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rooted in the dirt like the tireless trees

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I am, Theo is realizing, even as the bear-trap is literally slamming closed on his left rear leg, never going to live this down.

“Look, just let me take care of it,” Theo had insisted approximately four hours ago, sitting in the Sheriff’s office and talking over the game hunter who’d been caught setting illegal traps in the Preserve, and who’d been shrieking like a banshee—apologies to Lydia—in the main room about his god-given right to…whatever. Theo had kicked his feet up on the Sheriff’s desk, ignoring the way that the Sheriff’s right eye had twitched in response, and smiled winsomely at him and Parrish and Scott and Liam, all of whom had looked very skeptical. “With Malia out of town, I’m the next best choice and you know it.”

He hadn’t been wrong in his claim—he’d certainly been right that letting him go find and disarm the traps was a far better idea than letting the Sheriff’s deputies stumble around in the brush trying to do it like the city-folk they were—but he’s now maybe regretting his offhand dismissal of Liam’s pointed question about what would happen if Theo triggered one of the traps, out there alone in the middle of nowhere.

Now—out alone in the middle of nowhere, and in fact having triggered one of the game hunter’s traps—Theo swallows back the pained whines he keeps wanting to give voice to, his initial high-pitched yelp fading away, and twists around to look at the damage.

It’s—not great.

The trap had closed on the thinnest part of his metacarpal bones, just below the joint. They’d snapped, he can tell, and from the uncomfortable grinding sensation he can feel as his healing automatically kicks in and starts trying to repair the damage even while he’s still caught, there’s a handful of shards of bone now floating around his leg.

Shit, Theo thinks, and then he grits his teeth, and prepares himself for just how badly he knows it’s going to hurt, and he shifts back.

“Son of a bitch,” he swears, low and with feeling—the metal teeth of the trap now grinding against his broken shin bone—and then he sets about freeing his leg.

In the end he defaults to just yanking the damn thing apart, rather than trying to screw around with the release mechanisms. The machinery shrieks and groans but gives before long, the two halves of the trap separating in his hands. Theo drops them to either side, his fingers trembling, and then leans over his bloodied leg to start inspecting the damage.

But almost immediately he hears noise through the brush, and his head whips up, and out. His nostrils flare.

Shit!, he thinks, and in a moment of reflexive panic—his mind still pretty pain-hazed—he shifts back to his wolf form, and crouches low on his three uninjured legs, his left rear leg extended out and away from his body to protect it best he can, and he waits. His upper lip starts to curl away from his teeth in a silent snarl.

But it falls right back down when he spots the figure responsible for the noise come stumbling through the trees. His posture automatically straightens as he stares.

The little girl who’d fought her way through the undergrowth keeps knuckling at her red, wet eyes, and then she spots him, and those same eyes blow wide. She screams—Theo wincing and his eyes squinting reflexively shut at the sharp sound—and she stumbles a few steps backwards, her heels catching on the uneven ground.

She falls, and catches herself on her palms. She stares at Theo. He stares back, frozen.

What the hell is she doing here?, Theo can’t stop thinking. They were miles away from anywhere; they were in the deepest part of the Preserve. Mind working, he stretches out his senses, looking for any sign of other people. Her parents. Some friends, maybe, but there’s no one he can find. He starts to straighten up a little more—he’d hunched right back down when she’d screamed—but the second he does, she hiccups in a sharp, scared breath, and curls up in a ball, her knees pulling up to her chest and her arms wrapping around them as she buries her face against her legs.

Nice job, jackass, Theo berates himself, and before he can help it he’s whined, sharp and low and distressed. His head’s lowered itself almost to the point that his nose is in the dirt. His ears pin themselves back to the top of his skull.

The little girl’s head comes up at the sound, just enough to let her peek a single eye out at him from between her covering arms.

Okay, Theo tells himself, thinking quickly. Okay, I can work with this.

He whines again, deliberately this time, and starts to lower himself slowly down, belly to the dirt. He keeps his head low and his teeth covered, his tail curling in close to his body; tucked in along his hind legs.

His rear left leg he has to leave stretched out, the damage severe enough that it’s only sluggishly healing.

