Monroe herself, and Liam has to fight to control the shift, almost loses it, before he focuses on Theo's breathing, fairly even despite the angry marks painting his body, and thinks the sun, the moon, the truth, before it's almost manageable again. The ringing has stopped, and all that remains is Theo's breathing and Monroe's detachedly irritated voice, echoing in the concrete space:

"-- had to come see for myself. I wanted to watch Scott McCall be destroyed." She stops pacing and Liam holds his breath. "I was wondering why no one seemed to be coming for you. No one has even made a move to leave Beacon Hills, and I thought, why would they abandon the only bitten beta?" She laughs, high and cold, and it grates across Liam's skin, makes him feel cold down to his bones even though he's not even there. Theo's expression remains impassive, but his heartbeat stutters, and Liam doesn't think he's ever felt this helpless before. "But you're no Liam Dunbar. Do you think they even noticed you're missing, Theo?" Monroe says his name sickeningly sweet, a tone that's so hateful and wrong that it should be a crime, and Liam wants to vomit, before she laughs again, chuckles really, and now Liam feels hot all over, the numbness replaced by a violent, roiling kind of rage, as Monroe continues, viciously, in the same calculating tone: "or," she muses, faux-thoughtful, "do you think they decided not to come?" Monroe walks up to Theo, his eyes glassy but expression completely blank. Liam can hear his heart pounding away in his chest, and it takes absolutely everything in him not to desperately run up to him, take his hand and look him in the eye and say, don't listen to her, please, she's so, so wrong, I promise, but he promised himself that he would stay in control this time, to find Theo, because he can't comfort him if he's dead, and so he stays put, his exposed claws buried in the meat of his palm. He doesn't bleed. He doesn't think he has any blood on this plane, but it still runs cold as he catches sight of the shiny new table propped up next to Theo, filled with neatly-lined up medical instruments.

"Do you," Monroe says, softly, like she's genuinely postulating, and then, slightly gleeful, "do you think they would thank me? For cleaning up their mess? Taking the trash out for them?" and at that, Liam can't, he just can't, the anger and frustration and helplessness absolutely boiling over as the shift breaks loose, clawing it's way up and out of his body. He hears himself roar, makes to jump in Theo's direction, before everything goes black again.

This time, thankfully, he doesn't wake up in the McCall's living room. It's dark, and hazy, and he feels like he's floating, like he's completely detached from his corporeal form. He can’t tell how long it's been when he comes back to himself, but he can tell that he's lost some time.

"-- suggestions on what to do with you. Rossler, the idiot, thought we should use you for information, but what would they possibly tell you? You're not even in their pack," she spits the word, like it tastes bad in her mouth, and Theo's heart rate spikes so sharply that Liam feels his own clench sympathetically. His face is still that blank, porcelain mask, and it makes Liam ache. "All you're good for," Monroe continues, unaffected, "all you are, to us, and everyone else," she smiles, sharp and mean, and Liam is filled with an inexplicable type of dread, before she continues: "is an experiment."

And Liam's frozen, absolutely stock-still, and he can't breathe, he doesn't need to breathe, not while he's barely more than a manifestation, but now he can't and that seems important. He can't get enough air into his lungs and he feels like he's choking, choking on panic and desperation and blood as Monroe makes a neat incision straight down Theo's torso, and Liam is absolutely freaking the fuck out, flashing in and out of consciousness as the room spins and spins and spontaneously sharpens and fades out. He hears snippets of Monroe's voice, clinically detached explanation interspersed with pauses of jarring silence, and Theo's panicked, stumbling heartbeat, as he starts to beg, "No, no, please, not again," and Liam doesn't think he's ever felt so useless in his life, screaming, screaming, maybe so Theo will hear him, maybe so Monroe will stop, maybe so that Liam won't be able to hear anymore, because he can't take this any longer, and he thinks, if he were in his own body, by this point, he would be sobbing, but he doesn't have any tears on this plane, and all it results in is a persistent throbbing headache to amplify the hysteria flooding his veins.

 

"--'ve been curious about this new kind of--"

"-- genetically modified by our scien--"

"--olfsbane, but even more potent, you'll se--"

"-- re just a chimera, but honestly, there's not much of a diff--"

"--anted to see the healing process myself, from the inside s--"

And then Liam fades into darkness, absolute and complete.

 

This time, when he comes to, he almost doesn't realize he's back in his phantom body, because the lights are off. The only thing that alerts him to the fact that he's back is the weak, stumbling beat of Theo's heart, and nothing, absolutely nothing, not his own panic, nor the constraints of this lunar projection nonsense can stop him from stumbling to Theo's side, taking account of his injuries, and nearly throwing up, even though he's pretty sure he can't as a manifestation.

Theo's in the same position, but the table next to him looks like it's been ravaged, covered in blood, tools disheveled, with most of them sitting at the bottom of a large tub of what appears to be disinfectant. The scalpels and forceps and scissors sitting at the bottom of the tub are coated in a thick layer of something, black and purple with swirls of silver, until Liam realizes with a start, that's Theo's blood. That's what she did to him.

And that's when he finally builds up the courage to actually take a look at Theo, and his stomach turns. Even by the low light of the moon, when the worst of it is shrouded in darkness, it's still awful to see. He's still propped up, cuffed to the table, but apparently Monroe didn't bother to suture him back up after her amateur surgery, because he's still cut open and Liam feels violently nauseous as he spots the instrument holding the flaps of Theo's torso open, organs completely exposed. Theo's pulse is thready and his lips are a little blue, and Liam can't help the small, horrified, "God," that escapes Liam in a whisper.

Theo's eyes snap open to meet Liam's, and Liam almost forgets how to breathe.

"Can you hear me?" Liam tries, voice cracking with desperation, and the corner of Theo's mouth twitches, before growing into a wide, abandoned smile. There's blood on his teeth, but Liam helplessly smiles back because he can't not, not when Theo looks at him like that, as Liam's body floods with relief, because maybe there's a chance that this shitshow of a plan works after all.

"Hey," Theo slurs, voice raspy but still beaming like a loon, "it's good to see you."

Liam's heart skips and stutters embarrassingly at the sound of his voice, soaking it in with the thirst of a man who just got out of the desert, but he covers it up with a perfunctory, unnecessary throat-clearing. "You were expecting me?"

Theo nods slowly, eyes glazed over like he's drugged. "'Course," he says, smiling, "was waiting."

"I don't understand," Liam says, because he still doesn't get it. Theo nods, like Liam needs the affirmation, probably because he's kind of delirious, but Liam ignores him, "You know where all the exits are. You know all the storage rooms in this place, and like, a lot of the hallways. I know because I can see them, and I can only see what you see." It was one of the things Liam caught while he was flashing in and out of Theo's torture chamber during his impromptu surgery; a glimpse at the rest of the warehouse, of which an impressive proportion was sharp and illuminated. "You're like, the smartest person I know, and you have an escape route planned out. Why haven't you tried to escape yet? And they thought you were me. Why didn't you correct them?" His voice finally cracks under the pressure of his misery, but Theo doesn't comment on it, just groans loudly and thunks his head back on the propped-up metal surface he's cuffed to.

"Y'r kinda dumb," Theo says, still slurring his words, and now Liam's starting to panic a little bit, that the hypothermia and blood loss and fucking organ exposure will get to him before the pack will. "I d'n't ev'n know why I like you. Like," he wrinkles his nose, “yikes.”

"Theo," Liam says, the desperation choking him up, because if he lets Theo pass out now, just when Liam can finally talk to him, he doesn't know how he's going to live with himself. But luckily, Theo seems to hear it, and his hazy vision sharpens, just a bit, focusing on Liam.

"Listen, stupid," Theo says, abrasive as ever, and Liam is so inordinately relieved that he could cry, because there's the Theo he knows and lo-- "'f I told them I wasn't you, they would jus' go after you. If I 'scaped, they would jus' go after you. Don't you get it?" Theo smiles wide, "'m being the bait," and Liam's heart stops the same way it did in that elevator all those months ago, because he can't think anything past god, you're so fucking stupid, why do you always have to do this to me, but Theo seems completely oblivious to his mounting rage, because he just frowns into the distance, furrowing his brows innocently and Liam would call it adorable if he didn't have a direct line of sight to his liver. "'r at least I was," Theo says, sounding despondent, "Monroe f'gured out it was just me. 'nd now, 'm too fucked up to 'scape, anyways" He startles suddenly, and looks Liam in the eye, worried, "you're gonna have to hide," he says, sounding panicked, "they're going to come for you soon, 'cause they know now."

"You're worried about me?" Liam hisses, distraught, "I can see your fucking kidney right now." A beat of silence, and then he can't help but ask, quieter, "why do you only have one kidney?"

"L'st the other," Theo whispers back.

"You fucking what?"

"Lost it," Theo says, louder and with more coherent consonant noises, like his diction was the reason that Liam was struggling to understand. "Incident of '09," he says, rolling his shoulders back like he's trying to get some circulation back in them. "D'n't know where it is now. Maybe Tijuana, but probably Bucharest. Or South Florida."

"What?" Liam wheezes, more hysterical than he would like, quickly losing his grip on his sanity, and on the thread of the conversation. "You know what? Never mind," Liam shakes himself a bit, "just fucking never mind, we will definitely talk about that, later. Right now, you need to tell me everything you know about where you are. Theo," he tries, but Theo's eyes are distant, glazed over. Liam steps closer, as close has he can get, puts his hands up to Theo's head, cradling his face, thumbs brushing the peaks of Theo's cheekbones lightly, and he can feel the phantom warmth seep into his own body.

"Theo," he tries again, and this time Theo's eyes at least meet his. "Baby," Liam says, voice breaking painfully, "you need to tell me where you are, so we can find you," and now Theo's looking at him, really looking at him, but he still looks a little off, his expression all wrong.

He smiles, eyebrows lifted in a placating expression, like he's humoring Liam and Liam doesn't like that at all. "Alright," Theo concedes, "Alright, fine. They took me on Saturday, early afternoon. I was by, uh," he clears his throat, averts his gaze, "by Tara's bridge, and they pulled me into a black SUV. We took a road right off the preserve, probably Marigold, and then got on what I think was the I-20 about an hour later. I remember the license plate," he reels it off without even taking a second to remember it, "but they changed it. Twice. I could feel it. The wolfsbane they put in me fucked me up pretty bad for most of the ride here, but you know," he flicks his head, and Liam thinks that if his hands weren't cuffed, this would be where he would gesture vaguely, "Trained for this, and all that. Being conscious is a preference, not a necessity. We went north for a while and then west for longer, and drove for about eleven hours, so if I had to say," he pauses, furrowing his brows, and Liam holds his breath, "I'd say I’m in Utah. Maybe Idaho, possibly Wyoming, but I'd put my money on Utah. North Utah."

And Liam thinks, okay, thinks, thank god, finally some progress, but his eyes go a little unfocused the further down Theo's body they travel, twisted gory mess on full display. Theo watches his gaze track down for a bit, before laughing a little. It sounds torn and ragged as the skin of his torso and Liam doesn't like the sound of it, concern forcing his eyes back up to Theo's face. "When she was cutting me open," Theo says, "felt like I was back there for a second. Back in Hell."

Liam's heart doesn't quite stop beating, but it's a near thing. "What," he manages, voice hoarse, barely a whisper as he brushes his thumb across Theo's jawline, "what happened down there?"

"It's her heart," Theo shrugs, "she just took it back."

"Tara," Liam breathes, and Theo nods. "So she . . ."

"Ripped it out," he says, eyes going unfocused, "Tore it right out of my chest. Again, and again, and again. Lost count of how many times she chased me down that hospital hallway. Eventually I just," he let out a gust of air, shoulders slumping, "let her."

And Liam remembers, "Sorry, I thought I was somewhere else for a second," "Where?" "A bad dream", remembers Theo struggling to breathe the first time he went back to the hospital after he came back from underground, remembers "What exactly did you think I was doing down there?" "I think you were rotting down there. I also think whatever happened to you? You deserved it", remembers the first and last time Theo slept over, Liam and Theo taking up a couch each, Liam startled awake by the stench of terror that had flooded the entire living room, Theo shaking, whimpering, breathing gone ragged and heart racing, as he whispered, deathly quiet, heartbreakingly resigned, "It's okay, you don't have to stop." Liam shook him awake gently, and Theo's eyes didn't focus on him for another minute, before he bolted, grabbing his jacket and waving Liam off with a quick, "Thanks, this was fun," before getting into his truck and speeding out of the Geyers' driveway. He wouldn't meet Liam's eyes for a week, and he never stayed over again.

"Oh my god," Liam breathes, horrified, and then he remembers Theo's unconscious habit of pressing his hand to his sternum sometimes when he gets anxious, when he gets sad, when he gets guilty. He remembers "Some of us actually have a fucking heart," and the new and exciting implications of that particular unintentional barb, and thinks that maybe he should never open his mouth ever again, when clearly all he knows is how to hurt the people he cares about, in the most vicious fucking way possible. My fault, Liam thinks, this is all my fault.

"'S okay," Theo says, words starting to slur together again. "Didn't feel like that for long. 'S easy to tell th' difference. It hurt a lot more down there. This," he jerks his chin toward his split open torso, and Liam's nauseous all over again. "This isn't that bad."

"I--" Liam manages, so completely out of his depth, before realizing, "She didn't give you any anesthetic."

Theo snorted. "You think the Dread Doctors did?" He smiles, a bitter, sardonic, little thing, before his breathing goes a little ragged, a little labored. His pulse drops from acceptable to worrying, and Liam gradually begins his panic spiral once again. "Don't worry," he says, "reminds me of my childhood," and then laughs, like the horrifying joke he made was actually entertaining and Liam's stomach turns, yet again, because Jesus. "For what it's worth though, I'm glad I got to see you, before."

"Before what?" Liam asks, bewildered. He can't smell Theo, or anything, really, and it's starting to discomfit him, when all he wants to do is bury his nose into the warmth of Theo's neck and breathe him in. The wolf inside him claws impatiently, but Liam quiets it firmly.

"You know," Theo says, but Liam very evidently doesn't, and Theo rolls his eyes, sighing. "Before I die."

"Theodore Raeken," Liam hisses, absolutely fucking furious, the internal turmoil building and mounting inside, pressure increasing, just waiting to blow. "Don't you fucking dare. You are not dying. We'll find you." He presses his forehead to Theo's, even though Liam can't feel it. He hopes Theo can, with everything he has. He meets his eyes, firm and deliberate. "I’ll find you." A promise. A vow.

"It's kind of depressing," Theo chuckles, "when my own hallucination starts lying to me."

Liam's heart drops as he pulls back, sits stone-cold in his stomach. He feels like he can't even speak, throat closing up quickly. He feels like he's being strangled. "You," he chokes out, "You think I'm a hallucination?"

Theo levels him with a look, and then shrugs, one-shouldered, like he's so unbothered that he can't even make the effort to use both of them. Or maybe the hypothermia is finally kicking in and he's lost sensation in his left side. Liam swallows. "I haven't slept in days," Theo says, "I see a lot of things that aren't there." And then, quieter, like he's revealing a secret, one he's kept written in a cipher, tucked underneath a flap deep inside his heart: "It's happened before.” A beat. ”It happened last time."

Liam can't breathe. "Last time?" he whispers, disbelieving, "You hallucinated me the last time you thought you were going to--"

Theo nods, quickly, just a quick jerk of his head. "Yeah," he replies, eyes starting to glaze over a bit, "You didn't talk then, though. And," he says, furrowing his brows, seemingly getting loopier with pain by the second, "you were happier. It was nice. You should smile more. Right now you just look sad." He leans forward, putting his forehead back to Liam's, licks his lips nervously, once, twice, and Liam's heart stutters, clenching painfully in his chest. "Would you," Theo whispers, barely a breath of air, "would you smile for me? Please?" His eyes are trained on Liam's mouth, wide and green and glassy and hopeful. "Just once?"

And Liam is weak, so fucking weak, has been for a long time now, and there isn't much that he wouldn't do when Theo asks like that, when Theo asks at all, really, and so he musters up a smile, forcing the corners of his mouth higher, even when the tears prick in his eyes, and well, guess he can cry here after all, and when Theo returns it, wide smile breaking out on his bruised face, satisfied and helpless and beautiful and everything Liam has ever wanted in his life, it takes everything Liam has in him to keep the sob from escaping his throat. "There it is," Theo says, grinning and delirious, eyes still trained on his mouth, and Liam thinks that this, this is the moment his heart finally breaks into pieces.

"Baby," Liam says, voice thick with emotion, eyes burning, "baby, I'm real." He puts his hands back up to Theo's face, can't remember why he ever thought it was a good idea to ever let go, fingers ghosting across his high cheekbones, stubborn jawline, split bottom lip. "I'm real, Theo, I promise." And then he catches sight of his own hand as his fingers brush across Theo's chin. It's much fainter than it was a couple minutes ago, and he thinks, no. He thinks, no, wait, I'm not done.

"You're not," Theo says, small, resigned smile playing at the corner of his mouth as he pulls his head back a bit from Liam's and meets his eyes. "You're not, but it's okay. Liam doesn’t do all this,"

"All what?" Liam asks, as his heart breaks rudely, right in his chest.

"This," Theo repeats, like that's helpful. "He doesn't call me baby and he doesn’t-- He doesn't think of me like that. He actually doesn't think much of me at all," Theo snorts.

"What?" Liam hisses, cries really, but. "Why would you think that?"

"He knows I'm gone," Theo notes, almost clinically, except his heartbeat stutters. "We see each other like, every other day. He knows. Which means," he says, leaning back against the metal eyes avoiding Liam's, "They all know." And Liam hears it, Theo's words in Argent's voice, sad and broken, all alone in his truck -- his home -- in the middle of the night, resigned, "They already know." and it makes his heart pang even more painfully than it did the first time. "But Monroe was telling the truth, earlier. She's not good at controlling her heartbeat. Never was. They're not coming. So they probably found the truck, if they bothered to look, and Scott said 'it's not worth it'" he lowers his voice, like he's doing a humorous impression instead of meticulously shredding Liam's heart, "and then Liam probably said, 'okay, sounds good'" in a much higher voice, that Liam's kind of offended at, in a distant sort of way, while the forefront of his mind is screaming, "because he's a respectful beta like that, and then they just went on with the rest of their Monroe plans. Which is fine, I'm pretty sure there's an important summit next week, and God knows Scott needs to prepare."

"What?" he hisses again, completely out of his depth, but his voice is faint, like he's already fading, and he starts to panic. "Theo, that's not-- Baby, we're com--"

"For what it's worth," Theo says, eyes meeting Liam's, deliberate, and completely steamrolling over Liam's increasingly faint protests, "I'm sorry. I know I never said it, because I didn't think it would be worth anything, but I am. For everything before, and then some. And I know you're not even him, okay? I know you're not Liam." And Liam's frozen to the spot, holding his breath, as Theo smiles, pained, eyes shiny. "You see," he whispers, "I take the parts that I remember and stitch them back together to make a creature that will do what I say or love me back."

And then his smile turns sad, a familiar kind of sad, one that makes Liam think of hot pie in warm diners and 'People like me don't get a happy ending. We don't get redemption arcs.' He smiles, sad and beautiful and impossible, Liam's desperate, helpless, barely audible "Theo, NO, wait, please, I--" falling on deaf ears.

He meets Liam's eyes with a sad, sad smile, eyes fluttering shut, and whispers, soft and resigned, "It was always going to end this way, sweetheart."

The room fades away, and so does Theo.

 

 

---

 

 

Liam's back in the McCall's living room and it's quiet. He grabs a potted plant, just to be polite, right in time for him to expel the contents of his stomach into it, noting the interesting color detachedly, and Melissa rushes to his side, probably to pat his back or something equally comforting, but he shies away from the touch.

He can't bring himself to cry. He can't bring himself to do much of anything. He just sits, heart broken, head empty, mouth tasting like ash, and not from the herbs he just upended. For once in his life, he's not even angry, he's just. Numb.

For the first hour, Argent and Lydia eye him warily while Scott tries to coax him into eating something. He chews on chocolate chip waffles mechanically. They taste like ash and they settle in his stomach like a stone-cold weight, but he keeps chewing, because as long as there's something in his mouth, he doesn't have to answer anyone's questions. He cleans the living room, corking the vials and putting them back in the Ziploc, scrubbing absentmindedly at the faint scorch marks. When he finishes, he moves on to the kitchen, wiping down the counter and washing and drying dishes methodically, robotically, until Melissa catches sight of him and makes him stop.

The second hour, Argent finally crosses the distance he's been carefully maintaining, and Liam manages a steady "North Utah", and then takes a deep, steadying breath, before telling him everything -- reeling off the license plate numbers he had burned into his brain in the cadence of Theo's voice, the make and model of the SUV, Marigold, north, west, eleven hours, everything he could remember about the warehouse.

"Something industrial," he surmises, picking at the skin around his fingernails. "Late twentieth century."

"Did you hear anything outside? Cars, people, anything?" Argent asks, squinting at his laptop screen, and then at Liam, but Liam just shrugs.

"Don't think so," he replies, watching a droplet of blood well up from a spot where he pulled too much skin off, with a detached kind of interest. "But I wasn't really paying attention to outside."

Luckily, Scott comes over to grant him a reprieve, pulling Liam's hands apart and seemingly trying to take his pain, visibly confused when it doesn't work, which Liam privately thinks is appropriate, since Liam doesn't feel the pain of the cut anyways. Besides the gaping maw of his chest, everything else is numb. Unfeeling.

Scott keeps his firm grip on one of Liam's hands,  even as he goes over to the other end of the table, where Argent is sitting, and puts his finger on the screen. "There," he says confidently, "Just outside Salt Lake."

Argent eyes him, curious, but expression surprisingly free of skepticism. "You're sure?" he asks, but it seems mostly obligatory. Scott nods firmly, turns to Liam with a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

"Could feel it while Liam was there," he says, and then full-on grins. "Pack bonds had to be useful at least once, right?"

