Actions

Work Header

the dreamer in the field pointed west to the sea

Work Text:

“It’s a cold, Theo,” Liam insists, but even as he’s dismissing Theo’s entirely rational concerns, he’s sniffling. Theo turns his head best he can while still paying attention to the road to glare at him.

“Except you’re a werewolf, Liam,” Theo counters, and christ, he can hear the shrill edge to his own voice. No wonder Liam has been making ruthless fun of him since they left. “Werewolves can’t get colds!”

Liam just gives him an entirely dry, and entirely fond, look.

“Oh, yeah?” He says, playing on Theo’s compulsive rationality when he counters, “Never in the history of werewolves has one single werewolf ever gotten a cold?” since there’s no way that Theo can deny it, because Theo hasn’t met every single werewolf that ever existed. Theo gives him the hairy eyeball.

“We’re going to Deaton’s,” he declares: matter closed, not up for debate.

But of course Liam does debate him. “No, we’re going to the venue,” he disagrees, “so that Melissa doesn’t kill us. We’re already going to be late.”

Except that Liam’s undermining his own case, here, since they’re only late because Liam had woken up feeling like absolute hell, and then he’d spent the next half-hour digging around their house looking for cold medicine, of all absurd things. No, I swear there was some in here, he’d argued, shoulders deep in the downstairs bathroom cabinet. From the last time my mom was here with a cold, remember? Theo had remembered, and he’d thrown it out, because there’d only been like, a tablespoon of syrup left in the bottle, and also because they were both at least half-werewolf, and werewolves didn’t get colds!

Deaton’s,” Theo insists.

Venue,” Liam counters, parroting it back at him in the same tone, clearly mocking him.

But he’s leaning forward even as he’s saying it, and taking Theo’s face between his hands—ignoring like, the first three golden rules of traffic safety, since in doing so he’s preventing the driver from keeping their eyes on the road, being distracting as all hell, and he leans sideways out of his seatbelt, so that his shoulder slides loose—to kiss him. Theo makes a face against Liam’s lips, because Liam is all kinds of congested, his breath hot and just slightly sick-smelling on Theo’s face.

Theo doesn’t actually care. He kisses him back just shy of desperately.

Liam must sense it, because his expression when he pulls back has softened. “Hey,” he whispers, gentle and quiet like a secret between them as he strokes his fingertips lightly over Theo’s temple, the curve of his cheek. “We’ll go after, okay?” He bargains. “We’ll show our faces at the venue, I’ll act really pathetic for Melissa, and she’ll let us off the hook and we can go to Deaton’s, huh?”

Theo really needs to actually look back at the road at some point in the near future. He continues ignoring it, because they haven’t seen another car on this particular backwater highway into the ass-end of Beacon Hills in hours, which is precisely why he chose it. He searches Liam’s eyes.

“You promise?” He says, feeling like a child as he does so but unable to stop himself. Liam’s expression flickers, a little sad like he’d realized what asking it had cost Theo, and he presses his forehead hard against Theo’s own.

“Cross my heart,” he indeed promises. “Hope to die,” he adds, grinning softly at Theo’s longsuffering eye-roll and pressing one final, quick kiss to Theo’s lips before sitting back.

Theo forces himself to look back at the road, because there’s pushing their luck, and then there’s pushing their luck. Still, he can’t help pulling the inside of his bottom lip between his teeth, and gnawing on it a little. His fingers tighten around the steering wheel at the same time that Liam gives a muffled little cough—Liam clearly trying to swallow it back—and tighten again as Liam gives another one.

Except then Liam gives another, and another. Theo jerks to look at him, panic burning fast through him, as Liam hunches over in the passenger seat, his coughs becoming less breathy and more wet; more hacking. He’s having trouble breathing; Theo can tell. Swearing, Theo starts to jerk his truck over to the side of the road, his foot already on the brake as he calls Liam’s name with one hand reaching out for Liam’s curled-over back.

And then Liam sits up, all at once and on a huge, gasping inhale.

He straightens up past sitting, in fact; he winds up arched backwards, his shoulders and chest heaving as he breathes in unsteady, shallow, and shuddering gasps. His eyes are fixed wide and unseeing on the ceiling, and Theo realizes that they’d flared when he calls Liam’s name again, high and panicked, and Liam tips his head slowly, slowly, to face him. Theo stares at Liam staring back at him. He watches as Liam’s expression starts to twist in a snarl, his mouth filling with fangs.

He curses and throws his arms up in an entirely too-late block when Liam strikes out at him, clawed hands raking across the forearms Theo had crossed in front of his face.

“Liam!” Theo yells, jerking backwards. But then he has to swear and lurch immediately back forward, because his truck starts to roll forward; he’d left it in drive when he’d pulled over, and his foot had slipped off the brake when he’d moved.

He jabs his foot down at the brake but Liam strikes out at him again as he does it, and Theo jerks in reflexive reaction as Liam’s claws score across his back. It means he hits the gas instead, and the truck leaps forward, nearly sending them off the road and down onto the uneven embankment bordering it before Theo manages to catch the wheel and yank it sideways instead. The suspension groans a protest.

Liam snarls, and lunges for him again.

He slams into Theo, forcing him back and wedging him in against the corner of the driver’s seat and the door. Theo cries out as his head strikes the window, briefly stunning him, and it’s only reflex and the shredding remnants of his better sense that keeps his foot on the brake, even as he’s grappling with Liam, trying to keep Liam’s clawed hands and fanged mouth away from his chest, his neck.

“Liam!” He tries desperately, but whatever’s happening to Liam, it has its hooks in deep: there’s no recognition in Liam’s eyes as he keeps clawing at Theo’s arms and chest; as he keeps snapping his fangs bare inches from Theo’s throat. Closing his eyes and muttering a silent prayer for forgiveness, Theo gets his arms tangled up with Liam’s and then shoves him back, intending to throw him across the cab of the truck and back into the passenger seat so that Theo can have some space to think.

But two things happen in quick succession as he does: Liam throws out a hand to catch himself and manages to snag the wheel, and his other hand gets tangled up in the fabric of Theo’s shirt, yanking him into a sideways twist that Theo can’t stop, his foot catching on the side of the gas pedal as he goes and forcing it down.

There’s a screech of protesting machinery as the engine roars and the tires shriek, and then there’s nothing.

---

Theo comes to gasping, already glancing frantically around as he tries to get a sense of his bearings. A sense of his previously-crashing truck.

A sense of Liam.

But almost immediately he realizes that something’s off. Really off: he frowns up at the high, flat ceiling of wherever the hell he is, the light in the room—in the room, and not in his crashed truck—so bright as to almost be blinding. Theo can feel his pupils contract so fast and so completely it’s almost painful. He stares up at the ceiling, his mind working, his breaths huffing out short and shallow as he tries to think.

He sits up all at once.

For an immediate, split-second he’s able to register space—the room or whatever is goddamn huge—and then all rational thought instantly flies out of his mind, because: “Tara,” he breathes, his eyes wide and fixed on the pale, dark-haired figure standing in the distance. The light’s too bright, he can’t actually see her face, but he scrambles reflexively backwards, crab-like on his heels and palms—his elbows when his hands slip on the slick floor—as panic blooms all-consuming in his mind, his blood; his chest where Tara’s stolen heart beats.

The faceless-Tara starts to hurry towards him.

Picture of a woman in an all-white room, her arms outstretched and her features entirely blurred.

“No,” Theo gasps out. “No, no, no. Please,” ashamed even as he’s doing it because he’s had these nightmares for years, ever since Liam pulled him out of the skinwalker prison—though, some still-rational corner of his mind manages to think: they’d always taken place in the skinwalker prison, before—and he knows what to do to end them. He knows what he should do now, to make up for what he did then: stay still, and let Tara reclaim her heart, however many times she felt necessary before the lingering remnants of the prison or Tara herself or the simple nightmare released him.

But his mind is still too much a riot of confusion and terror and sheer, helpless panic, first from Liam’s unusual illness, and then from whatever had happened to drive Liam into a frenzy, and then the crash and waking up in this room. He can’t think rationally.

So he begs. “Tara, no,” he pleads, staring up into her still-formless features. That same still clear-thinking corner of his mind wonders at that, but it’s overcome, overwhelmed, by his fear. “Tara, please.

But the faceless-Tara doesn’t stop coming forward. She kneels down at his side, just like she always had when Theo had tripped over his own graceless-feet trying to get away from her, her body looming over his. “Please,” Theo gasps, useless as he knows it’s going to be, and then his eyes snap reflexively closed when she starts to reach forward.

Except that instead of feeling the five points of her unstoppable fingers digging into his chest, he feels them wrap around his wrist. His eyes snap open. He stares, open-mouthed and stunned silent, as she starts to tug at his wrist with both hands, apparently trying to pull him up.

There’s a pressure at his ear drums, formless but weighty, almost like something is trying to speak to him. He stares at Tara’s faceless features but they don’t move, of course. He keeps staring.

But Tara’s still yanking at his arm, and hard enough to actually be jerking him forward, pulling him up off his back so that he’s all but sitting up. She keeps tugging, causing him to slide across the slick floor on almost every one until she suddenly rises up off her knees, and digs her heels in instead.

This time when she yanks, Theo lurches forward. This time when she yanks he ends up stumbling forward onto his feet—

—and then he’s really gasping himself awake, his whole body awkwardly contorted from where his seatbelt had kept him pinned to the seat, but with his legs crunched up against the steering wheel and dash, and with his arms hanging bonelessly down, across his body. It takes him a few blinking seconds to realize that the reason that he feels almost nauseously weightless is because he’s suspended in midair, his seatbelt drawn taut and locked across his chest and constricting his lungs: his truck must have rolled in the crash, and finally come to a stop resting on its passenger side.

He closes his eyes and tries to breathe, tries to think, and then they snap right back open because his brain finally finishes processing what he’d looked at when he’d blinked open his eyes the first time.

“Liam,” he gasps, and scrabbles frantically for his seatbelt, trying to release it so that he could reach Liam lying limp and bloody on the ground—on the side of Theo’s flipped-sideways truck—below him.

It’s jammed, though, and the mechanism won’t give. Snarling in frustration, Theo slices through the belt with his claws, and then has to quickly catch himself as he instantly starts to fall, and fall towards Liam. He slams his hands out—claws still extended—and manages to grind to a screeching halt with his claws buried in the seat on one side of him and the dash on the other. He manages to get his feet positioned on either side of Liam’s body rather than falling on him, and yanks his clawed hands free so that he can drop down, and then crouch over Liam.

“Liam,” he calls desperately, reaching forward and getting his hands around Liam’s face. “Liam.”

Liam’s face and arms are bloody from the shattered glass, his shirt torn in places where it’d sliced through. He’s breathing, but in these long, drawn-out, painful sounding rasps, and they keep hitching; Theo stares at Liam’s half-open mouth as his ears fix on the sound, and then he drops his hands down to carefully probe at Liam’s chest. He finds what he’d expected to find, and curses.

“Come on,” he mutters, keeping his fingers in place as he waits for Liam’s healing to kick in, and mend his broken ribs. “Come on.”

His gaze drifts upward as he does, his eyes searching as his mind whirs. His truck is clearly a lost cause, and they’re still over a hundred miles out from downtown Beacon Hills. There are no other cars on the road, and none anywhere near them from what Theo can hear. They’d need a ride. Leaving one hand on Liam’s chest, Theo uses his other to reach into his jeans pocket and slide out his phone, fingers already working to unlock it and navigate over to his saved contacts.

But he hears nothing when he puts his phone up to his ear. “What?” He breathes, bringing it back down. He searches the screen incomprehensibly for a few seconds, and then his eyes snap to the top corner. No service. “What the hell.”

And then he realizes something even more disturbing. His eyes slowly drift back down to his hand still resting on Liam’s chest.

“You’re not healing,” he says, almost blankly with his shock. He can feel his own breathing start to speed, quick and fast like he was on the verge of hyperventilation. “You’re not healing.

His phone still doesn’t have service when he glances down at it. Snarling out a sound of frustration, Theo tosses it aside, and then gets both of his hands fixed around Liam’s face.

He stares for a few more seconds at the closed lids of Liam’s eyes, the slack line of his mouth, and then he throws back his head, and roars.

It’s almost punishingly loud in the confines of the cab, even with the shattered glass windows and the spidering-cracked windshield. Theo doesn’t wait for a response, just keeps one hand anchored around Liam’s face, and braces the other against the now-sideways dash, and drives one foot forward against the windshield. The first kick doesn’t do it; the second sends it flying outwards, and then skittering across the asphalt as it slides on its own momentum. Theo doesn’t bother to watch its progress, just immediately turns back to Liam and starts carefully getting his hands underneath Liam’s head, his upper-back.

He half-drags, half-carries Liam out, and onto the asphalt a few feet away from his totaled truck, to a spot free of broken glass and fragments of headlight and chunks of twisted-up metal. Liam lets out a high, pained whimper as he’s moved, and Theo feels his heart—Tara’s heart—jam up into his throat so fast and so hard that it hurts, though Liam doesn’t wake up.

Theo’s not sure if he’s grateful for that fact or not.

He goes back for his phone, once Liam’s flat and safely away from his truck. He checks for service again but isn’t surprised in the slightest to see that he still doesn’t have any; clearly something had happened. Clearly something bad had happened, he thinks, looking at Liam: something that had knocked out cell service and sent Liam into a frenzy.

Fuck,” Theo whispers, low and helpless and a secret between himself and the quiet winter air, and then he scrambles back over to Liam’s side and drops back down on his knees, resting one hand back on Liam’s chest. His ribs are still broken and still not healing, but he’s breathing. It’s probably the best Theo can hope for, for the moment.

Help, he thinks. We need help. He throws back his head and roars again.

There’s nothing. For long ticking seconds there’s nothing, just the fading echoes of Theo’s own roar and the quiet sounds of the breeze through the forest around them, the quiet shir of the swaying branches, and then there’s something.

It’s just not what Theo had expected to hear.

“Lydia…?” He breathes, his head having snapped up and around towards the sound of her banshee scream.

He stares sightlessly outwards towards it for another long few seconds. He glances back down at Liam, still unconscious and injured and not healing below him.

He swears, and ducks down to get Liam carefully lifted up, and slung over his back with his arms over Theo’s shoulders, his legs on either side of Theo’s waist. Theo makes sure he’s settled and as secured as possible.

And then he starts to run.

---

The scene he sees when he reaches her isn’t anymore comprehensible than the one he’d just left.

Lydia’s and Derek’s and Stiles’ shared SUV is stopped diagonally in the middle of the road, the lane marker of the two-lane highway practically bisecting it and four sets of streaked rubber leading away from its now-still tires; someone had slammed on the brakes, and hard. The passenger side door is hanging open, and the driver’s side door must be too, though Theo can’t see it; he can hear the forlorn beeping. The keys must still be in the dash.

Lydia…? He thinks, silent with the way wariness and adrenaline start to slip-slide down his spine, and then he rounds the front of the SUV—Liam still draped carefully over his back, Theo’s arms anchored around his legs—and then he repeats aloud, “Lydia!”

She jerks, and looks up at him. Her face is wet and there’s makeup streaked down from the corners of her eyes over and across her cheeks, but she’s not crying. Instead she’s half-stooped over, her hands underneath Derek’s shoulders as she tries—as she tries dragging him, apparently, across the asphalt of the road from wherever he’d been back towards the SUV.

Theo and Lydia spend a good few seconds staring at each other in absolute shock, and then Theo makes a noise and carefully twists around to lay Liam down flat on the ground, and rushes towards her. By the time he reaches her, she’s set Derek back down flat as well. She catches Theo when he all but barrels into her, and buries her face in his chest.

“Theo, christ,” she half-swears, half-sobs. “Thank god.”

Theo just cradles the back of her head with one hand, and presses his own face to the top of her skull. He breathes her in, and can feel his own ragged instincts start to calm as he does, her own scent mixing with the pack’s scent and soothing his raw-feeling throat. He closes his eyes, and gives himself exactly three more deep, dragging breaths, before he forces himself to lean back, his hands on her shoulders.

“What the hell happened?” He all but whispers. He keeps his eyes on her face, but he can see Derek’s clearly unconscious form in his peripheral vision.

Lydia just shakes her head, a little wild. The sharpness of the movement sends a handful of fresh tears rolling down her cheeks, though she just swipes them impatiently away. “I don’t know,” she replies. She twists around to look down at Derek, her expression twisting in turn. “He just went berserk. He tried to attack me and Stiles. Stiles managed to get the SUV stopped and I managed to—”

She cuts off on her explanation, because Theo had whipped his head back around to look at the SUV when she’d said Stiles. From this angle he can see Stiles collapsed back against the driver’s seat, his head lolled back at an awkward, terrible angle. But the sun’s glaring off the windshield; Theo can’t tell if his chest is moving. Theo practically throws himself towards the SUV’s open driver’s door, his hands dragging away from Lydia’s shoulders as he goes.

“He’s alive,” he hears Lydia call, just as he’s reached the open door and propelled himself through, one foot up on the baseboard so that he can get his hands on Stiles’ face, the side of his neck. Lydia’s right—his pulse is thready, but there. Theo gasps out a relieved, harsh breath. “He just won’t wake up.”

Stepping back out of the SUV, Theo backs up one step, and then another. His hands rise to rake through his hair, and he doesn’t realize that he’s streaking blood—Liam’s blood—back through the strands until it starts to catch, the blood having started to dry. He jerks his hands back free and stares at them in horror, and then jerks his head around to look at Liam, his anxiety coalescing back into a hard knot all at once as he remembers.

Lydia’s kneeled down next to him now, clearly having given Liam the same treatment that Theo had given Stiles. Liam’s eyes are still closed, his breathing still pained and uneven; his healing still hadn’t returned. Theo feels his expression spasm as panic gets its claws around his heart—his sister’s heart—and clenches.

“What the hell is going on?” Theo demands, harsh and desperate and asked as much of the horrific tableau around him as of Lydia herself.

Lydia just sits back on her heels, one hand resting on Liam’s chest; she’d found his broken ribs, too. “I don’t know. I don’t—” She squeezes her eyes shut, and then blinks them back open. They narrow as she realizes, her chin tilting down towards Liam: “He went berserk, too?”

Theo gives a jerky nod.

The line of Lydia’s mouth goes even tighter. “Something’s affecting werewolves.”

But Theo just shakes his head, and corrects, “Something’s affecting supernaturals.” Lydia frowns at him, but Theo just jerks his chin pointedly towards Derek. “You used your banshee scream on him, right? That’s why he’s knocked out?” Lydia’s expression spasms guiltily but Theo just skips right past that. He tells her, “I heard you. We were a dozen miles away on Highway 177.” He meets her eyes, his own widening pointedly as he insists, “I shouldn’t have been able to hear you.”

Lydia stares right back at him for a little longer, and then she drops her eyes to Liam, then drags them over to Derek. But she frowns again and looks back at him.

“But you’re not affected,” she points out.

Theo feels his jaw clench. “I’m not supernatural.”

Lydia lets her head fall back on a frustrated sound. “Theo, this isn’t the time for—”

Lydia,” Theo interrupts, raising his arms out to his sides. “Look around you! This isn’t just me being difficult, or semantics!” He looks heatedly back at her. “I’m not a supernatural, I’ve never been supernatural. I’m the result of parascientific experiments. This is proof.”

Lydia gets this look like she still wants to argue with him, but she’s also too smart to keep doing so in the face of evidence to the contrary. Except then her eyes cut to Stiles, her jaw working.

“What about Stiles?” She argues. “He’s human, and he’s—” She cuts off with a painful-sounding click, like she’d swallowed past a suddenly-dry throat. “He won’t wake up, either,” she concludes, more quietly.

It’s a fair point. “I don’t know,” Theo admits. He brings a hand up to drag it down across his mouth. He flicks his gaze from Stiles, to Lydia still kneeled down by Liam, to Derek. He says, “We have to get ahold of the others. We have to figure out what the hell is going on.”

Lydia just shakes her head. “I tried it.” She slides her phone out of her pocket to wiggle it at him. “No service.”

Theo grimaces, and slides his own phone free to toss it to her. “Me either,” he says once she’d caught it, and flipped it around so that the screen lights up. “And I didn’t have any where we were at, either.”

Lydia drops her hands down so that she’s holding both their phones in her lap. Her eyes, though, she fixes on the horizon: she stares out past Theo, past hers and Stiles’ and Derek’s SUV, towards where the road leads back out of Beacon County. A line appears between her brows as she frowns thoughtfully.

“What about farther out?” She wonders. She makes a face, momentarily dry in the midst of the sheer awfulness of the moment. Theo’s lips twitch as she observes, “I mean, the chances that this latest whatever has to do with Beacon Hills is pretty high.”

Theo frowns, and turns his head to look out towards the same horizon she’d been looking at. But he looks back when Lydia starts to speak again.

“Look,” she proposes. “Why don’t you take a phone, and go check if you can get service farther away from town?” She inhales in, and then exhales out, a rough breath. “I’ll take the car, and Stiles and Derek and Liam, to the animal clinic.”

Theo starts shaking his head even before she’s done. “No. No way.” He stares at her a little incredulously. “I’m not leaving you alone with them. What if they wake up still frenzied?”

Lydia just grits out a frustrated noise. “We need to get ahold of the others as fast as possible, one way or another. Splitting up doubles our chances. I can handle Liam and Derek, if they wake up,” she insists. She does it while very deliberately not looking at Derek, and—now that Theo’s looking for it—the dark spot on the asphalt where the back of Derek’s head had clearly struck when he’d been blown back by Lydia’s scream.

But Theo just looks at her, and quietly orders, “Scream.”

Lydia’s brow furrows. “What?”

Scream,” Theo repeats, more insistently. “Do it, Lydia. Try to scream.”

Lydia’s still looking at him like he’s lost his mind, but then she must conclude that humoring him is the fastest way to win their argument, because she makes a face, and sucks in a deep breath, and screams.

And it is a scream. It’s just a perfectly human scream. Lydia cuts herself off, her jaw clicking together. She stares at him, wide-eyed.

“Liam and Derek have both lost their healing,” Theo explains quietly; tightly. “You’ve—”

“—lost my banshee abilities,” Lydia concludes with dawning understanding. She goes a little pale, like she might be sick to her stomach.

“Hopefully just temporarily,” Theo counters, and not just because he wants that look off her face; next to her, Liam is still struggling his way through each and every one of his breaths.

Lydia seems to realize the same thing. She glances down at him, and then at Derek, and finally up at Stiles. “We have to get them to the clinic. To Deaton.”

Theo pulls the inside of his bottom lip between his teeth. He looks back out, towards the road leading out of Beacon Hills.

“We’re only a few miles from the border,” he points out. “Right?”

Lydia nods.

“So we go,” Theo decides. “We head back a little ways outside of town, see if we can get service. If we can, then maybe—” His eyes cut back to Liam. “—maybe we can get Deaton, and Melissa, to come out to meet us. And if we can’t—”

“We turn around and go to the clinic,” Lydia finishes. This time it’s Theo who nods, throat tight.

The line of Lydia’s jaw goes firm. She climbs to her feet.

“Help me,” she demands, her feet already carrying her back over to Derek as she gets her hands back under his shoulders. Theo moves instantly to help her. Between the two of them, they manage to get him loaded into the trunk area of the SUV, his head lolling; Theo drops a hand down to the back of his skull when Lydia isn’t looking, and feels the sticky patch of blood there. Derek’s pulse isn’t any stronger than Stiles’. His breathing isn’t much easier than Liam’s. Shit, Theo thinks, desperately but silently to himself, and then he leaves Lydia to carefully pull Stiles’ unconscious form away from the driver’s seat, and into the passenger’s seat instead, and goes back for Liam.

Liam makes another pained, helpless noise when Theo picks him back up. Theo buries his face in Liam’s hair, and quietly begs: “Hang on, Liam. Please.

“You have to hang on.”

---

Lydia, Stiles, and Derek really only had been a few miles out from the Beacon County border when whatever had happened, had happened, and so it only takes Lydia and Theo a few minutes to reach it.

But even before they do:

“Stop!” Theo suddenly orders from his spot crouched down by Liam laid-out unconscious across the middle set of seats. “Lydia, stop. Stop!”

Lydia slams on the brakes, one hand stretching out to hold Stiles’ unconscious shoulders to the passenger seat as she does, and then she whips her head around to stare fixedly back at Theo. But Theo isn’t looking at her: he’s squinting in-between the driver’s and passenger’s seats and out through the windshield at the seemingly innocuous—at the seemingly empty—stretch of air in front of them. He leans a little further forward, unable to shake the buzzing feeling that’d started up under his skin; that’d only gotten stronger the closer they’d gotten to the county border.

“Theo, what—” she starts to demand, but Theo cuts her off. He starts to turn towards the door, hands already reaching for the handle.

“Wait here,” he orders. She makes a noise low in her throat that sounds too much like a disagreement for his tastes, so he turns back and locks eyes with her as he repeats: “Lydia, please. Wait here.”

Uncertainty flashes across Lydia’s face, but whatever she sees on his face must convince her. She glances back at Liam—at Derek hidden by the seat beyond him—and then settles back in her seat. She gives a single, sharp nod.

Theo exhales out a rough breath, and shoots one final look at Liam—if he or Derek woke up while Theo was outside of the car, while Lydia and Stiles were still defenseless inside it—and then he grits his teeth, and finishes shoving open the door. He leaves it open just in case he needs to make a quick reentry, and starts walking carefully, step by step, towards the border; towards the blank stretch of air that’s nonetheless making his skin crawl.

He stops before he even gets close. His instincts won’t let him get any closer.

Lydia must notice his hesitation. Theo hears her door open, though when he glances back she’s still technically inside, standing on the baseboard with her elbows on the frame of her door and the roof of the SUV, respectively. She calls, “What is it?”

Theo shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he calls back, and then he crouches down, and picks up a loose stone from the road, and flicks it hurtling forward.

It flies forward without issue, but sends the very air it passes through shimmering. Theo stares, his mouth dropping open as a wave of color undulates out in all directions from where the stone had sailed through. Tipping his head back, Theo follows the ripples up, up, until he can’t tip his head back any further. The waves of color don’t stop.

They also spread out, not just up, on either side. The sideways waves of color disappear into the trees bordering the road so that Theo can’t see them anymore, but Theo’s willing to bet they keep going.

That they keep going on, and on, all the way around the Beacon County border.

“Shit,” Theo breathes.

He jumps when Lydia appears at his side. Her eyes are wide, and following the still-rippling waves of color in the same way Theo’s own had. “What the hell is it?”

Theo can’t do anything but shake his head again. “I have no idea,” he confesses, and then he forces himself to take one step forward, and then another.

But Lydia reaches out and snags one of his arms, dragging him to a stop. “What are you doing?” She hisses at him.