It draws the girl’s attention: she drops her arms a little more, and squints at it. “Oh,” she gasps, and then she’s uncurled and scrambled a few feet forward on her hands and knees before she’s really seemed to think about it. She grinds to a stop almost immediately afterwards, though, her eyes darting to Theo’s face.

Theo whines again, as extra-pathetic as he can get it.

The little girl bites her lip, visibly debating it, but in the end compassion or curiosity wins out: she hurries the rest of the way forward until she’s kneeling next to his hurt leg, and staring down at it. She starts to reach forward—Theo bracing himself not to jerk, or yelp, or pull away—but thankfully she just hovers her hands over the visibly bloody—though not gory, thank christ, at least not anymore—wound.

“Oh, you’re hurt,” she whispers, and Theo would feel bad for how clearly that thought distresses her, except for the fact that he’s pretty sure that the sympathy vote is his best bet for getting both himself and the girl out of the Preserve with the minimal amount of trauma and/or future criminal charges. He whines again, and—taking a chance, but going with his gut—twists around just slightly so that he can touch the very tip of his lupine wet nose to the side of her bare arm.

She jumps, but then laughs a little, high and melodic, and reaches forward with both hands to take hold of his head, her tiny little fingers gripping at his fur. She lifts one hand to stroke it back between his ears even as she leaves her other hand anchored around his jaw, and Theo can’t help it: his eyes slip shut and he rumbles a little at the sensation.

The girl laughs again.

She also seems to come to a decision. Theo watches as she releases him to plant both palms in the dirt, and then push herself up, and to her feet. Her eyes are still red but no longer wet. She sets her hands on her hips.

“Okay,” she declares, looking critically down at him. “We have to get you to a doctor.”

Theo blinks—that’s not exactly where he expected the conversation to go—but before he can really do much about it, the little girl has bent down, and started trying to pull him up with two hands on either side of his jowls. Theo goes more out of reflex than desire, too baffled to do anything else.

Still, he remembers to hop a little on his not-nearly-so-hurt-as-it-had-been rear left leg.

The little girl looks at it, and frowns, her expression almost comically focused; Theo has to swallow a chuff of laughter. He must not fully succeed because she suddenly looks back at him, and reaches forward to run a hand down the stretch of his neck, and side, in what is probably meant to be a soothing stroke. It ends up being a little harder than she’d probably intended but Theo presses up into it anyway. She goes back to looking at his leg.

Theo realizes what she’s worried about. Thinking fast, he takes two steps forward with his front legs, one after the other, and then hops his uninjured rear right leg up to follow them. His rear left he leaves bent slightly in the air, barely touching the ground. He does it again just to be sure she’s caught on to what he’s trying to show her.

She has. She grins at him, wide and bright, and suddenly surges forward to wrap her arms around his forelegs. Theo oofs slightly and almost staggers, but at the last moment manages to keep them both where they are.

He can feel her press and then hide her face very briefly in his side. It’s still warm, and wet, and her next exhale trembles a little.

“Okay!” She declares again, pulling back. That look of determination is back on her face. She keeps one hand in his ruff as she turns, and frowns intently at the forest around them. “The doctor is this way,” she decides, and starts walking—her fingers pulling him along—in the direction she’d picked.

The doctor—whichever one she might be thinking of, and Theo will cross that bridge when he comes to it—is not in the direction she’s chosen, so Theo very carefully circles around so that he’s at her side rather than trailing behind her, and starts guiding her around, step by oblivious step, towards Beacon Hills.

Towards home.

She starts chattering almost the minute they start walking. She’d been on a field trip, apparently, and Ms. Amara had made her and all the other kids promise that they wouldn’t wander off, but then she’d seen a baby deer through the trees, and she couldn’t help it. And baby deers were called fawns, did he know that? She’d learned that this morning during the park ranger’s talk.

“Ms. Park Ranger also said not to wander off the trails,” the little girl confides to him at one point, Ms.-Park-Ranger’s-name forgotten, though Theo’s willing to be it’s Belomo based on scent alone, “but there was a fawn, and I wanted to see it.”

Theo finds himself oddly reminded of Liam, and has to swallow another chuff of laughter.