He settles down in an empty chair between Liam and Argent, munches on some toast, keeping one hand firmly on Liam's wrist, and his attention on Argent's computer screen, as they start looking into the area. Liam's just on the verge of finally letting something other than blank numbness filter past his barriers and into his mind, as they round out the second hour.

That's when Scott blacks out.

Liam's quick reflexes, and their joined hands, is all that prevents Scott from getting shards of glass in his forehead as he suddenly face plants into the table, and Liam flings his arm out protect Scott's head, before they're grabbing him, Liam hefting Scott's shoulders, while Argent takes his feet, lifting his body out of the kitchen and into the living room, and Melissa lets out a particularly colorful swear as she ushers them to the couch while asking Lydia to retrieve a cold compress from the bathroom.

Liam tries to take his pain, but finds none there to take, and so he settles for holding the compress in place, even when Melissa attempts to shoo him away. After shaking him and calling his name doesn't work, after several minutes, Liam decides that they need another approach. And besides, he's never tried to use the pack bonds on purpose, before, so he thinks, hard, at Scott, with everything he has left, Scott, please wake up, and when that doesn't work, he reaches for that feral consciousness deep within himself, winds his will around it, tight and steady, yanks on it, with all the energy and conviction remaining in his drained body and Scott comes to with a ground-trembling roar, raring up on the couch, back arching, even as Liam and Argent try to hold him down, eyes flared a brilliant, violent red. It takes them an entire five minutes just to get him back down; pinned enough to be safe that he won't hurt himself or anyone else.

"What the hell was that?" Liam asks, panting, when his hands have secured Scott's shoulders back to the couch using the entire weight of his body, and Scott's eyes are a safe, warm, brown again. Scott curls in on himself, clutching his head, a pained, sub-vocal whine emanating from his throat.

"He's not there anymore," Scott whispers, absolutely horrified, and dread settles low in Liam's gut.

"What do you mean?" Liam asks, all but growling, "What are you talking about?"

"Theo," Scott breathes, miserable, "I can't feel Theo in my head anymore."

Chapter Text

"Get in the car, Liam."

"Just go home, Lydia," Liam grumbles, picking up his walking pace, hunching his shoulders even more and burying his hands in the pockets of his hoodie. It doesn't stop them from shaking, but.

"Absolutely not," Lydia says, matter-of-factly, as her shiny blue car continues its slow, persistent crawl next to him, refusing to leave him be, Lydia in the drivers seat, one hand on the wheel, face turned to Liam, eyebrows raised, lips pursed expectantly. "If you think I would let you be alone right now, you're crazier than me that month I spent at Eichen." Her attempt at a joke falls fairly flat, but when Liam turns to frown at her, her expression softens. "I know that your parents are gone for the week," she says, rolling her eyes when Liam's head whips to her, surprised, "and I know you're just going to sit in your empty house, and brood. And I'm not going to let you." She huffs, "You're not going to win this argument, and we both know it. So save us the time, and just get in the car, Liam."

And Liam lets out a sigh, shoulders slumping, completely exhausted. He left his Mom's car at Scott's because he thought he might actually crash if he tried to drive it right then, and he was determined to tough out his walk home alone, to give himself some time to process, but Lydia's never once lost an argument that she set her mind to, so he acquiesces, shrugging half-heartedly, before getting into the passenger side, laying his arms on the dashboard as soon as he's buckled up, and burying his face in them, exhausted but still, somehow, anxious as fuck. The small, soft hand carding through his hair helps, if only a little, as Lydia picks up the speed and drives, a comfortable kind of silence settling between them.

The drive isn't long, not at all, but Liam feels like he drifts for a while, the familiar smell of her and the soothing rumble of the car settling his nerves a bit. She smells like vanilla and green apples, but also, like, bromothymol sulfone phthalein, which he only knows the exact smell of because Theo makes it a point to always tell him what they've been working with when he returns from science-time with Lydia -- where they do god knows what in Lydia's rumored basement laboratory -- in the hopes that it might raise Liam's chemistry grade. It hasn't worked so far, but Liam appreciates the sentiment all the same.

And that, just remembering him, sends a spike of misery and grief so sharp and piercing through Liam's sternum that he has to sit completely still, curling in on himself even harder, until he can catch his breath again. God, Liam thinks, god, Theo.

By the time they stop, he does feel marginally better than when he was alone with his thoughts, kicking rocks angrily as he walked on the sidewalk of the McCall's street, even if he doesn't plan on admitting it, and he's turning to thank Lydia for the ride, when he catches sight of where they've stopped.

"This isn't my street," he realizes, casting a glance down the road.

"No," Lydia agrees, sounding amused. It makes Liam frown. She flicks her head toward the house they've stopped in front of, the quirk of her mouth reassuring. "C'mon," she prompts, and Liam listens to her, getting out of the car, because that's what one usually does when Lydia Martin gives them a direct order.

He can't help but ask a bewildered "What are we doing here?" as he walks around the car and steps onto the sidewalk.

She links an elbow through his, all but dragging him forward. "Coping."

The house is hers, as he comes to realize by the scent; it smells like her, or maybe she smells like it, the scent vaguely tangled with all the others she emanates, settled into her skin. Maybe both. Maybe we change our homes just as much as they change us.

He looks around, can't help his curiosity, because even after all these years with the pack, he doesn't think he's ever been to Lydia's. He lets his mind wander, eyeing the baby pictures and frankly, alarming number of trophies on the mantle, as Lydia walks into what's presumably the kitchen, the sound of a cabinet opening and glasses clinking together, as she roots through some cupboard, reverberating across the walls of the generous space, before he startles suddenly, realizing, "Where's your mom?" trying very deliberately to keep his tone neutral, and not like he would one-hundred percent make a run for it if he caught sight of Principal Martin on his Thanksgiving Break.

"Out," she replies, unimpressed, craning her head around the pillar that separates the living room and kitchen apparently just so that he could catch sight of her narrowed, judgmental eyes and sharply quirked brow. "Some week-long educator's conference." And Liam lets out an inward sigh of relief, before giving in to his curiosity and joining Lydia in the kitchen.

On the kitchen island lies a vaguely-expired looking packet of Swiss Miss and a bottle of what appears to be vodka. Lydia's leaning against the cupboards, one hand on the countertop, the other clutching her phone as she taps away at it with a single thumb at a fairly impressive speed. She's focused on her screen, but looks up when Liam enters. Lydia grabs the vodka bottle by the neck, wiggles it at him. "It's vanilla," she says. "It's supposed to go well with the hot chocolate."

It draws a small, wry smile from him. "Coping?"

"Coping," she assures, eyes catching on her phone again as it vibrates with a notification.

"You do know I can't get drunk, right?" he asks. She returns his innocent inquiry with the meanest, most horribly judgmental look anyone has given him, ever, and he spends a significant amount of time with Theo, so. And there, another spike of pain, vicious and twisting, tearing through his body and constricting his lungs, even as he struggles to remain upright and unaffected.

"Yes, Liam," she says, slowly, like she's talking to a small, particularly stupid child. "Thank you, I am, in fact aware. Wasn't accepted to MIT for my pretty face."

"Okay," Liam relents, raising his arms in mock-surrender as the pain slowly fades, "alright, I just meant, like, the booze won't work on me, if that’s what you were going for."

"Not exactly," Lydia replies, tone much softer. "But me and -- " she cuts herself off, clearing her throat in a clear ploy, uncomfortable in a way Liam has never seen her, and so he meets her eyes. "Well," she continues, seemingly unaffected, but Liam can tell by the false brightness in her voice, the slight dimness in her eyes, even when her hands remain steady as she roots through a cupboard of pots, deftly avoiding Liam's eyes , eventually deciding on a small one, before rising from her crouch and placing it onto the unlit stovetop. "Well, the low heat of vaporization of alcohol, makes it a fairly reliable solute for wolfsbane, which does affect you."

And Liam hears it, hears his name where Lydia so obviously omitted it, because he's heard that phrase a thousand times before: in the pack group chat; over excited facetime calls from a dingy, clumsily repurposed basement; in Deaton's office with a series of test strips, beakers, and report sheets scattered across the examination table; Lydia's hair piled up on top of her head in a messy bun, wired and frazzled, so clearly high on an adrenaline rush, Theo grinning, proud and triumphant next to her, goggle marks on his forehead that Liam refused to find endearing, matching concerning scorch marks on their stained, latex gloves -- "Me and Theo discovered . . . " and it's not like the omission helps, because Liam can hear it as well as if she had screamed it, but he appreciates the effort, and so he doesn't say anything, just covers up the reflexive clench of his aching, tired, heart with a faux-considering expression.

"So," he realizes, "you're gonna get me drunk on wolfsbane."

"Got it in one," Lydia says, smiling. "I just texted Kira," she waves the phone in her hand demonstratively, "she's bringing the red aconite."

"Red?" Liam frowns.

"The one she uses for pranks," she explains, rolling her eyes in a way that still seems inexplicably fond, and Liam almost gets an instinctive migraine, just from the mention of Kira's pranks, because while pre-Skinwalker Kira was kind of playful, post-Skinwalker Kira is a goddamn menace. Apparently, part of embracing one's inner trickster spirit is playing horrible practical jokes on everyone. Or maybe she's just fucking with them when she uses the Skinwalker training as a justification, because that’s the kind of person she is these days. Honestly, her and Malia deserve each other. "So, it's the least lethal strain of aconite," Lydia explains Liam slowly, eyeing him like he's being especially stupid today, just to spite her, apparently misreading Liam's sudden, vigorous temple-rubbing as him trying to stimulate his brain cells instead of trying to rub the memory out of his head of him coming down to his kitchen for a midnight snack, rooting through the pantry for something worthwhile, before emerging triumphant with Oreos, and biting into one of them, only to be violently and brutally assaulted in his own home by the sharp, unmistakable burn of toothpaste. He found five more large packs of Oreos in the pantry, after thirty more minutes of searching, only to find that each and every of them, almost 300 fucking cookies, with the cream removed, the ambrosia gone, heinously replaced by a factory-neat layer of fucking toothpaste. Liam had gone to Kira's, right then in the middle of the night, pounding on the door loudly before marching straight into their living room, ignoring Malia's threatening growl, commandeering their couch, and eating every single one of the cookies right in front of Kira and the infuriatingly amused smile playing around her mouth, out of pure spite.

He had to go get his stomach pumped a couple hours later, but. Worth it. Kind of. Kira took a picture of him passed out in the hospital, mouth still covered in Oreo crumbs, and had it framed in the Tate-Yukimura household, right above the mantle. And made it her phone wallpaper. And her Facebook profile picture.

("That," Theo said, recovering from his bout of uncharacteristic speechlessness as he lounges in the chair next to Liam's hospital bed, almost lazily, trashy magazine spread across his lap. "That's the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard in my life. You what?" He shakes his head. "No," he says, "you know what? This checks out. Completely in-character. I believe you, because you would." And Liam bristles for a bit, before Theo shakes his head again, drops it into his hands, and laughs, loud and uninhibited. It makes Liam's stomach flip, and his heart do something inadvisable, and obvious, since he's still hooked up to a goddamn heart rate monitor. The arrhythmic beeping catches Theo's attention, and Liam winces.

"So, that's what baking soda does when it passes through your fuckin' heart," he says, still grinning.

"Yeah," Liam says, unconvincing, even to himself, because his voice is all weird and strangled. "Why'd you come, anyways?" he asks, sitting up, "Wait, how'd you even know I was here?"

Theo shoots him a horribly exasperated look, says "You know, it's a good thing you're pretty," and completely steamrolls over Liam's gleeful, "You think I'm pretty?" with, "but I think you should definitely cool it a little with the dangerous chemical ingestion, because really, your brain cells are already limited edition," and ignoring Liam's affronted exclamation, leaning over to flick him on the temple. Liam doesn't flinch away from it, actually kind of shamelessly leans into it, because Theo's fingers feel so, very nice on his head. Theo's hand lingers for a second, indecisively, before he sets his jaw and skates his hand down Liam's face, before slowly, deliberately, tucking a loose piece of hair behind Liam's ear, knocking an embarrassing shudder loose from Liam's lungs, his eyes locked on Theo's as the heart rate monitor goes batshit in the corner, but neither of them pay it any attention, Liam can't because Theo's eyes are so very green as they bore into Liam's, and Liam feels like he's burning, like he can't breathe, which is a shame because Theo smells good, so fucking good, his scent making Liam's head spin, half intoxicated, before a nurse bursts into the room, eyes frantically scanning, taking everything in, and narrowing her eyes very judgmentally as she presses a button on the device in her hands, speaks into it, crystal-clear, "False alarm, kill the Code Blue warning," before inching out of the room, painfully slowly, and Liam's a doctor's son, okay? But Theo isn't (and the Dread Doctors don't count, because they probably didn't use euphemisms like Code Blue), and so Liam prays to every deity he's ever heard of that he Theo doesn't enough about hospital codes to deduce that his gentle fingers on the sensitive shell of Liam's ear half sent him into cardiac arrest.

"No more toothpaste," Liam concedes, and Theo drops his fingers and snorts unattractively, shaking his head.

"You have a terrible memory," Theo grumbles, scrubbing his hand across his jaw. Liam doesn't like when he does that while he has stubble. It's . . . Distracting.

"Yeah," Liam replies absentmindedly, still eyeing Theo's jawline, before shaking himself a bit and actually tuning into the conversation. "Wait, what?"

"I wonder how many hospital visits it's going to take," Theo says, tapping his chin in mock-thought, because he's fucking mean, before narrowing his eyes, "for you to remember that I'm your goddamn emergency contact."

"Oh," Liam says, because he genuinely forgot all those times in the past, forgot to question why Theo was there, lounging by his bed, with his stupid squinty, judgmental eyes, and exasperated looks, and intrusively prying, personal questions like "How did you even find a possum? And why would it attack you out of nowhere? It wasn't rabid, Liam, I know what rabies looks like, and you might seem like you have a viral infection that makes you feral, but you don't. Did you provoke it? You fucking provoked a possum in an alley, didn't you? And if you tell me that it's the exact same possum from the alley behind Sinema -- the weird looking one that you almost tried to fight last month, that I specifically told you to leave alone -- I swear to God I'm going to kill you. I'm going to strangle you dead, right here, with my bare hands, and I'll get away with it too, because I'll make my lawyer -- who'll be Mason, because he agrees with me, by the way -- use the insanity defense, because your idiotic fucking possum shenanigans, will genuinely have made me lose my grip on sanity, and the only time you'll see me again is when my asylum lets us out on nature walks, or whatever, and I make a brief, unnoticed escape to, like, urinate on your grave, or something. Is that what you want, Dunbar? Is it?"

Liam remembers getting his parents removed from the list shortly after he turned eighteen, because knowing that your son got into life-threatening situations for the greater good was one thing, but knowing was something completely different, and they already worry far too much about him to get a call every time he does something dangerous enough that he ends up here. Scott wasn't even in Beacon Hills anymore since he enrolled at Davis. And, Liam doesn't really want to get Mason involved, since Liam's hospital visits are almost directly correlated with something dangerous being after him, and even though Mason knows now, part of Liam is always going to be trying to keep him out of harm's way, so at least he can rest assured that if whatever's after him tries to finish the job at the hospital, Mason will be somewhere safe. Which left Theo.

And he did forget; he forgot that some nurse called Theo every time Liam ended up in the hospital, because it just seemed so natural, him sitting by Liam, feet propped up on the bed, cracking rude jokes that Liam has to pretend not to find funny. It just felt like they were hanging out, like they've spent so much time doing. Something to be said, Liam thinks, about someone who can make you forget that you're in a hospital.

"Right," Liam says, when he realizes that he let the silence go on for a little too long. "But, like, they told you what I was in for, right? That it wasn't serious?"

Theo sets his jaw mulishly and furrows his brows, avoiding Liam's eyes. "They told me you were having your stomach pumped," he says carefully.

"I would've been fine," Liam counters, not unkindly.

"Yes, well," Theo snaps, eyes blazing, and shoulders set in a line tense enough to snap, the muscle in his jaw flexing in a way Liam probably shouldn't find appealing, "the last time you told me you were fine, you had two bullet holes in your thigh, so excuse me if I don't take your goddamn word for it. Or the hospital's."

"Oh my god," Liam whispers, unable to keep the glee out of his voice, "Theodore Raeken," he bats his eyelashes.

"Stop it," Theo hisses, "Stop it right fucking now, you're about to say something dumb, I can tell, stop making that fucking face--"

Liam ignores him, like only someone who has true experience dealing with Theo can, makes his eyes wide and mocking and guileless. He coos, in a tone of voice that he knows makes Theo extra stabby, "Were you worried about me?"

Theo, to Liam's pleasant surprise, does not actually stab him. Granted, it's not like there are any sharp tools readily available in the hospital room, but Theo's resourceful. He could probably kill a man with like, a clipboard. Liam eyes the clipboard at the foot of his bed warily, eyes flicking between it and Theo like he's watching a tennis game, because his vast and impressive experience has taught him that it's best to be prepared for anything.

Theo, to his credit, just rolls his eyes, but Liam can see the corner of his mouth twitching, helpless, before Theo swats him with his rolled up magazine, making Liam yelp. Theo face-plants onto the hospital bed, groaning loudly.

"Don't know why I would be," he grumbles. "You're a menace to society."

And Liam can't help the bright, giddy laugh that bubbles up from deep inside him, as he sinks his palm into the soft hair on the back of Theo's head, and something warm unfurls inside his chest.)

"Oh, honey," Lydia breathes, and Liam startles as he comes back to himself, because she's much closer than she was just a second ago. She brushes her thumb over his cheek gently, and Liam almost startles again when her hand comes away wet. He swipes at his own face, scrubbing, surprised at just how much moisture there is when he realizes, with a jolt, he's crying. He's been crying, for a while, apparently, going by how slimy his face is, and he wipes at it with the front of his hoodie, averting his gaze, because he can't with whatever is in Lydia's eyes right now -- the sympathy, the pity, the understanding, whatever. He just can't. So, it's a welcome surprise when the doorbell rings.

Lydia's eyes flick to the door. She says, "That's probably Kira," and moves to approach it, but Liam stops her with a firm, "No, don't worry, I'll get it," and waves her back to the pot of milk on the stove that's starting to bubble.

Apparently knowing that Kira's going to be on the other end of the door, and actually seeing her -- leaning against the brick, bag of wolfsbane in her hands, sympathetic smile on her face -- are two very different things, because Liam never could've predicted this; this sharp, horrible, desperate wave of rage that crashes through him, violent, destructive, because he can hear her, voice clinically detached but coldly determined all the same: "The Skinwalkers have a message for you, Theo. Your sister wants to see you."

And he sees Theo, bloody and convinced that he's all alone in the world, whispering in the darkness, "It's her heart. She just took it back," like it was nothing, like he was nothing, and it's everything together -- "Being the bait" and "I trust you with everything" and "People like me don't get a happy ending" and "Some of us actually have a fucking heart"  and "Liam doesn't think much of me at all" and "All you're good for, all you are, to us and to everyone else, is an experiment" and "They already know" and "It was always going to end this way" -- and all at once, it's too much, and it bubbles up, spilling out of him in a semi-controlled explosion, a pot boiling over, and just like that, he has Kira pinned against the wall by her throat, growl emanating from somewhere deep and primal within him, as he hisses, "You," and it spews out of his mouth with such vitriol, that it almost burns his lips on the way out, because, "you did this. You put Theo in the ground. Do you know what happened to him down there?" A growl is pulled from his throat, helpless and feral, "What she did to him?"

"You need to calm down," Kira says, eyes narrowed, but voice even, even as Liam tightens his hand around her throat. She shouldn't be able to breathe, let alone maintain an even tone, and distantly, Liam registers that he may have made some kind of critical error. "Put me down," she says carefully, slowly, "and we can talk."

Lydia's eyeing them from the kitchen warily, but not making a move to intervene, which Liam took as a good thing a couple seconds ago, but he's starting to reconsider, because she evidently sees a clear victor in this fight, and he has a sinking feeling it's not him. And it's becoming rapidly evident that the most reasonable thing he can do right now, is to put Kira down, apologize, and have that conversation that she's willing to grant him, except.

Except.

Except Liam just watched Theo be tortured, watched him be cut open like he was already a cadaver in a morgue. And Liam's smelled the fear, seen the flashbacks, heard the nightmares. He knows the shapes and placements of the scars Hell left on Theo, even before he knew what happened down there. And now Theo's somewhere in goddamn Utah, dead for all he knows, taken because they thought he was Liam, and all but abandoned because Liam thought it was a good idea to give him space, so maybe, just maybe, Liam's done being reasonable. Because Liam can't do anything for him right now -- and he remembers the helplessness, desperation, sympathetic pain that wound around his heart, clenching and clenching and clenching as he could do nothing but stand and watch Theo be torn open by a monster with a scalpel -- but this? This he can do.

He tightens his hand around Kira's throat, something primal within him howling in victory when she starts to slacken in his grip, but then, her eyes flash -- a playful, potent gold -- and she swings a leg up and around, thigh pressing down on his shoulder, and before he can find a way to untangle himself, her leg is wrapped around his neck, heel finding purchase in the hollow of his throat, and she swings them both down, and they hit the pavement hard, however, she dispels the momentum in a graceful somersault, while Liam ends up face-down on the concrete.

Liam checks, briefly, that all teeth are still in his mouth -- a reflex borne of years of getting into brutal fights -- and when he verifies that they are, no chips or breaks, he retrieves his dignity off the smooth pavement of the Martin's driveway, and scrambles to his feet, completely ignoring Kira's proffered hand. He takes a steadying breath, squares his shoulders, braced for a fight, because he's not sure exactly how a fox spirit with questionable morals would react to being attacked by an angry wolf, seemingly sans-provocation, but if he's about to be slaughtered, he would like to go down swinging.