Theo gently twists his wrist in her grip. He argues, “We need to know.”

Lydia grits her teeth, but after another half-second of hesitation, she releases him. Theo catches one of her hands as she goes to take it back, and gives it a quick squeeze. He gives her a flicker of a smile; her shoulders shake as she shudders out the breath she’d been holding, and gives him one back.

Letting her go, Theo takes the last few steps necessary to put him close enough to stretch out a hand, fingers fully extended and trembling a bit as he does.

He’d braced himself for pain. Or he’d tried to, anyway, but the second the very tips of his fingers brush against the barrier agony burns through him, instant and all-consuming. His whole body spasms like he’d experienced an electric shock, and he can feel his eyes rolling back in his head.

He starts to collapse down, his knees giving out. Lydia catches him under his arms with a startled noise, and drags him back, farther away from the once-again shimmering barrier.

“Fuck,” Theo whispers, his limbs still jumping and juddering with the aftereffects. “Fuck.”

He looks down at the hand that he’d reached out, and sees that the very tips of his fingers are blistered red and raw, with the damage crawling its way down, closer to his palm. Even as Theo watches he can see—and feel—his healing fighting with it; it’s making his whole arm numb, and he shakes it, trying to banish the feeling. He looks away, up at Lydia.

She’s not looking at him, though her hands are still tight, tight, on his shoulders, his arm. Her eyes are fixed on the undulating and undulating waves of color, spreading out and out until they disappear from sight.

Finally she grits her teeth, and drops her gaze back down to his.

“We have to get the animal clinic,” she tells him. “We have to get there right now.”

Theo nods, his throat tight. He lets her help yank him up as he scrambles to his feet so that they can both hurry back to Lydia’s and Stiles’ and Derek’s idling SUV, with Liam and Stiles and Derek still waiting, still unconscious, inside.

---

“How are they?” Lydia asks as they pass the weatherbeaten and deceptively cheerful Welcome to Beacon Hills sign, nearly an hour and a half into their frantic drive towards the clinic.

Theo’s willing to bet she’d made some kind of deal with herself to resist asking before then, like otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to stop asking. Christ knows it’s the state he would have been in. Exhaling out a low, rough breath, he looks down at his hand resting lightly on Liam’s chest. He shakes his head. He rises up on his knees so that he can bend over the middle seats—and Liam laid-out across them—to check on Derek in the trunk area, his fingers probing at the back of Derek’s head.

”No change,” he tells her finally. “They’re both still breathing, but Derek’s skull is… And Liam’s ribs are…” He squeezes his eyes shut, and tells himself to breathe. In and out.

It’s hard when he has to ignore the stuttering rhythm of Liam’s own shallow inhales, and exhales; he’s too used to breathing when Liam does.

He forces his eyes open, and his body forward. He swings in between the driver’s and passenger’s seats so he can press two fingers up under Stiles’ jaw, searching for his pulse. He finds it. It’s still thready, although—Theo frowns. He counts off in his head, and tries to dredge up the memory of how strongly—or not—Stiles’ pulse had beat against his fingertips the last time he’d checked. It’s getting weaker, he realizes, though he keeps the thought to himself.

He’s not confident enough that it isn’t just paranoia.

Sitting back, he buries his face in his hands. They’re free of Liam’s blood now, thank god: Lydia had dug up a bottle of water and a handful of takeout napkins from the center console and passed both over without comment when they’d first turned around at the barrier. Dropping them into his lap, he stares sightlessly out the windshield, his exhaustion warring with the still-simmering panic in his gut warring with the stubborn, rational corner of his mind still claiming that none of this makes any sense.

He tries to distract himself from his own circular thoughts by calculating how far out they are from the clinic. If they’d just passed the diner, and the hardware store was on their right, then—

“Theo,” Lydia says suddenly, interrupting. Theo glances over at her, still crouched in the footwell between her seat and Stiles’, Liam at his back. She’s frowning, her eyes scanning the streets. “Where,” she wonders, shooting him a tight look, “are all the people?

Theo stares back at her, and then he glances sharply through the windshield. Now that she’s said it, he wonders how the hell he could have missed it: there’s no one. No pedestrians on the streets, no shoppers in the stores.

No other cars on the road.

Christ, you’re off your game, Theo chastises himself, but he shoves it away. He’d have time for self-recriminations later.

Maybe. Hopefully.

He shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he tells her quietly, barely breathing it out on a stunned exhale. He closes his eyes before she can ask, and stretches out his hearing. His brow furrows. His eyes slide slowly back open. “I can hear them,” he realizes; their heartbeats in his ears, slow and steady. “Inside the buildings. It sounds like they’re—asleep?”

“Asleep?” Lydia repeats incredulously. “All of them?”

“Yeah,” Theo confirms slowly, the full strangeness of it hitting him now, too. “All of them.”

They look at each other. Lydia puts her foot down harder on the gas pedal.

Except several things happen in quick succession almost immediately after she does: Theo’s hearing, focused as it’d been on searching for heartbeats, for life, catches something else, and his head snaps up towards the source; there’s a sudden screech of protesting machinery and the stench of burning rubber; and three hulking SUVs barrel out of the streets on either side of them, boxing them in front and back.

“Holy—!” Lydia starts to swear, and slams on the brakes. Theo goes crashing into the dash with a bitten off cry.

He pushes himself up with difficulty, aware even as he does so of a handful of his own ribs knitting back together. He glances helplessly back at Liam at the reminder, but the jerry-rigged harness Theo had put together out of the seatbelts of the middle seats had held; he’s as fine as he’d been before their sudden stop, so: not great.

Gritting his teeth, Theo gets both his hands flat on the dash and pushes himself up, so he’s back to kneeling between the driver’s and passenger’s seats.

He freezes, going as stock-still as Lydia beside him.

The doors of the SUVs had opened up while he’d been pulling himself back together, and had spilled out a dozen or so figures, all armed. All wearing what it takes Theo a second to recognize are respirators. He squints at them, his mind too shocked to think much past their sudden appearance, the sleek barrels of the rifles they’re holding, or—most importantly—the fact that all those rifles are pointed at him and Lydia.

“Fuck,” Theo swears.

Except his squinting pays off: he squints a little harder, his eyes automatically flaring some to sharpen his vision as he realizes, “Lydia, is that Gonzalez?

Lydia’s head whips around to give him a startled look, but then she turns back forward and looks a little harder at the lead figure, too. “Oh, my god,” she breathes. “It is.”

But he’d miscalculated somewhere along the way, Theo’s realizing. He’d miscalculated when he’d let his eyes flare. The yelling starts.

“Get out of the car!” Gonzalez orders, shouting it to be heard across the distance, and also, Theo’s willing to bet, because he’s clearly fucking terrified. “Out! Right now!”

Theo risks a glance at Lydia. She’s still frozen, both her hands on the wheel. “Do not, under any circumstances,” Theo orders her lowly, “get out of this car.”

Lydia risks a look back at him. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Theo admits, his eyes flicking back out of the windshield as Gonzalez again yells for them to get out. He lets them flick back to Lydia. “Improvise, I guess.”

“Theo!” Lydia calls after him, her hand closing around his wrist and yanking him to a stop. Her jaw tightens. “What if whatever happened affected them, too?”

Something cold goes slip-sliding down Theo’s spine. His gaze darts from Lydia’s face out towards Gonzalez, and back. His own jaw tightens. He repeats: “Do not get out of this car.” He waits until she nods to turn back for the car door.

He steps out.

Almost immediately he puts his hands in the air, though he makes sure to shut the door behind him first. He takes a few tentative steps away from the car, aware as he does so of the way a good half of the barrels of the rifles of Gonzalez and his team snap around to follow him.

The rest stay fixed on the windshield, and Lydia beyond it.

“Gonzalez,” Theo calls out, making sure to keep his voice as relaxed and level as he can, considering. “It’s me. It’s Theo, okay? Could you just—” He cuts himself off, and rewords. “I would feel a lot better if you and your people would, you know, point those things somewhere else.” He tries for a wobbly smile; sharing the joke. Even if he could see the faces of Gonzalez and his team, Theo doesn’t think they’d be smiling back. He stops walking, hands still in the air.

Still, he can see Gonzalez’s eyes over the respirator, gone narrow on Theo’s face. The tip of his rifle dips, just slightly.

“Theo,” he repeats, clearly still wary. Theo nods in agreement, feeling like an idiot even as he does it; Gonzalez could see him, after all. Gonzalez moves his head this way and that, apparently studying Theo from different angles. He notes, “You seem fine.”

Oh, it happened here, too, Theo realizes, thinking back to Liam going berserk. To Lydia saying that Derek had gone berserk. He can feel his expression and his fingers—still raised mid-air—twitch slightly.

Gonzalez’s rifle snaps back up.

Damn it, Theo curses, then takes a deep breath and calls back: “I am fine.” Then, Lydia’s alarming theory still festering at the forefront of his mind: “Are you fine?”

Gonzalez’s brow briefly furrows, and then smooths out. His chin tilts up a few degrees, and when he answers, his voice is colder. “Humans aren’t affected.”

Theo’s spine stiffens. Gonzalez’s phrasing pricks at him, his intonation not any better. Humans aren’t affected, he’d said, and Theo could practically see the line Gonzalez—and his team, if Theo had to guess—were drawing in the proverbial sand between themselves on one side, and Theo and Lydia—and Liam and Derek, too—on the other. Theo grits his teeth.

He tells Gonzalez, “I want to see Argent.”

I want to know,” a woman to the side of Gonzalez suddenly speaks up, her voice made mechanical and strange by the respirator, “how you can be fine—” There’s a particularly derisive edge to her words. Her rifle is pointed right between Theo’s eyes, “—considering every other supernatural in town sure as hell isn’t.”

Theo just looks steadily right back at her. He says, “C’mon, Belomo. How many times have you had to sit through me and Argent and Scott and everyone debating whether a chimera is really a supernatural? You really want to put yourself through that again?”

Belomo’s eyes widen, and then narrow. But after one second, two, the tip of her rifle starts to dip away from Theo. Theo starts to exhale out a shaky breath that almost immediately freezes right back in his chest when Gonzalez speaks up again.

“What’s with the blood, then?” He wonders, gesturing with his still-raised rifle to the dried blood on the sleeves of Theo’s shirt; the places where Liam’s claws had initially ripped through when Liam had first gone berserk. “And what about her?” Gonzalez continues, jerking his chin at Lydia still in the car, though thankfully his rifle stays trained on Theo.

“Minor mishap on the drive in,” Theo replies, answering his first question. “And Lydia’s fine,” he assures Gonzalez, maybe a little too forcefully considering how desperate he is to get Gonzalez to believe him. “She’s lost her banshee abilities for the moment but she’s—” in control “—fine.

Gonzalez just eyes him speculatively. His gaze flicks between Theo’s face, his bloodied arms, and the SUV. Then his eyes suddenly widen. He looks around, gaze darting over the empty streets, the quiet storefronts, the trees beyond them.

“Where’s your better half?” He queries as he turns back to Theo, slow and thoughtful and a trap; Theo feels his shoulders and spine go rigid. “You two are usually fucking inseparable.” Gonzalez’s head cocks, just slightly. He realizes: “He was the mishap.”

He doesn’t bother to wait for Theo to respond, just lifts a hand to gesture his team forward. To gesture them towards Lydia’s SUV. Theo feels his eyes widen and panic burn fast and hard through him.

He can’t stop the shift from taking him.

---

And honestly, that right there probably would have been the end of him—several high-powered rifles immediately snapping towards him, and firing—except that a barrier goes up in front of him; the bullets—the wolfsbane they’d contained sizzling and burning up in toxic plumes of smoke—crash into it and dissolve.

Theo recognizes the color of the barrier before he recognizes the figure now somehow, someway, standing in front of him. “Mason?” He gasps out, flat on his ass and one elbow on the asphalt from where Mason had shoved him back. He glances around on reflex, and just in time to see Lydia’s entire SUV disappear from sight, smell, and sound. “Corey?

Mason standing behind a greenish magic barrier, his arms outstretched. Theo is lying stunned along the ground behind it. Mason's eyes are glowing. There are several obvious disturbances in the barrier where the bullets struck.

Mason doesn’t bother to answer. Instead he draws back his hands—his arms having snapped out wide in front of himself, palms out and facing Gonzalez and his team—and then he suddenly shoves at the air in front of himself. The barrier he’d erected goes rushing forward, crashing into Gonzalez and his team and sending them flying back. They land with a handful of bitten-off cries and meaty thuds, but Mason doesn’t bother to watch their progress; he kneels down at Theo’s side, and gets his hands on Theo’s shoulders, the side of his face.

“Are you okay?” He asks, fast and frantic and almost a demand because of it. Theo manages to jerk a nod.

“I’m good, I’m fine,” he assures Mason shakily, then, belatedly: “Thank you.”

Mason spends a good few more seconds studying his face—Theo maybe didn’t have the best track record with owning up to the extent of his own injuries—but eventually he must satisfy himself, because he gives Theo’s shoulder a quick squeeze, and straightens back to his feet.

His irises are still the Beast’s signature ghost blue. His fingertips are twitching with the threat of further magic.

“Gonzalez!” He shouts. “What the hell!

Gonzalez had started to push himself, groaning, back up onto his elbows from where he’d hit ground. At his side, Belomo had rolled over onto her stomach and had risen up on her hands and knees. She squints at Mason, then shoots Gonzalez a look as she falls back onto her heels and declares, “He seems fine, too.” Her tone is pointed but Theo honestly isn’t sure if it’s directed at Gonzalez, or Mason, or someone—something—else altogether.

Gonzalez just grimaces, and finishes climbing painfully to his feet. His rifle had been strapped to his chest so it rises with him, but while he puts a hand back on its stock to steady it, he doesn’t put his finger back on the trigger. Instead his jaw tightens, and while something uncertain crosses his face, he just jerks his chin defiantly at Theo, who’s in the process of getting his own feet underneath himself.

“He shifted, and given everything that’s—”

“Last I checked,” Mason interrupts coldly, cutting him off, “shifting hasn’t been a capital offense in this town since Monroe.”

Now guilt flashes across Gonzalez’s face, stark and raw. He swallows, loud enough that Theo can hear his throat click even across the way. He drops his eyes away from Mason’s.

“Not to sound like a jackass,” Belomo cuts in, readjusting the respirator on her face since it’d gone a little cock-eyed when she’d hit the ground. “But cut us some slack, okay? It’s been a long goddamn day, and Theo’s the first supernatural we’ve seen that hasn’t tried to kill us—and everybody else!—on sight.”

“Why’d you shift, anyway?” Gonzalez asks, over-loud because Mason’s mouth had started to open again, no doubt to provide a scathing reply to Belomo’s request.

Theo—on his feet now—had leaned over to brush the gravel that he’d picked up in his fall onto the asphalt off of his palms. He twists around to glare at Gonzalez, still half-bent over, as he gestures vaguely back behind himself at where he’s relatively certain Lydia’s SUV is, based on the fact that they’re all still boxed in by Gonzalez’s and his people’s own vehicles. “Liam’s in there,” he spits out, “and he’s hurt. So forgive me for not wanting to let you all—who are clearly in a ‘shoot first, ask questions maybe’ kind of mood—anywhere near him!”

Gonzalez recoils slightly, his expression spasming again. Around him, the members of his team doesn’t look any better; they shift awkwardly on their knees or feet, depending, and their gazes skip around the scene without ever settling directly on Theo, or Mason.

But Theo’s distracted from it the next moment, because Mason puts a hand on his arm and yanks him around. “What do you mean, Liam’s hurt?” He demands.

Theo just looks back at him, his expression twisting up. “He—he went berserk, like the others,” Theo admits, shooting a glance at Gonzalez, whose mouth tightens fractionally. “We were driving, and I—” Theo exhales out, low and rough. “We crashed, and he’s—he’s not healing, Mason.”

Mason keeps staring back at him for a second longer, and then he calls, “Corey!

Lydia’s SUV reappears. It’s exactly where it’d been, but as Theo watches a thin, ghost-blue shimmer slowly fades away from it; Mason had apparently been using the intervening time to weave a barrier around it. Mason doesn’t wait for Theo or Gonzalez or anyone else to do anything or give him permission: he hurries towards the SUV once it appears and ducks in through the door that Corey opens for him, Corey hopping down onto his feet on the asphalt as Mason disappears inside it. He gives Theo a tight-lipped nod.

Theo nods back, and then glances warily at Gonzalez and his team. They’re mostly back on their feet now, their hands back on their rifles, but unlike before they’re all pointed at the ground. Theo lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, and looks back at the SUV. Lydia isn’t in the driver’s seat anymore, but Theo can see a flash of color through the windshield, in between the seats; her hair, catching the afternoon sunlight as she apparently talks to Mason in the back.

Mason reappears fast. He looks at Theo—all but ignoring Gonzalez and his team—and tells him, “We have to get him to Deaton. Him, and Derek, and Stiles.”

Theo nods quickly in agreement, his throat tight. “That’s where we were headed.”

“Alright,” Mason says, already turning back towards the SUV. “C’mon, let’s—”

“No,” Gonzalez suddenly interrupts. Theo’s, Mason’s, and Corey’s heads all snap towards him, and he recoils slightly before squaring his shoulders. “Look, if you three—” he gestures between them, though thankfully with an empty hand this time, rather than his rifle tip, “—are really fine, then you need to go help Argent.”

Theo, Mason, and Corey all exchange looks. “Help Argent do what?” Theo demands.

Gonzalez’s jaw tightens, the muscle at the corner of it visibly jumping at the edge of his respirator.

“Keep Scott from killing someone,” he answers. “A lot of someones.”

---

“How’d you find us anyway?” Theo wonders, crammed into the back of Gonzalez’s SUV with Mason and Corey, three of Gonzalez’s team—including Belomo, who’d grimaced at Theo as they’d all been piling in and had given him an apologetic shrug—in front of them. He’s asking because he’s genuinely curious but he’s also asking to distract himself from the fact that Liam is somewhere else, being driven by Lydia to the animal clinic, a now-honor guard of the rest of Gonzalez’s team escorting her.

It’s Corey who answers. “We were at Mason’s parents when the spell hit,” he explains quietly.

“The spell?” Theo can’t help interrupting. “What spell?” But immediately after he says it he knows precisely what spell: “The people in town all being asleep.”

Mason nods tightly. “We didn’t know what the hell it was at first. I wasted a bunch of time trying to reverse engineer it, figure out what was going on, before it finally occurred to me to check who had cast it.”

Theo doesn’t even need to guess. “Deaton,” he fills in dryly.

He exchanges a knowing look with Corey; Mason just makes a face.

“We were on our way to the clinic to try and find him when we heard you—” Corey raises his voice so that Gonzalez in the driver’s seat can hear him, “—screeching like a hyena for someone to get out of a car.” He shrugs, ignoring the way that Gonzalez glares back at him in the rearview mirror. “Figured we should check it out.”

“Well,” Theo concludes, bumping him lightly with his shoulder. “Your timing was fucking impeccable. I’ll never complain about you two being late to anything ever again.”

Corey rolls his eyes, but he leans back into the pressure of Theo’s shoulder. He keeps it there long past the time that the admittedly-flimsy joke has faded away.

Mason’s not paying attention to them. Instead he’s squinting at Belomo in front of them. “I was going to ask how you all are still awake, considering,” he says slowly, and then taps at the side of his face with two fingers, “but that’s what these are for, aren’t they?”

Theo realizes he means the respirators. Belomo nods, and replies, “Shit went sideways fast. We barely had time to get to the hospital to get geared up before Argent was on our asses to get back into town, and start getting Deaton’s sleeping beauty townspeople back into buildings, if they were outside, and all the buildings locked up tight with lines of mountain ash.”

Her eyes flick to Theo’s in the rearview, there and back.

“How many casualties?” Theo asks her quietly.

“Too goddamn many,” she shoots back, her expression under the respirator going tight, and unhappy.

“And the supernaturals?” Mason cuts in, a note of warning in his voice. “What have you been doing with them?”

“Oh, you mean the supernaturals who have been trying to claw ours and everybody else’s faces off?” Belomo snaps back, her tone sounding more than a little frayed.

“Belomo,” Gonzalez chastises, at the same time that Theo twists to put a hand on Mason’s shoulder, and push him firmly back against his seat as he quietly warns, “Mason.” He can feel the swirl of the Beast’s power—the sense of it so unlike and yet so like Mason, now, after all this time—begin to coalesce into a more concrete thing; Mason’s eyes start to bleed ghost-blue.

On Theo’s other side, Corey reaches behind Theo to get a hand around the back of Mason’s neck, his fingers digging in not as a collar but as a comfort; an anchor-point. Theo takes advantage to lean a little harder back against Corey’s arm while it’s there, and is gratified when Corey presses more firmly into him in turn.

He presses: “Yeah, Belomo. Those supernaturals.”

Belomo relents with a huff. “Non-lethal capture-and-contain methods where possible, transport to Eichen,” she recites, and in a passable imitation of Argent’s usual intonation, even, which probably isn’t purposeful.

“And where not possible?” Corey wonders quietly.

Belomo doesn’t answer. Neither does Gonzalez, or the other members of his team. Theo breathes in their suddenly-ashy scents and wishes he didn’t have to. He covers his face with his hands again.

“What the hell is going on?” He whispers for the nth time today.

He’s not expecting an answer, but he gets one anyway.

“It’s fucking Beacon Hills, Raeken,” Belomo grunts, turning away from them to face the window instead. “What the hell else were you expecting?”

---

The first thing Argent does when Gonzalez finishes taking them where they’re going—the main entrance to the Preserve, which Theo honestly should have predicted because it’s fucking Beacon Hills, and honestly: what had he been expecting?—is to glance up and then immediately double-take when he spots Theo, Mason, and Corey all hopping down and out of Gonzalez’s SUV.

The second thing he does is snap a hand out sideways, and shove the rifle that one of his people had been raising—their eyes wide on Theo’s face in particular—back down towards the ground. He glares pointedly at the offender, who cowers back.

“Well,” Argent says, turning back to Theo once he’s satisfied. “I guess you’ve finally won that argument we’ve all been having for years about whether chimeras are supernaturals.”

His tone isn’t exactly apologetic. It’s more wry than anything else; strained. Theo wonders if anyone else can hear it, or if Argent just sounds like his normal self to them. Pushing the whole useless train of thought aside, Theo huffs out an exhale, and replies, “These weren’t exactly the circumstances I was picturing.”

“Sounds like a failure of imagination,” Argent concludes dryly, the respirator he’s wearing making it even more so, but then gestures them all over with a sharp jerk of his head: moment over.

He and several of his people had been ranged around the open trunk of his SUV; they make room for Theo, Mason, and Corey, along with Gonzalez and Gonzalez’s team, to crowd around as well. Theo looks down at the paper map Argent has unfolded there, pinned at several corners with squawking radios. Even as he’s studying the set-up, one of the radios clicks; Argent reaches around him just as words start to pour from the speaker.

“He got past Kuryev and Agrawal,” whoever’s on the other line reports; the connection is so shitty—probably from the same interference that had knocked out cell service—that Theo can’t tell who it is. “Loring and Stathakis are moving to intercept, but he’s shrugging off the flash-bangs and emitters faster and faster. If we don’t figure something else out soon, he’s going to make it back into town.”

Around the trunk, several of Argent’s people swear colorfully; one slams a frustrated hand against the side of Argent’s SUV. Argent just squeezes his eyes shut, his fingers tightening until they’re white-knuckled around the radio. He orders, “Catado and Nirmala, move to back up Loring and Stathakis. The rest of you—” he hesitates, just for a split-second, his eyes flicking to Theo and Mason and Corey, “—you’re authorized to switch ammunition.”

Theo pales. He makes an immediate grab for the radio, yanking it down and knocking Argent’s finger off the talk button so that static fills the air between them again. “You can’t be serious,” he hisses. “You’re going to let them poison him?

Argent jerks his hand, and the radio, free of Theo’s grip. He retorts, “You heard Mecham. Non-lethal methods are becoming less and less effective.” He shakes his head roughly and declares, “We can heal him from the wolfsbane. We can’t raise the dead, if he makes it back into town and manages to find someone my people haven’t had the chance to secure.”

“You don’t understand,” Theo argues hotly. “You poison him, you might not get the chance to heal him.”

Argent—and the rest of his people—freeze. Theo can feel all of their eyes on his face but he doesn’t care about the others. He keeps looking right back at Argent as Argent demands, “What the hell are you talking about?”

Theo exhales out roughly, his eyelashes fluttering some as he swallows past a suddenly-dry throat. “Liam and Derek,” he explains, reluctant and with guilt unfurling out from the core of himself, because there’s a small, poisonous voice in the back of his head reminding him that he’d been the one driving when he and Liam had crashed. “They both went—went berserk, too. And then they were both hurt, badly, and now they’re not healing.”

Argent’s expression spasms for a second into a rictus of total, raw fear. It’s gone in the next instant as he raises the radio back to his lips, and orders, “Belay that last. Do not, I repeat, do not use aconite-laced ammunition. All units confirm.”

Credit where credit is due: Argent’s people don’t miss a beat. There’s a series of rolling acknowledgements—Unit One, confirmed; Unit Two, confirmed—that continues even as Argent is lowering the radio back down to his side, and looking shrewdly at Theo.

“I hope you’ve got a better idea,” he tells him, “because we are running out of time.

Theo just exhales out roughly, shoulders sagging, and then he glances back and forth between Mason and Corey, both watching him expectantly, if sympathetically.

“I don’t know about better,” he finally replies, “but it’s something.”

---

“This is a stupid idea,” Corey concludes half an hour later, the two of them crouched with, admittedly, very little dignity left between the two of them behind a set of raucously-growing bushes out in the middle of the Preserve.

Theo just shoots him a look, and then goes back to staring out at the section of dirt and trees that he can see. His teeth grit.

“Seriously, Theo,” Corey insists. “Liam is going to kill you for this when he wakes up.”

“I welcome him trying,” Theo mutters, not as a sarcastic dismissal—though it certainly sounds like one—but as a genuine wish; if Liam woke up hale and hearty enough to try and kill Theo for this very—admittedly—stupid idea, Theo would absolutely stand still and let him attempt it.

Corey must hear what he’d meant rather than his tone. He gets a hand around Theo’s shoulder, and squeezes. “I’m sorry, Theo,” he murmurs, very conspicuously not saying he’ll be okay, or we’re going to figure this out. Out of their entire ragtag group, Corey probably knew better than most that sometimes figuring things out didn’t mean that everyone would be okay. Theo thinks back to the night he’d raised the chimeras—he usually tries not to—and remembers nearly skipping over Corey for someone like Belasko, or Lucas; he’d been so focused on needing fighters, not someone whose main talent seemed to be designed for cowardice. Now, he layers his own hand over Corey’s and grips, his head turning at the same time so that he can press his closed eyes, the bridge of his nose, against the side of Corey’s fingers; a benediction.