He also has to make a decision. Chances are there’s an entire search party of frantic parents and school officials and probably the Sheriff, actually, now that Theo is thinking about it, out looking for the girl closer to where she disappeared, but it’ll take him longer to guide her there—and she’s more likely to get exhausted first, her scent starting to dip more and more as they go under her on-a-mission excitement—than for him to cut straight through the Preserve towards town. After a few contemplative hopping steps forward—Theo still play-acting hurt for his young audience—he decides on the latter; the faster he got her back to town, the faster he could find someone to call the Sheriff, and tell him Theo had found someone’s missing kid.

The little girl doesn’t seem to notice their destination, at least not at first. But as twenty minutes pass, then thirty, then forty, and they get closer and closer to town, she seems to catch on. “Oh!” She suddenly gasps, right about at the point that Theo would guess that human ears could start hearing the bustle and commotion of a moderately-sized city, and then she grinds to a halt.

Her fingers had still been in his ruff, either as a guide or a comfort or both, and so when she stops, she ends up yanking Theo to a stop, Theo biting back a yelp at the tug and backpedaling quickly to avoid pulling her over. He twists around to look quizzically at her to find her squinting intently back at him.

Mom says,” she starts to explain, and Theo can’t help his tongue lolling out in amusement, because after nearly an hour in the woods with this little girl, he knows that mom says a lot of things, “that dogs have to be on leashes when you’re going to be around other people who might be afraid of them.”

Theo doesn’t point out—couldn’t even if he wanted to—that an hour ago it’d been her who’d been afraid of him. Instead he cocks his head in a lupine question—god he hopes no one from the pack ever finds out about this—and waits for her to make up her mind about what she wants to do about what mom says.

What she wants to do, apparently, is drop down flat on her sit-bones, right in the dirt, and start tugging at the shoelaces of her sneakers. Theo watches, baffled, as she fights first one and then the other loose, and then takes one end of each, and ties them together. She holds the resulting single strand up to him for his seeming approval.

“Okay, now you have to come here,” she orders.

Theo hesitates, but then twists around so that he can hobble his now completely-healed way over to her. He flicks his ears back and forth in a curious question as he waits, his head bowed low by her chest.

But that’s exactly where she wants it, apparently: she reaches forward, and carefully loops one end of the shoelace-string around his neck. Theo catches on when she starts to tie that end around the longer, trailing part. He feels something complicated happen in his chest when she grabs the far end, and triumphantly announces, “There!”

Theo stands with his shoelace leash for a second, and then he—leans forward and touches the tip of his nose to her cheek. He means it as a silent acceptance, the only physical okay that he can give, but he isn’t prepared for the way his gut swoops and then soars when she giggles in response, and then throws her arms around his neck in a tight hug.

She shudders a little, and underneath the fizz of her excitement in his nose there’s the more sour smell of her pushed-off terror, and so he—hooks his head over her shoulder, and turns the side of his muzzle against the back of her head in the best approximation of an embrace that he’s got.

She pulls back after a second—her eyes just the slightest bit damp—and grins at him again. Okay!, he predicts, his tongue lolling once more. “Okay!” She announces, and starts leading the way back forward—Theo occasionally nudging her in the right direction—with Theo’s shoelace leash in one hand.

They break out of the Preserve, and onto the backyards of the first sets of houses backing it, not long after. The little girl stops, and visibly considers, her lip between her teeth, and Theo debates sitting right down where he is and howling, but the only thing that’s likely to do is scare the hell out of her, and besides: no one actually needs the added complication of someone finding him with her, and losing their goddamn minds about a wolf being in the middle of downtown. He flicks his ears back and forth. He thinks: Deaton’s is only fifteen minutes from here.

He picks up the middle part of his trailing shoelace leash—Theo not actually far enough away from the girl to make it taut—and tugs on it a little. The little girl jumps and looks over at him. Theo tugs again.

“Oh,” she realizes, frowning. “Is your home that way?”

That’s as good an assumption as any, so Theo tugs on the leash again. The little girl looks dubious.

“You need a doctor,” she insists, her free hand pointing at his completely fine leg, though granted it’s still covered in dried blood and dirt.

Theo plays his trump card: he whines again.

She purses his lips, but then gives him a single, sharp nod. “Okay,” she decides.