Kira eyes the tense line of his shoulders disbelievingly. "Will you stop that?" she says, gentle, despite the annoyance in her tone. "I'm not going to fight you, Liam, oh my God." He keeps his body tensed, ready, because, after all, trickster spirit, but Kira rolls her eyes, makes her way to the doorway of her house, stepping one foot inside, before turning back to Liam, prompting, brow quirked, clearly waiting for him to follow. "Come on," she says, fiddling with the doorknob a bit, restless, and Liam sees just a bit of the old Kira -- averting her eyes, nervous and clumsy with herself -- superimposed upon this new one, before she flashes her eyes again, injects a bit of steel, or at least a bit of something, maybe even something supernatural in her tone, "I said, to come inside." The gold of her irises flicker dangerously, a flame threatening to tip into inferno territory. "I'm not going to repeat myself."

And so, Liam acquiesces, because despite his recent actions, he does not, in fact, have a death wish. He follows her into the living room, where she takes a seat on the couch, legs crossed politely. Lydia has started mixing the Swiss Miss into the pot, stirring slowly, trying very hard to seem like she's not eavesdropping. Liam stays upright, stays braced.

"First of all," Kira says, tone cold. Her limbs are relaxed on the couch, but it's the slack, dangerous laziness of a predator, eyes calculating, "it's not really any of your business. No," she says, sharp, cutting off the litany of furious protests that Liam is clearly about to make. "I don't care what you are to him, and I don't care what he is to you. Sending him there, the decision and the consequences of it, is between me and him." She sighs, a long, gusty one that pitches her entire body forward, as she slumps her body, for real this time, a dark wisp of hair falling into her eyes. "And we've talked about it already," she says, and that startles Liam into relaxing his own limbs, disbelief knocking the wariness out of his tightly-wound frame.

"Really?" Liam says, trying to keep the immense skepticism out of his voice -- generously and desperately ignoring the implications of what you are to him and what he is to you -- because he's not trying to disrespect her, but he thinks he knows Theo better than, well, anyone really, and Theo would never do something as revealing as talk.

"We do talk, you know," she says, looking almost amused. "It's not like we just play Go in silence. And besides," she says, laying the bag of wolfsbane on the coffee table, smoothing the creases out carefully, and folding it, matching up each corner methodically before cementing a new crease in with the edge of her thumb, "he said he didn't blame me." She unfolds it, and then refolds it, diagonally this time, before unfolding it again, and smoothing the creases back out, methodically, mechanically, nervously. "He said he understood."

"He also understood when he thought we were letting him be homeless on purpose as a goddamn punishment," Liam hisses, breath catching in his throat. "He doesn't get a fucking vote."

"And then I said," Kira replies, louder, clearly ignoring Liam, "I said," she replies, throat sounding a little thick, a lot less cold than a couple seconds ago, which rids Liam completely of the vestiges of anger that were still lurking around his ragged edges, "that I was sorry." Her hands finally still, abandoning the messily-creased Ziploc on the coffee table for her own lap, clasping tightly together. "I wasn't really myself when I put him in the ground. I was mostly fox by that point, very little human, and everything seemed much more black-and-white as a spirit." She quirks a small, sad smile, tucking a piece of hair behind her ear. "It's the human part that complicates things. Meeting him again, getting to know him, becoming his friend, his pack. Becoming a kitsune instead of just a person who's sometimes possessed by a lawless fox spirit," she smiles, wry, "It really opens up the spectrum of gray."

"Did he tell you what happened down there?" he can't help but ask, whispered, throat closing up and something sharp and painful rising in his chest. "Did he tell you that--"

"No," Kira says, alarmed, whipping a hand up to stop Liam in his tracks. She frowns, admonishing. "And you shouldn't either. What happened down there was incredibly personal." She drops her eyes to her clasped hands. A couple moments of silence pass, as Kira appears to gather her words. Liam waits.

"Imagine,” Kira says finally, voice dropped so low that it’s nearly inaudible, or it would be, without Liam’s hearing, “your deepest, most horrible regret," she whispers, "buried deep, so deep that not even you're aware of it, something that plagues your soul. Imagine it haunting you, totally and completely, in a persistent, endless, cycle, no escape in sight." She shakes her head, a disbelief and horror warring visibly on her face, as her vision goes unfocused. Liam feels nauseous, stomach turning and pressure mounting behind his eyes, and he can't even tune into the soothing sounds of Lydia's spoon clinking against the edge of the pot, because she really has abandoned them, apparently deciding to avoid eavesdropping after all. "That's all the Skinwalkers would tell me about the prison world I trapped him in," Kira says. "Somewhere in Bardo, between life and death. They said that was all I needed to know." Her eyes flick up to Liam's, head tilting, expression mildly considering. "Honestly," she says, "I'm surprised he told you."

And Liam considers being offended for a split-second, because hey, Theo actually does tell him things, apparently contrary to popular opinion, but quickly dismisses it, because frankly, Liam would be surprised if Theo told him this of his own volition. "To be fair," Liam winces, "he only told me because he thought I was a hallucination." A beat. "And that he was dying."

"Jesus," Kira murmurs, sympathetically horrified, and Liam appreciates it, really, he does.

"Do you regret it?" Liam asks, and then he regrets the question, almost immediately after he posits it, because he doesn't think he's ready for the answer.

"I'm not sure," Kira says carefully, brows drawn together. "I'm sorry, because I don't think anyone should have to go through that, but regret?" Her brows draw together tighter, higher, a firm wrinkle in her face. "Regret is different. For myself? Maybe. It would be nice not to have someone's worst fears on my conscience." She smiles, a little sardonically. Liam has to look away. "But for him, I'm . . . More conflicted. For what it's worth," she says, "I don't think he regrets it." She meets his eyes, deliberate and assessing, like she's making sure that Liam's not going to jump into another violent fit, which he doesn't, but frankly, it's a near thing. "I think," she says, "that he likes the person who came out of the Skinwalker prison much more than the one who went in. I think that you two wouldn't -- couldn't -- be," she pauses, pointedly, "whatever you are," and Liam doesn't flush, he doesn't, "without him going through that first. And," she says, drawing her knees up by her chest, and wrapping her arms tightly around them, "I don't think he would give up any of that. I don't think he could bring himself to ever regret it."

"The nightmares," Liam tries, desperately, "the fear, the anxiety, the hallucinations." He has to stop, and catch his breath. He hasn't been doing anything except fucking standing here and talking, but he's breathless all the same. "You mean to tell me, that he wouldn't jump at the chance to be free of them? Like he hasn't been fucking imprisoned by them the second he stepped foot into that goddamn hellscape, even now that he's out?"

"Sometimes," Kira says, slowly, thoughtfully, "we need to go through things that we'd rather not, in order to become the people we want to be. The people we're meant to be." She smiles, a small, knowing thing. "Not a lot of people can understand that," she says, "but I do, and so does Theo. That’s why we understand each other. So maybe," she meets Liam's eyes, refusing to shy away, defiant, direct. "Maybe, even though the Skinwalker prison wasn’t what he deserved, it was what he needed."

Liam's quiet for a bit, before he slumps down, back sliding against the wall and knees drawing in towards his chest as his body meets the floor. "Sorry," he says, just loud enough for her to hear him, "for before. For attacking you." He inhales, slowly, and exhales, scrubbing a hand across his crusty eyes and trying to be surprised that his hands come away wet again. "You didn't deserve that. None of this is your fault."

Kira smiles, eyes warm, none of that cold, predatory stillness left in her limbs. "I forgive you," she says, with a nod, and Liam likes that about her, likes how she doesn't say things like 'it's okay' much anymore, because it's usually not. Liam can count on one hand the number of times something has actually been okay. She narrows her eyes. "Maybe," she says, deliberate, pointed, "you should try forgiving yourself too."

Liam snorts, eyes trained firmly on the floor. "I don't know what you’re talking about."

"Hey," Kira snaps, sharply snapping her fingers twice, impatient, until Liam's eyes flick up to meet hers. "Just because I'm not a werewolf doesn't mean I can't smell guilt. It's not your fault either, you know that, right?"

Liam can't help the malignant, bitter smile that stakes its claim on the corner of his mouth. "Isn't it?"

"No," Kira counters firmly, lifting herself off the couch with an impressive amount of grace, before plopping down on the floor in front of Liam unceremoniously. "Absolutely none of this is your fault, Liam," she says gently, too gentle for Liam, and he has to look away, the only thing stopping him from getting up and walking away right this second, is the  unshakable certainty that if he tries, Kira will pin him right back to the ground. "Hey," Kira snaps, that same something in her tone forcing Liam's eyes up to meet hers. "Listen to me," she says, commands really, "none of this was your fault, okay? Not the hunters, not the Skinwalker prison, none of it."

"Yeah?" Liam says, raking a hand through his hair. "What about the homelessness, huh?" He laughs, bitter, and Kira flinches. "What about the fact that he's been living alone, in his goddamn truck, for the past six months, and I never noticed? About how, he thought it was something we were doing on purpose, because it was what he," Liam chokes, and he just barely gets the word out before his throat closes up, "deserved."

"That's on all of us," she says, grimacing. "He thought all of us were letting him live out his," she pauses, searching, before finally settling, "punishment". She sighs, shaking her head. "We all should have realized something was up. Pushed harder. But", she says, "that other stuff? Not your fault." She puts her hands on his arms, squeezing tight, grounding, boisterous. It seems familiar, but Liam can't place it, until it hits him and Liam realizes that it's what Malia does when she's trying to be reassuring. It makes something cold and numb inside his chest thaw a bit, warmth spreading in its place. "And," Kira adds, "if Theo heard you talking like that, he would smack you upside the head."

Liam can't help the loud laugh that escapes him, even when it sounds, embarrassingly, more like a sob. "Yeah, but Theo isn't here," Liam says, voice cracking. "That's kind of the whole problem." Kira smiles, commiserating, and lets him stew for a bit as she sits sentinel, warm, capable hands still gripping his arms, albeit more lightly than before. "And by the way," Liam adds, "you were wrong, before." Kira raises an eyebrow. "When you said it was none of my business," Liam explains, "regardless of what he is to me. Because, it's exactly my business."

Kira's expression goes warm, brow dropping, eyes soft and crinkling. "What is he to you?" she asks, indulgent.

"Something," Liam breathes, shaky and uneven. "Everything."

Liam heaves in a breath, and exhales again, but it doesn't work as well this time, the breath shuddering out of his lungs, painfully shaky, and he feels can't keep the oxygen in. "And now," Liam whispers, unable to catch his breath, "now he's gone." And he chokes horribly, painfully, on his next inhale, feels the sharp twinge in his nose that means he's about to do something awful like cry, and his eyes are stinging and pooling with hot, helpless tears before he can do anything about it.

"Liam," Kira says, a little frantic, a little desperate, "he's missing, he's not dead. We can still find him." And Liam's eyes are so, so sore, and his heart is still pounding away, pathetic and bruised where it sits in his chest, and he doesn't know what his face is doing, but it must be something disbelieving because Kira's nodding, rapidly, like she's trying to reassure him. "Scott told me what happened," she says, hands squeezing, "a pack bond being broken can mean a lot of things." Liam shakes his head, not really in the mood to be placated or fucking patronized, but she ignores him, because she's kind of rude these days -- Malia's influence, probably. "Like people moving to France," she says, raising her eyebrows, "or going to New Mexico to join the Skinwalkers. Any kind of," she purses her lips, "extenuating circumstances." And Liam thinks, huh, but he's still not convinced, not until Kira crosses her arms across her chest, lips pursed and confident. "If Theo was dead," Kira says, and Liam can't suppress his reflexive, pained flinch, "don't you think Lydia would've screamed?" Liam's thoughts stutter to a crashing halt. "She loves him," Kira says, "don't you think she would know?" and Liam thinks, oh.

Liam thinks, I'm an idiot, but mostly he thinks, thank god, he's okay. He thinks, he's everything, and he's okay, relief crashing through his body, almost bowling him over with the force of it, and he drags in a desperate, heaving breath, feeling like he just broke the surface of water after too long underneath, as the last vestiges of the numbness fade, and the oxygen actually enters his body.

"You're going to accept his bond breaking, just like that?" Kira asks, challenging, "Sounds like you're quitting on Theo." She smiles, sharp and knowing "You gonna give up that easy, Dunbar?" and Liam has to shut his eyes, can't stop the wide, instinctive smile that breaks across his face, even as he feels the last of the tears roll down his cheeks, because he can hear his voice, only one person in his entire goddamn life calls him Dunbar like that, and it feels like he can finally fucking breathe, like he isn’t being choked by his own skin wrapped too tight around him.

He opens his eyes to see Kira's, flared challengingly, a steadfast burning gold, flares his own in response, and replies, steel in his voice and conviction burning hot in his veins:

"Not a fucking chance."

 

 

---

 

 

"Hey," Liam says, grinning, swaying a bit in the doorway. Or maybe it's everything else that's swaying. Mason eyes him warily where he stands on the front porch.

"What's up, man?" Mason smiles, before narrowing his eyes at Liam, assessing. "Are you drunk?"

"No," Liam retorts, frowning as hard as he can, but he doesn't think he's frowning hard enough, because it doesn't scare Mason away from asking questions. And he used the Derek-eyebrows and everything. Mason laughs. Liam frowns harder.

"You sure?" Mason says, biting the inside of his cheek. It's a stupid face to make, and Liam tells him so, and then, when he sways hard enough that he almost falls on top of Mason, he concedes the point.

"Maybe," Liam relents, grudgingly. "Maybe just a lil' bit. Like," Liam tries to hold his fingers a short distance apart, but they keep drawing together and touching, uncooperative. Liam is going to have to discipline them later for not following the rules, and he makes a mental note to do so.

"Right," Mason says, indulgent, as he steps into the Martins' house.

"Why're you here?" Liam asks, blinking slowly. Liam couldn't have texted him, because when Lydia caught him tapping a text out on his phone, a couple hot chocolates in, she confiscated it ("You'll thank me for this later, Liam, I promise"), because she's a ginger. But she's also really pretty, and smart, so that might make up for the no soul thing. Liam's not entirely sure, because he hasn't done the math, mostly because he suspects their might be some differential equations involved, and he's barely pulling a B- in Precalc. "But if I carry the one," Liam murmurs, trying to work it out in his head, to no avail. All it garners him is a very weird look from Mason. Liam ignores him, because he's a good friend, and because his Mom raised him to be polite and not comment when other people's faces do weird things.

"Kira texted me," Mason says slowly, like Liam's a child. It makes him bristle, just a bit. "She said it seemed like you needed a friend. Argent and Agent McCall are, like, looking through traffic camera footage and trying to cross-reference hunter stronghold locations." He shrugs, one-shouldered. "I swung by there first, but they said there wasn't much I could do to help, they just have to try and track the car using the right route, and we'll be able to find him."

Liam hums in agreement. And because he just likes the noise. He wishes that they had some music playing, but they don't, so he hums louder. It sounds kind of like the national anthem, but Liam can't tell, so he hums even louder just to try and pick apart the notes. He's really good at music, and patriotism, and he tells Mason so.

"Of course," Mason agrees, nodding. The word patronizing pops into Liam's head, but it's close enough to patriotism, that he takes it as a compliment, grinning and patting Mason on the head, except he kind of misses, and just hits the side of the wall instead. "Well," Mason says, "it seems like you're a couple drinks ahead, so I guess I'll have to catch up."

"Y'don't have to," Liam promises, because he's not going to make his friend drink just because he's a fucking mess.

"What kind of a best friend would I be," Mason says, making his way to the kitchen, "if I let you drink alone? That's just sad, man. Where's the booze?"

Liam leads him to the island with all the ingredients on it. Mason frowns at the gutted corpse of the Swiss Miss packet. "She won't let me drink straight vodka," Liam explains, gesturing vaguely, except his hands feel too big for his body. "Lydia says that drinking is 'not a healthy coping mechaninimism'."

"Mechanism," Mason corrects automatically, gently catching Liam's hands in his own from where they were whipping around violently, trying to make acceptable air quotes. Liam obediently relaxes his hands, but he ignores Mason because it's Mason's business if he just wants to repeat Liam's words back at him. He's beginning to wonder if he's the drunk one here.

"But she said I'd do more damage to myself anxious than a lil' drunk. So, I can only have spiked hot chocolate," Liam explains. "She's downstairs in her lab right now 'cause I said I wanted to be alone for a bit."

Mason eyes Liam's mug, a fairly translucent, rust-colored drink. It looks pretty disgusting, and, besides the faint undertones of chocolate and vanilla, it tastes pretty disgusting too. "That looks like a lot of spike, and very little hot chocolate," Mason notes, sounding impressed.

"Thanks," Liam replies, because he's really good at accepting compliments, "I poured it myself."

"I can tell," Mason assures, nodding. He tips his head toward the bottle on the island. "Is this just vodka?"

Liam nods vigorously. "Yeah, you can have that. I left the one with the wolfbane in the living room." Liam frowns. "Wolfbane." Tries again, "Woooolfbane." Apparently wolfsbane has one too many consonants for Liam to fit his tired, heavy tongue around.

"Alright then," Mason declares resolutely, nodding and then squaring his shoulders. Liam doesn't like the look in his eyes, and he jolts when Mason makes a sudden move to the bottle of vodka. "Bottoms up," he says, and Liam's unable to suppress the alarmed noise that's ripped from his throat, when Mason tips the vodka bottle straight to his mouth, and swallows down four enormous mouthfuls.

"Holy shit," Liam breathes. "Are you trying to take the fucking skin off the inside of your mouth?" he hisses, snatching the bottle back from Mason, and capping it frantically, just in case Mason decides to spontaneously down the rest, and melt his fucking tongue off. The whole experience is very sobering, and Liam feels a lot less floaty than he did a couple seconds ago. Mason winks at him, and Liam scowls.

Thirty minutes (and one spiked hot chocolate) later, they're sprawled across the living room in varying states of dishevelment. Liam's laying on the couch, shirt half unbuttoned, staring up at the shadows on the ceiling, because they're kind of interesting-looking. Mason's laying across the floor, missing his pants. Liam has no idea where they managed to disappear, because Mason never once left the living room, but he can't see them anywhere. Mason's staring at his shoelaces like their absolutely fascinating. He undid one of the knots and has spent the last ten minutes crossing and uncrossing the limp laces in complete bewilderment, seemingly trying to figure out how to retie them, but achieving little more than some puzzled head shakes and disgruntled mumbling.

Liam's still sipping on a drink, but it's actually more hot chocolate than vodka this time. Mason has water, because Liam doesn't trust him with anything else.

"So," Mason starts, and Liam almost falls off the couch in surprise, because he had assumed that they would spend most of their time drunk commiserating in silence, but clearly Mason has other ideas. "Y'wanna talk about why we're getting drunk right now?"

"Not really," Liam grumbles, but Mason slants him a look, a very pointed, I did not drag my ass to get drunk at the Martins' at nine in the morning for this, and Liam thinks, fair enough, and so he relents. "Fine," Liam sighs, slumping down further into the couch. "The ritual didn't go well."

"Like it didn't work?" Mason asks, frowning.

"No," Liam replies, "No, it definitely worked. I saw him. I talked to him." His voice, horrifyingly, cracks, but Mason doesn't comment on it, because he's great like that. "It was just . . ." Liam turns his head, laying his cheek against the couch so that he can meet Mason's eyes, "it was awful, it was so, so bad, they--" and his throat starts closing up, cutting anything else off, and Mason quickly, with a rapidity and grace that his vodka-addled body shouldn't have been capable of, moves to sit next to Liam on the couch, pulling him into his chest with two strong arms, and Liam collapses into his hold with an embarrassingly grateful half-sob.

"Shh," Mason hushes gently, only a little slurred, sloppily carding his fingers through Liam's hair. "We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to, it’s okay."

"I don't want to," Liam says, and it's muffled by Mason's soft sweatshirt. A sound escapes from Liam's throat, helpless, unbidden, that’s probably half-laugh and half-sob, but mostly just sounds like a wounded animal. And he can't really even articulate how much he doesn't want to talk about it, and so his mind switches tracks, gets caught on something else. Something that he barely registered in the moment, with everything else going on, but has had hours of anxious overthinking to mull over.

"I didn't," Liam tries, until his voice starts getting thick. He takes a breath and tries again, bolstered by Mason's grounding arm on his back. "I didn't say it back," Liam murmurs, burying his face deeper into Mason's sweatshirt, eyes burning. "He told me he loved me, basically," Liam whispers, "and I didn't say it back."

"Oh," Mason breathes, and then, tone carefully neutral, "do you?" He pulls back to meet Liam's eyes, and it takes everything Liam has to not avert his gaze. "Do you love him back?"

"Yes," Liam replies, quickly, quiet but sure, completely unhesitating, because he's too tired and drunk and heartsick to lie to himself, and it's such a simple truth at this point that it barely requires a second thought. It's not even a point of contention; it's an incontestable fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy, just one of Liam's personality traits. This is Liam Dunbar, who plays lacrosse, gets angry, and loves Theo. Liam feels, all at once, stone-cold sober. He slumps back against the couch cushion, scrubbing a hand over his tired eyes. "So much," Liam whispers, "so much, that it hurts sometimes just to look at him."

He downs the rest of his hot chocolate, just to feel floaty again. It works fairly effectively, even though it burns like fire on the way down, and Liam makes a mental note to send Lydia a gift basket or something. He leans forward to pour himself some more, adding a little extra vodka, because he deserves it.

“He’s,” Liam tries, his words slurring a but on the way out, letters smearing together and bleeding into one another, “he’s it for me, I think. I don't think I could love someone like this ever again.” He takes a sip, swishes it around his mouth. His voice is still hoarse when he says, quiet, “I think it would destroy me to try.”

A couple moments of silence, comfortable and evaluating. And then:

"Damn," Mason murmurs, eyebrows raised, appraising. "Well, I'm glad you finally figured it out."

Liam freezes, mug halfway to his mouth, and frowns, narrowing his eyes at Mason. "You knew?"