Corey leans further forward, and presses his forehead against Theo’s shoulder blade in turn.

His head jerks up almost immediately afterwards. “Did you hear that?”

Theo turns to look at him, can feel how adrenaline-wide his own eyes are. “Mason’s signal?”

Corey nods, tightly. The series of clear ringing notes comes again. Theo exhales out a rough breath, a sharp bolt of dread lancing through him. “Ready?” He asks Corey quietly.

Corey looks back at him. “No,” he admits honestly. He blows out his own explosive breath. “Do it,” he orders.

Theo watches him for a good few more seconds, some part of him trying to draw strength from the set of Corey’s shoulders, the determined line of his mouth, and then he throws back his head, and he roars.

There’s a few ringing seconds of silence, and then a snarl, loud enough to echo through the Preserve even with the distance.

“Go,” Theo orders, even before he’s fully turned to look back at Corey to meet his equally-wide eyes. “Go. Go, go, go!

They both take off.

Corey darts away one way, and disappears from Theo’s senses. Theo keeps to as straight a path as he can, flying over tree roots that try to catch at his feet, dodging around bushes and rocks and sliding on the slick layer of fallen leaves on the forest floor as he runs.

It doesn’t take Scott long to catch up with him.

Holy shit, he’s fast, some startled corner of Theo’s brain manages to think. He shouldn’t be this fast.

He grits his teeth, and puts on a burst of speed.

But almost immediately he has to skid to a stop, and hit the ground on his hands and knees to dodge the clawed swipe that Scott aims at the back of his head. Scott hits a nearby tree instead, ripping a chunk out of its trunk. Swearing, Theo rolls out of the way and back onto his feet, and starts running again; he has to lead Scott to—

But Scott doesn’t want to cooperate. He manages to catch up with Theo again—too fast, too fast—and this time strikes out at the back of Theo’s legs. Theo goes down in a tangle of his own limbs, his right leg just collapsing underneath him: Scott had managed to sever his Achilles’ tendon. Fuck, fuck, Theo silently swears, and rolls onto his back just in time to catch Scott as Scott throws himself on top of Theo, his clawed hands already driving down towards Theo’s face.

Jesus. Son of a—” Theo curses, just barely managing to knock Scott’s striking arms one way, or the other, so that they miss actually scoring across Theo’s face or—where Scott seems to be aiming—his neck. He bucks up—Scott sitting on his hips—and knocks Scott forward; Scott flails and reflexively catches himself on his palms, giving Theo just enough room to jerk himself out from underneath Scott’s pin, and roll sideways back onto his feet.

He tests his right leg; his healing had kicked in and at least managed to reattach his severed tendon, but: alpha wound. It still threatens to give, his whole leg starting to shake wildly when he puts weight on it.

“Scott,” Theo pleads, but there’s no recognition on Scott’s face. Theo suffers a brief, all-consuming moment of despair for what might happen if Liam survives everything that’s happening, but Scott kills Theo out here in the middle of the Preserve anyway. He forces himself to stop thinking about it; the only thing he could do to prevent it is not die. He can feel the tension in his muscles start to coil as he prepares for Scott’s next attack.

But Scott’s head suddenly whips around, his nostrils flaring and his red eyes narrowing. Theo has no idea what the hell he could possibly be sensing—one of Argent’s people, maybe, but Theo can’t detect any of them anywhere close—and then he realizes. “Shit!” He swears, lurching uselessly forward just as Scott snarls, loud and furious-sounding, and pivots around to rake the claws of his right hand down through seemingly-empty air.

Corey chokes, his camouflage falling away as the trauma of Scott’s attack apparently causes him to lose hold of it. He starts to collapse onto his knees, blood flecking his lips and soaking his shirt, and Theo doesn’t even think about it; he dives forward, tackling Scott sideways and away from Corey. He silently says a brief, heartfelt plea for forgiveness when they land, and then he gets his hands around Scott’s right arm and twists.

Scott’s shoulder dislocates with a sickening crack.

Scott roars, and strikes blindly out backwards with his left hand to try and hit Theo. Cursing, Theo lunges backwards, Scott’s claws missing him by inches. He keeps stumbling a few steps away, eyes on Scott even as his ears are seeking out the uneven rhythm of Corey’s shaky, pained breathing; the quiet, wet gasps he’s giving. He winds up in front of Corey just as Scott finishes pushing himself back up to his feet with his still-working arm, his lips peeling away from his teeth—from his fangs—in a fierce, silent snarl.

But even as Theo watches, the awkward dangle of Scott’s right arm starts to change; to bend and flex. Theo takes a startled step forward before he can stop himself, his gaze fixed on Scott’s shoulder.

“He’s healing,” Theo realizes, shocked. “Corey,” he says, and can’t stop himself from glancing backwards at Corey, who has one hand planted over the bloody claw-marks on his chest like his fingers could hold the gaping wounds together. “He’s healing.”

And fast. Faster than he should be. Theo backs up a reflexive step when Scott takes a threatening one forward. He stops when taking anymore would put Corey in front of rather than behind him.

He works his jaw. He debates.

He risks one final look back at Corey. “Be ready to run,” he orders him quietly; firmly. Corey’s eyes widen as he apparently catches on to Theo’s plan—his gaze flicking between Theo and Scott—and then he gives a jerky nod. Theo takes a deep breath, and lets it shudder back out, and settles down bouncing onto the balls of his feet.

He looks at Scott, and curls his own lips up in a challenging snarl as he lets his eyes flare gold. Beta gold. “Come on.”

Scott lunges. Even under normal circumstances Theo getting into a no-holds-barred fight with Scott would be suicidal, and these are anything but normal circumstances; Theo underestimates Scott’s speed and Scott hits him hard. They both go down in a tangle, Theo gasping out a wounded sound as he’s winded, his head cracking against the ground. Shit, he’s fast, Theo can’t help thinking again, his mind one unhelpful loop of just that: too fast, too fast, too fast.

Still: under normal circumstances Scott’s a good fighter, but a reluctant one, and it shows through even more with his frenzied attacks: brutally hard, and fast, but unskilled.

Theo, on the other hand, has never been a reluctant fighter.

He uses every bit of skill, and hard-learned tactic, and dirty trick he’s ever learned in his fucked-up, former-spy life. He stops worrying about injuring Scott—he’ll heal, he reminds himself, over and over again, ignoring the voice in his head that reminds him that he doesn’t actually know that for a fact—and concentrates on incapacitating him as quickly and as clinically—as brutally—as possible.

By the time he manages to tear himself away, he’s a bloody mess. His left cheek had been torn open by Scott’s claws—he literally accidentally pokes his tongue through one of the tears as he tries to check the damage—and he’s pretty sure he has several ribs puncturing his lungs; he’s wheezing as Corey catches him, and yanks him backwards, further away from Scott. His left leg collapses out from underneath himself and he looks down to see that another set of claw-marks had carved a piece out of his thigh; he glances heavenward as he chokes a little as the sight causes his brain to fully register the pain, and leans back a little more heavily against Corey.

But Scott stays down. Scott has to stay down; Theo had severed both his Achilles’ tendons, and the IT band down the side of his left leg. Scott’s fingers lie boneless on the earth; Theo had ripped through the tendons at his elbows, and dislocated for a second time his right shoulder.

Still, Scott snarls at them. His limbs twitch, and judder; his healing kicking in, and repairing the damage.

Theo tests his left leg; it holds, though his thigh muscle screams in agony. Theo looks at Corey.

He tells him, “Run.”

---

They get about a hundred yards before Theo catches the telltale sounds of Scott regaining his feet, and starting furiously after them. And even if he hadn’t, Scott roars, thwarted and furious: probably the whole town can hear him.

Theo and Corey both stumble to their hands and knees, the pressure of their alpha’s will bearing down on them like a tsunami.

Damn it,” Theo swears, and hooks one hand underneath Corey’s bicep, hauling him back up. “C’mon, c’mon.”

The delay costs them. Theo has a split-second to make a decision and he shoves Corey ahead of him just as Scott crashes into him. He hits the ground hard and rolls immediately away from Scott, already yelling, “Keep going!,” at Corey.

Corey looks wildly conflicted about it for the space of a held breath, and then he goes.

Theo for his part dodges Scott’s clumsy first strike and then uses the momentum of Scott’s second to send him stumbling forward, and directly into a tree. Scott hits it hard enough with Theo’s added shove that the bark splits open the skin of his face; when he whips around to snarl at Theo, there’s blood pouring down between his eyes.

But the gash is already closing. Theo doesn’t waste time: he takes off running after Corey.

It’s a painful stop-and-start mess of a process. Every dozen or so feet Scott catches back up with him, and Theo has to momentarily stop and confront him, dodging this way and that and desperately trying to stay unmarked by Scott’s claws, and especially his gnashing teeth.

You know, you don’t have to be a chimera, Liam had pointed out quietly late one night, because christ knows somebody had had to finally bring it up. Theo had just rolled over in their bed and had pressed his forehead to the knob at the very top of Liam’s spine.

But I am a chimera, Theo had countered, just as quietly, and Liam hadn’t pushed. Had understood what Theo had meant, maybe, and had accepted it, whether Liam himself had actually believed in it or not. Instead he’d rolled over, and pressed his lips very gently to Theo’s forehead, his hands cupped softly around Theo’s face. Okay, he’d said, and that’d been that.

Scott’s teeth very nearly manage to close around the meat of Theo’s forearm as Theo parries one of his strikes. Theo swears and crouches down at the same time that he snakes his own clawed hand out, and manages to crook them around the back of one of Scott’s knees.

When he yanks them back, he severs not only the tendons running down the back of Scott’s leg but the very place where his calf muscle attaches; Scott goes down on a horrible, wounded sound, and doesn’t get back up immediately.

Theo doesn’t—can’t—wait to see if he manages to get back up at all. He takes off running again.

The severity of the injury he’d managed to inflict buys him the rest of the time he’d needed to get to where he’d been going. The squat brick building comes into view and Theo blows through the already-open door, Scott already back up and hot on his heels. The awkwardness comes immediately after: the chainlink cage that the McCall pack had once trapped a Ghost Rider inside is parallel, not perpendicular, to the door, and Theo has to throw out a hand and catch himself on the door jamb, whipping himself around with the muscles of his shoulder screaming, so that he can dart forward through the slid-open door of the chainlink cage without losing any of his momentum.

The problem is, that same momentum carries him right into the back wall of the brick building. He slams into it—can’t avoid it—and in that instant Scott is on him.

He slams right into Theo, using his whole body like a battering ram. Theo cries out as the shock of it reverberates through him, several of his ribs cracking and his head ringing from the force. His legs start to go out from underneath him as Scott starts to pull back, and the only reason he stays up on his feet is because Scott slams out a hand and drives it against the back of Theo’s skull, grinding his face against the wall and holding him fast. Theo doesn’t know where Scott’s other hand is—his senses still too scattered from the trauma and pain—but he can guess. He squeezes his eyes shut, and waits for the strike.

Theo!” Someone shouts, desperate and panicked, just as someone else yells, “Corey, move!

There’s a rush of displaced air behind Theo, and all at once Scott’s pinning hand is ripped away from Theo’s head as he goes flying back. Scott yelps out a hurt sound as he collides with the brick of the opposite wall, his body impacting it with a meaty thud. Theo barely registers any of it: without the pressure of Scott’s hand to hold him, he starts to collapse down, his legs still too weak to hold him.

But almost immediately he feels hands underneath his arms, hauling him up some as someone starts to drag him backwards, towards the other exit to the cage. Theo’s vision is still splitting into triplets, streaks of color painting everything he sees in chaotic collections of neon, but he recognizes Corey’s frantic expression above his own as Corey scrambles backwards and pulls Theo with him.

Still, Scott recovers fast: he roars and starts to lunge forward, clawed hands outstretched and fang-filled mouth open.

“Corey, down!” Mason—Theo’s ringing eardrums clearing enough to let him recognize the voice—orders; Corey immediately drops flat, folding over Theo’s chest and covering him bodily.

Theo feels another rush of displaced air and Scott goes skidding backwards with another furious sound.

Additional hands grab hold of Theo’s arms, his shoulders. Theo manages to focus enough to watch through the chaos of the multiple limbs reaching over and around him as Argent’s people help Corey finish dragging him out of the chainlink cage, and Mason slams the back door shut just as Scott crashes into it. But right as Scott does—right as the door finishes closing—there’s the sudden buzz of harsh electricity in the air, and Scott goes flying backwards with a high, yelping cry.

He hits the ground in the middle of the cage and doesn’t get up right away, his whole body shaking and spasming with the aftershocks of the electricity.

Still: Theo—still flat on his own back with Corey and a handful of Argent’s people crouched over him, checking his injuries—can see one bright-red eye, burning and burning as Scott glares out at them, his fanged mouth clenched in a furious snarl as his body shakes and shakes.

Theo lets his head drop back with a gusty, helpless exhale just as Mason throws down the glass jar he’d been holding. The jar shatters, and Mason calls out, “The mountain ash line is locked. Everybody watch your step.”

Corey collapses down onto his elbows at Theo’s side, his eyes on Scott now trapped in the mountain-ash ringed, electrified cage. He gasps out a few shaky, unsteady breaths, and then glances around at Mason, and Argent’s team, and Theo himself.

Now what?” He demands.

---

“Absolutely not,” Argent snaps. “Out of the goddamn question.”

“Argent!” Theo protests.

No, Theo,” Argent just tells him. “I need you here. If he—” Argent nods towards Scott, who’s pacing around the inside of the cage and occasionally trying his luck with the electrified chainlinks, and getting better at it all the while, his feet planted and his ability to hang on before he has to let go stretching out longer, and longer, “—gets out, you three are our only chance of containing him without—”

His teeth make a click that Theo can hear but not see as his jaw snaps shut. He doesn’t say: without killing him, but that’s how his sentence would have finished.

But Theo just yells right back, “Liam might be dying!” He shudders in a deep, shaky breath, and chokes out, his eyes on the stunned-silent look on Argent’s face: “I am not staying here.”

Around the room, Corey and Mason and the rest of Argent’s team are looking at the ground, the floor; anywhere but at Argent and Theo, like they could give the two of them some semblance of privacy by not acknowledging the confrontation. It doesn’t help that Theo’s and Argent’s quickly-cracking abilities to hold themselves together seems to be further setting off Scott: he snarls out a furious noise and slams his hands against the chainlinks, and only lets go after a too-long stretch of seconds.

Argent exhales out a jagged breath, and rakes his hands back through his hair. It’s become even more gray than brown since the last time Theo had seen him; the change seems somehow extra stark in the poor lighting of the building, the highlights of it occasionally lit up by the electricity arcing across the chainlinks of the cage.

“Melissa’s at the clinic,” Argent finally tries. “Between her and Deaton, I’m sure Liam will be—”

Argent,” Theo interrupts, not loud but firmly. “I’m not staying here,” he repeats.

Argent’s jaw clenches behind his respirator. Theo genuinely wonders if he’s going to have to fight his way out; around the room, the fingers of Argent’s people have started to drift towards the triggers of their currently downward-pointed rifles. Theo swallows, and widens his stance.

“He doesn’t need to,” Mason suddenly interjects. He’s not looking at Theo when Theo jerks to look at him, but at Argent. He throws out a hand, palm initially held low by his hip and facing down, but almost immediately he twists it around so it’s facing up instead, and then he starts to raise it. As he does, a shimmering, ghost-blue barrier surrounds the cage, and Scott still trapped inside it. He sighs, and explains, “If Scott can get past the electrified chainlinks, the mountain ash, and one of my barriers, all in a row, we have a whole different set of problems.”

“Mason,” Corey protests quietly.

Mason just gives him a shaky smile. “Go with Theo,” he orders gently. “Help him and the others figure out what the hell is going on.”

Corey hesitates, and then the line of his jaw goes tight. He gives Mason a jerky nod. Theo looks to Argent.

His jaw is working; Theo can see the movement of it as it pulls at the respirator over Argent’s mouth. He doesn’t look happy, but he seems to recognize the reality of the situation; after a second he gives a single, sharp nod.

“Wait,” he says, as Theo heads immediately towards the door, Corey hot on his heels. Theo stops and twists back to look at him just as Argent gestures towards one of his people for the radio at their belt. The woman unclips it and hands it to him. Argent tosses it to Theo, and then fishes a set of car keys from his pocket, and tosses those over, too. “Radio when you get there,” he orders. “And Theo—”

Theo stops again; he’d already started moving instantly back towards the door after he’d caught first the radio, and then the keys. He looks back at Argent.

“I’m sorry about Liam,” Argent tells him. “I hope—” He cuts himself off on a soft, rough noise.

“Me too,” Theo agrees, and then he finishes rushing through the doorway.

---

The tiny parking lot at the clinic is almost full. Theo can see Melissa’s more modern crossover and then Lydia’s and Stiles’ and Derek’s SUV when they get there, with a handful of Gonzalez’s team’s SUVs parked alongside it. What he doesn’t see is Deaton’s sensible sedan; he exchanges a confused look with Corey, unease uncurling in his gut, and finishes parking.

Inside, the mountain ash gate is closed, of course—the clinic’s first line of defense against any potential berserk supernatural intruders—but Theo just blows through it without slowing. He trusts Corey to close it behind himself as Corey follows on his heels.

There’s noise, and voices in the back, and Theo rushes towards them.

Several guns immediately snap up when Theo makes it through the doorway of the exam room. Theo jolts to an ungainly stop, his eyes widening and his hands coming reflexively up as he stares down the various barrels. Corey full-on runs into his back at the unexpected halt, sending them both staggering forward a few steps.

“Jesus christ, stop it!” Lydia shouts, her hands already braced on top of two of the rifles and pushing them down, just as Melissa orders, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Put those down.”

“Sorry, ma’am,” Masselli mutters, flushing, but the looks on Kaynor’s and Marykwas’ faces are much stonier, and they’re much slower in lowering their weapons. Theo eyes them—absently noting the respirators hanging around their necks and realizing that Deaton must have warded the clinic against his spell active outside—warily.

But.

“Theo!” Someone gasps, and Theo feels his heart—Tara’s heart—clench, and then jam up under his throat. He rushes past Kaynor and Masselli, heedless of Kaynor’s briefly panicked-expression, and slides the last few inches on his knees as he reaches the cot set up against the room’s far wall.

Liam reaches up for him just as Theo reaches down, and their mouths meet with a hard clack. Theo doesn’t care, just tightens his already white-knuckled grip around Liam’s face and presses his lips harder against Liam’s own, his inhales and exhales streaming harshly out of his nose as he tries to breathe through the almost-claustrophobic clutch of relief in his chest. He presses one more hard, close-mouthed kiss to Liam’s mouth and then immediately presses another to his jaw, the skin under his ear.

He buries his face in the side of Liam’s neck—Liam still laying flat against the cot—and just shudders through his next few breaths, filling his lungs with Liam’s scent and focusing on nothing else. He barely even feels Liam’s arms coming carefully around him, though his body seems to recognize the touch; it arches up into it without his conscious say-so.

“Hey,” Liam murmurs, soft and soothing. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m okay.”

“You weren’t,” Theo counters brokenly. “Christ, you really weren’t.”

You aren’t now, Theo thinks, pulling back some so that he can really look down at Liam, finally; someone had removed Liam’s shirt—probably they’d had to cut it off of him—and had wrapped his chest in gauze. He’s still breathing short and shallowly, so: his ribs are still broken. His face is littered with small little cuts, parts of it swollen here and there, and there’s a purpled bruise peeking out from his hairline. Theo feels his expression spasm helplessly, and he dives back forward to hide it in Liam’s neck again.

Liam just wraps his arms back around Theo’s shoulders, and squeezes as tightly as he seems to be able to. He turns his face into Theo’s own.

He tells him, “You look like a horror movie reject, by the way.”

Theo can’t help the broken, wet laugh that he gives. “Speak for yourself, Fabio,” he counters, the snark and the banter just automatic.

Liam cackles back, and then immediately yelps, “Ow, ow, ow. Don’t make me laugh.”

Theo’s laughter threatens to become something else, and so he swallows it back, and down, and burrows more deeply into Liam’s neck, his shoulder, though he’s desperately aware of—and desperately careful of—Liam’s broken ribs; he anchors the hand he’d had cradling Liam’s face a little more firmly against his jaw, and starts siphoning his pain. Liam stutters out a shocky breath, and Theo starts to pull back; wanting to check that in trying to help he hadn’t just made the hurt worse. But Liam doesn’t let him. His arms tighten like steel bands around Theo’s shoulders, and hold fast. Theo can feel Liam’s eyelashes brush the curve of his own cheekbone as Liam apparently squeezes his eyes shut.

“How much of all of this is from me?” He wonders, plucking at Theo’s positively shredded shirt—the thing practically in rags from the number of claw-marks torn through it, the edges of each crusted with blood—and with his voice cracking.

Theo just brings one of his hands up to cradle the back of Liam’s skull as he turns his own face a little more completely against Liam’s and gently assures him, “Less than you’re clearly already trying to blame yourself for.”

Liam exhales out a shaky breath, but nods to show that he’d heard Theo; that he was willing to trust Theo to tell him the truth about it. He tips his head forward to press a close-mouthed kiss to Theo’s cheek, and then presses another, harder kiss to Theo’s mouth when Theo immediately turns into him, having understood what Liam had wanted.

But a few short seconds later, Theo feels gentle fingers on the back of his arm. He glances up, twisting his head up and around so that he doesn’t have to move far away from Liam to do it, though Liam still loosens his grip enough that Theo can. Melissa smiles shakily at him. She nods at his ruined shirt, too, and then down at the missing section of Theo’s jeans where Scott had managed to take out a chunk of Theo’s left thigh.

“I need to take a look at any of this?” She asks quietly.

Theo just shakes his head, and assures her, “My healing is still working.”

Melissa’s wobbly smile kicks up a few more degrees. She replies, “Good,” clearly heartfelt. But she doesn’t move away immediately, and a shadow passes across her expression. She bites her lip, and then wonders, “So how much of this—” her phrasing showing that she’d clearly overheard Liam’s phrasing earlier, “—is from my son?”

Theo flinches. You should have changed, he berates himself. What the hell had he been thinking? But then he feels Liam’s fingers stroke comfortingly against the back of his neck and he remembers: he hadn’t been thinking. Or if he had, his only thought had been: I have to get back to Liam. He presses back a little harder against Liam’s fingers, and grimaces apologetically at Melissa.

And then he tells her what she actually wants to hear: “Scott’s—safe, for the time being.”

Unspoken: that Scott is not only safe from whatever might be threatening him, but that everyone else is also safe from Scott.

Melissa lets loose the breath that she’d apparently been holding, her whole body sagging with the force of her apparent relief. She covers her face with her hands, and nods quickly in acknowledgement to show that she’d heard him, and then she gropes out a hand and finds one of his, and squeezes. Theo twists his wrist around in her grip so that he can squeeze back.

“Thank you,” she tells him, once she’s dropped her hands. She looks up and around until she spots Corey and repeats, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Corey answers softly, and then grimaces slightly when Melissa seems to fully clock his torn-open and bloodstained shirt, and stands to go investigate. Theo follows her progress for a few seconds, and then he shudders out a breath and lets his eyes slip closed, and drops his forehead back to Liam’s near shoulder.

But he jerks upright again when he feels another touch on his arm.

“Lydia,” he breathes, when he looks up and realizes. He leaves one hand resting carefully on Liam’s chest and lunges forward—maybe a little too-supernaturally fast—to get his other arm around her shoulders, and pull her in. “Thank you,” he tells her, the words more than a little wet as he feels his eyes start to burn with gratitude. “For getting him here. And—and whatever you did to help him, thank you.”

Lydia hugs him back just as tightly, both her arms squeezing like vices around his shoulders, but then she pulls back some and shakes her head. “I didn’t do anything,” she demurs. “No one did,” she adds, clearly meaning Melissa. She glances down at Liam, and gives him a shaky smile. “They just started getting a little better.”

“Derek,” Theo realizes. He looks up and around until he spots the other cot pressed against the far wall: Derek is laid-out on it, his eyes closed and his chest moving slowly up and down.

Lydia follows his gaze. “Melissa says the worst of the damage from—” She cuts off, swallowing, because that sentence ends: from when I had to defend myself and Stiles against him, and then she says instead, “She said the worst of the danger has passed. He just hasn’t woken up yet.”

She sounds relieved, but also like she’s pushing all of the words through a closed-up, vice-tight throat. Theo searches her face.

“And Stiles?” He presses gently. He’d caught the barest glimpse of Stiles when he’d been rushing to get to Liam, because Stiles had been laid-out carefully on the exam table, and even Theo—in his completely distracted state—had realized that Stiles’ pride of place probably wasn’t for good reasons.

Lydia’s expression crumples, and she surges back into him and buries her face against the side of his neck. Theo can feel it when her wet eyes start to spill over, and she starts to shake, just slightly.

He understands why when Lydia chokes out, “Worse. Stiles is getting worse.”

Theo squeezes his own eyes shut, and turns his face against her hair. His hand against Liam’s chest spasms, and Liam brings one of his own hands up to cover it, threading their fingers together and holding tightly; holding fast. “I’m so sorry, Lydia.”

Lydia gives herself exactly half a minute hiding against his neck, and then she pulls back. At some point she’d washed her face free of her makeup; this time when she dashes the tears impatiently away from her cheeks, there are no streaks of black left behind. She searches his face for a second, Theo looking curiously back, and then she darts a glance at Melissa, who’s still fussing over Corey.

She looks back at Theo once she’s apparently satisfied that Melissa’s sufficiently distracted. She wonders, quietly enough that there’s no way that Melissa, or even any of Argent’s people still hovering tensely throughout the room, can overhear her: “How’s Scott really?”

Theo feels his expression spasm, and his lips press together.

He admits, “Worse,” deliberately echoing her language. “And he’s getting worse, too.”

---

No,” Theo interrupts Masselli’s theorizing. “If that was the case, with how much damage I did to Scott—” Theo winces at his own poor choice of words when the line of Melissa’s mouth tightens, but he pushes past it, “—then he would have been like Derek and Liam.” He shakes his head, and reminds the tensely-gathered room: “Scott was getting stronger. A lot stronger.”

“He’s a true alpha, though,” Corey points out from his place leaned back against one of the far exam tables. “Maybe that has something to do with it.”

Lydia shakes her head. “That wouldn’t explain Stiles.”

“She’s right,” Melissa agrees. “Based on what we know, every other human in town was unaffected when whatever-it-was first happened, except Stiles.”

“Yeah, but he’s an emissary,” Liam offers, still laid-out flat on his back on his cot but still aware, thank god. Too aware, maybe: he starts trying to sit up, clearly wanting to be a more visible part of the conversation; Theo puts a hand on his shoulder and pushes him firmly, if gently, back flat. Liam makes a face at him but slumps back down.