She follows him—Theo releasing the shoelace leash, and letting the light, barely-there pressure of it around his neck guide her, her fingers still wrapped around the other end—as he leads her as quickly as he thinks he can get away with through the suburban neighborhoods.

He can hear Scott even before they’ve reached the doors of the clinic.

He can hear Liam, actually, though Liam’s voice comes through tinny and crackling as he says, all in a distorted rush, “I’m at his truck now, I’m going to start there and retrace his steps, but Scott—”

“I know,” Scott interrupts, harried-sounding. “I do, but the Sheriff’s asked for our help finding this missing little girl, and—”

He cuts off, because the little girl at Theo’s side—ten-to-one the same little girl—had marched right up to the door of the clinic, and knocked; Theo can see Scott’s poleaxed expression through the glass. He’d be amused as hell if he wasn’t distracted by the little girl suddenly reaching over to push at his hindquarters; encouraging him to sit, he realizes. He sits.

Inside the clinic, Liam is still ranting at Scott; Theo can hear it. But Scott’s not paying him any attention: his eyes flick from Theo—who he clearly recognizes—to the shoelace leash around his neck, to the little girl standing patiently waiting for him to come answer the door.

“Um, Liam,” Scott finally manages, bringing his phone fully back up to his ear from where it’d drifted down while he’d stared. He ignores Liam’s vitriolic what, Scott, to tell him, “You should, uh. You should get to the clinic.”

“What?” Liam squawks, but Scott hangs up. Theo can see him immediately thumbing a text after he does, no doubt providing the explanation that he can’t give out loud.

He pockets his phone after, and comes to answer the door, pushing it open—it’d been unlocked—with a palm flat on the glass. “Hello,” he greets, a little cautiously. “Can I—?”

“Are you an animal doctor?” The little girl interrupts, staring up at him; she’d clearly seen the sign over the door.

“Uh. Yes,” Scott decides, after a visible moment of debate.

The little girl beams. “Okay!” She plonks a hand down on the top of Theo’s head, between his ears, and scratches. Theo has to fight, and doesn’t fully succeed, not to rumble with pleasure. He definitely doesn’t keep himself from lifting his muzzle up into it. “My friend here needs your help, then.”

“Oh,” Scott replies gamely, and flicks his eyes—his bafflement just full on his face—down to Theo, who definitely doesn’t actually need Scott for much of anything, except to True Alpha them all out of this situation. “What, uh. What seems to be the problem?”

“I found him in the forest!” The little girl announces, and then she twists to point at Theo’s rear left leg. “He’s hurt.”

Theo can tell that Scott doesn’t really internalize any of her second claim, partially because he can clearly tell for himself that Theo isn’t actually hurt, but mostly because he’d latched onto that first part. “You found him in the forest, huh?” He checks, his mind clearly working as he steps back and pushes the door open even more to encourage her—and Theo, trailing along behind her—inside. “What were you doing in the forest?”

“I was on a field trip,” the little girl chatters at him, happily leading Theo into the clinic, and then back towards the exam room when Scott points her that way. “I was supposed to stay with Ms. Amara and the rest of the class, but then I saw a fawn, and—”

She keeps going, essentially repeating the same story that she’d told Theo on their way back through the forest. Scott hums and exclaims at the appropriate parts as he leads her back through the hallway and into the room, but Theo can see that he’s pulled his phone back out, and he’s clearly texting the Sheriff, telling him that he’d found the Sheriff’s missing child.

They get to the room, and the little girl stops, and turns—Theo’s shoelace leash still in her hands, so after a moment Theo obediently plops down next to her because at this point the constant baffled looks on Scott’s face as he tries to keep it together are worth it—and looks expectantly up at Scott. She offers out the end of the shoelace leash.

“So?” She says, when Scott takes it after a moment’s confused hesitation.

“Um,” Scott replies. “Yes?”

The little girl looks spectacularly unimpressed. “He’s hurt,” she reminds Scott, a little grouchily, even though Theo’s not. “And you’re an animal doctor,” she continues, even though Scott’s not; not yet.

“Right,” Scott agrees, blinking. “Then I should—help him.”

Theo lets his tongue loll out.