Mason's expression turns insulted. "Are you kidding me?" he asks, half-hysterical. Liam is not, in fact, kidding him, and he tells him so. "You're not as subtle as you think you are. Man, honestly," Mason shakes his head, rubs the back of his neck, "you guys are gross. Like so, so gross. Like," he stretches back on the couch, flinging his arms back over the headrest and tipping his head all the way back, until he's looking straight up at the ceiling. "I've watched you guys fight together, and I've seen sex that was less intimate."

"I-- What?" Liam frowns harder. "Who are you watching having sex?"

"That is so not the point," Mason says, laughing. "The point is, that I love spending time with you, because you're my boy," Mason ruffles Liam's hair aggressively, and Liam can't help but grin, even as he makes the obligatory affronted noise and bats his hand away, "and I like spending time with him, because he's like, weirdly knowledgeable and surprisingly hilarious, but," Mason shakes his head, smiling, "the two of you together? Hard pass. It's just . . ." he gestures vaguely, "too much."

"What do you mean?" Liam asks, bewildered.

"Like," Mason sighs, a long, dramatic one, "watching you guys doing anything together make me feel like I'm . . ." he gestures, even more vaguely before, considering expression on his face like he's trying to find the right words, before he snaps his fingers, twice; a realization. "Like I'm peeking through someone's bedroom window, you know? Like I'm intruding on some private moment."

Liam blinks. "I have literally no idea what you're talking about."

"Wow, okay," Mason says, eyeing him disbelievingly, "okay, why do you think no one goes to the diner with you anymore?"

"I--" Liam starts, before realizing that he doesn't know. In fact, he didn't even realize that they were deliberately letting him go alone. He frowns.

"You didn't even notice, did you," Mason says, sounding impressed, but not surprised, nodding his head. "Yeah, that checks out."

"Okay, fine," Liam relents, feeling weirdly exposed. "Why doesn't anyone go to diner with me anymore?"

"The last time I went," Mason says, "you guys spent like two hours staring into each other's eyes, smiling like idiots. Borderline eye-fucking, except it wasn't even fucking it was like . . . Making love." He wrinkles his nose, exaggeratedly disgusted, and shakes his head, small smile playing around his mouth. "I've never felt like I was third wheeling so hard in my life. And I wasn't even third wheeling, because Alec was there too."

"We did not," Liam splutters, half-hysterical, because he would've remembered that. Theo's eyes are memorable like that. Then again, he doesn't remember Alec being there at all, just barely remembers Mason's presence that day, and so maybe his memory isn't the most reliable. He takes a generous swig of vodka-laced hot chocolate. And then a bigger one after that. It scalds his throat on the way down, but the sharp, stinging burn is almost satisfyingly this time.

"You fed each other pie," Mason retorts, sounding exasperated.

"Okay," Liam says, whipping an affronted hand up in defense, "first of all, we didn't feed each other pie, that would be ridiculous." He crosses his arms across his chest. "I fed him pie, that's it," and Mason snorts, because he's fucking rude. "It was his diner's pie, and he said he had never tasted it before," Liam hisses, "the fuck was I supposed to do?"

Mason laughs. Liam keeps his arms crossed stubbornly, before abandoning the stance in favor of  pouring the last of the vodka out into his mug. The resulting mixture looks like bloody water, but Liam's pretty sure he's going to need it for whatever Mason's getting at.

"It was horrible," Mason says, biting on the inside of his cheek, as Liam takes two big gulps and seethes quietly. "I mean adorable, but like, really gross. I've seen him completely naked before, and been fine, but that was so much that I couldn't look him in the eye for like, a week." Mason shakes his head. "I had to talk to my therapist about it. She told me to give you her card." He pats down his pockets, turns them inside out to reveal nothing except a condom and a small baggie of what seems to be hair, both of which he quickly shoves back in. "It's probably at home, I'll give it to you the next time you come over."

A beat of silence. Then, another.

"I," Liam says, fidgeting, "I thought you'd be more upset. That I," he pauses, "you know."

"That you, what, love Theo?" Mason asks, grinning. "Nah, he's cool." He tilts his head, considering, before amending it with, "I mean he's still kind of an ass," and Liam flicks him on the forehead, while Mason just snickers, "but he's like, really good for you. You guys are just," he grins, "really good for each other."

"I don't know about that," Liam replies, scrubbing his face with both hands. "He's good for me, he's so," Liam sighs, "so good for me. But," Liam laughs, horribly bitter and undeniably guilty, "I let him live in his truck. I didn't notice when he was taken, and I made him think that no one was coming to help him." Liam rakes his hands through his hair, but it doesn't stop them from shaking, when he whispers, "I didn't say it back."

"You'll fix it," Mason says, firm and unwavering, because he's always believed in Liam, seen the best in him, even when no one else has. "You'll bring him home, and you'll fix it, because you make each other better. You bring out the best in each other," Mason says, matter-of fact, and Liam desperately hopes that he's right. There silence in that moment weighs on Liam, coalesces into something that he's not strong enough to bear right now, and so he downs the rest of his horrible concoction of a mixer, and Mason thankfully takes it as the signal that it is, because he’s nothing if not observant. "Besides, I can't really be blame you for liking him like that, when he's hot like woah."

Liam laughs, like he hasn't in a couple of days. "Don't let Corey hear you say that."

"Are you kidding?" Mason asks, affronted. "Corey agrees. Theo's like . . . Number three on the threesome list."

"He's what?" Liam blinks. "Who's one and two?"

Mason narrows his eyes, getting off the couch and making his way to the kitchen, presumably to refill his glass. "Mind your own damn business."

Liam sprawls out on the couch, stretching his legs in the warm impression left where Mason was sitting a couple seconds ago. "Three is like really high," Liam muses, pretty sure his words have started slurring again, which means the wolfsbane has finally gone to his head. "But that's good," he says, "he's great." Liam smiles helplessly. "He's the best. Of course people are going to like him. Everyone should like him."

"Liam," Mason says patiently, "if everyone liked him, you would get jealous."

"What? That's ridiculous" Liam frowns, bewildered, and kind of offended. "If I love him, how could I blame other people for doing the same thing?"

Mason returns, glass full of something clear, and Liam would be willing to bet serious money that it's not water. "You can't be serious," Mason says, disbelieving. "There's no way you don't get jealous. What about that time you freaked out about Legs, for like two weeks?"

Liam snorts. "That wasn't because I was worried he had a girlfriend," and then, concedes, "mostly", at Mason's doubtful look. Liam huffs. "That was because he had someone important in his life, and didn't tell me."

"So," Mason says, tilting his chin in a horrible, mocking exaggeration of thinking. "What you're saying is," he says, slow and taunting, "you wouldn't be upset if him and Legs started dating? You wouldn't want to be his boyfriend?"

"Boyfriend?" Liam echoes, bemused. "I don't want to be his boyfriend," he scoffs, because what a mundane fucking word to describe what exactly it is Liam wants to be to Theo. Or maybe it's because Liam's so impressively drunk that he doesn't remember exactly what the word means, whatever. "I want," Liam starts, smacking his lips together, because his mouth feels dry all of a sudden, "I want to hold his hand and smell his hair and make him smile and feed him pie and," he scrubs a hand across his eyes, "listen to him talk about his day and tell him about mine, but," Liam wrinkles his nose, "I don't want to be his stupid boyfriend."

"I--" Mason tries, before closing his mouth and apparently rebooting his brain. "I don't even know what to say to that." Liam takes it as the compliment that it is, because Mason is never speechless.

"And besides," Liam continues, "I never said I wouldn't be upset, I said I wouldn't be jealous. I would be," Liam takes a deep breath in, and lets it out in a gusty, cleansing sigh, "so fucking sad, but, like, all I want is for him to be happy, you know?" Liam frowns. "He deserves to be happy. He deserves," Liam picks at the skin around his fingernails, breathes, "he deserves a happy ending." Mason is quiet next to him. Solemn. "So if he was happy with someone else, I wouldn't ever do anything to threaten that. It'll be fine," Liam says, but it sounds unconvincing, even to himself, so he repeats it, more resolutely, "We'll be fine. And if they break his heart, I'll feed him ice cream and hold him while he cries and then I'll sneak out when he's asleep and like, bust up their headlights or something, but," he sighs, "it'll be fine."

"Jesus," Mason breathes, visibly incredulous. "That's . . ."

"I swear to God, Mason," Liam interrupts, exasperated, "if you say intense, I'm going to--"

"No," Mason laughs, half-hysterical, "I don't even know what word I was going to use. I don't even know what to say. What's anyone supposed to say to that?"

Liam shrugs, a little sloppy, because the wolfsbane is working as very effective muscle relaxant now. He feels like he’s sinking into the couch.

"You know," Mason says quietly, turning to meet Liam's eyes. "We had to read Wuthering Heights last year, and there's this quote I think of, every time I see you two fight together. Every time." Mason's eyes are boring into his, and Liam feels like he should say something, cut him off before he strips the last of Liam's defenses, laying him completely bare, but Mason is too brave to stay quiet, always has been. "'Whatever our souls are made of," Mason quotes, "his and mine are the same.'"

Liam feels like the air has been sucked out of the room, like the air has been sucked straight out of his lungs, like his heart stopped beating, just for a second, and he can't feel like this, not right now, it's too heavy for his exhausted shoulders to bear, and it's why he drank all that doctored vodka in the first place, he can't do this with Theo untethered and ten hours away, rotting on some horrible examination table, and Liam feels, for a brief moment, like the pressure is starting to make his chest cave in, like it's so much, he's going to implode upon himself, but Mason rests a warm, anchoring hand on his shoulder.

"Or maybe," Mason says, tone light, and Liam is so incredibly grateful for him that in that moment, it almost bowls him over. "Maybe you guys don't share a soul. You share a brain cell and you whack it back and forth like you're playing tennis." He shrugs, smiling. "The only reason Theo would think that you don't love him back, is because it's clearly your turn on the brain cell." Mason raises an eyebrow. "This is a new and exciting first for you. How does it feel?"

A high, offended noise escapes Liam's throat as he punches Mason in the shoulder, and just like that, he can breathe again, taking in big, indulgent gulps of air.

"Okay," Liam relents, "so maybe I do want to be his boyfriend."

Mason snorts, looking highly amused. "You think?"

"It doesn't matter, though," Liam says, completely ignoring Mason because he's mean, "because I'm pretty sure it's . . ." he rubs the back of his neck, suddenly awkward, "not mutual."

Mason's startles so hard that he slips off the couch and onto the floor. "What the fuck are you talking about?" Mason hisses, absolutely incredulous, rubbing at his lower back gingerly. "How drunk are you? Are those real words coming out of your dumbass mouth?" Liam privately thinks that's a bit harsh, but Mason is clearly not done. "Didn't you just say that he told you he loved you?"

"I knew I loved him before I knew I was into guys," Liam yells, way louder than he meant to. His voice reverberates in the open space and he thinks that if it were anyone other than Mason, he would wish the ground had opened up and swallowed him whole by now. "I don't," Liam licks his lips, suddenly nervous, "I don't know if what he meant was like. . . Romantic love. . .  Or like--" he sighs, helpless. "The thing is," Liam tries, "we moved so far, so fast, like, we skipped everything in between. We went straight from, like, enemies to allies to friends in a second, and then zipped all the way to--"

"Soulmates?" Mason offers, beatific smile on his face,

"Shut up," Liam counters, in a comeback that his truly not his best, but he's too busy trying to force the inevitable flush that rises up his neck back down where it belongs to come up with anything better. "I was going to say anchors. He might've actually been my anchor even before he was my friend." Liam shrugs. "The point is, I don't know if we could ever be more than we are right now, and I don't know how to ask, because what if it ruins everything?"

"You know what I think?" Mason asks, tilting his head, considering. "You're afraid to ask him things," he points out, "because you're afraid to scare him off. And he's afraid to tell you things, because he's afraid to scare you off."

"That’s stupid," Liam blurts, and Mason laughs, bright and sudden, replies, "I'm glad we agree."

"That's so stupid," Liam repeats, sitting up straight. "He can’t scare me off. I don't think I could stop loving him, even if I wanted to." Liam buries his face in his hands and groans, taking solace in the comforting squeeze of Mason's hand on his shoulder. "He's my anchor and he makes me crazy but he also makes me calm, and he makes me stupid, but he also makes me think."

"I'm pretty sure he's, like, ninety percent of your impulse control," Mason agrees, chuckling lightly. "I can't believe you tried to choke out Kira." Peals of loud laughter spill from his throat, like a hyena, and Liam glares at him, because it's what Mason deserves.

"Can we please not talk about that?" Liam groans. "Oh my god, Malia's going to kill me." Liam looks up at Mason with wide, alarmed eyes. "She's actually going to rip my limbs off and then beat me with them."

"That's . . . very specific," Mason notes, frowning.

"It's the threat she used the last time someone hurt Kira," Liam says, miserable and already plotting his inevitable name-change and move from the country. Maybe an entrance into, like, witness protection, or something.

"Will you chill?" Mason laughs, because apparently, he's a sadist who relishes Liam's pain and embarrassment. "I'm pretty sure she'll give you a free pass. She's literally been there. I'm pretty sure she knocked two whole teeth out of Scott's mouth when she thought he abandoned Kira to the Skinwalkers."

"Yeah," Liam nods, frowning, "I'm pretty sure Kira's Malia's impulse control."

"Definitely," Mason agrees easily. "Anchors." Liam nods. "Hey," Mason says, "if you and Theo are that in sync when you fight," he drops his voice low, conspiratorial, "imagine what the sex will be like."

"Mason," Liam chastises, as he feels his face burn and Mason cackles, like the horrible witch he is. “Stop!"

"Don't tell me you haven't thought about it," Mason says, chastising and dubious, still half-laughing.

"Are you kidding?" Liam groans. "Have you seen him? Of course I've thought about it. I've spent a lot of time, uh," he clears his throat, resisting the urge to squirm, "thinking about it."

"Gross," replies Mason gleefully.

"Like . . ." Liam sighs, appropriately dramatic, "God."

"To be fair," Mason relents, "he is, like, really pretty."

"He's so pretty," Liam says gravely, "that it gives me migraines sometimes."

Mason laughs, loud and abandoned. "I like drunk you, he's very honest. We should do wolfsbane truth-time more often." He beams. "This is all very embarrassing. I'm embarrassed for you right now, I just want you to know that."

"But, like," Liam continues, ignoring him, "I don't even like him because he's pretty."

Mason squints. "You don't like that he's pretty?"

"What?" Liam whacks him with a throw pillow that had been strewn on the floor, and it makes Mason yelp. "No, I meant that it, like, doesn't even make the top five list for why I like him. It only barely makes the top ten."

Mason sighs. "I know I'm going to regret asking this," he clenches his eyes shut, visibly bracing himself, "but what could possibly be on the top five list?"

"Sometimes," Liam starts, voice barely a whisper, "he says something so fucking smart, that I just want to kiss his dumb, stupid face."

"This was a mistake," Mason says, grabbing the pillow from Liam's hands and groaning into it as he apparently tries to smother himself with it. "This was such a mistake, I thought I could take it, but I was wrong. I am way too sober for this. We're going to need another bottle if you want to keep going."

"He's thoughtful," Liam groans, dropping his face into his hands. "Like, he knows me, and he just--" Liam sighs, casting his mind back, grasping for an example, while Mason continues to grumble into the pillow he's holding hostage.

Pie, Liam thinks, there's something important about pie, but Liam's brain is all pleasantly staticky again, and he can't quite seem to grasp it. Mason thumps his fist down onto the floor where he's sitting in put-upon disgruntlement, and the sound of it brings Liam back to a much harsher thump, an unimpressed voice in a diner staring into Liam's eyes, whispering low, dangerous, "first of all, you better pipe the fuck down," and it hits Liam.

"Pie!" Liam all but shouts in his moment of realization, and Mason startles again, but there's nowhere to go except further down onto the floor, and so that's where he ends up, back flat on the ground.

He looks up at Liam from his new home on the Martins' cherry wood floors, visibly alarmed, and kind of betrayed. "What . . .?"

"Did you know," Liam starts, almost frantic now that he remembers what went down in the twenty minutes between when he started drinking, and when Lydia confiscated his phone, the brief, half-hearted conversation where Liam said, only half-joking, "I might have to swing by for some pie, later," and Legs, at the other end of the line, stayed silent, struck speechless for a brief moment before replying, shocked, "Oh my god, you don't know."

"Did you know," Liam repeats, trying to get the hysteria in his voice under control, "that they don't even serve apple pie at the diner?"

Mason frowns. "What? What are you talking about?" he asks, confused. "I thought that's what you got, like . . . Every time. You said it was the best pie you’ve ever had."

Liam nods, a little manically. "It is," Liam agrees, "But I called Legs, like, right after Kira left, because I realized that we forgot to give her an update, or whatever," he stops for a split-second, just to catch his breath, before continuing, at a breakneck, half-hysterical pace, "and I kind of joked about needing emergency pie as hangover food, and she said that apparently, apple pie isn't even on their menu," Liam gestures, frenzied, words practically tripping over each other, "apparently, it was just a special for the week when I first visited the diner, back in June, or whatever, and they only make it like, once a year? Because it's too expensive to make year-round, because their cook refuses to use anything except like, fresh stuff, and that shit is seasonal."

"If you have a point," Mason prompts, eyebrows raised in clear impatience, "you should probably get to it sometime soon."

"So," Liam continues, and the lack of air remaining in his lungs makes his voice comes out as a borderline maniacal squeak, so he just pants for a bit, trying to catch his breath, unsuccessfully, clears his throat and tries again. "So," and now his voice is very clearly exaggeratedly low, but he soldiers on, "so, they only even make it on the days when I visit? And they take the extra cost of it out of Theo's paycheck."

"Whoa, what?"

"And so," Liam steamrolls, "on days when he doesn't work, they don't even offer it."

"God," Mason breathes, pulling the pillow completely out of his face for once to meet Liam's half-hysterical gaze, eyes wide. He shakes his head, disbelieving. "He's literally broke all the time, and he's been spending money enabling your goddamn pie addiction?" He barks out a laugh, and it sounds as manic as Liam feels. "Well," he says, incredulous but grinning wide, "now I'm just embarassed for the both of you. Jesus fucking Christ." He shakes his head, and then buries it

back into his pillow. "Too goddamn much."

"Yeah," Liam agrees, nodding, "I'm the worst," he groans, "God. He's been skipping meals, but paying for my pie?" He massages his temples, where a migraine, or maybe an impending breakdown, is starting to build. "He noticed that apple was my favorite, but I didn't notice that he didn't have a home?" Mason winces, sympathetic, but he doesn't say anything. Liam thinks for once, he might be out of words, out of reassurances because, as he said, too goddamn much. "It's just," Liam says, gesturing at the ceiling helplessly, trying to find the words for a feeling he can barely pinpoint, curling tight deep inside his chest. "He sees me. Like," Liam sighs. "We spend out entire lives wanting to be seen as we really are, and then someone finally looks at us and sees us, really sees us, and then we, like, don't measure up. We're a disappointment. But he's always seen me, and made me feel like I was exceeding all his expectations, just by being, like, who I am". Mason's eyes are serious, even as he's sprawled across the floor. "And I see him," Liam whispers, "I know him,” because he does; he knows how Theo likes watching the sunrise, and only eats his sandwiches with gross crunchy peanut butter (which his Mom has started buying in bulk in the hopes of luring Theo to the house, because Liam’s pretty sure he’s the favorite son now), and he knows that Theo’s shockingly good at math, even though he’ll won’t admit it, because it embarrasses him for some reason. Liam knows that Theo’s also weirdly good with kids — they were supposed to babysit Nolan's cousin for a weekend, and they couldn't get her to stop crying for hours, until Theo showed up with sustenance, eyeing their attempts at appeasing her (toys strewn across the floor, food spilled on the couch, a broken guitar sitting despondently in the corner) warily, rolled his eyes and picked her up, rocking her gently until her cries quieted into hiccups, and she fell into a deep, peaceful sleep) — even though they make something desperately sad build in his eyes that Liam doesn’t have the heart to ask about. Liam knows that Theo’s seen a lot of the world — more than the rest of them combined — although that’s mostly thanks to Corey’s habit of stress-vision-board-making when he gets tired of all Beacon Hills’ typical nonsense.

(Theo hums, considering, before tapping twice on one of the pictures on the board and shaking his head.

“I wouldn’t,” he warns, and it’s the loud, affronted noise that Corey makes, that steals Liam’s attention from Mason brutally whipping his ass at Mario Kart.

“Are you insane?” Corey cries, incredulous, batting Theo’s hand away. “The Champs Elysées? Of course I have to see it. “

“It’s not as nice as you think it is,” Theo replies, surprisingly gentle, where Liam would've expected him to be snarky. “It’s kind of overcrowded and underwhelming. Also, it’s expensive as fuck.” He wrinkles his nose. “Fuckers charged me, like, eleven dollars for a goddamn Coke.”

And that makes even Mason turn away, surprised. “You’ve been?”

Theo eyes them each, bemusement evident as his gaze flicks from Mason, to Liam, before resting on Corey. “It’s not like the Doctors were the type to settle down,” he says, frowning, “I’ve been . . . Around.”

Fantastic,” Corey says, grabbing Theo by the fabric at the front of his sweatshirt, and hauling him in hard, until they’re both  poring over the vision board.  Corey sounds mostly grateful as he recovers much quicker than Liam and Mason, who are still exchanging bewildered looks. “What about this one?” He points at another part of the board that Liam isn’t in a position to see. Theo snorts.

Definitely not,” he says, shaking his head, “the drinks on Bourbon Street will cost you, like, your life savings,” he scrapes a fingernail across the board, prying the picture up gently, “there are much better places to get drunk in New Orleans,” he promises, tossing the picture aside. “And besides,” he says, grinning, “even if you do have any money in your wallet at the end of the night, it’ll probably get stolen.”

You got your wallet stolen?” Corey blurts, shocked and a little gleefully smug. A beat of silence, a sigh, and then a resigned, “you were the one stealing wallets weren’t you?”