“So’s Deaton,” Masselli cuts in. His arms are crossed over his chest and more accurately over his rifle, still clipped to the Kevlar vest he’s wearing. Beside him, Kaynor and Marykwas say nothing, but Theo still finds his eyes flicking warily to them; still finds his senses fixing on them, his ears and nose digging past their neutral expressions as his fingers spasm against Liam’s shoulder.

Liam layers his hand over Theo’s own, and gives him a flicker of a smile when Theo glances reflexively over at him. He also leans up a little, just with his head, and Theo ducks immediately down to press his forehead against Liam’s own. He exhales out a shaky breath and then straightens back up just in time to hear Corey add:

“And so’s Mason, and he wasn’t affected, either.”

He’s a chimera,” Theo reminds the room, just as Lydia adds, “Not to mention that none of any of that would explain the barrier around town that Theo and I found.”

At his side, Liam just suddenly groans and attempts to lift his arms up, clearly wanting to cover his face with his hands; Theo recognizes the movement. But with his arms just a few inches off the cot he has to drop them right back down, his breath hitching. Theo winces and shifts his fingers over so that they’re more completely resting on Liam’s skin, rather than the bandages swathing his chest, and starts siphoning the sudden spike and then duller throbs of pain that Liam’s movement had caused him.

Liam huffs through it for a few seconds, and then says what he’d probably been angling to say originally: “So what I’m hearing is, we know absolutely fuck and all about what’s going on.”

Theo turns to glare at him—he’s not wrong, but still—and then he jerks with surprise when he hears the back door to the clinic suddenly creak open. He’s halfway to his feet and shifted—though he doesn’t realize the latter until he clocks Masselli making a panicked lunge for Kaynor’s and Marykwas’ guns to keep them pointed down—before he catches the scent of the newcomer, and immediately starts to relax back down with a gasping, rough series of helpless breaths as he tries to banish the sudden flood of adrenaline from his system.

Still, it means his eyes are still gold and his mouth is still fanged when Deaton makes it into the exam room.

Deaton—in the middle of sliding the gas mask he’d been wearing up, and off of his head—glances at him, his eyebrows rising just slightly. “Congratulations, Mr. Raeken,” he notes in lieu of a greeting, his eyes on Theo’s shifted features. “It appears you’ve finally won that argument about whether chimeras count as supernaturals.”

Liam blows a dismissive raspberry—and then has to try and hide a wince that he doesn’t actually manage to hide at all when it apparently jars his broken ribs—but he rallies regardless to retort: “Yeah, but he won it on like, a technicality. Everybody stop encouraging him.”

Deaton just smiles his enigmatic smile, and doesn’t reply. Or he doesn’t reply about that, anyway: he looks towards Melissa and Lydia, his expression sobering, and tells them: “Malia is safely confined at Eichen.”

“How is she?” Melissa immediately asks, and Theo doesn’t understand her hesitant tone until he spots the way that Deaton’s expression spasms. Intuition starts to curl along his spine.

Deaton shakes his head slightly. “No change.”

“What’s that mean?” Theo cuts in, glancing around the room and feeling uncomfortably out of the loop. “Deaton. What does that—”

“When whatever happened, happened,” Melissa answers instead, “Malia didn’t just go berserk.”

“She spent a significant part of her life as a coyote,” Deaton reminds him. “That seems to have—left its mark, and interacted with the current situation.”

Theo could ask them to clarify. He doesn’t need them to. “She went feral,” he realizes softly, horrified.

Deaton nods. Melissa looks away. Lydia reaches out to rub a comforting hand down her arm. “We’ll figure it out,” she murmurs to her. “We’ll get her back.” But then she turns back to Deaton. “And Jordan? Has anyone…?”

“No,” Deaton answers quietly. “Argent’s and the Sheriff’s people have yet to find him.”

Theo grimaces, and finds himself glancing reflexively down at Liam. He grimaces right back. Softening his features, his lips flickering ruefully, Theo strokes the side of thumb there-and-back against Liam’s chest.

He looks back up when Melissa sucks in a deep, bracing breath, her hands coming up to cover her face. She spends a few seconds like that, and then drops her hands, and asks, her tone back to being brisk and business-like: “The other supernaturals being held at Eichen. How are they?”

Deaton’s expression doesn’t change, but the tone of his voice is a little harder as he answers, “The majority were uninjured. For the rest, I treated who I could.”

The silent implication of his claim—that there were those he couldn’t treat—lands heavily in the room. Melissa’s head falls further down as she stares at the floor, and the line of Lydia’s mouth tightens. Across the room, Masselli takes a hesitant half-step forward and tries:

“Lydia, I swear we tried—”

“I know,” Lydia interrupts, not unkindly.

Still, her eyes flick to Kaynor and Marykwas standing behind Masselli, and harden.

There’s a few awful, crawling seconds of silence, and then Deaton turns to look at Theo, and Corey. “Lydia said you went to assist Argent with Scott. Tell me about him,” he requests, and so Theo—with Corey’s help—does.

But after he’s finished, and with the circular debate about what they all know, and don’t know—precisely fuck and all, really, just as Liam had so crudely observed—starting up again, Theo can’t help slumping back down against the side of Liam’s cot, and the uninjured upper-half of Liam’s chest. He loses track of the conversation, the words and steady rise and fall of the various voices in the room becoming a sort of contourless white noise; Theo lets it wash over him, and finally—Liam’s fingers stroking comfortingly over the back of his neck—lets his eyes slip shut, and the side of his cheek come to rest on Liam’s near shoulder.

When he blinks his eyes back open, he’s back in that white room.

The ceiling is as high as last time, the room as blindingly bright. Theo squints up at it, his pupils contracting just as painfully as they had before, and then all at once his eyes widen as he remembers.

He sits up.

“No,” he breathes, because he can see Tara across the way, already starting to hurry towards him. “No, no, no,” he chants helplessly to himself, already scrambling backwards on his heels and palms—just like last time—before he flips over onto his hands and knees instead, and surges to his feet as he prepares to run.

But the second he straightens and looks up, Tara is there in front of him.

Theo startles backwards on a sharp, sucked-in breath, his eyes wide on her face. On her face that’s still blurry, somehow; incomplete. But even as he’s stumbling ever-farther away from her, there’s an absent part of his brain that’s realizing that her features are more defined than last time: he can clearly trace the outline of the curve of her mouth, the shape of her eyes, the slope of her nose.

A slope that he doesn’t quite recognize. A shape that seems just slightly off.

A curve that’s wrong.

His confusion halts his retreating feet. He stops, and stares, his gaze tracing over and over her features as he tries to pinpoint what exactly seems so incorrect about this version of Tara.

It gives her time to catch up with him.

It gives her time to stretch her hands out, and slam them against his shoulders, sending him flying back—

—and into wakefulness, his whole body jolting as he startles back to awareness. He’s breathing fast and hard and the expression on his face must reflect what he’s actually feeling, because Liam immediately reaches for him as the noise in the room just stops. Liam’s hands anchor themselves around Theo’s face. He searches Theo’s eyes.

He realizes, “Tara?”

Theo begins to immediately nod his agreement, and then almost as quickly he starts to shake his head instead. “Yes,” he says breathlessly, then: “No. I don’t—I don’t know.” He pants through another quick set of breaths, aware of Liam’s gaze narrow on his face and—more distantly—the attention of the rest of the room’s occupants. He focuses on Liam instead of on them and tries to explain, “She didn’t attack me. The last two times,” he tells Liam, the full strangeness of it all sinking into him, “she didn’t attack me.”

Liam’s brow furrows, and Theo drops his head to Liam’s shoulder as his eyes squeeze shut.

“And we weren’t in the skinwalker prison, like we’ve always been before,” he continues, still just completely baffled. “We weren’t—it was this room. This huge, featureless, blindingly white room. It—”

“What’d you say?” Corey interrupts suddenly, and when Theo jerks to look up at him in surprise, Corey has come forward a few steps and is staring intently at Theo’s face.

“What?” Theo echoes, confused.

“The room you were describing, you said you dreamed about it?” Corey presses, and impatiently.

“I’d call it a nightmare,” Theo corrects automatically, then, swallowing: “But yeah.”

Lydia’s paying close attention to them both now, too. She asks Corey, “What is it?”

Corey looks back at her. “Mason and I, we had the same dream.” He turns back to Theo and adds, “We had it last night, after we got into town.” Theo’s breath catches as he understands the point Corey is trying to drive at. But Corey’s not done. He stares even more fixedly at Theo and demands, “The woman. You said you saw the woman—?”

“I thought it was Tara,” Theo answers immediately. But awake, and thinking about it more and more—but wondering why in the hell Mason and Corey would be dreaming about his sister—he’s not so sure, anymore. “The long dark hair and the height was about right. But her face—”

“—was featureless,” Corey fills in. Theo nods, his throat tight.

Lydia’s gaze is flicking back and forth between the two of them. Her brow is furrowed tightly, and her mouth is dropped just slightly open, her eyes narrow. She orders, “Describe the room again.”

“Huge,” Theo tells her, because that’s the first thing he remembers thinking upon waking up. “Just huge, and so—”

“—bright,” Corey finishes for him. “Everything was white. The walls, the floors, the ceiling.”

“What else?” Lydia demands. “Both of you. What else was in—”

“Just the woman,” Theo interrupts, feeling his own pulse—which had never really slowed from his dream, really, start to kick back up in a sympathetic response to the way that Lydia’s had started to pound. He finds himself anchoring his hand more completely around Liam’s shoulder, the curve of his neck; it leaves Liam’s pulse beating up against the curve of his thumb, and Theo tries to use it to calm his own heartbeat; to soothe his own rapidly-spiraling instincts. “The faceless woman with the dark hair. That’s all I saw, anyway,” he concludes, glancing at Corey to double-check; he nods. “Lydia, what—

But Lydia isn’t looking at him anymore, or at Corey. Her head had whipped around so that she could stare down at Stiles instead. Stiles, still comatose on the exam table, and with his pulse and the unsteady rasp of his breathing and his very presence getting weaker, and weaker; the exact opposite of Scott, who’d been getting stronger, and stronger. She spends a good few seconds like that, her mind clearly working, and then her head jerks up, and she finds Deaton.

“That room. That huge, white room. I’ve been there before,” she tells him. Tells all of them, really, though her attention never leaves Deaton. “And so has Stiles, and Scott, and—and—”

She cuts off on a rough noise, and has to swallow before she’s able to finish:

“And Allison.”

Deaton’s expression starts to slacken with surprise, even as Lydia is drawing herself up, her own expression going hard.

“It’s the Nemeton,” she concludes. “It’s the sacrifices.”

---

“Lydia, I don’t like this,” Theo argues quietly, him and Lydia stood in their own little bubble in the corner of the exam room; he can hear Liam and Corey and Melissa and Deaton all talking behind him but he keeps his focus on Lydia, because he doesn’t like this.

“I know,” Lydia tells him, just as quietly. “But I have to go. I can—I can feel it.”

She tilts her head at him, giving him a significant look, but it’s not like Theo needs it; he knows exactly what she means. She’d tried to explain her banshee intuition to him one time—Theo wolfsbane-drunk and Lydia just drunk on hers and Stiles’ and Derek’s porch in Boston, Theo curious, curious, curious in that Dread Doctors’ way that he’d never been able to shake—and she’d been holding herself the same way then that she is now: very carefully, her head just slightly cocked like she was listening for a radio tuned low. Theo exhales out roughly as he bitterly wishes, just for a moment, that Lydia’s abilities weren’t slowly filtering back in, and looks away.

And winds up looking directly at Marykwas, who’s mid-low, burring conversation with Kaynor as they both double-check their rifles, their other equipment. Theo stares, eyes narrowing, and then they widen.

“No,” he denies immediately. “You are not coming.”

Marykwas just stops; the noise in the rest of the room stops, too. He turns to look at Theo, his expression narrowing. After a second he trades a glance with Kaynor, and then refocuses on Theo.

“Yes,” he disagrees, “we are. The Nemeton is out in the middle of the Preserve. We have no idea what the situation out there might be like, and we—”

“Corey and I can handle it,” Theo interrupts, tone more than a little hard.

Marykwas stares at him, his eyes flicking over Theo’s face, and then he shakes his head a little, incredulous. “Get your head out of your ass, Raeken. You’re a good fighter,” he admits, raising his voice some to drown out Theo as Theo goes to provide a scathing reply, “and Bryant’s talent is useful, but you could too easily be overwhelmed. It’d be a stupid risk.”

“The stupid risk,” Theo shoots back hotly, “would be leaving this clinic undefended.”

“Masselli’s staying,” Marykwas counters. Masselli stiffens some as Theo glances over at him, probably correctly interpreting the dissatisfied look on Theo’s face. “Between the mountain ash barrier and—”

“That’s not good enough,” Theo argues. “Not with Derek and Liam out of the fight, and Melissa and Stiles—”

“If we’re not going,” Marykwas interrupts, gesturing with the rifle in his hands—though he keeps the barrel pointed down—at Deaton and Lydia, “then they’re not going.”

He lets that threat hang there in the air between himself and Theo for a few, tense seconds, and then he says, more quietly:

“Lydia’s human right now, for all intents and purposes, and if something happens to Deaton, the spell keeping the human civilians in town from wandering right into the proverbial line of fire is done.”

He raises his eyebrows in a clear challenge. Theo’s teeth grit and his nostrils flare, but it’s not like Marykwas is wrong.

And yet.

“No lethal ammunition,” Theo bargains.

“What?” Marykwas demands, and with another shared look with Kaynor.

“You come, no lethal ammunition,” Theo repeats, then: “I’m not risking anymore casualties, not if we don’t have to. And with Corey and me there, we don’t have to.”

Marykwas doesn’t answer right away. Theo can see his fingers spasm around the stock of his gun—can smell the way his scent dips unhappily—but finally he tips his head, just slightly; an acknowledgement.

“Fine,” he agrees.

But Theo doesn’t budge. “Don’t bullshit me, Marykwas. I can smell the wolfsbane in the bullets in your clip. Those stay here.”

The magnanimous look falls off Marykwas’ face like plaster cracking away. His jaw tightens right back up. “Try to remember,” he warns lowly, “that I don’t take orders from you.”

At the back of the room, Corey is shifting; coming forward just slightly, and onto the balls of his feet. Liam is struggling to push himself up onto one elbow, his eyes fixed on Marykwas’ face. At Theo’s side Lydia takes a step forward, clearly ready to intervene, but she doesn’t get the chance.

“If you need to take orders from someone,” Melissa suddenly interjects, and when Theo’s attention snaps to her in surprise, her expression—her very posture—reminds him so much of Argent that he instinctively finds himself straightening up, regardless of the fact that she isn’t even looking at him; her eyes are fixed, and hard, on Marykwas’ face, “then you can take them from me.”

She holds Marykwas’ eyes for a long stretch of tense seconds, and then she tells him:

“Do as he says. No lethal ammunition.”

For a split-second Theo’s almost convinced that Marykwas isn’t going to listen to her. His shoulders stay stiff and his expression mutinous, and he doesn’t move. But finally he swallows, and bows his head just slightly.

“Yes ma’am,” he acknowledges tightly.

He pops the clip out of his rifle, and holds it up for the room’s inspection, and then slams it down onto the exam table beside him with a loud, ringing smack. Kaynor follows suit a second later.

“Satisfied?” He demands.

Theo thinks of walking through the middle of the Preserve with Marykwas and Kaynor at his back. He thinks, very clearly: no.

He says, “Let’s go.”

---

Corey is the first out of the clinic door, so he’s also who Theo nearly runs into when Corey suddenly stops just a few feet from the building. Theo manages to backpedal his way to a graceless halt just inches before he would have collided with Corey’s back, his mouth already opening to demand what the hell.

But then he doesn’t have to, because Corey whispers: “Holy shit.”

He’s looking up, his head tilted back as he stares up at the sky. Theo frowns at him before following his gaze, and then he also freezes, his mouth dropping open and his expression going slack with surprise. “That can’t be good,” he breathes.

“It’s the barrier,” Lydia realizes, coming to stand next to them both, her eyes on the undulating waves of color covering the sky as they ripple, and ripple, and ripple. “And if it’s visible now without disturbance, than it’s—”

“—getting stronger,” Deaton concludes as he joins their little cluster, Marykwas and Kaynor following just behind, and all of their heads tilted back to stare up at the sky, too. Deaton had swapped his gas mask for one of the smaller respirators like Gonzalez and his team had been wearing—and that Marykwas and Kaynor are now back to wearing—but it still makes his voice sound strange, mechanical; a little detached.

Almost on cue, the radio Theo has clipped to his belt squawks. Theo retrieves it without taking his eyes off the shimmering glow of the barrier, and replies, “Yeah?,” blankly and just completely ignoring all radio etiquette because—as Corey succinctly put it—holy shit.

“Scott just broke through the electrified chainlinks of the cage,” Argent informs them briskly, though with how badly the radio is crackling and burring, Theo almost can’t understand him. “So whatever you all are planning to do, do it faster, because the only thing now holding him back from ripping his way through us and then the rest of the town are the mountain ash line—” which we know he can get through, Theo fills in automatically, stunned past the ability to respond, “—and Mason’s barrier.”

Corey’s expression goes pasty, and raw. He trades a desperate, terrified look with Theo. Shit, Theo thinks.

“We’re on our way to the Nemeton,” Theo tells Argent. “We think whatever’s happening is connected to it.”

The radio clicks on but Argent doesn’t speak right away. Instead there’s a burst of static and then a few seconds of frantic yelling before Argent finally orders, “Mason.” The radio clicks off for an alarmingly long few seconds—Argent must have let go of the talk button—but then clicks on again. “Mason just stopped Scott from breaking the mountain ash line, but he’s got to drop his barrier every time he does it. Hurry,” he orders.

The line fills with static as Argent releases the talk button again. Theo spends a long second with the crackling radio in front of his face, his fingers spasming tight around the plastic, and then he looks around at Corey, at Lydia, at Deaton; at Marykwas and Kaynor, whose eyes are hard and the corners of whose jaws—visible at the very edges of their masks—are stark with tension.

“Let’s go,” Theo tells them.

They take Marykwas’ and Kaynor’s SUVs as far as they can, Kaynor staying right on Marykwas’ bumper as they make their way through the eerily empty streets. “You sure you know where the hell you’re going?” Marykwas demands at one point.

Theo very deliberately doesn’t look over at Lydia in the seat next to him, at the same time that he very carefully doesn’t remember the way that the flesh of her neck had felt as it’d split open around his claws that night in the Doctors’ operating theater. He answers, almost too-evenly: “Yes.”

Lydia doesn’t say anything, but she does reach over and place her hand over his atop the thigh that he can’t keep from anxiously bouncing. And when Theo exhales out slowly at the touch, his eyes slipping shut and his fingers spreading farther apart, she threads her own fingers through his, and squeezes.

He squeezes back.

Marykwas and Kaynor park their SUVs on the side of one of the roads bordering the Preserve with no actual concern for traffic laws or parking violations. Theo sincerely hopes they all live long enough for one or both of them to be ticketed. Hell, he’d spot them the costs.

It takes a moment of him standing at the edge of the trees to orient himself. The memories are years old, at this point, and more to the point: were never his to begin with. He closes his eyes, and dredges them up from where they live right in the middle of the worst mistakes he’s ever made, and when he opens his eyes again—the memories he’d stolen from Lydia overlaid with his own overlaid with his mental map of the Preserve—he knows where to go.

“C’mon,” he mutters, and starts leading their ragtag group through the trees.

There’s no trail, and making things worse, the natural landmarks of the Preserve had shifted over the years as the typical cycle of growth and destruction had felled trees, had sprung up new ones; had shifted the flow of one of the creeks just enough—there must have been a mudslide, Theo realizes, looking down from the banks at one point—that Theo has to spend a minute spinning in a circle trying to reorient his bearings. Corey’s and Deaton’s expressions are carefully neutral. Marykwas’ and Kaynor’s are not. Theo bites off a swear, and looks away from them as he tries to concentrate.

And then Lydia says, “It’s this way.”

When Theo jerks his head sideways to look at her, she has one arm lifted, and pointing at a section of trees that’s as indistinguishable as every other section of trees. Theo frowns.

“You remember?” He asks her.

But Lydia just shakes her head, and when she swallows Theo can hear her throat work. Her eyelashes flutter some, her eyes going hooded, as she returns his gaze and explains, “I can feel it.” Reluctance saturates each of her words.

Theo feels his chest go cold. He exchanges an immediate, reflexive glance with Deaton, but Deaton looks just as stunned. That causes Theo to glance at Corey instead, but Corey’s already staring at Deaton, and is apparently thinking the same thing that Theo is:

If the notoriously unruffled Deaton was ruffled, they were really screwed.

Theo turns back to Lydia. Her expression tightens, and she bites her lips, but then she squares her shoulders, and tells them, “Follow me.”

Theo exchanges another series of looks with Corey and Deaton, and then shoots a wary glance over his shoulder at Marykwas and Kaynor. When he moves to follow Lydia, he positions his body best he can so that he’s in between them and her back. Behind him, he can sense Corey doing the same.

It’s probably because he’s paying so close attention to her that he noticies, seemingly before she does, that something’s wrong. The terrain is rough and she’s not exactly dressed for it, but she stumbles on flat dirt as frequently as she does on rockier patches of ground, and at one point in stepping over a fallen tree branch, the tip of her foot doesn’t quite clear it and she starts to fall. Theo darts forward, and catches her before she can hit the ground.

“Lydia,” he breathes, his eyes snagging on her face.

Her pale face, her skin damp with sweat. Her fingers in Theo’s own tremble. She can’t seem to get a full breath, her inhales and exhales huffing out of her through an open, slack mouth. Her eyes are focused, but barely; it’s costing her, clearly.

Corey had hurried over to them, which is why Theo can look up and realize that he looks awful, too. It’s not as pronounced as Lydia, but he’s pale, and when he crouches down next to them, Theo can tell he’s breathing unevenly; shakily.

“It’s you, too,” Lydia manages, touching her fingertips to Theo’s face. They feel like they’re burning against his skin; Theo automatically flinches back.

Corey’s brow furrows. “We’ve been dreaming about the Nemeton, maybe it’s—”

“The Doctors drew upon the power of the Nemeton to make the chimeras,” Theo interrupts, too tired and—now that he’d been confronted with direct evidence and is therefore unable to shove it aside and ignore it any longer—too sick-feeling to try and be more polite. “If something’s happening to it—” Theo says, his eyes cutting to Lydia’s, “—then it makes sense that we’d feel it the closer we get.”

Corey grimaces. Lydia’s expression spasms. Behind them, there’s a crackling of breaking branches as Deaton steps forward—Theo whipping around to look at him—and says, as gently as possible through the respirator: “We should hurry.”

Theo grits his teeth. He glances at Corey, who nods once and staggers his way back to his feet, and then he looks at Lydia, who also nods, and starts trying to stand. She wobbles, though; Theo darts his way up after her, one arm automatically wrapping around her waist. Still, he nearly takes them both down when a bout of vertigo slams into him at the sudden change in position. The only reason he keeps his feet—and Lydia keeps hers—is because Corey reaches forward and yanks Theo back upright. He doesn’t let go for a long few seconds, until he’s apparently confident that Theo’s as steady on his feet as he’s going to get.

“We’re not far,” Lydia assures the group, though she does it from a half-hunched position, Theo’s arm still around her waist. She’d layered her own arm over his, and her fingers are digging into the meat of his bicep; he shifts his fingers against her opposite hip to get a better grip, and nods at her to lead on.

She takes one step, and then another.

A dozen more and she’s practically hanging on Theo, her face turned into his shoulder as she gasps for air. Theo’s not in that much better of a state, really; his vision is swimming and he keeps having to swallow down sudden bouts of nausea, his stomach roiling.

Corey had given up the ghost and had actually vomited off to the side. Kaynor—ignoring Marykwas’ snapping Kaynor—had swung his rifle around on its strap so that it was resting against his back, and had gone to help him. He’s still holding onto Corey—holding him up, really—as Lydia leads them another half-dozen stumbling steps forward, and they break into a clearing.

A clearing with a very distinctive, very massive tree stump in the middle of it. They all stand frozen on the edge of the tree line and stare.

“What the hell is wrong with it?” Marykwas finally demands, voice hushed and warped strangely by the respirator but still clearly more than a little terrified.

“I don’t know,” Deaton answers, “but whatever it is—”

“—is killing it,” Theo fills in, his gaze locking with Deaton’s automatically. Lydia’s fingers—the set of them already clutched around his back, and shoulders—tighten.

“The Nemeton is dying.”

---

No one wants to get closer to the Nemeton, but this near to it, Theo’s limbs are starting to shake. He has to sit, or he’s going to fall over. “Lydia,” he gasps, and starts bending his knees. She catches on, and starts following him down, one of her hands planting in the dirt as she wobbles and nearly falls forward. After a second, Kaynor guides Corey over to them—though he has to half-drag him, since Corey can’t seem to get his feet to work right—and then helps Corey sit more-or-less gracefully by Theo’s side. Corey immediately collapses against Theo’s shoulder, his chest rising and falling rapidly against Theo’s ribs as he breathes in short, shallow huffs.

Theo closes his eyes and leans back into him, his other arm left anchored around Lydia’s waist as she presses against his other side, the rhythm of her breathing just as rough, and uneven.

Theo looks up at Deaton, his head feeling heavy on his neck. “I’ve never heard of anything like this,” he confesses. Then, to put the necessary finer point on it, he insists: “The Doctors had never heard of anything like this.”

Corey and Lydia both flinch: Theo can feel it like it’d been his own body, they’re all so tightly clumped together. Deaton grimaces, and crouches down in front of them. He reaches out to find Lydia’s wrist, his fingers searching out the veins there as he apparently checks her pulse. He switches focus next, and brings one hand up to Theo’s chin to carefully steady Theo’s admittedly unsteady head as Deaton lifts his eyelids, and checks his pupillary response. With Corey, he presses the back of his palm to Corey’s forehead, and he doesn’t like what he finds: Theo can’t see his mouth underneath the respirator but he can see the skin around his eyes tighten above it.

He looks back at Theo after he’s dropped his hands, and admits, “I’ve never heard of anything like this, either.”

He glances back up at Marykwas, and Kaynor, the latter of whom is watching the Nemeton uneasily and the former of whom is watching them, the parts of his expression that Theo can see unreadable. Deaton straightens, and turns his attention to the Nemeton, the bark of the stump blackened and brittle-looking, like it’d been struck by lightning, or somehow set ablaze. Around it, the leaf litter and surrounding dirt are unscorched.

Untouched.