In the end Scott ends up guiding Theo to jump up onto the exam table, his hands on either side of Theo’s flanks to ‘help’ lift him up and his not-actually-injured-anymore rear left leg, since the little girl is still watching avidly. Theo gets himself settled—his rear left leg stretched purposefully out—and then rests his muzzle on his forepaws, leaving it there as Scott bumbles around, pressing a stethoscope—Theo jumping and grumbling out a complaint at the shock of the cool metal against his skin—to his side, then carefully extending, and retracting, Theo’s leg, as he clearly tries to waste time as he waits for the various cavalries to arrive.

It doesn’t stop him from smoothing firm, seemingly-reflexive strokes through Theo’s fur as he does, though, and it doesn’t stop Theo from pressing up into it.

It doesn’t stop the little girl from positioning herself right at the front of the exam table, and anchoring her hands around Theo’s muzzle, and looking him straight in the eye as she assures him that everything is going to be okay, and that the doctor is going to fix him right up, and that he’s being very brave. At that last one Theo can’t help it: he lifts his head and presses the tip of his nose to her cheek. He knows Scott is watching but he doesn’t care; he gives the little girl a quick lick, right over the curve of her jaw.

She giggles, and then surges forward some to press her face against the side of his.

Liam is the first to blow through the clinic doors, which means the Sheriff would be very unhappy to find out just how fast he must have driven to get there as fast he does. Theo startles at the noise and his head jerks up, out of the little girl’s hands. She gasps and stumbles backwards—surprised and with her pulse rocketing up—and Theo whines again, immediately and without thought, and whips his head back around from where he’d been staring fixedly at the exam room doorway to stretch out his muzzle, trying to reach her.

The little girl hesitates, but only for a moment, and then she steps back forward and presses the side of her face right back to the side of his.

And so that’s how Liam finds him: stretched out on the clinic’s exam table in his full-shift form, Scott behind him with a stethoscope around his neck like a complete dope, and a little girl that literally none of them have met before with her arms wrapped tight around Theo’s lupine neck.

“Um, Theo?” Liam tries, after a long, silent moment, and now Theo can hear Scott trying not to laugh, because apparently that’s how this situation was going to go: bafflement transferring transitively from one of them to the next, leaving amusement in its wake.

“Oh!” The little girl exclaims, pulling back to look excitedly at Theo. “Is that your name?”

Theo, all in a split-second sequence: thinks about leaning forward and giving her another quick, affirmative lick; realizes both Liam and Scott are watching; decides he doesn’t care, and does it anyway. His tail thumps once on the table, entirely beyond his control.

The little girl squints an eye shut in response and pats him on the head again, and then she turns to Liam, who’s still hovering uselessly in the doorway looking just completely out to sea.

“Are you his owner?” She demands, and plants one hand—her other hand left on Theo’s head—on her hip.

Liam shoots Scott a pleading look, and then looks back at her. “Yes?” He manages. Then, clearing his throat: “Yes. Yes, I am.”

His lips flicker as he looks down at Theo. Theo’s tail thumps against the table again.

Except then his expression startles into one of surprise when the little girl chastises him, “You need to be more careful, then. He got lost in the woods and got hurt!”

For a brief, speaking moment, panic crosses Liam’s face. He looks towards Scott again but Scott must do something to reassure him, because Theo can hear him exhale out a rough breath, and then look back down at the little girl. She glares back up at him, indignation on her face and judgement in her heart. That she’d gotten lost in the woods, and could have gotten hurt, seems not to enter into her calculations.

“’re right,” Liam agrees, after a moment. His tone is a little blank like he’s either still deciding how to respond to this accusation, or he’s trying not to laugh, or both. “I should absolutely be more careful.”

He gives Theo a pointed look. Theo just rolls his lupine eyes, and huffs out an unimpressed breath.

But that admission of guilt seems to be all the little girl needs. Okay!, Theo predicts again. “Okay!” She declares, and then she offers the end of the shoelace leash, which Theo is still wearing and which Scott had very solemnly handed back to her at the beginning of his ‘examination’ of Theo. “Theo was very scared out in the woods, but he’s been very brave for the doctor,” she informs him.