Theo snickers, ruffling Corey’s hair which draws a high, harassed noise from him, while Mason and Liam unsuccessfully try to hide their laughter in each other’s shoulders.)

He knows that Theo doesn’t like the hospital much, although he still doesn’t know why. He does know that the Skinwalkers had to have chosen it for a reason, that there had to have been something there to make it Theo's own personal hellscape. He tries to imagine what it must've taken for Theo to come there with him willingly, not once, but twice, when they were barely even friends, just to help Liam out. It makes his chest ache.

He knows that Theo stiffens at unexpected touches, or even the prospect of one, like he needs to feel it out first, assess its intentions, before he can let himself react. Like he’s constantly on edge, but the flinch was trained out of him long ago. Liam sees it once when he’s on the edge of losing control, the full moon begging the wolf inside of him to claw, rip, tear, and Theo’s being snarky, like he is at his worst, and Liam raises a fist, ready to get in a satisfying swing at his nose, just like the good old days, but then Theo stills, deathly quiet, eyes going wary and unfocused, clearly bracing himself for the hit, and it takes the fight out of Liam so abruptly and violently that he almost collapses into himself. He falls to the floor, but doesn't actually brain himself on it; Theo catches him, because of course he does.

Liam knows the tilt of Theo’s head that means, behind you, when he doesn’t have a completely clear field of vision, letting him take out an attacker at his six o’clock without even turning around to look. He knows the flick of Theo’s eyes that means, down, so that Liam can buckle down and brace himself enough for Theo to use him as a goddamn launching pad. Liam knows the tense in his arm that means Theo's about to hurl himself forward, flipping into the line of fire, and Liam's either supposed to move with him, or move out of the way. He hasn't picked the second option yet. Liam knows the slight flex in his jaw that means Theo has taken a hit, even when he pretends like nothing happened afterward. He knows the curl of his mouth when he’s taunting enemies and the quirk of his brow that means he’s about to do something stupid.

Liam knows the very specific furrow of his eyebrows for when he's genuinely interested in something, completely concentrated. He knows the hand pressing hard at Theo's sternum, unconscious, unforgiving, when he gets anxious. He knows the way Theo's fingers drum on the steering wheel when he actually likes the music in his truck, and the way they twitch sometimes when Liam gets really close, half-aborted moves to reach out and touch, before Theo seemingly catches himself, and pulls back. Liam desperately wishes he wouldn't. He knows the challenging tilt of his smirk, playfully taunting in a way that makes Liam's blood run hot, he knows the slight flex at Theo's temple that means he's pissed, and he knows the fascinating flush of color that sometimes dusts Theo's cheeks before he has time to regain his wits. Liam knows the bruises under his eyes, the line of his jaw, the freckle on his cheek. He knows the horrible neutral mask that Theo sometimes pulls on, when everything gets to be too much, all at once, and he hates it, he hates it with everything he has in him, when he can see Theo's walls going back up, but in those moments, he tries to just stay close, a quiet, steady presence, like Theo always is for him. Liam knows the bright, abandoned smile, and the crinkle of his eyes, for when Theo's really, genuinely happy and it hurts the best kind of hurt just to look at him. It makes something rise up sharp and fast and tangled in Liam's chest, and Liam can just barely stay upright, dizzy with it. It's a thought that's so pathetic, that it makes Liam wince outwardly, as he feels the heat rise to his cheeks.

"I know him," Liam repeats quietly, firmly, trying to force the flush back down, "even if I don’t know everything about him." Liam scrubs a hand across his eyes, clenching them shut, tight. "Or apparently," he says, quiet, "anything about him." He sets his jaw, determined. "But I want to, more than anything," he says, and then, resolute, "I'm going to."

Mason sits back up slowly, gets on the couch, and lets Liam lean into him. "Okay," Mason replies, calm and steady like he always is, quiet enough not to shatter the stillness in the air, slinging an arm around Liam's slumped shoulders and squeezing affectionately. "Okay."

Liam thinks it's a combination of being certain that Theo's still alive -- because Lydia would know if he wasn't, and even if she didn't, Liam feels like he would know, like he would feel something deep inside of him shatter -- and Mason and Lydia in the house, heartbeats steady and comforting, that pulls Liam out of his own head, numbness and pain replaced with a steely sort of determination, and a renewed, constant stream of adrenaline running through his blood. Him and Mason spend most of the day like that, shooting the shit, and trying to pass the time by pointing out increasingly bizarre antiques in the Martin house while they sober up. Around noon, Lydia finally comes upstairs into the living room, wearing what appears to be a full hazmat suit. Liam really wants to ask about it, but he's also completely terrified of the answer he might get. She orders them a pizza and Liam has to fight the laugh at the look of pure bewildered terror on the delivery guy's face when she opens the door to pay for it and then fight another, louder one, when, instead of removing the suit to eat, like Liam assumed she would, she just takes the hood off and puts a second pair of latex gloves over her stained original ones.

"I just want you to know," Lydia says, "that these are completely inadvisable lab safety measures, and if I ever see you pulling this, there will be consequences." She smiles, closed-mouth but genuine. "But I am starving," she says, flipping a box open and lifting a thick wedge out. It's almost into her mouth when suddenly, her eyes snap to Liam, alarmed, "You can't tell Theo," she says, worried and pleading like Liam has never seen her, "I'm serious, you have to promise, or he'll never let me hear the end of it. If he finds out, he'll never let me live it down."

Thankfully, they talk her out of any binding blood rituals by promising, very solemnly, that Theo will never hear of her throwing proper laboratory safety precautions to the wind. They sit on the floor around the coffee table, sprawled and unceremonious, and Liam inhales two entire boxes, while Lydia and Mason do an impressive amount of damage to another, and as he watches Lydia, sitting on the floor, latex gloves covered in pizza grease and hair in complete disarray from her hazmat hood, he wonders how she ever projected the image of the prim, popular, superficial Queen Bee that she pretended to be.

After the pizza, Lydia goes back down to the lab, peeling her pizza gloves off and putting her hood back on, and Liam and Mason turn on the TV, flipping through the channels. It takes about fifteen minutes for the warmth and comfort and pizza to make Liam's eyelids heavy, and then he's out like a light, borderline comatose. He doesn't dream, and he takes it as the mercy that it is.

 

 

---

 

 

When he opens his eyes, it's to Lydia shaking him gently, looming over where he's sleeping on the couch. It's dark outside, the moonlight casting the Martins' living room in stark relief, spidery and sharp. In a thin sliver of light, he spots Mason, curled up into a ball on the floor, throw pillow underneath his head and blanket tucked into his body where Lydia must've draped it over him after they fell asleep.

"'t time 's it?" Liam mumbles, blinking the sleep out of his eyes and stretching his joints out until they pop.

"Almost nine," Lydia says, eyes dark and solemn in a way that makes Liam sit up straight.

"Something happened," he guesses, and it's not a question. She nods once, curt and perfunctory, but it's belayed by the small smile playing at her mouth.

"We found him," she says, smile widening, and the roar in Liam's ears means the rest of Lydia's words -- "go get whatever you need from your house, we're leaving in twenty" -- just barely register, but Liam is scrambling up, blanket falling to the floor in a twisted heap that he almost trips over, and he crushes her to his chest, head tipped all the way down until his forehead is pressed to the top of her shoulder. She squeezes back, just as hard, and they stay like that, breathless with relief, absolutely giddy on it, for a couple moments, before she finally pulls away, still smiling at him.

"Come on," she says, flicking her head to the door, eyes bright, even in the pitch darkness. "Let's bring him home."

 

 

---

 

 

The ride is emphatically not fun for Liam, but it's probably exponentially worse for the people stuck in the car with him, and Liam feels very mature having the self-awareness to realize that. The only upside, is that the warehouse is supposed to be nothing but another storage facility, which is why it's just the six of them, instead of the entire pack and a squadron of FBI cars, because he thinks that would've put them all on edge, and consequently, would've made them much less patient with Liam. Still, needless to say, it's a very long ten hours.

Liam wouldn't let anyone take any rest stops or bathroom breaks, but to be fair, they didn't fight him that hard on it. They're almost as antsy as he is, except he's the only one who feels like his heart is beating so hard, he's going to vibrate out of his goddamn skin, and he's pretty sure that Argent and Lydia are dangerously close to just sedating him and keeping him taped up in the trunk for the rest of the ride. He is, once again, glad that he didn't choose to come with Kira and Malia, whose car is following closely behind them, because he's pretty sure that Malia would have absolutely no qualms with duct taping his mouth shut, and tying his body to the seat.

They go through a drive-through to pick up breakfast, taking an exit in West Wendover, Nevada, sometime around four in the morning, and Liam consumes a truly inadvisable amount of breakfast burritos, because Mason was right like he always is, and ninety-percent of Liam's impulse control is still somewhere in goddamn Utah. He ignores the highly concerned glances Scott keeps sending his way, swallowing down nearly half of burrito number seven in a single, ambitious bite. Lydia looks disgusted but Liam has watched her eat pizza on the floor in a still-contaminated hazmat suit, so he doesn't think she has much of a leg to stand on.

They approach Salt Lake just as the sun starts to rise, and that's when Liam starts to suspect that something's off. Because even as they draw closer and closer, Argent calling out a curt "twenty minutes" as they take sharp turn on a dark corner, Liam thinks, that can't be right. He can feel it in his bones, or rather, feel the lack of it.

They're still. No buzzing, vibrating static; no ever-present hum; no constant prickling awareness of Theo.

They're rounding another corner, and just as the first spike of dread makes itself known in Liam's gut, he tries, "Hey, guys, I don't think--"

That's when they see it.

"Oh my god," Scott breathes, scrambling out of the car before Argent has even pulled it to a stop, and Liam follows him out, almost breaking his own ankle in his haste.

It's the correct warehouse, no doubt about that. Liam can feel it in his gut, even if he doesn't know if it has more to do with Theo's presence here, the fact that this was where he astral projected, or the fact that he's seen the inside, and some subconscious memory is matching with the external layout. That's not the problem.

The problem lies in the thick, black smoke billowing out of the windows, the warehouse in charred tatters before them. He tries to breathe through the overpowering smell of ash, which coats the roof of his mouth and the back of his throat horribly, as he hears the others getting out of their cars behind him. The horrified, hushed whispering and slamming of car doors don't even register to Liam, who thinks, no. He thinks, please, no, and makes a desperate break for it, making for the warehouse with a helpless cry, even as the smoke burns, burns everywhere, and he's almost there, until Scott catches him, wrapping his arms around his body tight.

"Liam," he yells, an admonishing growl, but no less desperate. "Liam, look," he says, but Liam doesn't know what he's talking about, can barely hear his own thoughts with the tangled feeling rising in his chest, the smoke rising from the warehouse, let alone hear whatever lesson Scott is trying to impart on him. Scott growls, louder, and Liam slumps a little, limbs going slightly slack, but he thinks, no, and he growls back, just as loud, despite the wolf inside of him whining, ears pinned back. "Please," Scott says, and it's the panicked, frantic begging, that finally makes Liam look to Scott, follow Scott's line of sight to their hands, Scott's clenching his own desperately tight, both red and blistered, the adrenaline rushing through Liam's blood clearly numbing the pain.

"What . . .?" Liam manages, completely bewildered.

"Wolfsbane," Scott replies, soft and solemn, resting his forehead on the back of Liam's head. "It's part of what burned. There's wolfsbane in the air, in the smoke, and if we don't get back in the car right now, we're going to have a lot of trouble breathing in the next couple of minutes."

Liam thinks, no. He thinks, please, no. He makes another move towards the warehouse, crying out, half-hysterical, "but Theo --"

Scott catches him again. "He's not here," Scott says, resolute, spinning Liam around to meet his eyes. "The smell of burnt flesh is . . ." he grimaces, "distinctive. I would be able to smell it." He grips Liam's shoulder, flares his eyes, grounding alpha-red, "no one was here when this burned down. No one died in this fire."

A pitiful, frustrated, despondent growl escapes Liam's throat as he flares his eyes back, even as he lets Scott drag him back to Argent's SUV and throw him into the backseat. It barely takes Argent half a second to turn around and floor it, and Liam hears tires screeching horribly, as Malia, presumably, attempts to mirror the maneuver.

"I don't--" Liam tries, throat closing up as he watches the warehouse fade further and further into the distance through the rear window, something in his chest twisting painfully, "I don't understand, this is the right place."

"It was," Argent says, grave, and Liam can tell it's an agreement as much as it's a correction. Their eyes meet in the rearview mirror. "Something happened in the last twenty-four hours," he says, considering, eyes sharp and thoughtful. "That fire was a recent development." He scrubs a hand across the underside of his jaw as he takes a turn, one-handed.

"Extenuating circumstances," Liam whispers, an echo of Kira's words earlier, her small, strong hands gripping his arms tight. It earns him a curious glance from Scott.

"Then," Scott says, eyes darkly resolute and jaw set, "we better keep looking."

Chapter Text

In hindsight, it's kind of funny, because this isn't even the worst thing that's happened to him. To be honest, Theo's pretty sure it doesn't even make top twenty.

They strike when he's vulnerable, sulking at his dead sister's bridge, senses distracted. But, Theo hasn't stayed alive as a goddamn supernatural spy for ten whole years just to be overpowered by a group of laughably inexperienced hunters.

There are three of them and there's only one of him, and he can feel the wolfsbane making it's way through his stomach, but Theo's been in tighter spots before. He could take these guys down half-dead.

It would be so easy to kill them, some detached, experienced part of Theo can't help but think, even now. Some dark, ingrained part of his identity, something he can't even help mapping out. He knows how he would do it, too; it barely takes half a second to catalogue the way in which he would tear through them. One of them isn't protecting his throat, hands held too low, and his weapons too heavy to be able to move fast enough to defend himself. A quick swipe of chimera claws would completely eviscerate his carotid. He can almost taste the arterial spray, pungent and cloying in the back of his throat. The second looks like he's never held a gun in his life. In fact, Theo's willing to bet that the safety is still on. It wouldn't take much effort to rip the gun out of his hands and discharge its contents into his chest. The third, a woman, is slightly more difficult. She looks strong, and lithe enough to be quick, and fairly experienced. But Theo easily tracks the way she slightly favors one side, cataloguing the way she's almost unconsciously trying to keep the weight off her left leg. She's standing far too close to the edge of the bridge, almost leaning on the railing. She's angled just enough for Theo to be able to kick her kneecap clean out of her leg, and send her tumbling down into the creek. It would be so easy, it taunts, soothing, secure, but.

But, Theo's not really that person anymore. It would be easy, but it would take something out of him. Something he only just got back.

And then they call him Dunbar, and Theo thinks, oh, and after that, it's barely even a decision at all. He slumps back, and doesn't fight it when they throw him into the back of their vehicle unceremoniously, black blood sluggishly leaking from the hole in his torso.

 

 

---

 

 

It isn't that bad, when they think he's Liam. They try to get some information out of him, but their attempts are half-hearted at best. Some sadist whips him a bit, but it's almost hilarious how ineffective it is. Theo thinks it might be more for the fun of it, rather than any real hopes of getting intel out of him. They don't want information. They don't need information, not when they have bait as good as the McCall bitten beta, tied up and at their mercy. Theo knows what they want, because they're not subtle, and because Theo's a strategist. They're waiting for Scott to come and save him. They're waiting to kill the McCall beta, right in front of his alpha, and then go for the alpha's head when he's weakened; take out the kingpin right then and there -- the True Alpha, the hope of the supernatural.

Theo, bizarrely, trusts the McCall pack to find him, to come after him. Not because he's pack, or anything like that, but because they're kind of, like, friends (and also Theo's one of their chief strategists, and frankly, they can’t afford to lose him) and besides, the McCall pack would be the type to come, even if they weren't. Even if it's an objectively terrible idea and the risks far outweigh the rewards. Theo just has to wait this out, and everything should be fine.

 

 

---

 

 

Two and half days in, Theo starts to worry, because according to his calculations, they should be here right now. Unless, something has gone horribly wrong, and there's a reason they can't come. Even as they keep him strapped to the table, cut up, anxiety pools in his stomach. He doesn't know what's keeping them, but if it's keeping all of them, there's no way it can be good. He feels, abruptly, useless, stuck here, incapable, while the pack is out there, fighting for their lives. But, he can't leave, as long as they still think he's Liam.

It was supposed to take the McCall pack two days to get there, and it should take the hunters around four to get suspicious. As long as these two margins don't overlap, everything is salvageable.

What he doesn't expect is Monroe to come herself, vindictive and vengeful and ready to see Scott McCall's head roll. The look of recognition on her face makes the dread pool in his stomach. It's the third day. The pack isn't here, and Monroe's hunters know, and Theo's time is rapidly dwindling, he can feel it slipping between his fingers.

 

 

---

 

 

"No one has even made a move to leave Beacon Hills," Monroe says, and all at once, Theo understands. The disappointment and surprise is almost embarrassing. The feeling of betrayal is absolutely mortifying. Theo shouldn't feel betrayed, it’s completely ridiculous. He understands that they're not coming, and he understands why they're not coming. It's the only course of action that makes strategic sense, technically. It's nothing personal, he thinks. Unless it is. But even, then, fair enough.

"Do you think they would thank me?" Monroe asks, "for taking the trash out for them?" and Theo almost laughs, thinking half-hysterically, your guess is as good as mine, even as he keeps his face perfectly impassive.

 

 

---

 

 

Monroe spits, "experiment" and Theo's blood runs cold. It wouldn't be a problem, normally, because Theo's had more surgeries to his body than days in his life, so, really, it's not a big deal. The problem is, Theo isn't quite the same since he came back from Hell, escaped the Dread Doctors. Something about all of it scraped him raw, chipped and chipped away at his strong outer shell until he was exposed, vulnerable, like a nerve. He's not conditioned for this, like he once was, and as the first clinical cut of the cold, familiar scalpel, even as the pathetic pleas escape from his mouth, he's helpless to do anything but let the panic overwhelm him completely, as the warehouse fades away.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo was an accident, and he’s the reason his mother drinks, his sister has to settle for public school, and his father works two jobs. He knows this because his mother tells him so, in no uncertain terms, when he’s seven years old.

"I'm sorry," he says, like he means it, and trying his hardest not to cry, because the last time someone caught him, his father took one long, pained look at him, and snapped, "The hell do you have to cry about? I'm the one breaking my own back over here," and Theo didn't get any food for a while. His mother laughs, high and carefree, and the sound brings a small smile to Theo's mouth, even if it stems from her wine-induced haze.

"It's not your fault, darling," she says, carding her hand sloppily through his hair. He relaxes into the touch, letting his eyes slide shut. "When I went to the clinic, they said I was too far along to stop it! Can you believe that?" she snorts. It's a story Theo has heard before. He could finish it himself, because it always ends the same way. "I drank a lot more after that. Tried to let nature," she waves her hand in a vague gesture, sloppy and uncoordinated, "take its course. But, of course, it didn't work." She smiles, bright, but it looks wrong on her face. False. Her eyes are glassy and just barely focused. "Because, you're. Still. Here." she punctuates every word with a sharp, slightly vicious poke to Theo's right cheekbone. He doesn't flinch away. She huffs, resigned. Exhausted. "Should've gone for the vodka," she murmurs absently, "I was always far too partial to wine."

There's a bruise on his cheekbone when he catches sight of himself in the bathroom mirror. He stands there and he stares at it for hours, poking at the green-yellow spot reflexively. It takes days to fade, but that's fine because nobody asks him about it anyways.

Theo doesn't remember most of his childhood, because the Doctors took those memories from him, like they did with anything that they suspected would interfere with his ability to work. But, for some reason, they left this one. Theo doesn't like to think too hard or too long about why.

He meets the Doctors almost exactly a year later.

 

 

---

 

 

The first time the Doctors cut him open, contrary to what most everyone believes, isn’t when they’re making him a genetic chimera with his sister's heart. It's much before that, when they have to appraise their potential investment; look at the state of his organs and assess the quality of his body, before they take the time and effort to turn him into one of their trials.

He's eight years old and nothing but human. They cut him open and his limbs are slack, but his eyes are wide open. He doesn't know how much experience they have operating on humans, because even at seven, he doesn't think they've used enough anesthetic. It's pain like he's never felt before, white-hot and all consuming, he can barely see straight. He's strapped down and his limbs don't have any feeling in them, but Theo screams and screams and screams for hours, until he finally passes out. The blank darkness is a welcome reprieve.

 

 

---

 

 

He wakes up to them looming over him. He's not strapped down anymore, but they terrify him. He tries not to show it, because he's pretty sure they won't fix his stupid broken body if they find out that he's actually weak. One of them says, tone flat and mechanical, "Compatible," and Theo's so thankful he could cry. They say they can fix him, but there's something he needs do to first, something to prove himself, something that will let him become better. He says, wide-eyed and breathless with the possibility of being more than half-alive, "Anything", asks, innocent, "what do you need me to do?"

They tell him. His heart sinks, but it turns out he doesn't need it anyways, because he's getting a new one.

 

 

---

 

 

His parents don't let him do much outside of go to school and do the chores, because everything seems to exacerbate his . . . disability, and contribute to their hospital bills. There's some talk of him getting a job to pull his weight, but Theo is shot down and laughed out of a couple supermarkets and grocery stores when he asks. He spends most of his time mowing a lot of lawns, right up until the day it gives him an asthma attack. His parents are disappointed, but then again, he's never seen them be anything else.

It's painful to let Tara die, but it's not difficult. All he has to do is stand there and wait. That's all Theo's done his whole entire life. It's not difficult to do it for another hour and half.

“She wants you to have her heart,” they say. Theo can’t tell if they’re lying, but the grown ups around him have never bothered to lie before.

The Pathologist, when he checks Tara for a pulse, says, "Success." Theo almost smiles, before he catches himself. Maybe he can do something right after all.

 

 

---

 

 

They replace the heart in his body, and it's the most pain he's ever been in, in his entire life. It's surreal to feel his own heart being ripped out of his chest. It's the worst thing he's ever felt, and he hopes he never has to go through it again.