Deaton studies it, and explains: “Nemetons can grow weak, if they’re cut down like this one was, or if something else happens to affect them or the health of the magic in the area. But that’s a process that takes years. Centuries, even.” He shakes his head, and looks back down at the cluster of Theo and Corey and Lydia. “It doesn’t happen over the course of a few hours like this.”

“What about the effects it’s having?” Marykwas cuts in. “The berserking supernaturals. That,” he adds pointedly, gesturing with his—thankfully still downward-pointing—rifle towards the barrier shimmering more and more strongly across the sky.

Deaton shakes his head again. “Not that I’m aware of.” He hesitates, and then asks, “Theo?”

Theo lets his eyes squeeze closed. Getting the words out is hard; it feels like his lungs are clamped in a goddamn vice. “No. Not in the Doctors’ records, anyway, and they were—thorough.” He opens his eyes back up. He looks back up at Deaton as he ventures, a little hesitantly: “It would make sense, though.”

“What do you mean?” Marykwas demands.

Deaton’s the one who answers. “Supernaturals are, at their core, beings of magic. If the magic around them became disrupted, or corrupted, or—”

Blew like a goddamn fuse, Theo thinks, his attention dropping back to the burnt-out remnants of the Nemeton behind Deaton, because that’s sure as hell what it looks like.

“—was otherwise affected, it would follow that they would feel some ill-effects.”

Ill-effects,” Kaynor mutters under his breath, but not unkindly. Just incredulously; impressed, as ever, by Deaton’s powers of understatement. Theo finds himself sharing an amused glance with him—Kaynor apparently sensing the attention and looking down—and Kaynor’s eyes crinkle over his respirator; his lips twitching, maybe.

Theo’s lips twitch in a weak echo. But then he jerks and looks sharply sideways as Lydia shifts, attempting as she does so to push herself further up. Theo leans further towards her to give her something to brace against, since he can feel the shakiness of the arm she uses to try and do so; she smiles weakly in thanks.

“It would explain the barrier, too,” she points out breathily; her chest against Theo’s arm is expanding and contracting too rapidly. “Theo and I found it out near the edge of the county. That must be as far of the Nemeton’s influence extends. It must be—” she has to pause, clearly trying to catch her breath before she manages to conclude, “—trying to protect itself.”

“So, okay, great,” Marykwas spits out in response, clearly frustrated. “We know what’s causing the symptoms.” He looks around at all of them and then demands, “What the hell do we do about the disease?

He gestures meaningfully back towards the dying Nemeton.

I don’t know, Theo thinks, his mental fingers flick-flick-flicking through his catalog of what he’d learned about Nemetons with the Doctors—learned in spite of the Doctors, really, because christ knows their negligence had been, in the most generous possible interpretation, benign—and just coming up with nothing. That might have to do with how tired, and slow he feels; his limbs aching and his thoughts cottony. On either side of him, both Lydia and Corey are slumping harder against him.

But: “It has to be replanted,” Deaton answers Marykwas simply. Theo’s head jerks up, and he stares at Deaton, the matter-of-factness in Deaton’s tone jarring.

“Is that,” Corey starts to say after a few surprised seconds have tripped themselves by. “That can happen?

“It has happened,” Deaton corrects. “Remember that I mentioned that there have been instances of other Nemetons growing weak? Some would grow so weak that they would, in essence, die. Given the importance of the Nemetons to ensuring the health of the magic—and therefore, of the supernaturals dependent on that magic—in a given area, those with responsibility for overseeing each Nemeton would take precautions to address such an eventuality.”

“How?” Theo immediately demands, and intently enough that his body leans forward without his conscious permission. Corey makes a startled noise as Theo’s bracing shoulder suddenly disappears from underneath his chest, and he starts to fall. Theo swears and goes to catch him, though the only reason he succeeds is because Kaynor reaches down to help haul Corey back up. Corey smiles weakly and apologetically at them both.

“Through a cutting, taken from the once-healthy Nemeton and carefully tended to,” Deaton replies, apparently unfazed by the byplay.

“Is there a cutting of this Nemeton?” Lydia asks, at the same time that Theo—recovered from his scramble to keep Corey upright—manages to press: “Tended to by whom?

“By the alpha of the pack within whose territory the Nemeton sits,” Deaton answers Theo’s question, and then: “And yes, there is a cutting of this Nemeton.”

“How do you know?” Corey wonders, the slightest bit of suspicion creeping into his voice. He has one hand clenched now in the back of Theo’s shirt, and it’s pulling the fabric tight across Theo’s back and causing it to dig into the muscles underneath his arm. Theo just shifts so that he’s bracing Corey up a little more firmly.

Deaton exhales out heavily, and then—sounding almost a little reluctant—says: “Because I was the one who took it.”

“The Hales,” Lydia realizes, her eyes widening. Theo jerks sideways to look at her, because that’d been hope that had threaded its way through her voice. “Do you know where they kept it?”

“I do,” Deaton acknowledges, then: “And I expect you do, too.”

Lydia’s brow furrows, but only for a split second. Her mouth drops just slightly open.

She breathes, “The vault.

---

“We’re not doing this again, Raeken,” Marykwas says, clearly on the frustrated edge of exasperated and with an—attempted—note of finality in his voice.

He starts to turn around to say something to Kaynor—who’s stood just off Marykwas’ shoulder, his rifle still swung around to his back and one arm around Corey’s waist to hold him up—in a clear dismissal of his and Theo’s argument. Theo feels his teeth grit. He starts to open his mouth.

But Lydia beats him to replying. “You’re right, Marykwas. We’re not doing this again,” she tells him, Marykwas jerking and whipping quickly back around to look at her. Even leaned heavily against Theo to stay up on her feet, her breathing still fast and uneven and a little painfully shallow-sounding, she still manages to give off the impression of having both her feet planted firmly against the ground; immovable, “because you’re not coming.

The corner of Marykwas’ jaw visible at the edge of his respirator spasms with tension. “Ma’am, we’ve been over this. It’s too dangerous. If something were to happen—”

“I’ll be fine with Theo and Corey,” Lydia interrupts.

Marykwas’ eyebrows shoot up. He gives Theo—who isn’t in any better state than either Corey, or Lydia, his shoulder braced just as hard against Lydia’s as hers is against his own—and an incredulous look. He doesn’t even bother looking at Corey, who has the back of one hand pressed against his mouth as he clearly tries not to undermine either Theo’s or Lydia’s arguments by getting sick again.

To his credit, Marykwas doesn’t attempt to point any of this out. He simply tries, his voice now sounding a little strained: “Ma’am—”

“They’ll be fine once we get away from the Nemeton,” Lydia retorts. The way she says it, Theo almost believes her.

Marykwas clearly doesn’t. His expression twists with the frustration he’s obviously trying to keep under control. “Yeah? You know that for sure? Because five minutes ago all of you were talking about how unprecedented this all is.” He shakes his head, and declares, “You have no idea what will happen to either of them or you once you get away from the Nemeton.”

“Maybe not,” Lydia agrees easily enough, then: “But I do know that I’m not taking you to the vault.”

Marykwas’ patience is clearly wearing thin. “All due respect, ma’am—”

Lydia doesn’t let him finish, or even really get started.All due respect, Marykwas,” she interrupts, her voice raised to purposefully drown out his, “but the location of the Hale vault is one of the most closely guarded secrets of that family.”

Marykwas doesn’t answer right away, his eyes searching Lydia’s face. He reminds her, very quietly, “Argent knows where it is.”

“Yes,” Lydia agrees, without missing a beat. “But you’re not Argent.” Her tone is so even as to be cutting.

Marykwas recoils.

Only for a second, though, and then he starts to take a single step forward, his shoulders rigid. Theo’s eyes widen and then immediately narrow, and he starts to move forward, fully intending—even though each and every one of his limbs are shaking, and he’s not sure he could control the shift if he tried—to put himself in Marykwas’ way; to push Lydia behind himself.

But before he can—and before Marykwas can do whatever it was he’d been planning on doing—Kaynor’s eyes widen and he lurches forward, one hand clutching in the sleeve of Marykwas’ shirt over his bicep and yanking him back as he says, “Markywas, sto—

Except that in his haste to interrupt the brewing confrontation between Marykwas and Theo, he shifts far enough and fast enough forward that he takes himself away as a support for Corey. Corey makes a startled noise and wobbles in the absence of Kaynor’s bracing weight, and in trying to recover his balance he takes a reflexive step backwards and—Theo realizing what’s about to happen a split-second before it does—starts to fall.

“Bryant, shit,” Kaynor swears, releasing Marykwas and turning back to try and grab him. He misses, but Theo—lurching reflexively forward after Corey, too, Lydia instantly reaching back to grab and hold onto Deaton behind her to let him—doesn’t. He manages to snag one of Corey’s flailing wrists but doesn’t manage to keep him from hitting the ground, and he winces and crouches forward some, preparing to pull Corey back to his feet when—

—he looks up, and realizes that he and Corey aren’t in the Preserve anymore.

“Holy shit,” he breathes, one of his hands still clasped palm-to-palm with one of Corey’s and Corey half-pulled up. They’re both frozen, their eyes wide as they stare around the white room surrounding them.

The white room that they’d both apparently been dreaming of.

Theo jerks his gaze back down to Corey. Corey jerks his gaze up to meet it. “How the hell did you…?” Theo demands.

Corey shakes his head a little wildly. “I didn’t do any—” He starts to deny hotly, and then they both stop, their attention snapping off to the side.

“Oh, shit,” Theo breathes. His heart—Tara’s heart—twists in his chest. He starts to recoil reflexively backwards and then has to stop, Corey’s hand still clenched around his own.

The jarring interruption is enough for him to remember: Lydia at the clinic, listening to them both describe the room, and the woman, they’d seen, and then breathing out Allison. He forces himself to breathe through the panic trying to claw its way out of his ribcage. He squints at the dark-haired woman in the distance, trying to shove aside the clanging warning in his head shrieking Tara-Tara-Tara to actually study the woman’s features; to compare them to Tara’s, burnt forever into Theo’s memory.

They’re clear enough this time that Theo can spot the differences—the fuller lips, the rounder eyes, the stronger jaw—even with the distance; the distance that’s closing fast as the woman hurries towards them. He glances down at Corey, who glances away from the woman and up at him. His eyes narrow, slightly. He starts to push himself up from the floor.

Theo tenses the arm connected to the hand he’d still had clasped around Corey’s, and hauls him up, and to his feet.

They both turn to face the woman, side-by-side and near enough that their shoulders are brushing as Theo hesitantly ventures, “Allison…?” He swallows—his throat tight enough that his voice had croaked, and then repeats: “Allison Argent?”

But she doesn’t answer, or slow. If anything she speeds up, so that she’s practically running at them. That pressure from Theo’s first visit is back and weighing on his eardrums, almost painful in its intensity. He flinches, one palm coming up to cover his ear in a doomed attempt to make it stop. Beside him, Corey is doing the same, his expression screwed up in clear pain as his shoulders hunch inward.

The pressure gets worse the closer Allison gets. It starts to modulate, rising and falling in unpredictable, sinuous waves. Theo’s knees start to give out and he holds out a beseeching hand, begging, “Allison, please!

It doesn’t matter. Allison finally reaches them, her hands drawing back by her shoulders before she slams them forward against the centers of Corey’s and Theo’s chests, sending them—

—flying back into the dirt of the Preserve, Deaton having to quickly pull Lydia aside so that they don’t collide as Theo and Corey hit the ground. Theo arches the second that he does, gasping for air that he can’t get because of the shock to his lungs, his fingertips scrabbling uselessly at the ground. Beside him, Corey isn’t in any better state: his mouth is gaping wide as he clearly tries to breathe, and his heels are digging furrows into the ground as his feet slip against the damp, loamy earth.

“Theo, Corey!” Lydia shouts, and stumbles—Deaton following after her to support her as she wobbles—over to them, so that she can kneel down at Theo’s side; so that she can reach over Theo, one hand left on Theo’s chest, to touch her fingertips to Corey’s jaw. Corey turns towards her, but is still too breathless to speak.

Theo closes his eyes, and forces himself to concentrate on calming down; on healing.

When he opens his eyes again, he and Corey are surrounded on all sides by Lydia, Deaton, Marykwas, and Kaynor. They’re all looking down at them with their concern writ stark across their faces even with half of them hidden by the respirators. Kaynor’s hands are empty—his rifle still slung across his back on its strap—but Markywas’ are white-knuckled around the stock and barrel of his gun. His grip is hard enough that he’s pushed all of the blood of his fingertips; his nail beds are alarmingly pale.

“Are you okay?” Lydia is demanding, her hand switching from Corey’s face to Theo’s, turning his chin gently but insistently towards her so that she can look down at him, and search his eyes. “What happened?

Theo doesn’t answer right away. Instead he grimaces and starts trying to push himself to a seated position, his arms shaking all the while. Lydia makes a noise and tries to help him, best she can.

Corey just groans and covers his face with his hands, and stays flat on his back.

Theo gives absent thanks that apparently he’d recovered enough to get his breath back. He twists his head around to meet Lydia’s eyes, and finally answers, “We—we ended up back in that room.”

“What?” Lydia breathes, at the same time that Marykwas demands, “How is that possible? You both goddamn disappeared!”

Theo shakes his head, and then turns weakly around to look at Corey. Corey must sense the attention because he drops his hands, and looks back. “You think I know?” He sputters incredulously.

Theo’s lips twitch. The unexpected humor helps settle his still-raging heartbeat, some, and he glances around, his mind working.

His attention snags on something a few feet away. Something buried in the ground, and at just the right position for Corey to have fallen on. He squints at it for a second, and then requests, “Kaynor.” He holds up a hand.

Kaynor—after a wide-eyed glance at Marykwas—takes hold of it, and yanks him up. Theo leads him, leaning heavily against him all the while, over to what he’d seen. He lowers himself—Kaynor helping him down—back down onto his knees, and then hovers a hand carefully over the object. His eyes flick to the Nemeton, and then back.

“It’s a Nemeton root,” he realizes. He looks up as Deaton approaches him, and comes to a stop over his shoulder. “Corey fell on top of a Nemeton root.”

Deaton’s expression slackens some with surprise and his head whips around to look at Corey, who’d raised up on an elbow to frown at the something—at the exposed root—that Theo had found. His eyebrows shoot up.

“It’s like with the Ghost Riders,” he realizes, breathing it out. He glances up from the root to Theo, to Deaton; to Lydia beside him. “I could enter the Ghost Rider’s world, remember? I could—”

“—act as a bridge,” Theo fills in, flicking his own eyes up to meet Corey’s. Corey swallows, and nods tightly.

“You entered the Nemeton,” Deaton interprets, sounding almost blank with the force of his surprise. “It’s—mind space, of a sort. Like Scott and Stiles and Allison did. Like you did,” he concludes, looking back at Lydia.

Lydia nods to acknowledge his point, but shallowly. But absently. The line of her mouth is tight. Her expression is tense, and twisting tighter with every passing second. She looks straight at Theo, her bottom lip pulling between her teeth hard enough that she presses all of the color out of it.

She demands, tone quiet and more than a little desperate: “Did you see her?” She switches her attention to Corey, and insists, “Did you see Allison?”

Corey jerks his eyes to Theo, clearly uncomfortable under the intensity of Lydia’s gaze. Theo winces and holds up a hand once more to Kaynor, who doesn’t hesitate this time to pull him up. He also doesn’t need to ask where Theo wants to go, just starts helping him stagger over to Lydia.

Once at Lydia’s side, Theo sinks back to his knees and—regretting it even as the words are leaving his mouth—quietly asks, “Do you have a picture?”

Lydia stares at him in wide-eyed silence for a second, and then whips around to start digging her phone out of her pocket. Theo can see that it still doesn’t have any service, but it doesn’t matter: Lydia navigates over to her pictures app, and starts scrolling through her camera roll. It doesn’t take her long to find one. She holds out her phone.

Theo looks down at the grinning, dark-haired girl in the photo, her arms around Lydia and their cheeks pressed together, their skin pinked from the likely cold—the both of them bundled up in jackets, and colorful knitted scarves—and feels his chest clench. The woman he’d seen had clearly been older—about as many years older as Lydia is now as compared to herself in that same picture, he suspects—but it’s still demonstrably the same woman. He’s not sure whether his answer is going to help the hungry look on Lydia’s face, or make it worse.

He passes Lydia’s phone off to Corey so that he can look, but even as he’s doing it, he tells Lydia, “Yes.”

He shoots a look at Corey, who looks up from Lydia’s phone, and nods firmly. He refocuses on Lydia, and repeats:

“Yeah. It was her.”

---

It’s a misplaced attempt at giving Lydia some semblance of privacy—some small space for her grief—that has Theo ignoring her chewing her thumbnail ragged in the passenger seat next to him, but the second he smells blood in the air, he jerks—jolted out of his own thoughts—and reaches over with a gentle hand to cover her fingers, and press them firmly down, and away from her mouth. Lydia jolts equally hard, and twists to stare at him, her eyes wide.

“Sorry,” she tells him automatically, then: “Thanks,” more softly, her eyes briefly going hooded as she exhales roughly out, and collapses against the seat back. Theo just squeezes his fingers still resting atop her hand, and then lifts his hand away from hers, and sets it back in his own lap. He braces his other elbow against the door, and rests his jaw against his fist as he stares out at the empty parking lot of Beacon Hills High School through the window.

He lasts a half-minute or so longer, and then he has to turn back to her.

He tells her, voice hushed in the silence of the cab and the parking lot and the town, all of it like a held breath, poised; waiting: “He’s going to be okay, Lydia. Melissa said his healing just needs a little more time.”

“Yeah,” Lydia agrees, snorting bitterly. Theo would say it’s a sound completely unlike her, but that wouldn’t be accurate; it’s a sound completely like Stiles, and those two things just—weren’t as separable, anymore. He winces regardless. Lydia either doesn’t notice or doesn’t bother to acknowledge it. “More time to heal from what I did to him.”

“You didn’t have a choice,” Theo reminds her softly.

Lydia just shoots him a hot, dismissive look as she snaps, “You think I don’t know that?”

Immediately after she’s said it, her eyes slip shut. She blows out a slow, steady—too-steady—stream of air.

She tells him, “I’m sorry.”

Theo forces himself to shrug. He gives her a flicker of a smile; the best he can dredge up, considering. “It’s been a long day,” he offers.

Lydia laughs, low and breathy and humorless. She drops her head back against the headrest, her gaze fixing on the ceiling of Kaynor’s borrowed SUV. Her eyes flick across it like she’s seeing patterns, and who knows—she could be.

Her quiet, wracking sobs in the Preserve after Theo had breathed yeah, it was her had had more than a little banshee-force behind them, after all. Theo hadn’t cared. Had just folded his body over hers, and had breathed through the little concussive shocks that had battered his lungs as he’d held her against his chest.

Now, he just watches as she raises a finger—connected to the same hand whose thumbnail she’d bloodied—and traces whatever she’s seeing.

Her finger stops. Her expression screws up again, though she doesn’t look at him, as she asks: “Do you think I’ll be able to see her?”

Theo thanks the universe at large—or his unconventional upbringing, and all the habits, bad and otherwise, it’d engendered in him—that he already has an answer for this, the question already tumbling and tumbling around his brain. He says, very quietly, “Corey can probably take you.”

If there’s time, he doesn’t say. He doesn’t need to: Lydia knows.

Lydia nods, more than a little absently. She keeps staring at the ceiling. She keeps tracing her finger across it. She murmurs, “If he and Deaton can figure out how to communicate with her. If—” she says, and here her voice takes on more than a little sharp-edged, gallows-type humor as she finally drops her hand back into her lap, “—Marykwas and Kaynor can keep them both safe while they do it.”

Theo snorts, and turns back to the window. “They both know what Mason would do to them if anything happened to Corey. And, honestly—” he drawls, shooting her a dry look, “—I don’t think I’m that worried about Deaton.”

He taps a finger against the side of his jaw. It takes Lydia a second to realize what he’s getting at, but then she realizes and her mouth curls in an amused, knowing smirk: the respirators. Deaton’s sleeping beauty spell, as Belomo had so colorfully termed it. Lydia turns back to her own window, after. She lifts the side of her thumb back up to her mouth.

Theo winces and starts to reach for her hand, intending to push it back down before she could bloody her thumbnail any further, but then he stops, his head jerking around, towards the entrance to the high school’s parking lot. He sits up some as he focuses his hearing, his eyes flaring and then narrowing as he searches the road beyond.

He catches what he’s looking for. His eyes widen, and he shoots a glance at Lydia—who’s already staring fixedly at him, her body stiff with tension—and he nods.

They both reach for their door handles.

The car that Theo had heard has reached them by the time he’s hopped down, and pushed the door of Kaynor’s borrowed SUV closed. He waits next to it as Lydia rounds the hood and comes to stand next to him, both of them silently watching as it rolls to a stop a dozen or so feet away from them, and then parks; Theo can hear the gears shifting.

The driver’s door of the Beacon County Sheriff’s Department cruiser opens, and Noah steps out.

Lydia exhales out a huge, shaky breath, and rushes immediately towards him. He catches her as she runs into him, his arms wrapping tight around her shoulders. He bends down to press his face to the top of her head, turning his chin just slightly so that the hard plastic part of the respirator he’s wearing doesn’t dig into her skin.

Theo looks away to try and give them some privacy, but he can’t stop himself from overhearing it as Noah whispers to her, raw enough to be a confession: “I’m so glad you’re okay. Stiles had just texted me that you all were almost in town when everything started happening, and I was so worried—”

Theo hears him cut himself off. He hears—and sees out of the corner of his eye—Noah shift as he pulls Lydia even further in against himself.

And then he hears it when Noah leans back, and sees it when Noah smooths his hands back across Lydia’s jaw, his thumbs stroking across the curve of her cheeks as he quietly asks, “How are they? How’s—how’s Stiles?” His voice cracks on his son’s name.

Theo looks even further away fast, but not fast enough to avoid seeing Lydia’s expression crumple and her head start to shake, quick and hard. Salt tinges the air as Noah makes a soft noise and pulls Lydia back in. Grimacing, Theo shakes himself loose of the stiff posture he’d fallen into and forces himself to refocus. He starts to head around the cruiser, towards the backseat.

But Noah calls his name. Theo freezes, and looks back at him.

He and Lydia had broken apart; Noah’s eyes are red-rimmed and Lydia is dragging the backs of her wrists underneath her own, but the lines of both of their shoulders are straight. Their jaws are both set.

Theo looks at both of them and sees Stiles so clearly in each that something twists painfully in his chest.

It doesn’t get any better when Noah holds out an arm. Theo has to clamp his teeth together to keep his expression from doing something unforgivable, and then steps into the embrace that Noah is offering.

“I’m damn glad you’re okay, too,” Noah murmurs to him, his arms coming up tight around Theo’s shoulders. Theo’s fingers spasm against his back no matter how much he tries to keep them from doing so.

“You, too,” he manages to croak. He pulls back after, and somehow manages to dredge up a smile. “And, uh. Happy retirement, huh?”

Noah laughs, breathy and a little choked-sounding. Beside them, Lydia does the same; the sound of it helps loosen the feeling like a rock jammed up tight under Theo’s throat. Noah grins at her—shaky as is—and then transfers it to Theo. “I don’t know,” he wonders. “You think the universe might be trying to tell me something?”

They all laugh again; just as quiet, just as strained. But it peters out fast, and Theo at least sucks in a deep breath once it does, and tips his head towards the still-closed backseat of Noah’s cruiser in a silent question. Noah grimaces, the furrows carved into the skin around his eyes and between his brows deepening.

He says, very softly: “It took Argent’s people,” he hesitates, “some time to get her contained, when all of this first happened.” He sighs heavily, the burr of it made extra strange and hissing by the respirator. “She’s calmer, now, but still—pretty rattled.”

Theo grimaces. He exchanges a glance with Lydia—who grimaces right back—and then he slowly makes his way around to the door to the back of the cruiser. Through the heavy wire mesh covering the windows, he can see that Malia has wedged herself as far back against the opposite corner of the backseat as she could get. Theo feels his chest constrict painfully.

“Theo,” Noah calls, as Theo reaches carefully for the door handle. Theo glances back at him. “She seemed to recognize us,” Noah tells him. “The pack, I mean. It—” he hesitates again, “—seemed to help, after Argent’s people brought her in. Seeing us. Having us there.”

The vice-tight feeling in Theo’s chest loosens some. He bites his lip, and considers, and then finishes reaching for the door, and lifts the handle. He pulls it open.

Malia immediately snarls at him.

It’s less effective than it would have been had she still had her fangs, and flared eyes, but the sound of it is still plenty distressing enough without them. Theo has to stop himself from recoiling, and instead he forces himself to crouch very slowly down in the frame of the open door, so that he’s resting on his heels, his hands draped loosely between his knees.

He closes his eyes, and when he blinks them back open he makes sure they’re golden. He lets the sense of the shift start to spill out of him—though he keeps his teeth and nails human—and waits.

He looks at Malia, and reminds her, very quietly: “You know me, Malia. You know me.”

She stays wedged in her corner, her fingers digging white-knuckled into the seat back on one side of her and the wire mesh on the other. She doesn’t snarl at him again but her upper lip does lift, showing her human teeth beyond it.

Theo just waits, his eyes flared and the sense of the shift spilling out of him.

A few feet away, Lydia and Noah trade a look. Lydia gestures to him and starts to take a step back—and Theo can see where her head had gone, the attempt to give Malia and Theo more space—but it seems to have the opposite effect: Malia’s eyes snap to Lydia and Noah, even through the wire mesh of the backseat and the tangle of equipment filling most of the cruiser’s front seat. They fix there.

Her upper lip falls out of its snarl.

Intuition bites at Theo’s gut. Earlier Noah had said: She seemed to recognize us. The pack. It seemed to help. Theo considers—even without claws and fangs Malia is still plenty dangerous—but they’re running out of time. He grits his teeth.

He calls, “Lydia, Noah.” When they glance at him, he tips his chin sideways in a clear instruction: come here.

The two of them exchange another confused look, but to their credit they don’t waste time arguing. Noah tries to step in front of Lydia for exactly as long as it takes her to give him a dry look, and then he snorts a laugh—Theo can’t see it, but he can hear it, gone mechanical and just slightly off through the respirator—and gives up. They come over together, side by side.

Malia huddles back further into the corner of the backseat. Her upper lip doesn’t start to curl again but Theo can hear her heart, beating frantically up against her ribcage.

Her eyes dart around the three of them standing in the open doorway, but then they stop. They catch on a single point. Her nostrils flare.

Oh, Theo thinks, eyes widening. Oh, of course.

He stands—possibly too fast, but that’ll be fixed soon enough—and orders, “Noah.”