Liam reaches forward and accepts the end of the leash, and then slowly—the little girl making room, and when Liam doesn’t take it fast enough, she huffs and gestures to it—stepping into the space at the front of the exam table, right by Theo’s head. Theo can’t help it: he lifts his head up and towards Liam, and closes his eyes with a rumble when Liam immediately reaches forward and strokes a firm hand back between his ears. He arches into it when Liam keeps going, and then grips his fingers deep in Theo’s ruff; twisting a little.

He turns into it when Liam crouches down, and presses the curve of his nose, and the ridge of his forehead, against the side of his muzzle. Liam shudders out a shaky breath.

And then he proceeds to flail backwards and almost fall flat on his ass when the clinic door slams open again, and a few moments later a veritable crowd of people pour into the exam room.

The first person to appear is a woman with red, wild eyes, her hair escaping from the bun she’d tried to pull it into it and her pulse pounding in Theo’s ears. She cries, “Hannah!,” as she sees the little girl, and then she all but throws herself forward.

The little girl—Hannah, apparently—meets her halfway, her expression crumpling up and her eyes almost immediately spilling over as she gasps, “Moma!”

After that there’s just a massively confused few minutes, as a man appears in the doorway next, and then several deputies, and then the Sheriff. Hannah and her mother and her father—the first man through the door—end up kneeled down in a tight-knit clump on the floor, Liam scrambling back and around the other side of the exam table to make room; he drops a hand in the fur of Theo’s flank once he comes to a standing stop next to Scott, and grips. The Sheriff starts questioning Scott, and Liam then, though Theo can tell it’s almost entirely for show: either Scott had explained in his text message, or the Sheriff had taken one look at the big black wolf lying on the exam table—the big black wolf with Liam’s fingers anchored deep in its fur—and correctly put all the pieces together.

“I saved Theo!” Hannah just keeps repeating, every time someone tries to ask her what had happened; where she’d gone; why she’d wandered off. “He got lost in the woods, and got hurt,” she just keeps insisting, even though a good forty percent of the people in the room—Parrish had popped up in the midst of the chaos—know that Theo is in fact perfectly fine.

“Is Theo your dog?” Hannah’s mother finally ends up asking Liam, still kneeled down on the ground with her arms around her daughter—and Hannah’s father’s arms around them both—with her face red, and wet with tears.

Theo can feel Liam’s fingers spasm against his side. “Uh, yeah,” he manages. “He, um.” Theo twists his head back around to look at Liam as he senses Liam looking down at him; Liam’s lips flicker again, soft and secret, as he says, “He got away from me this morning.”

“Seems to be going around today,” Hannah’s mother chokes out in response, though the joke comes out as half a sob.

Liam gives her a sympathetic wince of a smile. He loosens his fingers, and cards them—seemingly absently—through the fur of Theo’s side. For her part Hannah’s mother ducks her head back down to press her face very briefly to her daughter’s hair, and then she straightens back up and looks Liam in the eye; Theo can feel Liam reflexively stiffen.

“Thank you,” she tells Liam, firm. Then, her eyes spilling over once more, she suddenly leans forward and gets a hand around Theo’s head, and uses it to hold Theo steady as she presses her forehead against the side of Theo’s muzzle. “And thank you,” she whispers, her voice breaking on the last syllable.

Theo whines again, soft and helpless, and twists around best he can with the awkward angle to press back into her.

She pulls back after, and leans down to get her hands underneath Hannah’s legs. She stands up with Hannah in her arms, Hannah throwing her arms around her mother’s neck and pressing close. Behind them, Hannah’s father stands, too.

“Do we—” Hannah’s mother starts to ask, looking at the Sheriff.

“No,” he interrupts gently. He holds an arm out towards the doorway, and gives her a sympathetic smile. “I’ll have a deputy come by tomorrow to take care of the last of the paperwork, but please—for tonight just get your daughter back home.”

He smiles down at the top of Hannah’s head, Hannah peeking her face around her mother’s neck to look. Hannah’s mother shudders out a breath, and nods gratefully.

“Okay,” she agrees. “Okay, thank you,” but as she starts to walk away, Hannah’s father following, Hannah suddenly sits bolt upright in her arms, pressing herself back with her hands planted flat on her mother’s shoulders.