 

 

---

 

 

He passes out from the pain again, and when he wakes up, he's alone, albeit hooked up to machines. He feels different. Stronger. Like maybe, he can actually breathe without choking on his own lungs every once in while. Euphoria rushes through him, thick and heady, and he can’t help but laugh, giddy, as he draws in deep, cleansing breaths.

He rips the needles stuck in his arms and the clamps attached to parts of his appendages, hops off the table, and moves to exit the tunnel, the way he's done so many times already.

He's stopped by the Geneticist, as she materializes in front of his path. "No," she says, firm. Cold. "You're coming with us."

There's nothing left for him in Beacon Hills anyways. He doesn't put up a fuss. He goes.

 

 

---

 

 

Monroe slices him open, mechanically but clumsily. She's not experienced in this like the Doctors are, like Theo is. She has no idea what she's doing, and it's something that he can worry about only distantly, as the forefront of his mind is completely, humiliatingly blank with panic.

 

 

---

 

 

The Doctors have another ongoing trial, one they started before Theo was even in the picture. Theo meets her the day they leave Beacon Hills, because they make her Theo's responsibility, handing him two train tickets and the location of the new operating theatre up in Quebec. She's very small, just barely a toddler. He wonders, briefly, how they used to transport her places, before Theo got there, but he's too terrified of the Doctors and too scared of the answer to ask. Theo's afraid he'll break her the second he hoists her up into his arms, but she just giggles and makes a clumsy, curious grab for his nose. He can't stop the smile that breaks across his face.

 

 

---

 

 

She's trial one-hundred-fourteen, to Theo's one-hundred-fifty-seven, but he can't bring himself to call her that like the Doctors do. He doesn't know what her name was, before she got into this mess, but he calls her Teena, because it's close enough, and it makes her eyes light up. Theo has a strong, sneaking suspicion that her mother was trial one-hundred-thirteen, or somewhere close, and that Teena was cut right out of her stomach. It's the worst thing he can imagine, to not even have a chance at a normal life, to be stuck like he is, but from birth. Except, he asked for this, because he was broken and weak, and nobody else wanted him. Teena never had the choice. It makes him hold her tighter, on the train ride, and for much longer afterward.

 

 

---

 

 

He discovers in Quebec why the Doctors still consider her a failure. The full moon comes, and she goes absolutely feral, loses her mind like Theo's never seen before, raw, animalistic, desperate, as she attacks the bars of her cage, eyes flashing a yellow so bright that it's nearly white. It terrifies Theo, how little human there is left in her eyes. She doesn't seem to remember any of it afterward, just as bright as she usually is, even though her body is covered in dirt and scratch marks. Theo thinks this may be the only blessing she was granted in her entire life.

They give her something for it, injecting new, modified serums into her every single day to make her more stable, just like they inject things into Theo to make him stronger, because he's barely even a success -- even as a were-wolf-coyote, he's still weak. He still doesn't know what the Doctors are going to do when a trial results in both stability and strength.

Trial one-fifty-eight, one-fifty-nine, one-sixty, and one-sixty-one are all deemed failures. It's Theo's job to dispose of the bodies. It's difficult, because some of them are adults, and they're almost too heavy for him, but Theo's crafty now, like he wasn't before. He finds a way, and he does it without complaint. He obtains information for the Doctors, but mostly, he just lurks in the background.

A couple months into the Quebec operation, the Doctors become interested in the prospect of an anchor. Theo has never heard of it, but it doesn't sound good.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo is supposed to be her anchor, according to the Doctors, because apparently a close personal connection is required. Theo thinks he might be the only personal connection Teena has had in her life, but he doesn't say that. He just does what they tell him, like he always does, and follows her into the cage on the night of the full moon, dread pooling in his gut. He hopes he actually is her anchor, for both their sakes.

He's not.

When he comes to, in the morning, the floor of the cage is covered in blood. He can only see out of one eye, but he's a lot more worried by Teena, cowering in the corner, deathly quiet. She's solemn in a way that someone as small as her should never be, and in a way that makes Theo suspect that for the first time, she retained her memories. It makes him ill.

He scoots forward, ignoring the twinges in his limbs, and shoving what he thinks is his gallbladder, back into his ripped-open torso, when it threatens to spill out. When he reaches her side of the cage, he pulls her close, onto his lap, and she melts into him, starting to cry softly, as she rests her cheek on the one clean spot on Theo's chest. Theo doesn't have a heart, not anymore, but if he did, he thinks it would break, right then and there. He places a kiss atop her wispy golden curls, and it makes her cry a little harder. He holds her tighter, trying not to think of Tara.

 

 

---

 

 

A year passes, and so do trials one-sixty-two through one-sixty-nine. It takes Theo three months to regain sight in his left eye, and they don't try anymore anchor experiments. Theo gets stronger, but only marginally. He spends most of his time gathering the intel that the Doctors ask him for -- the Demers pack, the Bouchard pack, the  Vadeboncœur pack. Gathering information is all he can do, because he's still young and fairly inexperienced. He's heard murmurs from the Doctors about training him up, but they haven't taken any action yet, so he's left idle. Dreading.

Teena gets worse.

 

 

---



Trial one-seventy: failure.

 

Trial one-seventy-one: failure.

 

Trial one-seventy-two: Partial success, feral behavior, termination required.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo doesn't know what Monroe is using on him; he's resistant to a lot of different strains of wolfsbane thanks to years of the Doctors' experiments, but if what she said is right -- genetically modified -- the effects on his body should be new and exciting. It's not like it hurts, but the feeling of it, familiar and cutting, sends him straight back to the operating theatre, unconditioned and inexperienced and young. The Surgeon is almost superimposed on top of Monroe as she uses the forceps to clamp down on something inside him. He doesn't know if it's a real memory that this just triggered, or if he's losing his fucking mind, seeing things that aren't really there like he does so often since he came back from Hell.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo knows the Vadeboncœur pack takes in strays. He knows the Doctors are losing patience with Teena, and losing faith in him. They call her a failure despite her strength, and they call him weak despite his control. He would dread the day they finally decide to do something about it, but at eleven, he's too old and hard for dread anymore. After all, dread is a child's game, and Theo hasn't been a child since he watched his sister drown in a creek.

He plans.

 

 

---

 

 

There's something important happening on the night of the full moon, but Theo's not important enough to be briefed on it. The Doctors are leaving for the night, and leave him with a syringe of mercury. Teena is strapped onto the table, unconscious.

It would've taken the Surgeon less than a second to depress it into her neck. They make Theo do it instead, saying something about "Condition terminal." It's something Theo expected, because by now, the Doctors are somewhat predictable in their detached, clinical nature. They'll be back in the morning, and by then she should be dead. It's obvious what they're asking him to do; what they expect him to do. It doesn't make him feel any less sick.

It's so clearly a test, for Theo to prove that he's strong-willed. That he's useful.

Theo has been weak since he's been born and he's been useless for just as long. He's been a failure all his life, and he's not about to change now. He won't pass the test.

He's been the Doctors’ puppet for a bit now, and before that, he was his parents'. For once, he ignores the orders given to him; thinks, I'm done.

He takes Teena from the operating theatre under the cover of night. Her head lolls in his hold. He grips her tighter, footsteps quiet on the damp pavement of the tunnels.

 

 

---

 

 

Genavié Vadeboncœur asks to hold Teena, and Theo acquiesces, even though it takes everything in him to let her go. She smiles down at Teena's small, sleeping body, slow and genuine, but Theo's too old to mirror it.

"She'll need the bite," he explains, "she doesn't have enough control otherwise."

Genavié nods, sage, before handing Teena to her seeming second-in-command, a bulky man who cradles her gently in his enormous arms.

"Thank you," she says, the tone in her voice and the smile on her face nothing betraying nothing but diplomatic politeness. "We'll take it from here." And then they're turning around, leaving him completely alone in an alley in Montreal, quiet and inconspicuous like the deal is over.

Theo calls out, desperately confused, "Wait!" and she turns, slowly, eyebrow raised. Probably at the insolence, but Theo has never been in a pack, he isn't completely sure exactly how he's supposed to address an alpha in the first place, so he doesn't know how to fix it. "I thought . . ."

There's a moment of silence, before her eyebrows drop, and she seems to realize what Theo doesn't say. She clicks her tongue, shaking her head. "Do you know," she asks, eyes narrowed, calculating, "what Vadeboncœur means?"

"Go with a good heart," Theo replies dutifully , and the anxiety begins to pool into his stomach, but Theo's too old to be nervous, so he ignores it. Instead, he continues to hold the unwavering gaze of the head of one of the most powerful packs this far north, chin tipped up. Defiant.

"Yes," Genavié nods, "exactly. Does that sound like somewhere you would belong?" Her eyes are narrowed, scrutinizing, head tilted. Theo feels oddly pinned under her sharp gaze.

He blinks. He swallows. "Uh, I--"

"The girl," she starts, as the corner of her mouth twitches, helplessly fond, as she catches sight of Teena out of the corner of her eye. Theo knows the feeling. "She's just a child. She still has a chance. We can help her. But you?" her lip curls up into a sneer. Theo's stolen heart plummets all the way down into his stomach. "We've heard about you. We know what you've done." She bares her teeth, eyes flaring a violent red. Theo shrinks away instinctively, back hitting the alley wall. "We have no place for you," she hisses, mouth full of fangs. "You're not welcome here, chimera."

 

 

---

 

 

Theo makes his way back to the operating theatre, vaguely numb. He has a brief flare of panic, a flash of a thought that tells him to run and hide, pick some pockets, sneak onto a train, keep lurking in the shadows where they’ll never find him. But, Theo's eleven now, and too old to be naïve. They'd find him anyways.

When he enters the theatre, he disposes of the mercury quickly. Maybe, for once, luck will be on his side. It's not completely out of the realm of possibility that Theo killed her and disposed of the body before they reached. Her body is small, after all, it would barely take him an hour, because he has it down now, practiced and efficient. He hopes they take the scene at face value, and move on.

 

They don't.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo's slipping, drowning, barely coherent, because he's soft now apparently, and all it takes is a dull surgical knife to the stomach for him to be overwhelmed by memories. Monroe's still talking, saying things that are important probably, and Theo should be listening because the information could be useful, but instead his ears are ringing, and pathetically, he blacks out, just a little.

 

 

---

 

 

He wakes up from a fitful sleep, and they're cutting him open. It's not the first time it's happened, since it's not like the Doctors particularly care if he's asleep or not during surgeries, but this one seems different. Vicious. Vindictive. Theo assumed, moronically, that the Doctors were too clinical and uncaring to bestow something as subjective and human as a punishment. He was wrong.

They're secretive about their research, because their findings are a widely-sought after rumor, which is why they terminate the failed trials, but Theo didn't think the loss of Teena would cause this. And it is a loss; there's no way to get her back now. She's under the protection of a pack that's too powerful, and she's probably a real supernatural creature by now. Getting her back would be more trouble than she's worth.

Theo can't tell if they were holding back this entire time and just now decided to conduct this experiment, or if this is personal, and just designed to hurt.

 

It works.

 

His torso is completely cut open, and they paint the inside of his body with mountain ash, forcing pounds of it down his throat and into his lungs, documenting its progression. He screams for five days straight, but they don't stop. All he can taste is ash, and he has lost feeling in his limbs. He can barely see anything past the spots that dance in front of his eyes  On the fourth day, he bites his tongue off completely. The Geneticist reattaches it a couple hours later. Theo thinks she might have a soft spot for him.

There's nothing except pain. On the sixth day, Theo passes out. He thinks he's dead, until he opens his eyes again. He doesn't know how much time has passed, but the moon feels like it's in a significantly different phase, the animals under his skin pricking uneasily. They're still cutting into him. He doesn't think there's anything inside left to cut into, but it's fine. He doesn't mind. Nothing hurts anymore.

 

 

---

 

 

Their punishment has some unintended results. For one, it makes him resistant to mountain ash, which not even the Doctors had anticipated. This leads to many, many repeat trials, with similarly painful substances.

It also makes the surgeries easier.

Theo doesn't squirm anymore, doesn't scream, doesn't have to be strapped down. During one of their mistletoe-experiments, the Geneticist is busy. They make Theo hold some of their tools, as they cut into his bone marrow, trading out the instruments in his hand periodically. The one after that, the Pathologist is out, and so Theo actually has to assist, holding things open and clamping things down and cutting things open himself.

He doesn't know if it's supposed to be part of his training, but Theo learns a lot.

He feels empty in the days following, and he wonders, if there's anything left inside of him, or if everything has rotted away completely, blackened and decayed, removed to be replaced with something parascientific, superficially manufactured. He feels empty. Hollow.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo turns twelve.

 

Trial one-seventy-three: failure.

 

Trial one-seventy-four: failure.

 

Trial one-seventy-five: failure.

 

 

---

 

 

They head to Moscow, and finally make good on his promise to train him up.

The man who teaches him is called Wurudlac, and he's the most ruthless being Theo has ever met. Theo can't tell what he is, he's pretty sure it's not human. He doesn't ask, because it's not his place.

They spend a year there, for Theo to stop being weak. It’s absolutely grueling and extremely painful, even though Theo's too old for pain these days.

It works. By the time they're done, Theo is a machine. For the first time in his life, he's strong. Useful.

He can control his heartbeat, his chemosignals. Theo isn't sure he actually has chemosignals anymore, but he learns to make it seem like he does, and he's pretty sure that's good enough. He can charm a pack, fool an alpha, knock a man's eyeball straight out of his head with barely a flick of his wrist. He can plan a successful siege of a town and probably the overthrowing of a government of a small country. He speaks five languages, but he doesn't talk to anyone. Theo hasn't been outside the operating theatre in six months. He thinks he misses the sunrise, when he remembers that he has the capacity to wish things were different.

 

 

---

 

 

Bucharest.

Theo steals a dead emissary's journal from a vault, and spends his fourteenth birthday just barely evading arrest.

 

Trial one-seventy-six: failure.

 

Paris.

Theo successfully infiltrates two different packs, playing them against each other. They don't uncover his identity until it's too late. He escapes with their alpha's claws, pulled right from the fingernails of his unconscious body, in the midst of the chaos.

 

Trial one-seventy-seven: partial success, prior to self-detonation.

 

Bangkok.

Theo kills fifteen people. He doesn't particularly want to, but he hasn't done what he wanted in years. He doesn't enjoy it, but he doesn't not enjoy it either. It is what it is, and Theo does what he has to do. He barely feels it when he pulls a clawed, severed hand from where it was impaled in the meat of his thigh, making his way back to the Doctors.

It's only years later that he actually reflects on this memory. He wonders if it was actually something he did, or if it was one of the Doctors' implants, because they did that sometimes; gave him memories. Not nearly as often as they would take them away, but. There was something almost out-of-body surreal about strangling a man with his own intestines, a kind of dream-like trance that Theo doesn't wonder about until later. Maybe the memory was fake, maybe it wasn't. Theo thinks it might not make a difference. Maybe, nothing looks real any more after you murder fifteen people with your bare hands.

 

Trial one-seventy-eight: partial success, prior to auto-termination.

 

Mumbai.

Theo infiltrates another pack, but it goes downhill very quickly. He's an outsider right from the beginning, and they suspect him almost immediately. He's lucky to escape with his head. The Doctors aren't happy, but then again, Theo isn't feeling very happy himself these days.

 

Trial one-seventy-nine: failure.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo wakes up with a pounding head in a hotel room, with broken ribs, and no recollection of how he got there. He's pretty sure he woke up from a deep sleep, but he's still exhausted. Theo feels grimy and as he raises a hand to scrub over his eyes, he realizes that it's covered in blood. Both of them are. Most of his torso is, actually, white-dress shirt completely ruined, he notices, as he tries to sit up and take in his surroundings.

He doesn't even know where he is, but he thinks it might be somewhere in Eastern Europe, judging by the two-toned police siren that's getting louder and louder.

He thinks, Okay, this is fine, because honestly, he's been in worse spots. He takes a deep, bracing breath, before steadying himself and going to the bathroom to try and wash some of the entrails off his arms.

When he enters, the bathroom absolutely reeks of blood, and Theo needs to cover his nose and mouth in order to not gag.

There are three men in the bathtub. Or rather, there are three bodies of men in the bathtub. They're dressed just as nice as Theo is, but caked in blood and grime, and Theo notes, clinically, that the only pulse in the entire room is his.

He's in a hotel room that he didn't book, in a country that he doesn't know, and three corpses in the bathroom. Theo's tired. He thinks the police might be after him, and he thinks he might have killed those men. Both thoughts trouble him significantly less than they probably should.

This is a nightmare, Theo thinks, shutting his eyes as the sirens get even louder, nothing more. And so he drops back down onto the bed, draws the covers up to his chin, and falls back asleep.

 

 

---

 

 

Arkansas.

 

Trial one-eighty: failure.

 

 

---

 

 

The Doctors still won't tell him any information. Theo's completely trained up, but apparently, he's still not important enough to have his questions answered. They use him like an attack dog, brutal and uncaring. He thinks after this much time, he at least deserves to know why they need some of the things they make him risk his neck for. He gets bolder, asks more questions, gets his head drilled into (literally, unfortunately), but still doesn't stop. Theo is too old to be treated like a feral child locked in a cage, stuck on a leash, muzzled and collared. Theo is done.

It's not the same as when he was younger. This time, Theo is strong.

 

He plans.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo knows about the Abaroa pack, mostly because the Doctors avoid them like the goddamn plague. It makes him almost morbidly curious, and Theo's clever enough now, knows how to get information from back channels and how to make intel trades without getting shanked behind an inner-city 7-Eleven. He's not as naïve as he was when he tried for a place with the Vadeboncœurs. Theo knows who he is now, and what he can do. He knows his place in this world, and it's it may be down in the sewers, but it doesn’t have to be these sewers.

Arkansas is as far South as the Doctors have ever dared to venture. Theo figured out, through a lot of dodgy third-, fourth-, and fifth-hand accounts how much supernatural dissent there is in the South, and the Abaroas dominate most of the territory along the  border. Theo surmises, according to the stories, the Abaroa alpha could rip the Surgeon's head, straight from his body, mask and all. The thought is an appealing one.

Arkansas is closer than they've ever gotten before, and the Doctors are careful, much more careful than they've been in the past. They're playing with fire, and they know it. Arkansas is Theo's chance.

 

 

---

 

 

Inner-circle Abaroa pack meetings take place at the alpha's estate, a sprawling ranch mansion in Celina, Texas. Theo has to shatter the bones in a man's pelvis to get this information, but he's done worse for less.

The house -- mansion, really -- is abundantly nicer than the disease-ridden back alleys and consistently-damp sewer tunnels and shitty inner-city warehouses that Theo has spent the most of his adolescence in, and it throws him, just a little.

It's a pain in the ass to get that far out into the country, but it's not that difficult to get close. The dogs don't bother him in his full-shift form, even though he's pretty sure they can tell that there's something not quite right, because of course they can. He manages to take out enough of the west side of the protection detail before he has to shift back and pull on some clothes.

The hardest part is actually finding them, because the house is fucking enormous. He wanders through, like, four buildings, before his ears finally catch the heartbeats, and that's when he springs into action, because if he can hear them, they can hear him.

Cisco "Despiadado" Abaroa is lounging by the pool, lazy and entitled in a way that pisses Theo the fuck off, and it's quick work to place for him to place sharpened claws right at his jugular, body pinned to the glass door looking into the living room of the main house. He struggles, reflexively, but Theo has been doing this a long time, and he presses them in harder, just the right amount of pressure for Cisco to bare his neck info a forced submission. Theo's pretty sure he heard his nose crunch against the glass, and the wolves inside the living room have all jumped to their feet, snarling, eyes flaring as they assess the situation, but standing perfectly still. At the head of the room, still seated, legs crossed, is Gervasio Abaroa, eyes an assessing, unbothered brown as he watches his son whine pathetically up against the glass, in a way that, Theo thinks uncharitably, couldn't be further from "Despiadado". Ruthless.

Gervasio is the type of deathly still that would've frayed Theo's nerves, if he was younger, less experienced.

But Theo's not the same terrified, useless piece of shit. Theo's spent years lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. Theo knows how to be still too.

They stare, for a while. Theo thinks he's either going to come out of this situation a free man, or a dead one. There's no in between, but Theo has been living in between for far too long. Either way, it will be an improvement.

Gervasio's lips flicker up, just the slightest amount, barely even a microexpression, and something in Theo lifts.

 

 

---

 

 

He has to fight Gervasio's niece in a field as some kind of twisted audition, because as Theo has come to discover, packs are a goddamn cliché like that. Carlotta is a lot more of a challenge than Cisco was, quick and clever, flexible and adaptable, but Theo was trained by what he's pretty sure was an ex-KGB vampire. She's stronger than him, like almost everyone is, but it doesn't matter, because he's too quick. He sees her move before she does, dodges her strikes, measures her blows, calculates her own, and she's on the ground in ten minutes, bloodied and exhausted. He get in a few strikes, and she gets in a couple better ones, but in the end, the pain stops her from getting up, and nothing can stop Theo from getting up any longer. He's too desperate.

They're watching, speechless, as he catches his breath, sweaty and panting in the Texas heat. His hands are covered in blood, and he can't feel his left arm, which he's vaguely alarmed about, until he realizes that his shoulder is just dislocated. He pops it back into it's socket cleanly, dusting the dirt and dried blood off his pants.

A short, frowning man is the first to approach them. Theo can't recognize people by face, it's not like werewolves can be photographed, and he doesn’t have the means to pay for that level of information anyways, but his stance screams consigliere, so Theo's assuming this is Arturo. No one knows his last name, or where he's from, or really anything about him, other than that the Abaroas were just another small southern pack until Arturo came along, and now they control the entire southern US border. Physically, he's not very intimidating; balding and stout. But, his eyes are the deadest Theo has ever seen, and he's spend a significant portion of his childhood disposing of failed experiment cadavers. They're so cold, so empty, that Theo almost has to fight a shiver under the scrutiny.