He takes a single step back, and then another. Noah looks at him strangely but then seems to catch on. He takes one immediate, seemingly reflexive step back to mirror Theo’s, and then freezes. His eyes fix on the back of Lydia’s head—and then the side of her face when Lydia twists around to study them, clearly confused—and Theo can read the indecision—the worry—all over his face. He reaches out to put a comforting but firm hand on Noah’s arm.

He pulls Noah another step back, and then another.

It leaves Lydia standing framed in the open doorway into the backseat, one hand on the open door, her eyes still fixed on Theo and Noah, her mouth curved in a small frown.

And then in the backseat of the cruiser, Malia uncurls some from her wedged-up position in the corner of the backseat and door. She comes forward just slightly, her gaze darting to Theo and Noah stood several feet away but always, always drawing back to Lydia, like magnetic north.

Her nostrils flare wider. She comes forward a little more.

And that’s when Lydia gets it. “Oh!” She realizes, this perfectly pure little exclamation of surprise, and she whips around—possibly too fast—to face Malia directly. Malia startles backwards a little at the abruptness but it doesn’t last: Lydia crouches down in the open doorway and holds out a hand—Theo having to ruthlessly squash every flailing alarm that immediately starts wailing in his head as she does, with Noah clearly experiencing the same beside him—towards her.

She does it palm up, her fingers spread wide and easy. She keeps her elbow bent and everything about her posture relaxed. Even her eyes are soft from what Theo can see of them, her lips pressing together in a shaky smile as she looks at Malia and waits.

It takes the space of another deep breath—Theo’s muscles all coiled, prepared to lunge forward and rip Lydia away from Malia if he has to—and then another, but then Malia’s nostrils flare wide again. Her careful darting eyes run over Lydia’s face.

She reaches out with her own hand, and rests the tips of her fingers against Lydia’s offered palm.

Lydia sucks in a sharp breath at the touch—Theo can hear it—but manages to stay perfectly still. Theo doesn’t know how the hell she’s managing it; he and Noah both seem liable to vibrate right the hell out of their skins. But Lydia just waits, patient, patient, as Malia slowly twists her wrist so that her fingertips skim across the side of Lydia’s hand. She keeps going, twisting it further until her fingers are wrapped around Lydia’s wrist in a gentle cage.

She lunges forward, suddenly and without warning.

Shit!” Theo swears, and does the same.

But then he grinds to an immediate and ungainly halt, because Lydia is laughing, even now flat on her ass on the asphalt of the parking lot from where she’d been knocked back as she’d caught Malia with one arm wrapped around her waist. The sound of it is wet, and shaky, but still there.

Still genuine.

“Hey, Malia,” Lydia murmurs against Malia’s hair, as Malia buries her face in the side of Lydia’s neck, her body half-curled into Lydia’s own. Lydia glances at Theo and Noah over Malia’s shoulder. She smiles, just as shaky and just as genuine as her laughter had been.

She looks back down at the top of Malia’s head, and tells her, “Your cousin says hello.”

---

Even once Lydia coaxes Malia out of the car, it still takes all of them some time to stumble their way collectively over to the vault. Malia is still skittish: jolting and jerking at every stray noise, her head twisting rapidly around on her neck as her eyes dart anxiously around, her scent sharp and biting in Theo’s nose even from where he’s following her from a few steps back.

Because that’s the other thing: Malia doesn’t seem interested in him, or Noah. She doesn’t seem threatened by them either—small favors—but once she’d pulled herself back from Lydia, and allowed Lydia to climb to her feet, she’d glanced at Theo and Noah—had allowed them to greet her soft and low and careful—but her focus had fixed almost immediately back to Lydia. And it’d stayed there. It’s still there, Malia doing her best to herd Lydia this way or that.

Doing her best to keep her body between Lydia’s, and—everything else.

At one point Lydia turns to glance back at Theo, and gives him a confused, searching look. Theo has to shrug, and shake his head a little; he has no idea either. Family connection? Noah had posited to him in a low mutter at one point, his eyes on Malia’s back. Could be, Theo had answered, but the thought jars every time he tries to slot it into place; a misaligned gear grinding.

She can still feel it, I bet, Lydia had offered, overhearing Noah. The Nemeton dying, I mean. She’d blown out a long, slow breath, and had done her best to accommodate Malia’s herding while still leading them all onwards. Like we all can, really, except—

—she can’t filter it as well, Theo had filled in. Lydia had nodded, but her eyes had been sharp on the side of Malia’s face; she hadn’t believed her own theory, either.

But they run out of time to keep trying to solve the mystery: they reach the massive stone block proudly declaring the name of the school. It’s still sitting exactly where Theo remembers it being: right off the sidewalk leading into the main doors of the school.

Right over the entrance to the vault.

Theo takes a deep breath. He’s only been here a few times and only with Derek, and while the magic of the vault had always felt foreign to him as a non-HaleScott experiencing the same, the one time they’d found themselves idly talking about it—it’d never felt like it does the closer they get: viscous and almost oily. Oppressive. It makes his teeth grit. He forces himself forward regardless, following behind Lydia as she heads right for the block.

Except then she can’t, because Malia suddenly darts in front of her.

“Malia, what—” Lydia starts to say, stumbling to a startled halt, but Malia just keeps crowding her back, away from the block.

Away from the vault.

Lydia goes a few steps before digging in her heels. “Malia,” she protests, her hands coming down over Malia’s arms, Malia’s hands pressed to Lydia’s shoulders.

“Is there something wrong with the vault?” Noah wonders, looking first at Lydia and then at Theo. His right hand comes to rest on his holstered gun, though Theo thinks that’s probably more long-ingrained reflex than conscious thought; he doubts Noah even realizes he’s doing it.

“With everything else that’s going on…” Theo mutters, then trails off and shrugs helplessly when Lydia and Noah look over at him.

Lydia bites off a frustrated noise. “Even if there is,” she points out, “we still have to try.

She cups her hands around Malia’s face, and looks her straight in the eye. She holds Malia’s gaze for a few long seconds, and then she very deliberately side-steps out from behind Malia, and starts to head back for the vault.

Malia tries to lunge after her. Thinking fast and already regretting it, Theo lunges forward in turn and wraps his arms around her waist, and chest, before she can.

Malia,” he pleads, when Malia immediately snaps her teeth at him and starts to struggle. “Please.

Even lacking most of her supernatural abilities, Malia is still strong, and more to the point: single-minded. She keeps almost eeling out of Theo’s grip, and then moves on to straight-up trying to rip out of Theo’s grip when that doesn’t work. Theo grits his teeth, and holds on.

Lydia had stopped partway to the block, her own insistence be damned. Her eyes are on Malia’s face and her bottom lip is between her teeth, and if she bites down any harder on it she’s going to puncture it. Her scent goes bitter with distress as she looks desperately at Theo.

“How are we supposed to—” She starts to demand. “I know the sequence that unlocks the vault, but I’m not going to be able to—” She gestures vaguely. Helplessly. Her eyes fix on Malia still struggling in Theo’s hold for a second, and then back to him. “It takes a Hale.”

“Just,” Theo manages, then has to stop and bite off a harsh sound as Malia nearly escapes his hold. “Just show me the movements, and then I’ll—I’ll figure out how to—” He doesn’t bother to complete his sentence; Malia’s fingernails aren’t claws, but they’re sharper than they should be and digging into his restraining arms. “Lydia, hurry.

Lydia watches them for a few seconds longer, her distress all over her face, and then she swears and whips around to face the carving again. “Alright, okay. It goes like this.”

She fits her fingers into certain holes in the carving.

“First you place your fingers here,” she instructs, “and then you turn it thirty degrees clockwise—” She starts to demonstrate, her wrist twisting but more importantly her fingers starting to draw back, and free of the holes, so that she could complete the movement in the air above the carving rather than with the carving itself, except—

Except that the carving starts to move.

Everyone freezes. Even Malia, whose tension-filled body suddenly goes slack in Theo’s arms. Theo barely notices. He’s too busy staring at the back of Lydia’s hand, her wrist twisted at a thirty degree angle because the carving had moved, his eyes wide and his expression just stunned.

Lydia glances back at him, Theo’s gaze darting up to meet hers, and when he does he sees that her eyes are equally wide and her expression is equally stunned. He can practically see her whirling thoughts, her logical brain immediately starting to cast around, to search for an explanation. He wishes he could give her one. He just keeps staring right back at her.

Her expression hardens. She turns back to the carving, and—without a word, her narration forgotten or ignored—she starts to complete the rest of the unlocking sequence, her wrist twisting this way and that.

It’s a quick sequence, all things considered. Still, Theo recalls absolutely none of it. He’s too busy staring, and then taking several startled, reflexive steps backwards—dragging Malia with him, who he’d all but forgotten he was still restraining—when the stone block starts to turn, and then grind its way backwards, revealing the stairs down to the vault.

The block shudders to a grating halt, and not a single one of them moves.

Lydia is still standing in exactly where she’d been, her hands now dropped down by her sides. Theo can see the way her shoulders are rising and falling rapidly with the pace of her breathing, short and shallow. Off to his and Malia’s side, Noah makes a sudden, soft noise; Theo head jerks reflexively around to look at him to find him staring wide-eyed at Lydia’s back.

A long few seconds drag themselves by, and then Noah takes a hesitant step forward, and ventures, “Lydia…?”

She startles and twists around to stare at him. Her hand—her left hand, the one she’d used to open the vault—rises to cover and then flatten against the flat pane of her belly.

Her expression starts to crumple. “I didn’t,” she barely manages to gasp out, her body starting to fold in on itself as she takes a staggering step backwards; her rigid, too-still posture broken. “We didn’t…” She brings her right hand up to cover her mouth just as a ragged, helpless sound escapes her mouth. Her eyes fill with tears that immediately start to spill over her cheeks.

Her left hand never leaves her belly.

---

They head back to the clinic, rather than the Preserve, when they leave the vault. No one discusses it. No one suggests it. Theo just takes a right instead of a left out of the high school’s parking lot, and Noah follows.

The ride back is silent. Theo’s gaze keeps flicking up the rearview mirror, helpless, his eyes running over Lydia sat on the far right side of the middle row of seats, Malia laid out flat across the rest with her head in Lydia’s lap. One of Lydia’s hands strokes absently across Malia’s hair, soft and soothing and careful of the way that Malia’s face is turned into her stomach, Malia’s nose nearly buried against Lydia’s belly.

But only nearly, because Lydia’s other hand—her left hand, the one she’d used to open the vault—is still flattened there, same as it had been since she’d twisted around to look at Theo and Noah and Malia and confessed we didn’t—.

Lydia’s eyes flick up to meet his in the mirror. Theo jerks his own back to the road.

How could you not have known? Theo berates himself viciously, thinking back to when he and Lydia had been surrounded by Gonzalez’s people; to when Gonzalez’s people had opened fire on him, and therefore on Lydia still in hers and Stiles’ and Derek’s SUV behind him, because he hadn’t been able to keep the shift in his metaphorical goddamn pants.

But it’s obvious how he could have not known: the change in Lydia’s scent is so subtle, and so interwoven with the way that her own personal scent is already so mixed with Derek’s, and Stiles’, that the only reason he can detect it now is because he knows to look for it.

His fingers tighten on the steering wheel. He forces himself to refocus on the road.

The clinic’s tiny lot is almost as full as it had been last he and Lydia had left it. Theo takes one of the few remaining spots further away from the entrance, leaving the one right in front of the doors for Noah to slide into; Noah had managed to stay admirably focused through their retrieval of the Nemeton cutting from the vault—and through Lydia’s revelation—but his son is still dying. Theo watches as Noah barely finishes parking before he’s shoving open the driver’s side door, and hurrying out.

But he pauses when he sees that Theo hasn’t moved. He frowns, the shape of his eyes changing over the respirator as he stands by the hood of his cruiser, staring. Theo just waves him onward through the windshield with a firm nod.

Noah hesitates for a second longer, and then he nods back, and goes. Theo waits until he hears the door to the clinic thump back shut—the chime of the little bell over the door ringing in his ears even with the distance—and then he closes his eyes, very carefully, and exhales out all the air in his lungs, very slowly.

He opens his eyes, and this time when he meets Lydia’s in the rearview, it’s deliberate.

She looks right back.

They stare at each other in silence for a few long, dragging seconds, and then Lydia suddenly jerks her head away, the hand she’d had stroking over Malia’s hair rising to press against her mouth. She does her best to swallow the choked half-sob she gives but Theo can still hear it, muffled as it is.

Malia burrows her face a little harder, though still carefully, against Lydia’s belly—Lydia yanking her left hand away in reflexive surprise to let her—and whines, a little. It’s low and subvocal and almost inaudible, but it’s there. Lydia must hear it, too: she stares down at Malia, the moisture in her eyes spilling over, and then she drops her hand right back down to Malia’s head, cradling it.

She looks back up at Theo.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve said it yet,” Theo croaks, after a moment, “but congratulations.” His voice is an exhausted rasp made worse by the air in the cab—gone suffocating with Lydia’s scent twined with Malia’s twined with Theo’s own, all of them thick and cloying and overwhelming—but he means it.

Lydia clearly gets that. Her expression spasms—as do her fingers still resting around Malia’s head—and she nods, her lips folding between her teeth. She glances away from him for a second—Theo detecting just the slightest bite of salt in the air again—and she lifts her left hand up to thumb at her eyes. Still, when she looks back, her eyes are red, but not wet. She gives him a wobbly smile.

“Thanks,” she manages, her voice just as much an exhausted scrape, and just as genuine, as his had been.

She bends over Malia, then, softly murmuring as she starts to shift Malia slowly and carefully off of her lap; preparing to go inside. Theo bites the inside of his lip hard enough that he does puncture it, and gives absent thanks that Lydia isn’t able to smell the blood as he calls, “Lydia, wait.”

She stops, and looks up at him. Theo opens and closes his mouth a few times, trying to think how to word what he wants to say without it coming off in completely the wrong way, and then he gives up. He lets his struggle show on his face as he sits up only to slump immediately back in his seat, his eyes locking with hers in the mirror.

He tells her, very quietly: “I think you should stay here. When we head back out to the Preserve to replant the Nemeton,” he clarifies, probably unnecessarily, “I think you should stay here.”

Lydia’s fingers fall away from Malia’s face. She settles more firmly back in her seat, her eyes searching his. Theo resists every urge he has to look away—and he has a lot of them—and lets her. If every ounce of terror eating away at his veins isn’t showing on his face, it’s not because he isn’t feeling it.

Finally Lydia’s shoulders slump in an echo of the way his had, and she shakes her head. “I can’t,” she answers, her syllables rough and her tongue almost seeming to catch on the t.

“Lydia,” Theo tries, all of that terror spread throughout his veins rushing into his chest, and hardening into a single, jagged mass that attempts to rush up his throat. It turns his voice into a shredded mess. “We don’t know how many of the town’s supernatural citizens might still be on the loose. We don’t know if they might still be berserk and getting stronger like Scott, or if they’ve reacted like Liam and Derek and have lost the majority of their abilities. Hell, we know practically nothing. And I—”

don’t know if I can protect you, he thinks, but can’t say; his throat closes up around the words first. It must show all over his face—in the way his hands had risen to wrap once again around the steering wheel, and then had tightened hard enough that the leather creaks a complaint—because Lydia’s expression crumples up in turn. But still she just shakes her head, several strands of her hair that had managed to break loose of her bun whipping around her face.

She counters, “What if something happens to you on the way back?” She searches his face, and continues to press, “Noah is human, and Malia—” This time it’s Lydia who has to stop, and swallow past an apparently-tight throat as she glances down at Malia silently looking up at her, Malia’s eyes soft and hooded and trusting. Lydia squeezes her own eyes very briefly shut, and then opens them back up and reminds him, very softly: “If we can’t get the cutting back to Deaton, none of us are likely to survive what’s happening. And the longer it takes, the more likely it is that Stiles—”

This time she seems to cut herself off deliberately, like she can’t bring herself to complete her sentence. She jerks her head away again so that she’s staring fixedly out of the window. Her jaw works as she shudders in and out several deep breaths.

The fingers of her left hand rise to flatten against her belly. She looks back at him, her expression intent.

“I have to come with you,” she tells him quietly, but with the edge of every syllable steel-lined, “for all the same reasons you just listed. I have to—I have to,” she falters again, but only for a second, and when she speaks again her voice is even stronger; diamond-hard. Determined. “I have to do it for my family.”

Theo’s mouth drops softly open as he looks back at her. Her heartbeat is pounding at his ears but it isn’t driven by anxiety, or fear. In that instant she doesn’t look afraid, at all.

He nods.

They head inside the clinic. Theo retrieves the magicked box containing the Nemeton cutting from the back of Kaynor’s SUV, and Lydia steadily coaxes Malia first out of the cab, and then lets Malia crowd close as she—Theo grimacing apologetically, but standing unmoved with one arm raised pointedly out—lets Theo gesture her in front of himself.

The first thing Theo sees when they enter is Noah bent over Stiles still laid-out on the exam table, Noah’s respirator hanging around his neck and revealing his creased, raw expression. His brow is furrowed, and as Theo searches his face he can see Noah searching Stiles’, his fingers stroking carefully over the line of his son’s pale, still-slack jaw.

But his attention is almost immediately dragged away from the sight because Melissa catches sight of Malia within their little huddle and gasps her name, and Malia just suddenly bolts towards her. Theo very nearly lunges after her—panic flaring—but he stops himself almost immediately; Malia’s heartbeat is fast, sure, but it’s not because of aggression. Theo jerks his eyes away as quickly as he can as Malia buries her face in the side of Melissa’s neck with a wounded sound that’s almost completely drowned out by the equally-raw one Melissa makes, her arms coming up tight around Malia’s shoulders as she presses her face to Malia’s hair.

He winds up glancing briefly at Masselli—who’s clearly desperately trying to figure out where to look himself to avoid accidentally intruding on the quiet moments unfolding throughout the room, and who’s failing through no fault of his own—and he feels a pang of sympathy.

But then he finishes the turn of his head and looks at Liam, still laid-out on his cot. Liam’s already looking back, the skin around his eyes pinched but the totality of his expression softened by a wobbly smile. Theo can feel his own lips flicker in a helpless echo. Setting the box containing the Nemeton cutting carefully down on a free stretch of counter, Theo presses one hand to Lydia’s back as he steps out from behind her, and goes to drop to his knees by Liam’s side. He leans over him so that Liam doesn’t have to lean up, and rests his forehead against Liam’s own.

Liam brings a hand up to trace gentle fingertips back along the edge of his jaw, starting at the sensitive skin behind his ear and coming to rest gently by his chin. He breathes, “What is it?,” quietly enough that it’ll remain a secret between them; that no one else in the room will hear.

Theo just shakes his head, and then—one of his own hands falling to land right in the middle of Liam’s chest, where he can feel Liam’s heart beating—he sits back on his heels, and looks out across the rest of the room.

He looks out to the one place he hadn’t been able to bring himself to fully check when he’d first walked in, and then he turns to watch as Lydia weaves her way through the cramped room—her hands coming to rest lightly on Noah’s back as she squeezes her way carefully past him—so that she can approach the cot where Derek is laying; where Derek is awake, and watching her through desperate eyes.

“Lydia,” he croaks, when she’s close enough. “I’m so sorry. I’m so—I couldn’t—

“It’s okay,” Lydia interrupts softly, cutting him off. “It’s okay, I know.”

She folds herself slowly to her knees, her hands reaching out for either side of his face. She anchors them around his jaw and then bends over him, holding herself still for it when Derek immediately makes a soft, broken sound and arches up to meet her. He kisses her just shy of desperately, one of his hands rising to clench in the back of her shirt, his fingers white-knuckled and shaking.

He doesn’t stop whispering I’m sorry as he does.

But he does stop when Lydia gives him one last, final kiss, and sits back. He searches her face, and then glances around the room—his eyes pausing briefly on Theo, and Noah, and Malia—and then he turns back to her, and says, “Melissa and Masselli relayed the plan to us. You were able to get into the vault? Malia was able to—”

Lydia had already started shaking her head. Theo can see Derek getting the exact wrong idea—that they couldn’t get into the vault, that Malia wasn’t able to open it, for whatever reason—but his confusion doesn’t last long, because Lydia stills her head, and bites her lip, and tells him:

“I didn’t need her to.”

Derek’s brow furrows. His eyes flick between hers. “I don’t,” he starts to say, then: “What?”

“I opened it,” Lydia explains, and now her heartbeat starts to pound, fast and frantic in Theo’s ears. “Derek,” she tells him, both of her hands rising to find one of Derek’s, and guide it to her belly as she insists, “I opened it.”

She presses down on her own palms to flatten his out. It takes Derek only a split-second to realize what she means, and his next breath shudders loose of his chest in a huge, shaky whoosh. He half-folds in on himself like he’d just absorbed some kind of blow.

His eyes drop to stare at the backs of his fingers, and palm, his hand almost managing to entirely cover the width of Lydia’s belly below it.

“Oh, my god,” Liam breathes; Theo feels it as much as hears it, Liam’s lungs working underneath his fingers. His eyes jerk helplessly down to Liam’s as Liam’s jerk helplessly up to his. They stare at each other, Liam’s expression broken open with surprise and Theo’s screwing up tighter and tighter the longer they look at each other.

But then they both jolt and look back at Derek and Lydia, because Derek suddenly gives a stunned, helpless laugh, and reaches up with his free hand—Lydia leaning instantly down to let him, Derek still too weak to be anything other than flat on his back—to pull her in. “Oh, my god,” he keeps repeating, shock and the very beginnings—the sound of it getting stronger all the while—of giddiness in his voice.

He pulls back after a half-minute or so. He searches Lydia’s face, his own split wide by a smile he can’t seem to control. Lydia smiles back at him—the shape of it causing the tear-tracks running down her cheeks to glimmer wetly in the overhead lights—and lifts one of her hands to layer it over the fingers of the hand that Derek has cradled carefully around her jaw. She turns her head just slightly sideways so that she can press her mouth to his palm.

Derek pulls her back in. Their other hands are still layered carefully one over the other atop her belly.

Theo can’t help it. He has to turn away from the sight, and hide his face in Liam’s shoulder. Liam immediately brings up a hand to thread it through his hair, and cradle the back of Theo’s skull. He tips his own chin down just enough that he can press his lips to the crown of Theo’s head. He keeps breathing oh, my god, too, the same notes of helpless giddiness coloring his tone as well.

And then the rest of the world comes crashing right back in: the radios on Masselli’s, and Noah’s, and Theo’s own waists squawk, and loudly.

Theo jerks immediately back upright, his eyes a little wild. Across the room, Lydia had clearly done the same: she looks back at him, eyes wide.

Masselli reaches for his radio, his mouth twisted in an apologetic grimace as everyone turns to stare at him, and clicks it to talk as he requests: “Say again?”

They all wait, but even though they can hear the clicks and burring blasts of noise as whoever’s on the other side toggles their own talk button on and off, the words are too distorted by static, and interference, to understand. Nearly everyone looks to Theo, but he shakes his head; he’d instinctively sharpened his hearing when Masselli had asked say again, but even his supernaturally-enhanced ears hadn’t been able to separate out the words from the noise.

His jaw tightens. His eyes flick to Noah’s and then to Lydia’s.

“The interference is getting worse,” Lydia interprets, giving shape to the fears they’re all clearly already thinking. “The Nemeton is getting worse.”

“We have to go,” Theo agrees, voice harder than he’d meant it to be; terror rushing up his throat and lodging there. He glances back down at Liam, and can immediately feel how his expression tries to crack open. He doesn’t let it, but Liam’s still spasms.

“Wait,” Derek suddenly orders. “Wait, I’m coming with you.” He starts trying to push himself up.

Lydia pushes him right back down. “What are you talking about?” She demands, holding him firmly by the shoulders when he tries to sit right back up. “You can’t come, you’re still injur—”

“Lydia!” He interrupts sharply. “You can’t expect me to just sit—

“Derek!” Lydia snaps back, echoed by Noah trying, “Derek, son—”

But Derek just snarls, “You’re about to go put yourself right back into danger. Potentially lethal danger. I am not—!”

Lydia and Noah both open their mouths to keep trying to argue with him, but it’s Liam who beats them to it. “You think you’re the only one going through this right now?” He snarls right back.

Theo jerks to look down at him in surprise. So does Derek, and practically everyone else in the room, but Theo barely registers it: he’s too busy staring at Liam, who isn’t even looking back at him. He’d raised up on a shaky elbow, his eyes fixed on Derek. His gaze is heated enough to almost be a glower. The twist to his mouth is furious.

He challenges, “How do you think I feel?” He flings a hand out so that he’s gesturing at Theo, who—is still covered in dried blood and mud and undoubtedly other things, his clothes ripped and torn. Theo winces. “How many times do you think he’s already almost died today?”

“Liam,” Theo breathes, chest twisting, but Liam ignores him.

“Either of us try to go ‘help,’” he argues hotly, “and the best outcome is that we just slow them down. The worst is that we—”

He doesn’t finish, but his eyes flick to Theo’s. He swallows noisily.

He looks back at Derek, and his voice is softer when he concludes, “I get it. I promise you I get it, but…”

He trails off. The fingers of his free hand—cupped around Theo’s elbow from where they’d fallen when Theo had jerked upright earlier—spasm. Theo clenches his own fingers in Liam’s shirt, right over his racing heart.

Derek jerks his gaze up from where he’d been staring, frozen, back at Liam, and looks at Lydia. Her expression crumples up and she reaches down to cradle his face, her thumbs stroking across his cheeks.

“I have to do this,” she tells him; the same thing she’d told Theo out in the car. “You have to let me do this.”

Derek’s expression twists, going raw like an open wound, and he reaches up to slide both of his hands into Lydia’s hair. He pulls her down—carefully, but firmly—into a hard kiss, his breaths streaming harshly in and out of his nose as he does it; the sound of it scrapes at Theo’s ears like someone had taken steel wool to his eardrums.

Lydia doesn’t fight him. She kisses him back, her fingers wrapped white-knuckle tight around his wrists.

“You have to be careful,” Derek begs when he pulls back. “Lydia. You have to promise me—

“I will,” Lydia soothes him. “I will. I swear, Derek.”

She kisses him again. Theo jerks his attention away.

Of course, he ends up looking down at Liam.

You have to be careful, too,” Liam reminds him, and he almost sounds normal except for how Theo can hear how absolutely frayed the edges of his words are. Chances are no one else can, but Theo feels his face screw up in response. But Liam just shakes his head, more than a little wildly, and insists, “Theo, I mean it. I know you, and you can’t—”

He cuts himself off. He’d still been up on his elbow and so he reaches forward with his other hand, and clenches it in Theo’s hair. He pulls Theo’s forehead to his own.

“If you get yourself killed out there trying to protect everyone but yourself,” he whispers to Theo, his voice cracking halfway through, “I am never—” He stops, gulping in a huge, shaky breath. “I am never going to forgive you.”