“No!” She yells, the sudden volume catching just about everyone off-guard; Theo jolts a little on the table, his claws scrabbling on the metal. “No, we can’t!

“Hannah,” her mother tries, clearly baffled.

“No!” Hannah just yells again, her eyes filling with tears that immediately start to spill over her cheeks, and then she flings a hand out towards Theo still on the table. “No, he’s still hurt! We can’t leave until the doctor fixes him!

Scott freezes as everyone looks reflexively, expectantly over at him. “Um,” he says, perfectly aware that there’s literally nothing wrong with Theo’s leg anymore. “We’ll, uh. I’ll—” he corrects, apparently remembering his earlier claim to be an animal doctor, “—take good care of him Hannah, I promise.”

But Hannah just yells, “No!,” again, and then she really starts to cry. The last of her fizzing excitement from her mission to bring Theo to a doctor had long burned away, and Theo can scent—as Scott, and Liam, and Parrish no doubt can, too—the roiling waves of the stress and the trauma from the day finally hitting her. Theo starts to push himself up, reflexive, before Liam pushes him right back down with a tsk and a pointed glare towards his rear left leg.

But after a moment of hesitation, he steps back, and away from the exam table, and Theo; his fingers loosening in Theo’s fur and then falling away. He makes his way around the table and then over to where Hannah and her parents are once more kneeled down, Hannah sobbing into her mother’s shoulder as her mother and father try to soothe her.

Liam crouches down, too. He ventures, “Um, Hannah?”

The surprise of Liam talking to her seems to snap Hannah briefly out of it. She stops crying with a hiccuping sound, and pulls back a little to look at him, one hand rising to knuckle at her swollen eyes. Theo watches as Liam bites his lip, and then gives her a tentative smile.

“What if,” he proposes, soft and low and soothing, “I get your mom’s phone number, and then when the doctor—” Liam flails a hand back in the general direction of Scott, “—finishes fixing him up, I send you a picture?”

Hannah gives this a solemn amount of consideration. Her eyes flick up to Theo—who makes sure to let his tongue loll out in as close an approximation of canine smile as he can get—and then back down to Liam. She nods, after another few moments.

And then, all at once: “Can I see him again, when he’s better?” She asks, all in a furious rush.

Something clenches in Theo’s chest. He almost misses the poleaxed look on Liam’s face. But then Liam is turning to look at him, his question clear, and Theo gets himself together enough to give just the tiniest nod.

Liam’s lips flicker. He turns back to Hannah.

“Of course,” he tells her. “Any—any time you want, okay? As thanks for—for saving him.” His eyes flick up to Hannah’s mother, who gives him a watery smile back.

Hannah nods again, and then she—suddenly releases her mother, and surges into Liam instead. Liam’s not ready for it and he gets knocked back onto his heels and one palm as he catches her, his expression just blown wide with surprise.

But almost as fast as Hannah hugs him, she lets him go to dart around him—both her mother and father making instant, reflexive grabs for her—so that she can run to Theo, instead.

She wraps her arms tight around Theo’s lupine neck. She buries her face against the side of his muzzle.

“Bye, Theo,” she whispers, her voice shaking. “Feel better, okay?”

She starts to pull back. Theo darts forward before she can get too far away, and licks her cheek one final time.

The Sheriff leads Hannah and her family out of the clinic then, Hannah once more in her mother’s arms and this time willing to go. Theo watches—Hannah lifting one hand in a little wave over her mother’s shoulder, her head resting on the opposite one—and feels that same complicated something from earlier twist itself around in his chest again. He listens—Liam and Scott with their heads cocked, clearly doing the same—as the clinic door shuts after the Sheriff, and his deputies, and Hannah’s family. They all wait until they can hear the sounds of several engines starting, and then pulling away.

Theo resigns himself to what’s coming, because:

“Oh, Liam, don’t be ridiculous,” Liam suddenly says, high and mocking and with his back still turned to Theo, “I don’t need to worry about stepping in a trap meant exactly for extra large doofuses like me, I’m Theo Raeken!

He whips around to glare at Theo, who glares half-heartedly back.