"That was very impressive," he says, eyes narrowed. Theo doesn't reply, just nods, embarassingly, basking a bit in the praise. Arturo's eyes shift to his shoulder. "You didn't flinch," he notes, assessing. "Did that hurt?"

Theo preens, just a bit, because the thing is, Arturo, the goddamn consigliere of the fucking Abaroas genuinely sounds impressed. And no one had ever been impressed with Theo for as long as he could remember. "No," he replies, cocky.

He should've clocked Gervasio's considering look right away, the way his eyes narrowed and head tilted, but he didn't, because he was a little high and dizzy the hope and the praise and he didn't have his guards up like he should have.

Maybe in some other universe, he could've been happy with the Abaroas. Accepted and useful and part of the family. Maybe he could've worked his way up, eventually become some kind of caporegime or something, maybe even a real bitten beta. Maybe in that universe he would've been safe and protected for once in his life, because no one, not even the Doctors, could touch the Abaroas. But it wasn't in this one.

Because that one, dreaded syllable, would come to ruin everything. Theo has spent a lot of time burying bodies, but with a single word, he dug his own grave.

 

 

---

 

 

Carlotta is his caporegime, and technically he's supposed to report to her, which is fine, because she's far too level-headed to hold a grudge, except, surprisingly, he gets most of his instructions from Arturo and Gervasio themselves. He would've thought that they would be too important to spend so long communicating with someone who's just barely a soldier. A soldier on a trial run at that, not even actually part of the pack yet.

As it turns out, the dissent in the south has been mounting rapidly. Arturo isn't human enough to have his thoughts splayed across his face, but Gervasio is far too self-assured to be good at hiding his emotions. They're desperate.

You have a special job, they say, different from anyone else in the pack. Our enemies are rising up, planting seeds of discord in some of the further territory.

They say, only you can do this. Nobody else has the power. This is how you become part of the pack.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo doesn't get a pack tattoo, because Gervasio says he's too young. Theo's fifteen years old, but he doesn't think he's been too young in years. He doesn't say that out loud, but he's pretty sure his face conveys pure skepticism, because Gervasio laughs, a low, throaty chuckle.

Theo's job is kind of a secret from the rest of the family, because they say they can't let anybody know, in case word gets out. He thinks they might be trying to turn him into some kind of enforcer, up until they give him his first assignment, and then his second, and then his third.

His job is less kicking ass, and more getting his ass kicked, because it turns out, your enemies don't give a fuck what information you discover inside their home base, if they don't think you're going to escape the encounter alive. He proposes the idea that he just sneaks in, like he spent so long doing, except he can’t exactly explain how he got so good at doing it, because it's not like he told the Abaroas about the Doctors or his life before this. They don't even know his real name. They definitely don't know that he's a chimera, because as rumors of the Doctors spread, the interest in their research grows, and Theo's pretty sure some people would literally kill to be able to harvest his organs. He has the growing suspicion that he's worth more dead than alive. And besides, they say they don't want him to make a mess. He's supposed to get caught, get information, and escape, undetected.

Theo gets captured in Arizona three times, and then in New Mexico four. He picks some pockets in Louisiana (because it's not like the Abaroa standard allowance covers a lot of the shit he needs, especially since he's supposed to give them an expense report, and his job is a goddamn secret) and has to get electrocuted to within and inch of his life to find out that the Shreveport alpha has been sick for months, and the pack has been hiding it in order to put up a strong front, lest others try to fill the power vacuum. That little finding accidentally destabilizes the region for a bit and instigates something of a minor revolution that Theo spends the better part of three months trying to clean up. When it's over, most of the Louisiana packs are too small in numbers to put up much of a protest when the Abaroas begin to expand the borders of their territory. Gervasio pats him on the shoulder, takes him home to Celina.

He reminds Theo of his father. It's not necessarily a good thing.

 

 

---

 

 

They're sitting in Gervasio's study, Theo giving him a standard report of his activities since he's not allowed to tell Carlotta was he's up to, when Theo finally asks him about it, why it's a job only he could do, and Gervasio's eyes flick to his own, assessing, like he was deciding whether he would actually tell Theo the answer. There's a long period of silence in which Theo doesn't fidget, but instead, just stares him down.

"Because," Gervasio finally answers, "you are the strongest. The least vulnerable." He shakes his head. "If anyone else had your job, I would never be able to concentrate. I would always feel their pain, their fear, up here." He gestures at his head, and Theo inhales, sharp.

"Bonds," Theo breathes, a realization. "I'm--?" he tries, before he has to stop, and swallow to prevent what promises to be a very humiliating voice crack. "I'm part of the pack?"

Gervasio smiles, just a little. "You have more than proven yourself, tieso. Of course you are." And then, his eyes flare red, and something inside Theo's head yanks, just a gentle tug, and he has to keep his chest tensed tight in order to keep all the breath in his lungs that threatens to shudder out, awed.

Pack, Theo thinks, astonished. Family.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo kind of likes the Abaroas. The inner-circle members are all a little full of themselves and stuck up, but Theo thinks he might be too if he'd spend his life as a member of one of the most powerful packs in the south, sprawling ranch mansions and southern wealth and all. He likes the caporegimes, because they all have a kind of powerful energy surrounding them, unshakeable in their self-assuredness and level-headedness. The soldiers are mostly refugees like him, and he gets along with them just fine at family dinners, even though they make some very pointed asides about how much time Gervasio spends personally with him. They think he's fucking Gervasio, like some kind of goddamn fifteen-year-old refugee sugar baby, but Theo ignores them for the most part, because he's been called worse. He doesn't know if fucking fifteen-year-old boys is a thing that Gervasio actually does, but he never lays a hand on Theo, thankfully, so Theo doesn't worry about it too much.

No one says anything to him directly, but he's pretty sure it's just because the rumors of just how badly he beat Carlotta Abaroa at his audition have expanded into some kind of cryptid rumor, and they're kind of terrified of him. Theo's the youngest one there, besides the babies, and he has learned to stand his goddamn ground.

All in all, even with his ass getting kicked on the regular, it's much better than the Doctors. He sees the sunlight on a regular basis and he's never woken up with a spontaneous surgery and he always has someone to talk to, to fill the noise, when the screaming inside his head gets too loud. He feels a lot less empty these days, a lot more human. He thinks, maybe he could be happy here. Happiness is a concept that he hasn't visited in a very long time.

 

 

---

 

 

He thinks about Teena and going up north to visit her sometimes. She should be about five by now. It seems like a solid idea for about half a second, before he realizes that she wouldn't remember him, she was too young. And that was the best case scenario, because the alternative was, that she does remember her time with the Doctors, and in that case, Theo would just remind her of the worst years of her life.

Every two months, when he stays at the Celina house during his break, he buys a train ticket to Canada. It's the same routine. He buys a ticket, packs his things, places it on his dresser, spends the entire night staring at it, mind racing and heart pounding. The train is an early morning one, usually, and Theo watches the sun start to rise, peeking over the horizon. He'll think, you need to go now if you want to make it. And then he won't move, sitting stock still on the bed, hands folded underneath his chin and eyes unfocused, as the sun continues its upward descent. At noon, he'll finally rise, snatch the ticket up, scoff at his own cowardice, his own stupidity, and methodically shred the ticket into little pieces, before depositing the carnage in the third drawer in his nightstand. It's filled with ripped paper, the corpses of journeys that never happened.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo spends his sixteenth birthday in El Paso, getting flayed to within an inch of his life in a barn, by a mercenary-vigilante-type group filled with weres too bitter about being bitten and too sardonic toward the supernatural to call themselves a pack. They call themselves Los Hijos de San Pascualito --  the children of some kind of vengeance deity, as far as Theo can tell -- and they're not the meanest group Theo's ever been half-beaten to death by, but it's honestly a close thing.

It's Theo's sixteenth birthday when everything goes to hell.

He's two days into a four day operation, when he hears the cars screech outside, smells the wolfsbane, the gunpowder, has the presence of mind to think, succinctly, Oh, fuck, before the hunters are storming the barn.

A woman, tall and dark haired, pulls Theo out of the chair, where he collapses forward with a small noise, bloodied and broken. She replaces the handcuffs he previously had on with handcuffs of our own, and he swallows the blood pooling in his throat until it's clear enough to croak out, "Wait," as he scrambles to his knees. Her hands are gripped tight on the cuffs around his wrists, and she raises her eyebrow expectantly.  He swallows again, harder, and it tastes like copper. "You can't take me," he tells her, matter-of-fact, not pleading. "This is Abaroa territory," he says through gritted teeth, as he stands up straight, chin tipped up even as the blood trickles out of his mouth. She narrows his eyes, shoving him forward until he loses balance on his shaky legs, and grunts when his knees hit the ground painfully, as her knee presses threateningly against his back, before pulling his wrists towards her where their bound behind him, and examining the underside.

"You're not an Abaroa," she replies, snorting. "I know what the symbol looks like. The crossed swords? Your wrists are blank."

"I am," Theo insists, as his ribs are trying to knit back together. "I get the symbol when I turn eighteen."

At that she laughs. "Oh, omega," she says, tone sickly-sweet and completely mocking. "If you were planning to lie, then you should've done your research first." She grips the back of his head, twisting her fingers in his hair painfully, and he has no choice but to follow the steel of her grip, baring his throat as she leans down to whisper right into his year, "Abaroas brand their soldiers the second they become teenagers."

His eyes go unfocused for just a second, as he processes the implications of that, and when they refocus, it's to watch a buff man in leather drag the body of one of his captors from the barn. He catches sight of the black rune on his neck, and his blood runs cold.

And Theo's starting to panic now, because he recognizes the solar cross symbol, and if they are who he thinks they are, Theo's about to be in a whole world of trouble.

He tries desperately, frantically, to push his panic down the bond, to recapture that tendril in his mind that tugged, and he thinks a furious, pointed litany of, help, help, help--

For a second, it works, and Theo is so relieved he could cry at the familiar, prodding presence in his head. And then, it yanks out, much harder than it did before, not gentle at all, and Theo can't help but cry out as it tears itself, jerkily, painfully from his mind, retreating, leaving him all alone. Theo's in so much pain he can't see straight, and for the first time in months, his head is completely and totally empty.

Theo is all alone, half-scared to death, being shoved into the bag of some kind of transport van, and gritting his teeth through an immense amount of pain when it all becomes too much, suddenly, and he can't stop the spots from dancing before his eyes as he slumps and gives in to the darkness.

 

 

---

 

 

The reason so much of the morally-ambiguous supernatural avoids everything south of the United States, as Theo comes to realize, is because of the sheer level of organization of the forces there. If the southern United States packs were something like organized crime, south of that, going into Mexico, was an entire goddamn law enforcement system, so Theo knows exactly where he's going to end up, as soon as he saw the Osorios, who govern the entire region with an iron fist, a kind of supernatural law enforcement. Theo doesn't realize how much of a goddamn wild-west type of lawless the states are until Mexico City, because the Osorios actually have a goddamn Code that they follow, unlike the majority of the American hunters. There's a supernatural government or anything, one with eight separate branches of government and three different presidents, which takes Theo nearly his entire prison stay to understand properly.

The penitentiary in Mexico City isn't actually that bad, at first. It's just another prison that Theo has found himself stupid enough to be stuck in. It's good for gossip, if nothing else. He's thinks he's gotten more information from one month of prison than from nine years of being a spy, and it's kind of funny, in a depressing sort of way. He hears about the Romeo-and-Juliet type drama that went down in Morocco between two of the larger packs, involving an overuse of written communication, some perfectly avoidable misunderstandings, and two dead beta werebears. He hears about Rumiko Takahashi -- practically kitsune royalty -- denouncing her wealth and family and fleeing Japan. People seem to suspect she's a lawyer in Jersey now, but Theo has his own theories. He hears about the Hale territory up in north California being taken over by a new pack, he hears the whispers of a True Alpha. The first anyone's even heard of in years, people say, Can you imagine the power? The power of a True Alpha?. The McCall pack is centered in Beacon Hills, apparently, where the Nemeton has been revived, and God, it's been a long time since Theo's heard that name.

It's still not as bad as being with the Doctors, which is an important comparison to make. Theo's no longer under the protection of the Abaroas (he has the torn pack bond in his head -- which gave him migraines for weeks -- to prove it) and if he wasn't under the semi-reliable protection of Central American law enforcement, they would come for him right away. There's power in pack and there's power in order, but if Theo ever leaves here, he'd be powerless. He knows too much. They'd come for him, whether it would be to get him under their control again, or whether they've decided he's too much of a liability, and just remove his heart from his body, one final time.

The point is, for the first month, staying in prison isn't that bad. People are kind of rough around the edges, but Theo makes some friends, because he's good at faking charming by now. The food sucks ass and there's not that much to do, so it's really easy to get bored. His cellmate is a werehyena who spent the better part of the decade tearing the heads off the United States east coast, but he's kind of hilarious, so Theo doesn't hold it against him. Everyone has a past. And then, someone recognizes him, and everything goes to hell, the way everything tends to do whenever Theo seems to settle in.

It's a Shreveport beta, and Theo fucking knew that his time in Louisiana would come back to haunt him one day, but he didn't know this would be how. Because it seems that now that someone has pointed it out, all kinds of people are piping up, newfound courage taking hold of their flapping gums. The spineless enforcer of one of the New Mexico packs, the second of the Bouchard pack, some disgruntled Spriggan who Theo's never even met before, but who claims Theo murdered his brother. All of a sudden, people are out for blood and it doesn’t look like the Osorio wardens could stop them.

Theo has spent a long time fearing for his life, but he's never been quite as trapped as this, not even with the Dread Doctors. At least their dislike of him was benign and detached. This is . . . Personal. Theo's going to die in here, unless he finds a way out, and there's no way out. Theo knows this, because he's spent his entire life escaping prisons, and this one still seems locked down tight.

Here’s what Theo knows:

He's all alone in the world, fighting for himself because no one else will, and there's no one he can rely on, because in the end, the only person Theo can trust is himself.

Theo may be a failure, he may be useless, and he may be weak. But he's smart, slippery. More frightening people than the ones inside this prison have tried to kill him, and failed. Theo may be pathetic, but he has a survival instinct that hasn't failed him yet.

Theo is worth more dead than alive. This doesn't bother him, because it makes sense, logically speaking. Also, it's his way out.

 

He plans.

 

 

---

 

 

 

Theo has to do the surgery himself, because the Osorios don't have the equipment readily available, and Theo knows how to sanitize his claws well enough to where they're clean enough to be used as instruments.

The entire supernatural world has been hunting for Dread Doctor-modified DNA since the beginning of their rapid descent into infamy. The very blood that's running through Theo's veins. When he tells the Osorios he's a chimera, they don't believe him until he full shifts, and they recognize the hybrid in his animals. The full-shift isn't even that difficult, because the strain of aconite they use to weaken the shifters is far too standard; it's the same strain that the Doctors used to coat their scalpels when Theo was just starting out, and Theo has been immune to it since he was nine-years-old.

The Osorios are so desperate, the prospect of a non-supernatural boost of strength and speech too attractive to pass up. After all, Theo's just a science experiment, there's barely anything supernatural about him. He makes a trade, words clipped and tongue smooth, for his freedom.

It barely takes any convincing at all. Theo's pretty sure they're going to use his DNA to develop, like, hunter steroids, or something. But the world hasn't given a shit about him so far, so he doesn't see why he has to suddenly be concerned about the possibility of powered-up hunters running around and storming werewolf pack bases. They look skeptical when he offers them his blood, and so he makes a gamble, because they clearly need something more, something more important, more valuable.

The surgery takes an hour. It's quick and Theo loses some blood, but, at this point, it's just . . . Whatever. He does it in the wardens office, lounged on a futon with plastic bags put down for blood spray.

Theo leaves Mexico City with the bare bones of a plan, a day late and a kidney short.

 

 

---

 

 

His body doesn't react that well to the spontaneous kidney loss, so he's still pretty physically weak when the Doctors show up at the hotel room. The original resident of said room is knocked out in the corner, and Theo's lounging on his back, enjoying the high thread count of the fancy hotel sheets, when he hears the distinctive clicking and ringing, and he tips his head to the side to catch sight of the Surgeon standing in the doorway. He hasn't had to see them in over a year, and the familiarity sends a rather apt spike of pure dread through him.

The Surgeon asks for a status report, and Theo's pretty sure they're deliberating whether to kill him or not right now. Theo tells him about Beacon Hills, the True Alpha, the Nemeton revival, because he's almost certain by now that it was the power of the Nemeton that allowed the chimera transformation to stick with him, and precisely nobody else. The Nemeton is alive again, and that means the Doctors have a chance, but that's not the reason Theo suggests it.

He's too volatile, he knows this. He has planned an escape scheme, not once, but twice, and he knows far too much for the Doctors to even consider letting him stay alive. It's only a matter of time, at this point, before the Doctors decide to finally pull the plug on trial one-fifty-seven.

He's weak, but he can be strong. He just needs power. There's power in pack, but Theo doesn't want to be a part of a pack, because he doesn't trust them. The Abaroas taught him that pack doesn't mean shit, and Theo's not about to forget that. He's thankful for the lesson. Besides, no pack would want someone like Theo in it anyways, as the universe has made abundantly clear.

The solution is so, so simple. Theo needs a pack, but not an alpha. Theo needs power, whether it's given freely, or stolen. He needs to be the alpha.

Theo needs to take the True Alpha's power, and maybe even his pack too. Theo needs to escape the Doctors once and for all, no matter the cost.

Beacon Hills is Theo's exit strategy.

 

He plans.

 

 

---

 

 

"I guess I look a little different from the fourth-grade."

Theo's in Beacon Hills, the McCall pack staring back at him, expressions varying from awe to straight-up suspicion.

Scott breathes, "Theo?", clearly shocked, and the form of address jars him so much that Theo almost loses control over himself, almost lets his heart skip a beat, almost fucking falls over like a fucking amateur, but he grits his teeth internally, because this is his only chance. It doesn't matter that the last person to call him that was his dying, drowning sister, he has to fucking suck it up and get his shit together. He unclenches his jaw and smiles back, fake.

 

 

---

 

 

He drives his claws into Scott's stomach, viciously, desperately, angrily, and Scott blurts, "You're barely even human," blood bubbling on his lips and dripping down his chin, and Theo almost laughs, thinks, you have no fucking idea.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo doesn't plan well enough, makes too many mistakes, miscalculates how the McCall pack would react to one another, would react to him. Theo realizes, far too late, that even with all his research and calculations and machinations, he treated them too much like they were the Abaroas. And they're not, not by a long shot.

Kira says, "Your sister wants to see you," as she drives her sword into the ground in a strong, swift arc, and then Theo's being dragged back, even as he screams, pathetic, begging for his life, fingernails scrabbling for purchase on the smooth floor of the tunnels, no one makes a move forward, watching Theo get dragged away with solemn eyes. For a split-second, Scott's face morphs into Gervasio Abaroa's. And then, Theo's dragged into darkness and he doesn't see much of anything at all.

 

 

---

 

 

Being trapped with Tara is the fifth prison Theo has found himself in during his short eighteen years on this planet. It's easily the worst. You brought this upon yourself, he chastises, but it doesn't stop the pain when Tara curls her fingers into his chest. Theo hasn't felt pain in years, but wherever he's trapped seems to bend the rules of reality completely.

Loop number two-hundred-thirty-one is just as painful as the first one. Theo hurts like he hasn't in a very long time, and it never gets any better. The pain is white-hot and mind-melting each and every time. He thinks he might spend a lifetime down there, maybe two, but he's lost any concept of time.

 

 

---

 

 

Sometime before he gave up, telling Tara she didn't have to stop, he grew bored. Bored of being chased down a hallway like prey, bored of running away, just. Bored.

Once, he ripped his own heart out, right in front of her, just to see what she would do. She was frozen, stock-still, and Theo laughed hard, even as the blood dribbled from his lips, rivulets running down his chin, because he broke the prison, even if only momentarily. Down in Hell, he could feel the pain, for the first time in years. Ripping his own heart out hurt worse than anything that's ever happened to Theo. It's the first time he does it, but it's certainly not the last.

 

 

---

 

 

Liam pulls Theo out of the ground. Theo tries not to make him regret it.

He feels so, completely off-kilter after he's pulled out. Exposed, raw almost. Instead of the calm, empty that he's been enjoying for years, the one that lets him keep a level head and make rational decisions, all of a sudden he feels fucking everything.

When Liam taps the sword to the ground, threatening, the wave of terror that threatens to bowl Theo over is so completely foreign and jarring that Theo almost passes out. When Liam twists the hilt, and the pieces fall to the floor, the all-consuming relief does much the same.

 

 

---

 

 

"I think you were rotting down there. I also think, whatever happened to you? You deserved it."

Even scraped raw by the Skinwalker prison, Theo's too much of an asshole to admit when someone else is right, so he says nothing at all.

Liam says, "I'm going to use you as bait," and Theo knows he doesn't mean it, even as he thinks, a little bizarrely proud, good for you.

 

 

---

 

 

Liam, to Theo's surprise, does, in fact, save him. Multiple times. Three to be exact, where he shoots a ghost rider with his own gun, pulls Theo out of the line of fire, kicks another one in the stomach. It makes something tangled and fuzzy rise in Theo's stomach, and he doesn't examine it too deeply when he mirrors the sentiment.

They're staring down a whole squadron, just the two of them against four Ghost Riders, but.

Theo knows who he is, and what he's good at. What he's good for. He's spent a long time being bait, for people who deserved it a lot less than Liam Dunbar. Theo's a selfish creature by nature, but it's not a difficult decision. He wraps an arm around Liam's waist, and the shock of his warm stomach against Theo's forearm almost makes Theo falter in his steps. But he doesn't, hauling Liam to the elevator and dumping him on the ground unceremoniously.