It’s on the tip of Theo’s tongue to swear to Liam that he’ll be safe. That he’ll come back. That he won’t, as Liam so bluntly put it, try to protect everyone but himself.

But he doesn’t. But he won’t, because years ago the only thing he did swear—the only thing he would swear, both to Liam, and to himself—is that he wouldn’t lie to Liam anymore.

Not about anything that actually mattered.

He isn’t going to start now. He pulls back. He knows that Liam sees that entire trainwreck of a thought written all over his face because Liam’s expression screws up, and hard, and he pulls Theo in—with both arms, which means they both collapse back onto the cot as Liam loses his bracing elbow—as a helpless, raw noise leaves his throat. Theo ignores the way that Liam’s arms are tight enough around his shoulders to actually be restricting his lungs. He presses his face against the side of Liam’s neck—can feel the way that his eyes are wet, even though he’d squeezed them shut—and he tells Liam the only thing he can, the only thing he does know:

“I love you,” he tells him, fierce like an oath.

Liam’s arms tighten even further around his back. Theo presses forward even harder against him.

He repeats, “I love you.”

---

Ten minutes later, Theo is standing on the sidewalk outside of the clinic, the back of one wrist pressed to his mouth and his eyes squeezed shut as he just tries to breathe. That he’d retreated out here like a coward after his unspoken confession to Liam isn’t in any doubt. That it’s as stupid a decision now as it was five minutes ago isn’t either: Theo’s head and chest and everything, all the way down to his shaking fingers, are such a mess that if something happened while he was out here alone, christ knows whether he’d be able to successfully defend himself.

But he can still hear Liam’s heartbeat from back inside the clinic. But he can still smell Liam on himself, his sweat and his blood and his tears, still stinging sharp in Theo’s nose even though the scent of it all should be entirely overwhelmed by everyone else’s sweat and blood and tears soaked into the ragged remnants of Theo’s clothes.

I need a shower, Theo finds himself thinking, then: I need a decontamination. Amusement—more than a little hysterical—bubbles up in his chest. He sucks in, and shudders out, a deep breath. He glances down at himself. And I really liked this shirt, that same nonsensical thought continues, petulant and harmless. Theo has to swallow back a completely inappropriate laugh.

It probably would have come out as a sob, anyway. He scrubs the heels of his palms roughly over his face, heedless of the way that it causes the dirt and gravel and whatever else they’re covered with to scratch at his skin.

The clinic door opens. Theo freezes, glancing over. Noah catches his eyes—the respirator back over his mouth, and chin—and what Theo can see of his expression spasms. He lets the door fall back shut behind himself as he comes to join Theo on the sidewalk.

Theo drops his hands. He opens his mouth to say—something, christ only knows what, but then he stops, his nostrils flaring. His eyes jerk up to Noah’s to stare in stunned surprise, and not a little horror.

Noah looks steadily right back. He says, “I’m sorry,” quiet and firm and genuinely meant, but immovable. His hands had already been resting on his belt, his right hand next his holster, and his fingers twitch as he says it. Twitch towards his gun, now loaded with wolfsbane bullets that he’d no doubt retrieved from Masselli. When he’d said I’m sorry he hadn’t meant the bullets were a mistake. He’d only meant he was sorry that it’d come to this.

The steel of his tone when he’d said it had been equally clear: it had come to this.

Theo rips his gaze away from Noah’s, and stares sightlessly out into the parking lot, his breathing gone rough and uneven. He can feel his shoulders heaving with the force of it; of all the sharp-edged amusement in his chest gone sharp.

The clinic door chimes open again. Lydia and Malia step through.

Malia steps through, in point of fact, her blue-flecked eyes already scanning the parking lot. When Theo and Noah both lurch reflexively forward for the door to hold it open for Lydia following behind her, the magicked box containing the Nemeton cutting in Lydia’s arms, Malia snaps her teeth—human as they are—in warning. They both startle back.

Lydia just shifts the box in her arms so that she can rest a gentle hand on Malia’s arm, and steps out from behind her. Her chin lifts. “Let’s go,” she orders.

Theo and Noah exchange a look.

She won’t stay, Lydia had told Theo after she’d listen to him present his case for why Malia had to remain at the clinic. Her voice had been perfectly calm and she hadn’t even been arguing with him, necessarily; she’d just been stating facts. Theo had clenched his fingers in his already severely disheveled hair, and told her, you have to try, at least.

And then he’d gone and fled outside, because Liam had still been looking at him; knowing.

So: Lydia had tried, maybe. And she’d failed, clearly. Malia stands in front of her with her weight shifted onto the balls of her feet, her expression fixed and focused, and Theo hears Lydia say again: she won’t stay.

“I’ll drive,” Theo finally announces, resigned.

They take Kaynor’s SUV back to the same section of road bordering the Preserve that Theo had led him and Marykwas’ to last time. Marykwas’ SUV is still there, and unbothered, and Theo can’t help smirking at the pinched look on Noah’s face as he slides Kaynor’s SUV back into its vacated spot behind it.

“You want to write him a ticket, I’m sure we can wait,” Theo tells him. Noah gives him an unimpressed look, but huffs out a grudging laugh.

They spend a few minutes outside the SUV getting themselves settled. Lydia had managed to dig up a duffel bag from the back of Kaynor’s SUV for them to carefully slot the box containing the Nemeton cutting into, but the question of who should carry it remains unsolved: Theo had originally declared he would, before Lydia had reminded him what had happened the last time he’d gotten close to the dying Nemeton.

“It can’t be you, then, either,” Theo points out, immediately latching onto the excuse even though he knows, and Noah standing off to the side knows, and Lydia herself knows, that that’s not the reason Theo doesn’t want her carrying it. Lydia rolls her eyes, but grants the point.

They all look at Malia.

“I’ll take it,” Noah decides. He shrugs when they look over at him. “I can still aim and shoot if needed even while wearing what amounts to a backpack.”

Theo helps him get it settled—Noah reaching back first one arm and then the next to fit them through the duffel bag’s straps—and then he takes a step back. “Okay,” he says, glancing around at their ragtag group. “Let’s go.”

He and Lydia start feeling the effects of the Nemeton almost immediately. They’re barely fifty feet into the trees the first time that Theo trips on a tree root and goes down on his hands and knees, his breath already starting to wheeze in his chest. Off to his side, Lydia stumbles and only stays upright because Malia is instantly there, and holding onto her; Lydia presses her face into Malia’s shoulder, panting.

She presses her left hand to her belly, holding.

“Ah, hell, kid,” Noah mutters as he grimaces and leans over to haul Theo up, and regardless of the fact that Theo hasn’t been a kid in some time. Still, the moniker helps almost as much as the firm pressure of Noah’s grasping hand; the solidity of his shoulder when Theo leans against him, his legs unsteady. “You two going to be able to do this?”

“We have to,” Theo manages to gasp out, his fingers digging into Noah’s arm as he fights to hold himself up. His eyes catch Lydia’s. “We have to.”

She manages to give him a single, firm nod.

But after that they don’t try to move on their own. Noah keeps one arm around Theo’s back—his other left free, his gun in his hand—and Malia stays pressed up against Lydia’s side; a bulwark that Lydia clings to as they keep stumbling their way forward.

As Lydia keeps guiding them forward. Theo doesn’t even pretend to lead this time.

He probably wouldn’t have been able to, regardless. His head is so cloudy with exhaustion that his thoughts feel like they’re skipping; a film reel off its tracks and juddering. That he can still put one foot in front of the other is a small miracle, and a task that he’s nearly failing at. Every alternate step he puts his foot down on a rock that tumbles away from him, or a slick patch of damp leaves that skids out from underneath him. Noah just catches him every time, and grimly hauls him back up.

But: “How close are we?” He finally calls to Lydia, the time that Theo all but ends up on his knees, his feet going out from underneath him one after the other.

“Close,” Lydia gasps out, her fingers white-knuckled around a fistful of Malia’s shirt from where she’s trying to keep herself upright. “We have to be—”

She cuts off on a startled sound, because both Theo’s and Malia’s heads had suddenly whipped around, near-simultaneously.

Noah’s grip tightens around Theo’s shoulders and back. “What is it?” He whispers, voice tension-taut. The hand holding his gun starts to come up, towards the stretch of woods that both Theo and Malia had instantly zeroed in on.

“Smoke,” Theo answers, eyes still narrow and focused on the trees, and then all at once his eyes widen and he shoves Noah away from him.

It means that when Jordan crashes into him, he and Jordan go down in a tangle. Theo gasps out an almost soundless cry at the impact, Jordan’s momentum carrying him over onto his back from where he’d been half on his knees, and then even further over as they roll. Theo does his best to scramble out from underneath him, but even with the surge of adrenaline that’d shot like lightning through him when he’d realized what was happening, he’s still too weak; he winds up flat on his back—the back of his skull cracking against a large stone—and staring up at Jordan.

Jordan, whose teeth are bared and whose skin—his clothes burned away—is mottled with the suggestion of his hellhound shift; lava flows boiling and burning just below the surface.

Still, the former aren’t fangs, and the suggestion of flames is just that: a suggestion. He’d lost his abilities, too.

But not his instincts, Theo realizes, staring muzzily up at him, Jordan splitting into triplets and coming back together into one before splitting again. Jordan snarls at him.

“Jordan, stop!” Lydia yells, cracking and desperate. When Theo’s attention reflexively jerks to her, he sees that she’d ended up on her own knees, Malia now stood in front of her with her stance planted wide and her arms spread in threat, no matter that her fingers are still tipped with human nails.

But Lydia’s fear turns out to be misplaced: Jordan’s focus snaps away from him.

It snaps to Noah. Jordan starts to rise to his feet, his lips curling back from his teeth.

What?, Theo thinks baffled, then: “No!” He yells, rolling over onto his stomach as he starts trying to force himself to his feet, best he can. There’s blood flowing down the back of his neck; the stone he’d hit must have opened up a gash.

His healing must have slowed.

“Deputy,” Noah is trying as he backs carefully away. His gun is still pointing at the ground, but it’s starting to rise. “Deputy—Jordan. Stop!”

But Jordan doesn’t stop, just keeps advancing, step by relentless step. Shit, shit, Theo swears silently, his fingers digging furrows into the loamy earth below him as he orders himself to stand, to get up on his goddamn feet and stand.

Is it because Noah’s human?, some still rational part of Theo’s mind wonders desperately. But that doesn’t make any sense: hellhounds weren’t mindless beasts, they were—

Theo freezes, his eyes widening.

“Noah!” He yells, best he can with the fact that he can barely suck in enough air to his heaving lungs to keep his vision from spotting. “The bag! Drop the bag!

Noah freezes. “What?” He demands, his eyes flicking to Theo’s and then almost instantly back to Jordan. “But you said—!”

Trust me!” Theo interrupts, barely more than able to gasp it out. “Noah, drop the—!”

Noah hesitates one second longer, and then he shrugs his shoulders, and drops the bag. He stumbles away from it, leaving it cockeyed in the dirt from where it’d landed.

Jordan doesn’t follow him. Noah seems to disappear from his perspective entirely, in fact, his attention focused solely on the bag.

On the Nemeton cutting inside it.

“Theo,” Lydia hisses. “What if he…? Are you sure—?”

But Jordan just goes carefully to his knees by the bag, and reaches an equally-careful hand out. His skin may not be smoldering and he may have lost the majority of his abilities, but—like Malia, and Derek, and Liam—they seemed to be returning to him slowly; when he presses his palm to the heavy-duty nylon of the bag, it starts to smoke, and then burn away. Noah and Lydia both cry out, horrified, but Theo just closes his eyes, and lets himself collapse first onto his stomach, and then over onto his back.

He stares up at the trees reaching serene branches out across the sky as he hears the box—unharmed, as he’d known it would be—click open, and he mumbles, “Supernatural.”

He closes his eyes, and breathes, “Hellhounds are guardians of the supernatural.”

---

“How’d you know?” Noah asks quietly a little while later, Theo back on his feet with Noah’s arm back around his waist as they stumble their way after Jordan, the Nemeton cutting now lifted out of its box and cradled carefully in his hands. His expression is still trance-like, his movements even more so, but Lydia had confirmed that he was heading for the Nemeton and they’d—let him.

“I didn’t,” Theo confesses, breathy and short because he can’t get enough air in his lungs. His eyes flick to Lydia on his other side, Malia still holding her up. She looks back. “It was just—call it instinct,” he decides.

Lydia’s expression spasms. It says: that was quite the gamble. The twist to her lips and the hooded nature of her eyes says it was one that she hasn’t decided yet whether she agrees with.

Theo looks away from her.

Jordan isn’t hurrying, thankfully. Whether it’s intentional or just his apparently Nemeton-induced trance, his pace is certainly relentless, but measured enough that Theo and Noah and Lydia and Malia can follow him without significant issue, even with Theo and Lydia getting weaker all the while. Theo does his best to keep his feet underneath him but the fact of the matter is that Noah is practically carrying him, and Lydia isn’t in a much better state.

But they make it back to the Nemeton, and just in time for Marykwas to try and shoot Jordan.

In his defense, the suggestion of flames under Jordan’s skin had ceased being a suggestion: with every step closer to the Nemeton the mottling patterns under his skin had risen and gotten stronger until they’d finally broken through. Until he’d shifted, fully and completely. Malia had startled reflexively back when it had happened, her mouth filling with fangs, not human teeth, and her nails lengthening into sharp-tipped claws no matter her still-careful grip around Lydia’s arms, and side.

Theo’s first instinctive reaction to the shift of their individual shifts had been relief. His second—immediately on the heels of the first—had been stomach-churning fear. Whatever had been happening to the Nemeton—whatever had been killing it—it was accelerating.

They’d been running out of time.

That’s all Theo had really been able to think when their ragtag little caravan had broken the tree line back into the clearing with the Nemeton stump. It’s why it hadn’t occurred to him to call out, to warn Deaton and Corey and Marykwas and Kaynor.

It’s why he can do nothing but watch as Marykwas’ eyes go wide over his respirator as he spots Jordan, and his gun snaps up, and the tip of his rifle flares with muzzle-flash.

But it doesn’t matter, if the bullet would have even affected Jordan if it’d gotten close enough to try: Deaton reacts faster than anyone, and he’s snapped out a hand parallel to his shoulder and then driven it down towards his waist just as Marykwas fires. The bullet buries itself in the ground at Markywas’ feet as the tip of his rifle follows the movement of Deaton’s hand.

“Sir,” Marykwas gasps, startled and with his eyes still panic—still fear—wide.

Deaton doesn’t even bother to look at him. His own eyes fix on the Nemeton cutting in Jordan’s hands, and then flick sideways to catch Theo’s and Lydia’s. There’s a question there, and one that neither Theo, nor anyone else, he’s pretty sure, has a good answer for.

Throughout it all, Jordan doesn’t stop moving forward, towards the dying Nemeton. He doesn’t release the Nemeton cutting in his hands.

“Um, guys,” Corey wonders, from where he is—Theo only now for the first time fully clocking it—flat on his back a little ways away from the Nemeton, Kaynor’s jacket folded-up underneath his head. Even as he’s dragging his gaze away from Jordan and doing his best to sit up as he looks at Theo and the others, he’s still incredibly careful in where he puts his hands. He’s trying not to touch the Nemeton, Theo realizes. He jerks his eyes up from Corey’s hands to his pale, sweaty face just as Corey continues, “Should we be—”

“—letting him do that?” Kaynor finishes for him, his eyes fixed on Jordan’s back.

“I don’t think we can stop him,” Noah replies uncertainly.

“I don’t think we should stop him,” Deaton counters. He’d still been watching Jordan, too, but as he speaks he takes a half-step forward—he’d been standing just behind Corey—and gets his hands underneath Corey’s shoulders. He starts lifting Corey, and encouraging him—half dragging him, really, Corey even weaker it seems than Theo and Lydia—away from the stump of the Nemeton.

Corey struggles to help him. They end up in a jagged line at the edge of the clearing—Markywas and Kaynor backing up to join them—just as Jordan reaches the edge of the Nemeton stump.

He twists to set the Nemeton cutting carefully down in the dirt and leaf litter by his side.

He turns back to the Nemeton stump, the smoldering flames that’d been covering his hands suddenly flaring into wildfire, fierce and snapping and hot enough that Theo can feel the prickling sensation even from where he’s clinging to Noah a dozen feet back.

“Deaton—” he starts to say, anxiety starting to rise like sickness in his throat, because he’s pretty sure that—

—that Jordan is going to reach forward, and slam his flaming hands down against the brittle, blackened wood of the Nemeton stump.

The Nemeton starts to burn.

---

Whatever happens next, Theo doesn’t follow it.

He can’t. The second the Nemeton catches fire it’s like he’s slammed in the chest with a pressure wave, and even Noah’s bracing arms can’t stop him stumbling initially back and then almost immediately pitching forward as his legs collapse out from under him and he starts to retch.

What comes up is bloody. Theo tastes it more than sees it, because he can’t see anything, really: his head feels like it’s splitting open and his vision is white-washed and indistinct. What, he barely manages to think, and then he cries out—now on his hands and knees in the dirt only because Noah had followed him down, and wrapped his arms around Theo’s waist to keep him from hitting the ground fully—as he feels his bones start to break, and reform.

As he starts to shift, fast and uncontrollably.

He howls, his fingers—his clawed fingers—digging deep furrows into the dirt. His fangs split open his lip as he does so, though it heals almost immediately: too fast. His headache gets worse as his eyes flare without his say-so. The pain becomes overwhelming enough that he vomits again, spitting up another mouthful of blood and bile.

Deaton!” He can hear Noah yelling, somehow sounding tinny and far away even though Noah’s literally kneeling right next to him. “What the hell is happening to them?”

To them, he’d said. Theo forces his head to turn sideways to where he’d last known Corey to be, and through his tunneling, streaking vision manages to just catch sight of Corey flat on his back, choking and shaking and with various spots on his body flickering in and out of visibility, his camouflage activating and deactivating in unpredictable spurts.

“Corey,” Theo breathes desperately, and then his head jerks around to his other side, because Lydia screams.

It’s muffled by the palms she has pressed hard over her mouth—her and Malia also flat on their backs—but it still has more than a little banshee force behind it. Kaynor—who’d bent over them both in an apparent attempt to help—stumbles backwards away from them with a dazed expression.

His ears are bleeding.

“The Nemetons act as conduits,” Deaton is desperately trying to explain. “As dams. They control the flow of magic in any given area. Without this one, the magic is flooding the area. We have to—”

—replant the cutting, Theo finishes mentally. Whether Deaton actually says it or not, Theo can’t tell; his ears are ringing, and almost deafeningly so. He drags his head up as he tries to force his incoherent vision to focus; to find Jordan, and the Nemeton cutting he’d been holding.

He has to squint an eye shut and bite down on another cry—his fangs punching right through his lip again—when burning hot ash blows against the exposed skin of his face, the side of his neck.

But he finds Jordan. He can’t not, not with how hot and how fiercely Jordan is burning; a signal fire.

A wildfire.

But he’s not moving, either. Theo can see the way that he’s convulsing flat on his back—causing the flames covering his skin to shake, and dance—but Jordan seems just as affected as the rest of them. He isn’t going to be able to replant the Nemeton, Theo realizes.

None of them are.

Or at least none of the supernaturals. “Noah, Marykwas,” Deaton orders, harsh and loud over the continued sounds—the continued sounds of Theo and Corey and Malia and Lydia and Jordan dying. He doesn’t say Kaynor, probably because Kaynor is still dazed from being hit with Lydia’s scream. “Get over here. Help me.”

“I’m sorry, Theo,” Noah whispers right in Theo’s ear, and then his bracing arms disappear from around Theo’s waist.

Theo hits the ground, his limbs immediately collapsing out from underneath him in the absence of Noah’s bracing hold.

His face lands in the dirt, and he winds up breathing in whole mouthfuls of the stuff as he pants for air. And not just dirt: ash.

The whole clearing, Theo’s realizing, is covered in the same ash he’d felt blowing against his face.

His bones break and reform again. Theo cries out, his whole body jerking as his whole body tries to shift. He can feel fur crawling over his skin in patches before it disappears, and reappears in other places.

He can hear his own bones breaking, sharp and cracking and the sound of it almost worse than the pain.

And then he hears something else, and has to curl reflexively in on himself—that pain enough to make his vision flicker, and go momentarily dark as he slips out and then immediately back into consciousness—as Marykwas’ and Kaynor’s and Noah’s and Theo’s radios all screech, Theo’s hearing so supernaturally sharpened that it sounds like a bomb going off right next to his head. He brings his hands up to instinctively cover his ears and immediately feels the damp wetness of blood on his palms; his eardrums had burst.

Theo!” The collective radios shriek, and then descend into loud, incoherent, buzzing static. Theo cries out again, desperately thinking make it stop.Marykwas, Kaynor—” more buzzing, “—Scott is—” there’s a longer, modulating series of metallic groans and grinding screeches, “—the Nemeton!

That cuts through the pain and oppressive noise in Theo’s head. He manages to raise it just enough that he can look up, and out, towards Deaton and Noah and Marykwas all standing in the middle of the ankle-deep pile of ash where the dying Nemeton stump used to be, the Nemeton cutting in Deaton’s hands. But they’re not looking at him, or even at the cutting. They’re looking—all of them frozen, with their eyes wide—at the stretch of trees bordering the clearing.

Theo follows their gazes just in time to see Scott burst out of the trees, red-eyed and full-shifted and already roaring.

---

If Theo had thought Scott’s roar back when he and Corey had been trying to lead Scott into theirs and Mason’s and Argent’s trap had been a tsunami, then this roar is like a nuclear bomb going off. Every cell in Theo’s body feels crushed under the weight of his alpha’s authority gone supercharged by the Nemeton’s death and burning.

Theo can’t breathe past it.

He tries, desperately, his lungs screaming for oxygen, but he can’t. Instead he feels himself convulsing, his jaw dropped wide but useless as his throat works and his lungs spasm but he doesn’t manage to pull in any actual air. The dirt and leaf litter and ash in front of his open mouth don’t so much as stir.

And then suddenly he can breathe. He sucks in a huge, gasping inhale on straight instinct, and then immediately starts coughing as he does finally take in a mouthful of dirt and dried leaves and burning ash. He retches a little again, his body trying to reject it all. It doesn’t work; Theo can feel the ash searing his throat.

But he can think again. He can force his head weakly up until he can focus his blurring gaze on Scott.

On Scott, who’s no longer roaring, and who has a bloody hole punched through the back of one shoulder, the fabric of his shirt around it turning—turning black. Theo stares at the wound—and the beginnings of the spidering black lines reaching out from it, sickly and stark—in a complete lack of comprehension, and then his head whips sideways—his neck muscles screaming—as someone yells, “Scott! Scott, stop! Please!”

As Argent yells that. Argent, who’s standing with his feet braced wide on the edge of the clearing, both his hands wrapped around a gun that he has pointed directly at Scott’s heart.

A low, furious growl starts up; Theo’s attention whips back to Scott just in time to see his lips curl up over his shifted fangs, and his legs start to bend as he—as he prepares to lunge.

No, Theo thinks, the thought clear and sharp and cutting through everything else in his head. No, no, no. “Malia!,” he yells, best he can through his shredded throat. “Jordan!

Malia’s way ahead of him, apparently—Theo sees a silver-grey streak of color go barreling across the clearing, and straight into Scott, just as Scott begins to lunge back towards Argent. She full-shifted, Theo realizes as they go down in a tangle, Scott already snapping and snarling and clawing at her.

He catches her; Theo sees five bright-red slashes open up across Malia’s fur-covered side as she gives a canine shriek and tumbles sideways.

Another shot rings out just before Scott would have brought a second clawed strike down on Malia’s vulnerable form. He goes stumbling back, another black-blooded hole blooming on the front of his right shoulder.

Scott!” Argent begs again.

C’mon, Theo snarls at himself. C’mon! He plants both his palms flat in the dirt, and pushes himself up to his knees, and the next time he feels the tell-tale burn of one of his bones preparing to break—preparing to shift—he latches onto the sensation and pours his concentration, and his desperation, into it.

The shift practically explodes out of him, and he’s hit the ground running towards Scott on his four lupine legs before his mind has fully settled into his new shape.

Scott whips around to face him. His red eyes narrow, and he roars again; Theo’s legs tangle themselves up in each other as Scott’s alpha authority bears down on him, and he’s whining helplessly even as he’s rolling himself quickly back to his feet to keep sprinting towards Scott.

He’s not alone. Theo sees a flare of searing-bright flame appear on Scott’s other side, and he quickly adjusts his trajectory to duck low and then surge up, catching Scott’s left wrist in his teeth just as Scott begins to whip it around towards Jordan in a huge, punishing arc.

Scott roars again as Theo’s fangs tear through his flesh, and then he chokes and collapses downwards when Jordan’s own strike slams into his head. He goes down on one knee, stunned, and Theo doesn’t waste time: he ignores his own screaming body—every part of him hurting, and every move he makes feeling like it’s going to rip his tendons, his muscles, in two—and releases Scott’s wrist to go for his throat.

It doesn’t work: Scott’s right hand catches him across the side of his head in a vicious backhand, and he goes flying backwards. He hits a tree on the edge of the clearing and hears several of his ribs snap.

He yelps.

Lydia screams.

But not just screams: she banshee screams. The force of it flies outward from her extended hands—Lydia up on her knees, somehow, though she’s pale and shaking when Theo’s head instinctively whips around to look at her—and slams into Scott, sending him hurtling backwards away from Jordan, who’d been in the process of grappling—and losing—with him.

“We’re almost there!” Someone—Deaton—yells even as Scott is struggling his way back to his feet. “Just keep him contained a little longer!”

Theo grits his lupine teeth, and starts trying to force himself back upright. His ribs had finished knitting themselves back together—his healing still way faster than it should be—but he’s still in pain, the shift almost too much in its entirety, like the magic of the Nemeton was bleeding into his every cell, saturating them with so much power that they feel like they’re going to burst. He sincerely hopes that Malia and Jordan are in better states, but based on what he can see of them—Malia also staggering back to her feet, and Jordan on his hands and knees and panting as he stares out at Scott—they’re not.

And then how he feels just ceases to matter, because Scott regains his feet, and his focus zeroes in on Lydia.

No, Theo thinks. Just that single blank thought. He’s shifted back before he’s even thought about it, and he yells, “Corey! Get to Lydia and camouflage her!” He’s moving even as he’s shouting it, Scott already on the move and Malia and Jordan clocking his target too late to interfere. “Corey, you have to protect Lydia!

He doesn’t check to see if Corey had heard him. He doesn’t even check to see if Corey had managed to move, as weakened as Corey had been. He just crashes right into Scott as Scott surges towards Lydia, his mouth open in a furious, fang-mouthed snarl and his clawed hands outstretched.