Liam keeps glaring for a few seconds longer, and then his lips twitch, and he bursts out laughing. “Okay, I’m sorry,” he says, in between guffaws, “I just really can’t take you seriously with this thing—”

He starts to reach forward for the shoelace leash still dangling down from Theo’s neck. Theo snaps his teeth—not hard, just with a deliberate click—and leans away from his hand. Liam stops, looking first a little surprised, and then a little annoyed, and then a little amused.

And then his expression crumples up, some, and he takes the few steps back forwards he needs to kneel back down next to Theo’s head, and he wrap his arms tight around Theo’s neck. He does it in such a way that he’s actually smothering Theo a little.

Theo cares precisely not at all. He presses into it, best he can.

“You really scared the shit out of me today,” Liam confesses, and Theo can feel that he’s squeezed his eyes shut by the way they feel against the fur of his neck. “I didn’t know what—” He cuts himself off on a rough noise, and presses his face even harder against the side of Theo’s head.

Theo whines, low and unhappy and not at all a put-on, this time. He tries to wiggle closer, given he’s half-hanging off of the exam table as it is.

But then he feels something soft and square fall over his hips, and he realizes: Scott had just covered him with a towel. He takes immediate advantage, and shifts back.

Liam takes immediate advantage, and clamps his hands on either side of Theo’s face as he kisses him, hard enough to almost sting.

“Sorry,” Theo whispers, when Liam finally pulls back. He brings his own hand up to thread through and then anchor in Liam’s hair. Liam shudders and presses back into it, his eyes falling shut.

And then he smiles, wide and genuine, and opens his eyes back up. “Nah,” he demurs softly, and strokes a thumb over the curve of Theo’s cheek. “Nah, I think you ended up exactly where you needed to be.”

He lets his hand trail down until he can take hold of the shoelace leash still tied loosely around Theo’s neck, and gives it a meaningful little tug.

Theo smiles back at him, and then leans forward and kisses him.

And then, a week later, he trails Liam through the gate into the fenced-in dog park area of one of Beacon Hills larger parks, his lupine ears flicking back and forth at the ruckus of the other patrons, his eyes searching.

But he’s found before he can do the finding: someone barrels directly into his side.

“Oh, no, Hannah!” Hannah’s mother calls from a few feet away, though she’s laughing even as she does. “Careful, honey, you don’t want to break him again so soon after he’s healed up.”

Hannah pulls back, clearly alarmed, but Theo just leans forward and licks her, right over her nose. She wrinkles it in response, both her eyes squinting shut, and then she about-faces to look up at Liam, who’s standing at Theo’s side looking like he has just no idea what to do with his face.

“Please, Mr. Liam, can you let Theo off-leash? It’s okay in the dog-park, mom says!” Hannah pleads, one of her hands winding in Theo’s fur.

Liam has to swallow once and then again to keep himself from laughing, Theo can tell. “Well,” he replies, his eyes twinkling a little as he looks past Hannah to Theo, “if mom says.”

He hands off his paper cup of coffee to Hannah’s mother when she offers to take it—the early fall morning brisk, even with Theo’s lupine pelt—and kneels down to get his hands around Theo’s neck, and start working the collar and attached leash there off; this is fucking weird as hell, he’d declared, when Theo had ordered him to go pick one up, but Theo had just sing-songed mom says! back at him, and eventually he’d thrown up his arms and gone to do as he was told. Hannah bounces impatiently on her toes as she waits, and Theo can’t help shifting from paw to paw himself, her excitement infectious.

The second the collar comes loose Theo takes off, sprinting away and across the field. Hannah shrieks with delight and gives immediate chase.

Somewhere behind them Liam laughs, the sound low and easy and a little secret. Even as he’s scrabbling to a stop and then twisting around to dart past Hannah—Hannah shouting with surprised glee and making a wild grab for him—he’s catching Liam’s scent going warm and full in his nose; ripe and bursting.

He sees it very briefly as Liam straightens back up, and accepts his coffee back from Hannah’s mom.

He hears it when she asks Liam: “So I’ve been meaning to ask. What kind of dog is Theo, anyway? Because I’ve got to tell you—he looks a hell of a lot like a wolf.”

Liam nearly spit-takes his coffee.

Theo lets his tongue loll out in a lupine grin, and doesn’t stop running.