"What are you doing?" Liam demands as his hands drop automatically to catch himself from the fall, and Theo can't help the genuine smirk that splits his face as he meets Liam's wide, bewildered eyes through the dwindling gap between the elevator doors, and answers.

 

 

---

 

 

The scalpel Monroe wields is almost a reprieve, a welcome blessing. He's too soft these days, not nearly as conditioned he was while he was still with the Doctors, but morbidly, here on an examination table, being surgically taken apart, feels like home. It's more methodical, more understandable, more of what he's used to, and it puts him in a clearer, less pathetically heartsick, frame of mind. It feels almost cleansing, like a rebirth.

 

 

---

 

 

After the Ghost Riders, the McCall pack mostly just ignores him. He thinks they might've actually forgotten that he's still here, or someone would definitely be banging on his truck window at night, annoyingly suspicious. He doesn't have much money, and it's kind of hard to find a job when he has absolutely no references, employer or character or otherwise.

He's tried pulling over on abandoned stretches of road, but the deputies always find him, and never let him sleep. He found two-hundred dollars in the glove compartment of the truck, but it's dwindling quickly. It's also, boring as fuck, because there's really nothing to do except suffer silently in the California heat and lay down, staring at the ceiling of his truck and getting lost in his thoughts. And that's a place Theo would rather not go too often.

He tries going to the skate park, just once, the way he used to when he was pretending to be a real person sometimes in order to infiltrate packs, because it actually interested him, even if he was kind of shit at it. It's mostly a waste though, because the whole place is being occupied by a roller derby team, who are, like, practicing or something. Theo watches, for a bit, because it's captivating, the way they weave around each other gracefully, screaming and laughing and shoving. One of the blockers is particularly aggressive in her shoves and it's her fierce, burning anger that reminds Theo of someone he has accidentally grown fond of. It's that thought that has Theo fleeing, just a bit, back to his truck, because, what the fuck.

It's evening in an hour, and Theo's too tired to find the energy to drive around until he finds somewhere suitably abandoned, so he just stays there, in the parking lot of the skate park, curling up in the backseat. Most everyone has gone home, so it's pretty quiet, and Theo's just drifting off, when he hears the tapping on his windows, and he squints an eye open, tentative and irritated, expecting another goddamn cop, only to come face-to-face with a derby girl -- the blocker, from earlier -- her brows furrowed as she cups her hands around her eyes, seemingly to try and get a better view into his truck. Theo doesn't care for it at all.

He opens the door with more force than he has to, and tries to quell the annoyance in his voice, when he prompts, "What?"

Her frown stays steady. "You're sleeping in your truck," she says, like Theo doesn't know. He can't help but roll his eyes. There was a time in his life when he was feared, he can't help but think, a little wistfully.

"Yes, thank you," he replies, through gritted teeth. "I am aware. Is that all?" She doesn't reply for a couple seconds, keeps frowning, and Theo's fucking tired, and done with everyone's shit, so he makes a move to close the door, but she stops him, placing a flexed palm on the door panel and pushing it back open.

"You look like you’re barely eighteen," she says, pursing her lips and crossing her arms across her chest, apparently completely unafraid at the potential consequences of accosting a homeless stranger at night in an abandoned skate park. "Are you homeless?"

"Not that it's any of your business," Theo spits, bristling indignantly to hide just how completely bemused he is, "but there's not exactly anyone willing to take me in." She seems to absorb that information, frown melting into a sympathetic grimace before she clenches her jaw and nods once, curt, determined, and steps into his truck, and Theo has to scramble back on the heels of his hands, just to accommodate her, completely bewildered, heart pounding.

"So you need, what? Like, money?" she asks, as she fishes a wallet out of the back of her jeans, and Theo squishes himself even further into the corner of the backseat, as far from her as possible, as he tries not to choke on his own spit.

"Look," he tries, and it's actually a miracle that his voice doesn't crack. "It's Legs, right? You can't just--"

She cracks a smile, raising an eyebrow, and he winces, just a little. "So you were watching us," she crows, laughing, "I knew it." She shakes her head, grinning. "Yeah," she replies, "Legs is a derby name, but Shreya works too." She holds out a hand, and Theo stares at it for a good two minutes. She doesn't waver, and the hand still doesn’t disappear. Finally, he grips it, tentative.

He shakes her hand, meeting her eyes, and replies, "Theo." It still feels weird in his mouth.

Over the course of the next three hours, he thankfully manages to talk her down from giving him the contents of her wallet, and lets her offer him a job instead. He doesn't think anything's actually going to come of it, so he shrugs when she brings it up, acquiescing. They spend an entire night like that, crowded into the backseat of Theo's truck, where he explains the set of circumstances that led to him being homeless, in the vaguest terms possible, and she repays him with stories about how she gets angry, and why she does derby in the first place. Theo's mind, pathetically, can't help but draw the parallels, the second she says anger issues, but he's too tired to even berate himself for it, and by the time they're done talking, it's six in the morning, and she's making him drive to some diner, and he's too worn-down to argue with her, and also, he thinks he's going to lose the argument.

They walk in, bell chiming cheerfully, and Theo assumes she's going to do something weird like buy him breakfast, when she goes into the back, and returns with an apron, grinning from ear-to-ear. She tosses it at him, and he catches it instinctively, but still can't help the confusion when he turns back to her.

"Suit up, Raeken," she says, and then winks. "Surprise! You're the cute, new waiter."

Theo, against his better instincts, smiles, hiding it in his shoulder as he pulls the apron on.

 

 

---

 

 

Liam comes around a lot more after Theo gets the diner job, probably because Theo's easier to find. He's kind of annoying, but having him here is better than not, so Theo doesn't say anything.

Legs teases him relentlessly when she finds out that he hasn't been letting anyone else serve Liam, and he grimaces, wondering when he became so goddamn transparent. But then, she catches sight of Savannah, their new fry cook, getting off her motorcycle, tattooed arms on full display in her muscle tee, and Legs drops every single one of the pans she was holding, and Theo makes fun of her for an entire goddamn month, so he thinks it's about even.

 

 

---

 

 

The hunters are rapidly becoming a problem. Liam says, over the phone, "I think I have a plan." It's a terrible plan, truly, involving Mason and an abandoned zoo and, like, such a clumsy form of deception that even someone as thick as the hunters would be able to see right through it. Liam says, "I need you there," and Theo lets out a long, aggrieved sigh, but it's mostly for show because he's already pushing off his blanket and climbing clumsily into the drivers seat.

The plan goes just as badly as Theo assumed it would, except Liam actually loses his shit, which isn't something he planned for. Luckily, Liam kind of listens to him when Theo tells him to calm down, which also isn't something he planned for, and it throws him, just a bit. He doesn't think too hard about it, just like he doesn't think too hard about why his arms are so careful as they carry Liam out of the zoo, buckle him into the passenger seat, and wipe the blood, slow and thorough and gentle, from each bruised knuckle, before he gets into the drivers side, and drops his head down onto the steering wheel with a pitiful, defeated thunk.

It takes him a good five minutes to be able to regain his wits enough to drive them out, pointedly not sneaking glances at Liam's sleeping frame as he zones out a bit, losing himself in the consistency of the dark, open road. Liam wakes up, eventually, and bristles, just a little bit; a mild type of annoyance that amuses Theo to no end. He asks how many times Theo had to knock him out, and Theo can't help but look over at him, Liam scrubbing a hand across his face, groggy and disgruntled and frowning, and Theo also can't help the smile that breaks over his face without his permission, as he answers.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo's driving to the hospital, accelerating down the dark empty, road, Scott's voice through the phone, tinny but authoritative, still echoing in his head, "Just buy us more time. Wherever Liam and the others are, get them out of there." Something in his head, the small, self-preserving voice that's kept him alive this long, says, this is the stupidest thing you've ever done. It's too late though, he's already fallen. He's helpless to do anything, really, except ignore it, pressing down harder on the accelerator and following the siren call of his heart all the way to the hospital.

 

 

---

 

 

They're in an elevator, on the brink of something important. The air is heavy and crackling, and not just with bullets. He stares straight into assessing blue eyes, bright in the florescent hospital lights. They're standing so close that Theo can taste the adrenaline coming off Liam in waves. His eyes flick down to Liam's lips, helpless, and in this moment, he can't imagine he's ever wanted anything as much as he wants to taste the sweet warmth of Liam's mouth, run his fingers through his sweat-soaked hair, crowd him up against the elevator walls and drink in his surprised gasp, gripping hard, desperate, as the room spins and spins and spins. Theo doesn't, because he's a coward. Instead, he says, "I'm not dying for you," and Liam replies, "I'm not dying for you either," and he's so beautiful -- eyes blazing, stubborn jaw set in a tense, perfect line -- that it makes Theo's chest hurt, just below the sternum. He can't look away, even when Liam does.

Without even listening to their heartbeats, Theo knows this: only one of them is telling the truth, and it's obvious who, because Theo Raeken has always been a liar.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo helps the pack, accidentally, and then things start spiraling out of hand. It starts with Scott calling him, apologetic, in the middle of the night, asking him to help with some horribly thought-out Monroe plan, and it lasts all night, and then Malia's going on her morning run, loping fully-shifted through the woods, and asking him to come with, and he hides his bewilderment pretty well when she doesn't actually tear his throat out and leave his mangled corpse in the preserve for the local wildlife to feast on. She just turns back after an hour or two, before she runs back to Scott's, and Theo follows her dutifully. He shifts back just as Liam's waking up from his power nap in the living room, and he freezes, caught out, but the whole thing is worth it just for the way Liam finally focuses his eyes, catches sight of Theo's nudity, wheezes, and scrambles to rip his own jacket off, throwing it at Theo's junk, frantic and frenzied in a way that makes Theo laugh.

The next time, Liam calls him, asking for his presence at another pack meeting, and it's not like Theo can say no, not to him, so he goes, and says something, apparently insightful, but frankly, obvious, about the properties of blue aconite, and Lydia eyes him curiously, all but dragging him down to her basement, and this time, he's absolutely certain that he's about to be, like, hacked apart by a chainsaw or something, stored in neat pieces in a freezer underground, but then Lydia flicks on the lights, revealing it to be a laboratory of all things, hands him a pair of goggles, and Theo doesn't hide his bewilderment that well this time. Maybe the whole underground-laboratory thing should remind him of the Doctors, but they were methodical, clinical, and Lydia's lab is so clearly a passion-project, held together with a prayer, duct tape, some love, and her genius-level IQ, ramshackle and thrown together. The similarities start and end with "underground" and "laboratory".

The meeting after that, he's kneeling over a coffee table, trying to draw a diagram coherent enough that it'll bleed the overwhelmed confusion from Scott's tensed brow. "It's called hedgehog defense," Theo explains, trying to be patient, "it's a type of, like, bottleneck," and Scott only looks marginally less intimidated, and Stiles keep shooting him these suspicious little looks and the whole thing just makes Theo very, very tired. But then, a week later, Stiles is in D.C. again and they're all still trying to figure out the problem. Theo's pretty sure Scott hasn't slept in two days straight -- because Theo hasn't slept in two days straight, barely staying awake from where he's leaning back against the right half of Liam's chest, one of Liam's arms slung lazily around Theo's waist, his head buried in the crook of Theo's neck, soft snores vibrating into his skin with every exhale, comfortable and warm, scent absolutely content in a way that's, like drugging Theo, or something, making his eyelids slip shut -- and Stiles is flailing on the other end of a FaceTime call, gesturing in the air as he monologues, "Okay, so we use the hammer and anvil, right? And we--"

"You want us," Scott starts, already frowning. "To use hammers?"

"What?" Stiles snaps, "No, hammer and anvil, like, an encirclement--" He cuts himself off as Scott's eyes go unfocused, before pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, and sighing, loud and exasperated. "Never mind, Scotty, go get some sleep, for the love of god. And please give the phone to Theo."

And that has Theo straightening up, as Scott hands him the phone, and Liam protests, grumbling disgruntledly in his sleep and tightening his arm around Theo, tugging him in until Theo is half in his lap, perched precariously on Liam's right thigh as Liam nuzzles harder into his neck, before finally settling, and falling back asleep. Stiles raises an eyebrow, opens his mouth, and then shuts it. Opens his mouth again, and then shuts this. He does this four more times, until he finally shakes himself, and apparently (thankfully) decides to ignore it altogether.

"Okay, so the hammer and anvil," he posits, "except we replace the anvil, with a second hammer." Stiles does jazz hands. Theo blinks.

"That's a horrible idea," Theo replies, scrubbing a hand across his eyes, bemused and exhausted. Liam snuffles, wrapping his other arm around Theo too, and Theo can't help but slump back into his warmth. "Both forces doing encirclement maneuvers?  That would never work."

"Wouldn't it?" Stiles asks, a kind of manic gleam in his eye as he turns back to the wall behind him, pulls out a marker, and starts sketching it out.

As it turns out, Stiles is just a fucking weirdo, and his impressed face, is the same as his suspicious face, and the whole thing sends such a jolt of confusion through him, that he avoids the McCall pack for two whole weeks, dodging their calls. Lydia has already left for MIT and Scott has finally started class at UC Davis at Melissa's urging (even though he dutifully returns every single weekend). He dodges Liam whenever he shows up at the diner with Mason and Corey, and he thinks his strategy is working until Legs bullies him into going on his break early, and he sees Liam waiting for him on the hood of his truck.

"You're avoiding us," is the first thing Liam says when Theo approaches the truck, brash and direct as always, in a way that Theo has come to appreciate.

"I--" Theo tries, fully set on denying it, but then he catches Liam's eyes, deflates a bit, replies, "yeah." A defeated kind of admission, because he doesn't much like lying to Liam these days. The flex of Liam's jaw doesn't relax.

"Why?" he asks, frowning, eyes downcast. "Did I--?" Liam shifts, uncomfortable, not meeting Theo's gaze, "Did I do some--?"

"No," Theo cuts in, firm, because he can't let Liam finish that sentence. He really doesn't like the look on Liam's face, the way he smells right now, self-recriminating. "No, hey," Theo gets closer, until he's standing in the V of Liam's legs, "you didn't--" he tries, before he has to cut himself off and clear his throat. "It's my fault," he admits, chucking Liam gently under the chin. Liam finally meets his eyes, searching his face. "I--" Theo starts, before realizing he doesn't exactly know how to explain his thought process to Liam, how to say, everyone's being really friendly and it's freaking me the fuck out, without sounding completely deranged, so he doesn't. "It's my fault," he settles on repeating, leaning in until his forehead is pressing against Liam's shoulder, and then, just. Resting his body there, because he's comfortable, sue him. "Sorry," he can't help but add quietly, and Liam's scent starts to clear a bit.

"It's okay," Liam murmurs back, just as quiet, slinging an arm around Theo's neck and holding him there. His efforts are completely wasted, because it's not like Theo is planning on moving anytime soon. He's pretty sure he could fall asleep here, just like this. "Just say something next time, instead of ignoring us," Liam chastises, gentle, as he brushes his thumb softly across the edge of Theo's hairline. Theo slumps a little harder into Liam, and Liam winds his other arm around him, placing a warm, broad palm at the small of Theo's back to, like, steady him or something. "There's another meeting this week," Liam says. "You're coming."

It's not a question, but Theo answers it anyways. "Yeah," Theo replies, muffled by the soft fabric of Liam's shirt. He stands there for a while, just breathing the scent of him in, calm and contented in a way that makes Theo warm. "Yeah, I'll be there."

 

 

---

 

 

They don't talk about the whole homeless thing, which Theo is abundantly grateful for.

He tells Legs that he moved in with Scott, a month after the whole hunter thing, because he knows she worries about him, and he doesn't know how to explain, I did some really bad, unforgiveable things, and this is how I have to pay for them, and he's pretty sure that she thinks he and Scott are, like, related or something, and they reconciled after the hunters since Scott comes to the diner a couple times, and Theo just doesn't correct her.

No one brings it up, except for Argent that one time, which was kind of uncomfortable, but Theo explained everything, and Argent didn't bring it up again.

The diner paycheck just barely covers the cost of laundry, gas money, and new clothes (since his get fucking torn so often in fights). He takes most of his meals at the diner, and some at Scott's house, and for the rest of them, he just toughs it out. Even before the Doctors, Theo was no stranger to being hungry.

The McCall pack doesn't talk about the very evident scent of him living in his truck as he drives them places, and Theo doesn't talk about officially accepting his penance or anything weird like that, and things are good.

For the most part, it's the happiest Theo has been in a while.

 

 

---

 

 

It doesn't take him that long to realize that he's probably, like, embarassingly, in love with Liam, because Theo has spent too long lying to other people, so he at least tries to be honest with himself. Except it's really not that embarrassing because really, Liam's amazing. If he had to have a mortifyingly unrequited crush on someone, he's at least glad it's someone like Liam. Also, like, Liam deserves to be loved, or something pathetic and sappy like that.

He looks at Liam sometimes, who wears his heart on his sleeve, and he thinks, I could make myself seem like someone he could love, and it's tempting, it's so tempting because Theo has spent half his life lying and pretending, but Theo's strong enough to not give in, because, one: Theo spends most of his time these days just trying to figure out who Theo is and what he wants, and two: he thinks it would destroy him completely for both of them to go into it, wishing Theo was someone else.

And besides, Liam likes girls and Theo has spent his entire life being an experiment; he wants something more for himself these days, even though he knows he doesn't deserve it.

He knows they're not on the same page, they don't want the same thing. No one in Theo's entire life has wanted him there, and he's not stupid enough to think the first would be someone like this, someone who would set him on fire. Theo's just not the kind of person that people want, never was. He privately thinks that it's a good thing, because he doesn't even know how to be the kind of person that someone else could want. His acting skills have taken a nosedive since he was pulled out of the ground, to be completely honest, so he probably couldn't actually make himself seem like someone Liam could--

 

 

---

 

 

Monroe stops, and leaves at some point, and then Theo's just there, chilling on the examination table with his chest still torn open. That's when he first sees Liam and he thinks, with a detached kind of interest, oh. Thinks, oh, I'm dying.

Liam says some things, and Theo says some things in return, but he forgets the conversation almost immediately after they have it, head woozy, and it's so, horribly pathetic that his dying brain had to conjure up a hallucination of a Liam who loved him back, that Theo's eyes burn. He doesn't remember what they talked about, but he does remember Liam smiling, because he always remembers Liam's smiles, automatically tracks the curve of them, the way his lips twist, the  cheek dimples and eyes sparkle. This smile isn't like those, at all, but he still likes it, because it's Liam. And also, he's delirious.

Seeing Liam, especially this Liam, who, like, loves him, or something, is easily more painful than the surgery. Something deep inside him twists, as he thinks, this is the best you're going to get. This is the closest you'll ever come to him loving you too.

But Theo Raeken was born with a broken heart, so he thinks it’s only fitting that he dies with one too.

 

 

---

 

 

Theo wakes up, a couple hours after he sees Liam. At least, he thinks so, because the sun is rising in the sky, but he's mostly focused on the fact that he's not dead.

His head is a lot more clear than before, and it lets him think.

No one has made a move to leave Beacon Hills.

I would've come for him, Theo thinks, unreasonably hurt. I would've come for any of them. But Theo's always been a nuisance, a loose end. He came into this world as an accident that did nothing but suck the money out of his parent's wallets with the hole in his heart and the asthma in his lungs and take up the space in their house that was meant for Tara, and when the Dread Doctors came, saying, you're defective but we can fix you, saying, we can make you powerful, saying we can make you important, he'd thought, oh. He'd thought oh, this is my chance, and it was, until he was a nuisance to them too. He was nothing but a pawn to the Abaroas, even when they called him family. They got rid of him as soon as they could, bond ripping painfully in his head.

And these days, he's the loose end of a villain already vanquished, a nuisance to the McCall pack who keep him around because he's useful enough, or maybe he's overestimating his helpfulness and he has worn out his welcome already. He's kind of glad he was captured, because Theo has spent so long trying to figure out what his role was in Beacon Hills, to the town, to the pack, and now he finally understands; it's the exact same as his role in the Abaroa pack. The whole, protect a pack that you're not a part of, because you're expendable, and no one else is. Sure, the pack is friendly, but the Abaroas were plenty friendly too. Cisco taught Theo how to play beer pong and Carlotta taught him how to drive a car. Everyone is friendly until you're more trouble then your worth, and then they leave you for dead, because that's just how the world works. It's nothing personal.

The point is, Theo has never been wanted by a single person in his whole entire life, so he's not surprised, that no one has left Beacon Hills, even though something young and naïve and pathetic inside him is, shamefully, a little disappointed. He thinks, maybe, sometimes, that Liam might want him around, just a little bit, but Liam's just kind, kind like Theo doesn't know how to be, and it would be a perversion of the good in Liam's heart to take that kindness as something more, and Theo can't bring himself to taint the one pure thing in his life, the way he has done with everything else. Theo knows he's Liam's anchor, for now, just like he knows Liam's his, but the thing is, Liam has had another anchor before, and he'll have another anchor again (and that's not even addressing the tried and proven fact that Theo makes a terrible anchor), but Theo? Theo has barely even had a friend.

Theo has been alone his whole entire life, no one looking out for him but himself. It's a familiar instinct, tried and true and it's slipped on easily, like an old skin. It's kept him alive for this long, after all.

Theo is all alone in the world. Nobody will notice if he dies, and nobody will care if he lives, because that's just how the universe works.

The hunters don't think he's Liam anymore, which is good. It means he can leave. The McCall pack isn't coming for him, because, why would they? But, that's fine too, because Theo doesn't need them. He's survived on his own for this long, and granted, he didn't turn out fantastic, but his heart is still in his chest, and (most of) his organs are still in his body, so he thinks he did a pretty good job. Theo's not worried. He's been in tighter spots before, and it'll take more than Tamora Monroe and her pathetic little amateur hunting squad to kill him.

Theo has been a puppet his whole life, and as he cuts the one last string, feeling something snap in his head as his heart breaks, it feels like loneliness so thick that it makes his bones ache, but it also tastes like freedom.

 

He plans.