They hit the ground hard on their sides—the dirt and rocks tearing at Theo’s naked skin, and the ash searing it—and slide, Scott already grappling to get away from him and Theo struggling to keep ahold of him. “Theo!” Someone shrieks, but Theo has no idea who; he has to concentrate on dodging the first, and then the second, clawed swipes that Scott aims at him.

But the third lands. It lands right in his stomach, Scott’s hand driving right through his abdomen and into his guts, twisting.

Theo chokes.

He chokes, and then raises his eyes up to Scott’s, who now has him pinned flat on his back, his eyes burning red and his lips twisted in a satisfied snarl. Even as Theo is watching his face, Scott is ripping his clawed hand back out of Theo’s gut, and raising it.

Theo isn’t going to be able to defend himself. He has a split second to realize that fact, and then Scott’s hand is arcing downward.

---

But the strike never lands.

“Theo?” Scott suddenly breathes, soft and stunned-sounding and horrified. Theo slits his eyes open—isn’t even sure when they’d fallen shut—to look up at Scott above him.

To look at Scott, and the blindingly white ceiling above him.

The shift is gone from Scott’s mouth, his face; his still-upraised, red-stained hand. His eyes are huge and dark beneath his sweat-matted hair, no longer their burning-alpha red, and they don’t leave Theo’s. Can’t seem to, Scott frozen in absolute, agonized confusion.

Except then his attention snaps outwards, because someone—because Corey—breathes, “Oh, shit.” When Theo—his head thumping back to look at him upside-down—manages to spot him, he’s collapsed onto his stomach, one arm outstretched to—to hold onto Lydia, who’s sat on one hip and staring out at the rest of the room.

The ash, Theo realizes, staring at Corey’s hand on Lydia’s arm. The whole clearing was covered in ash from the Nemeton. He’d ordered Corey to get to Lydia, to camouflage her, and apparently Corey had.

And the second he’d activated his ability, he’d taken everyone who’d been touching the ash with him into the Nemeton’s mind space. Shit, Theo thinks, echoing Corey’s heartfelt swear, and then he jolts, because Lydia suddenly sobs, Allison.

Scott whips around so fast and so frantically that it shifts him above Theo; Theo chokes as his shredded insides are disturbed. The sound immediately draws Scott’s attention back to him, and he blanches as he looks down at Theo’s stomach.

“Oh my god,” he breathes, staring at the damage. “Did I…?

“I’m fine,” Theo manages to grit out, though he’s doing it through a mouthful of blood. “I’m fine, I’m healing.”

It’s not exactly a lie, though fine is certainly a stretch; thank god Liam isn’t there to call him out on it. But it doesn’t matter. It can’t matter: not when there’s a sudden deafening clatter as—as Argent’s gun drops from his seemingly nervous fingers. He’s stood across the way, exactly as distant as he had been in the clearing, but he’s not looking at Scott or Theo or Corey or Jordan or Deaton or Noah or even Kaynor still staring out through dazed eyes, blood still running down his neck from his ears: he’s staring at Allison.

He’s staring at his daughter.

“Dad,” Allison whispers, and rushes towards him.

There’s nothing blurred about her features now. They’re crystal clear as she buries them in her father’s chest with a wounded cry, her hands clutching at the tactical vest Argent’s still wearing.

Argent’s arms come up to wrap around her shoulders. He pulls her in tight, one hand coming up to cradle the back of her head.

His eyes and cheeks are wet. Theo drops his head back flat when he realizes, feeling like a voyeur.

He winds up looking at Scott, who’s back to staring out at Allison with raw, desperate longing on his face. “Go,” Theo manages to order him, though he has to grind the single word out of his chest. Scott’s eyes snap down to his. “Scott,” Theo insists, ignoring the way that the effort of speaking is causing blood to spill out from the corners of his lips. “Go.

“I—” Scott hesitates, his eyes flicking down to the damage he’d done to Theo’s stomach.

But then they snap up, because Malia—human-shaped once more—appears at Theo’s side. She lays a hand on Theo’s bare arm, and starts siphoning his pain. That her own bare ribs bear five deep, still-bloody marks doesn’t seem to phase her. She looks at Scott and tells him, “I’ve got him. Go.

Scott stares at her in clear indecision, and then his expression crumples up, and he staggers his way to his feet. He stands looking down at her and Theo for a second longer, and then he turns unsteadily around, and takes a tentative step towards where Allison is still stood with her face buried in her father’s chest.

He takes another.

Theo has to look away from him again, his eyes rolling up a little in his head. Malia rests her free hand over his forehead, and then strokes it back over his sweaty, clammy skin. “Hang on,” she whispers to him. “Just hang on, okay?”

He nods, best he can. He closes his eyes, and tries to concentrate on doing just that: hanging on.

But they snap right back open the next second. Lydia slows as she goes to pass him, her gaze falling to his wounded stomach, but he locks eyes with her when she looks back up. Go, he mouths.

Her expression hardens. She goes. Theo lets his head loll sideways so that he can follow her progress.

So that he can see as she makes it over to Allison, and her father, and Scott already hovering wide-eyed and soft-mouthed and desperate a few steps away.

“I don’t understand,” Argent is repeating brokenly, over and over again into Allison’s hair. “How are you here? How are you—? I don’t understand.

“It was—” Allison gasps out, her voice shredded and her words cracking. “It was the sacrifices.” She lifts her head out of her father’s chest and resettles it so that she’s looking out at Lydia through swollen, red-rimmed eyes.

At Scott.

“I’m so sorry,” she tells him. She starts to cry again, and harder. Her father releases her, and Allison immediately rushes to Scott as she says, “I’m so sorry, I tried. For so long now I’ve been trying—

Scott catches her, but even as he’s doing so Allison is crying harder; she starts to crumple in on herself, her knees bending as her shoulders curve in, her hands hovering over Scott’s arms as she really starts to sob. They both wind up on their knees, Scott’s hands cupped around Allison’s elbows and his eyes locked on the top of her downturned head, his expression blown-open and raw.

“I tried. I tried—” Allison keeps trying to explain, but she’s crying too hard.

“It’s okay,” Scott interjects, clearly trying to comfort her even though he clearly has no idea what he’s comforting her about. “Allison, it’s okay. It’s—”

“It was the sacrifices,” Allison finally manages to repeat, and looks back up at him. Her face is red and her cheeks tear-stained. “It was my—my death.” She, Scott, Lydia, and Argent all wince. Allison pushes through it. “It left a—a hole that the Nemeton’s power started to leak out of, and—and—”

“Stiles leaving,” Lydia breathes, apparently following Allison’s train of logic. Her expression is just as raw as Scott’s; her cheeks just as tear-stained as Allison’s, but it doesn’t matter. She sounds as steady as ever. “Stiles coming back.

Allison nods, jerkily. “I’ve been trying to—to stem the bleeding. Here,” she explains, tipping her chin at their too-bright, blindingly-white surroundings. “But it’s been so long,” she confesses, her voice cracking again as she looks back at Scott. “I got too weak—

“No,” Scott interrupts, reaching forward to wrap his arms around her head and pulling her in against his chest as he denies, “No, never, you weren’t—”

Allison huddles against him for a long few heartbeats, but only a few. Then she straightens up, and explains, “When Stiles came back this time, it was too much for the Nemeton to handle.” Her expression spasms. “For me to handle. I couldn’t. I couldn’t—

“It wasn’t your fault,” Lydia interrupts fiercely, half tackling her as she goes to her knees, and wraps her arms around Allison’s shoulders.

Allison leans back into her, her eyes squeezing shut and her hands lifting to clutch, white-knuckled, at Lydia’s arms. She glances up at her father, the skin around her eyes tightening again as a fresh wave of tears spill down her cheeks.

“I’m so sorry,” she repeats breathlessly, looking back at Scott. “I wanted to protect the pack. I wanted,” she insists, “to protect our pack.”

Scott hunches inwards like he’d just absorbed a body blow. On either side of Allison, Lydia and Argent both shudder, the former starting to silently cry again and the latter’s expression screwing up.

“You did,” Scott just insists to Allison. He reaches forward to cup his hands around her face, his thumbs stroking underneath her eyes. “You did.”

Allison lifts one of her hands off of Lydia’s arms to wrap her fingers around one of Scott’s wrists instead. Tears spill from her eyes again.

And then she convulses.

Just slightly, just once, but it’s enough. Scott and Lydia both exclaim and Argent reaches for her. Allison lifts the arm she’d been using to hold onto Scott backwards until she collides with his, and they can grab onto each other; grounding.

“You have to finish it,” Allison gasps out, and she’s not looking at Scott anymore.

She’s looking at Deaton, still stood across the way with Noah and Marykwas. The Nemeton cutting isn’t in Deaton’s hands anymore—it hadn’t made the jump into the mind space when Corey had unwittingly dragged them all into it, or whatever—but it doesn’t matter: that’s clearly what Allison means.

“But,” Lydia protests, and for the first time her voice breaks. She stares at Allison, her expression cracking open. “But what about you? What will happen to—”

“I don’t know,” Allison interrupts her softly, her lips flickering in a weak, sympathetic smile. She turns it on Scott next, and Theo can see the way her fingers squeeze around her father’s forearm, still holding onto her upraised arm. “I don’t know, but you have to finish it.”

“Wait,” Argent begs, his voice rasping and raw as he kneels down next to his daughter. “Wait, please—”

“There’s no time,” Allison counters so, so gently. She pulls away from both Lydia and Scott some so that she can lean her forehead against the side of her father’s temple. “I love you,” she whispers to him.

She opens her eyes back up, and looks at Scott, and then at Lydia.

“I love you,” she tells them.

And then she pulls away from all three of them, and staggers backwards, and onto her feet.

“And now you have to go,” she insists, talking to them all, now—not just Scott and Lydia and her father, but Theo and Malia and Corey and Jordan and Kaynor, too. But Noah and Marykwas and Deaton.

She hesitates, and looks back down at Scott.

“Go save our town,” she orders him softly. “Go save our family,” she says, and smiles weak and watery but genuine at him, at Lydia.

At her father, who reaches for her with a desperate, “Allison!”

She catches his hand, and curls his fingers inward so that she can press the back of his knuckles to her bent forehead. She holds them then there for a second, and then she lifts her head and presses her lips to them, and drops them.

“I love you,” she tells him, one final time, and then she takes another step back. She tips her head back so that she’s staring up at the ceiling, her shoulders rising and falling with the force of her breathing.

And then she sucks in a single deep, harsh breath, her eyes squeezing shut. She holds that same breath for one heartbeat, two, and then her eyes snap back open.

She looks back down at all of them. The already-blinding light in the room flares.

Theo bites off a pained cry as his eyes reflexively squeeze shut, and when he opens them again—

—he’s back in the clearing, Scott back to being poised above him with his bloody hand raised.

---

There’s a frozen moment where they just stare at each other, Scott’s eyes back to being their human dark rather than their alpha red, and then Scott convulses and hunches inward as—as he chokes on a mouthful of black blood, several streams of it bubbling up over his lips and running down his chin. He falls to Theo’s side with a pained gasp.

But: “Theo!” He rasps, immediate and desperate.

“I’m okay,” Theo manages to gasp out himself, his fingers spasming across the dirt in an unsteady crawl until he can find Scott’s forearm next to him, and wrap his fingers around it so that he can squeeze. “I’m okay.”

Scott’s breathing is fast and even; painful-sounding. His forearm under Theo’s hand keeps jerking and juddering as he convulses; the wolfsbane from Argent’s bullets finally having their intended effect. Still, Scott tries—and when he fails, tries again—to suck in enough air to manage, “Malia!”

There’s a pained groan from across the clearing, and a rustle of dried leaves. “I’m here, Scott,” Malia calls weakly, her voice hitching halfway through; her ribs still healing. “I’m here, it’s okay.”

Beside him, Theo can hear—and feel—Scott start to seize. Shit, he thinks muzzily, all of his thoughts still hazy with pain and blood loss and just the general mental whiplash of the past several hours, but he starts trying to turn over onto his side to face Scott anyway, already thinking: I’ve got to do something to help him.

But: “Hey, hey, hey,” Argent chants soothingly, encouraging him back down with a gentle hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, I’ve got this. I’ve got this.”

Theo lets himself collapse back downwards, relief threatening to surge straight up his throat and out of his mouth in a raw sound that he just barely manages to swallow. He finds himself staring through unfocused, blurry eyes up at the sky as he listens to Argent beside him murmur quickly to Scott, Argent’s hands working—Theo’s ears following the click and then pop as Argent ejects the magazine from his gun, and flicks a bullet free, and starts pulling it apart—to heal Scott of his wolfsbane poisoning. Beyond that he can hear the low rhythmic murmur of chanting, the words full-bodied and oddly rounded; Theo’s sluggish brain can only translate every third or so word of the Celtic, no matter how smooth and effortless Deaton’s pronunciation.

But he sure as hell feels it when Deaton finishes. There’s a rush of displaced air over the clearing—beyond it—and Theo gasps in a breath that feels like it’s filling up his lungs properly for the first time since Liam had looked over at him with gold-bright eyes, and snarled at him with a fang-filled mouth. It even tastes better, somehow; less toxic. He sucks in another, and then another.

There’s commotion all around him. Argent is doling out orders to Kaynor and Marykwas even as he’s dumping the wolfsbane ashes he’d prepared from his deconstructed bullet into the two wounds he’d driven through Scott’s shoulder, and chest. Noah is on his radio, tone fast and clipped but steady as he talks with his other deputies.

Lydia is quietly crying, her hands over her mouth and her cheeks wet with tears.

Theo feels his expression screw up as he stares at her, half-rolled over onto his side to see her and with his chin planted in the dirt. Their eyes lock. Her expression crumples up more.

“Hey,” Argent interjects suddenly, as Theo reflexively starts trying to struggle his way onto his knees; to get to Lydia, and comfort her. He gets a hand back around Theo’s shoulder, and firmly—if carefully—guides him back down, onto his back. “Stop moving. Your insides still look like ground hamburger.”

Theo chokes on an inappropriate burst of a laugh. It doesn’t help with his insides still looking like ground hamburger, but it does lighten something in his chest; his heavy, leaden limbs. Argent looks down at him, his gaze searching Theo’s face, and then his own mouth cracks in a helpless smile.

His eyes are bloodshot, Theo is only now realizing. There’s salt dried tacky on his cheeks.

He must catch Theo looking, because his expression flickers and then goes a soft sort of sad. He glances away from Theo to Scott instead, the look on his face spasming. The hand he’d had on Theo’s shoulder he leaves there, but his other he lifts to cup it around Scott’s face, Scott still sweating and shaking as he recovers.

“You’re going to be okay,” he promises Scott softly, and then he looks back at Theo. “You’re all going to be okay. Marykwas, Kaynor!” He orders, as he suddenly stands. His hands are covered in Scott’s black blood. “Get on the radio to Gonzalez and Belomo. Give them our coordinates and tell them to get here with as many ATVs as they can, as soon as—

He keeps talking but Theo stops listening: Corey had stood up, and stumbled his way over, and dropped down on Theo’s other side. Theo smiles at him best he can, and lifts an arm, his elbow still braced in the dirt. Corey takes it, and then laughs a little as he pulls back to shrug out of the jacket he’d been wearing so that he can lay it over Theo’s bare hips.

“I’m sure Liam would have something to say about your complete disregard for indecent exposure laws,” he comments wryly; Theo laughs a little.

He also presses back into it, when Corey collapses onto one hip, his thigh digging firm and hard and perfect into Theo’s side.

He leans into it when Malia staggers over, and drops down above his and Scott’s heads, and then bends over to press her forehead to Theo’s own. He groans and then closes his eyes gratefully when Lydia appears directly behind his head, and lifts it carefully into her lap, her fingers running gently over his cheeks, his jaw. He kicks a foot weakly out when Jordan wobbles his way over, and then slumps into a seated position at their feet, and wraps one hand each around Scott’s and Theo’s ankles, and squeezes.

Noah comes by to give Jordan his jacket to cover up his bare hips. Kaynor—desperately trying to look anywhere but directly at her—removes his tactical vest to strip off his overshirt, and hand it to Malia. Argent and Deaton and Noah and Marykwas and Kaynor all talk, and strategize, and throughout it all the clump of them—of Theo, and Scott, and Malia, and Lydia, and Corey, and Jordan—all rest against each other.

Theo just concentrates on the feel of it; of his pack close by, and surrounding him. Lydia’s fingers keep stroking gently over his face. Every time Theo breathes he rocks Corey still leaning heavily against his hip, and he can feel his own pulse beating against the fingers Jordan still has wrapped around his ankle. Scott is a warm line of heat all down his other side, and Malia’s quiet murmuring to Scott fills his ears.

He lets his eyes slip shut.

---

When he opens them again, he finds himself staring up at the animal clinic’s ceiling.

“Oh,” Liam says, when he realizes Theo is awake, “how the tables have turned.

Theo looks groggily over at him. He’s sitting on the clinic floor, his legs folded underneath himself so that he can—lean heavily against the cot that Theo is laid out on.

The same cot that Liam had been laid out on, earlier. Theo’s lips twitch.

Liam’s smarmy expression spasms in response, and then screws up some. He rises up off his hip and onto his knees so that he can fully lean over Theo, and press their mouths together, close-mouthed and hard. His hands come up to hold either side of Theo’s face, and Theo can feel the ten points of his fingertips digging into his jaw, the tender places behind his ears.

He presses back up into it as best he can, his eyes squeezing shut as he does.

Liam pulls back, after a while. He doesn’t go far, just tips his forehead down against Theo’s own and leaves it there. His hands don’t move. Theo keeps his eyes closed and tips his face up into Liam’s, the tip of his nose brushing against Liam’s as he feels Liam’s breaths skate across his cheeks, his mouth.

“You’re okay?” Theo finally murmurs, the question practically pressed to Liam’s skin; Liam shivers as Theo’s lips brush against his skin with every syllable.

Liam pulls back. The look on his face is a little tight. There’s a muscle jumping in the corner of his jaw that speaks to the fact that his teeth have clenched together.

“You asking me that is a little rich,” he points out, his voice a too-even kind of neutral.

Theo winces, and reflexively looks down. Liam hadn’t been kidding about the tables turning: what little had remained of Theo’s shirt is now gone, and his lower stomach is swathed in bandages. Still, underneath them Theo can feel that the wound Scott had driven into his abdomen is nearly healed.

He can also tell it’s doing so at its normal rate. He drops his head back down with a heavy, relieved sigh.

Of course, that just leaves him looking up at Liam again. At Liam, and Liam’s tight—no. His terrified—it’s why you get angry when you’re afraid—expression. Theo winces.

But he doesn’t say I’m sorry, because he’s not. And he doesn’t make a joke—all’s well that end’s well, I guess?—even though it’s on the tip of his tongue. He just looks at Liam, and lets Liam look back at him.

Liam’s expression twists up again and he shudders out this huge, uneven breath that just seems to shake its way out of him. He folds over Theo again, but this time he presses his forehead right to the skin and muscle and bone right over Theo’s heart. He leaves it there, his hands clutching at Theo’s shoulder, his arm, on either side of his face.

Theo just lifts a hand, best he’s able, and curls it around the back of Liam’s skull. He tips his own head down so that his face is half-buried in Liam’s hair.

It’s only after a few long minutes have passed, the two of them staying just like that—Theo’s lungs full up with Liam’s scent, and his chest just the slightest bit constricted with Liam’s weight—that Theo finally blinks and glances around and realizes they’re alone in the clinic. Liam must be able to sense his sudden confusion, because he pulls back too, and sits up again.

“Everyone else is out cleaning up the town,” he explains quietly. That Theo couldn’t be out doing the same because of how badly he’d been hurt, and how long he’d taken to recover, goes unspoken. So too does the fact that Liam is still at the clinic with him, rather than with the rest of the pack. Liam swallows. “I figured we’d meet up with them when you woke up.”

There’s a question there, and one that Liam doesn’t want to ask aloud because he’s afraid of hearing an answer he doesn’t like: are you actually okay? Theo’s first instinct is to immediately sit up, and swing his legs over the edge of the cot, and say let’s go then. To blow right past the fact that he’d almost done exactly what Liam had begged him not to do:

Get himself killed trying to protect everyone but himself.

So he takes stock. He closes his eyes, and tilts his head back on the unbelievably uncomfortable cot below him, what the hell, and he surveys himself.

The gut wound Scott had given him is nearly entirely healed. There’s still a bit of internal damage left—Theo can experience the unpleasant, if not exactly painful, feeling of his intestines knitting themselves the rest of the way back together if he tries—but the worst of it is gone. He’s covered in a disgusting layer of dirt, and grime, and blood, and he’s so exhausted underneath all of that, that he’s pretty sure he’s going to be able to stand for a maximum of about twenty seconds at a time. Thirty in a pinch.

Still: “I’m okay,” he assures Liam quietly, and means it. Liam studies him for a few long, stretched-taut seconds, and then he nods once; short and sharp.

He helps Theo up.

They take Kaynor’s SUV. Someone—Kaynor or otherwise—had left it for them, and it’s as Liam is climbing inside through the driver’s door after getting Theo settled in the passenger’s seat that he pauses and realizes blankly, “I owe you a new truck, don’t I?”

Theo snorts a helpless laugh. Liam’s lips flicker in turn, the sense of him easing just that little bit more through Theo’s senses.

Liam takes them to the high school, of all places, though the reasoning becomes clear soon enough: it’s just about centrally located in town, and so it’s being used as a command center of sorts. The parking lot is a mess of Beacon County Sheriff’s Department cruisers and the hulking black SUVs favored by Argent’s people. Still, there’s a little cluster of colorfully assorted cars and crossovers parked in an uneven semicircle in the middle of the chaos, and that’s where Liam heads.

Theo undoes his own seatbelt but ceases reaching for the door handle when Liam smacks him pointedly in the chest with the back of one hand and then glares when Theo glances over. Rolling his eyes isn’t going to cover up for the way that his heart clenches in his chest but Theo does it anyway, and makes sure that Liam can see it. Liam just rolls his own right back and then shoves open his door, hopping down and slamming it shut before coming around to Theo’s.

For all that the look on his face seems permanently unimpressed, his hands on Theo’s waist and side as he helps Theo down are gentle. Theo leans a little more heavily into them than he might strictly speaking need to, just for the heat and the pressure and the way that Liam presses back, firmly and without hesitation.

The first person he sees when Liam steps back is Lydia.

She’s got a folded-up blanket in her hands and she’d clearly been on her way from someplace to someplace else, but she grinds to a relatively graceful halt when she sees him. Her expression crumples up as she breathes, “You’re okay.”

Theo catches her when she surges into him, the blanket she’d been holding quickly handed off to Liam. He oofs slightly as her momentum carries them back into Kaynor’s SUV behind them, but he doesn’t care: he wraps his arms around her, and buries his face against her hair, and tells her, “Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay.”

She pulls back, a helpless smile on her face and her eyes just the slightest bit wet, but if she’d been about to say something else she’s entirely drowned out by someone suddenly yelling, “Hey! Careful of the belly, careful of the belly! My kid is in there!”

Theo startles and looks over Lydia’s shoulder at Stiles a little ways away, who’s sat in the open passenger seat of his and Lydia’s and Derek’s SUV and who’s—swathed in a thick woolen blanket, as far as Theo can see. He’s still pale and there are dark bruises under his eyes, but neither of those things seem to be stopping him as he frees an arm from underneath his blanket to wag a finger accusatorially in Theo’s direction.

Theo’s mouth starts to crack in an amused, helpless grin. It finishes splitting his face wide open when Derek’s only response to Stiles’ tirade—Derek appearing from around the hood of his and Lydia’s and Stiles’ SUV—is to lean on the open passenger door so that it slams closed, shutting Stiles inside. He stays leaning against it with a serene look on his face even as Stiles starts muffledly berating him and yanking at the door handle as he tries to shove the door back open.

“Good seeing you, Theo,” Derek calls over the top of all this. Theo grins wider and gives him a sloppy little salute.

Still stuck in the car, Stiles finally gives up on forcing the door and rolls down the window instead, sticking out his head to observe, “Oh, real mature, asshole.”

Derek just puts a hand on his face, and shoves his head back inside the car. They continue to squabble as Theo looks back down at Lydia, still smiling.

She’s got a dry look on her face that’s doing practically nothing to hide her relief; her overwhelming, desperate gratitude to have Stiles’ and Derek’s constant meaningless bickering back as the background track to her life.

Theo knows the feeling. He flicks his eyes up to Liam, and grins.

And then he looks up and out as a new car pulls into the lot, and specifically into their little circle. Corey shuts off the engine once he’s parked, and hops out.

“Hey,” he greets, coming forward to take Lydia’s place when she steps back to let him. His arms around Theo are tight, but he confines the pressure of them to Theo’s shoulders; conscious of his still-healing gut. He looks speculatively down at Theo’s stomach when he pulls back, and then back up at Theo. “All good?”

Theo nearly says yes before catching sight of Liam leaning pointedly against Kaynor’s SUV next to him, his arms loosely crossed and his eyebrows preemptively raised. Theo’s lips flicker. “Getting there,” he tells Corey instead.

Liam’s lips flicker at that, and he quickly looks away, some of the tension that’d crept into his shoulders easing.

But he turns back the next second. “How are Mason’s parents?” He queries Corey curiously.

Corey gives a firm nod. “Fine. Confused as hell, but fine.” He grins, fast and wide. “Looking forward to seeing their son next so they can give him an earful.”

They all laugh, sympathy for Mason’s future plight be damned. But, speaking of: “Where is Mason?” Theo wonders, glancing around and with his nostrils flaring.

“Off with Deaton,” Corey answers easily, and then his expression goes a little dry. “I only understood about a tenth of what he was rattling off when he was trying to explain, but the gist seemed to be that they needed to check that the Nemeton was fully and properly replanted.”

Theo reflexively glances upwards, but the sky is a cloudless, languid bright blue. There’s no telltale shimmer of magic layered over the top; the barrier had disappeared.

Theo blows out a low, relieved breath.

“And how is Mason?” He wonders quietly. Liam had filled him on everyone’s current statuses as best he could on the drive over, but.

Corey winces, slightly. “His healing saved him from the worst of the damage when Scott blew through his barrier, but having his own magic reflected back at him like that…” Corey trails off, and huffs out a rough breath. “Not to mention he immediately moved to treat Argent’s people who’d also been injured, so.” He shrugs. “He’s pretty drained, his protests to the contrary be damned—” his expression goes a little dry, “—but he’s…good.”

“Good,” Theo echoes softly, and pulls Corey back in. “Good. Christ, that’s good.”

But then he jolts back, because he overhears someone say, “Alpha McCall, please. You need to take it easy.”

Theo’s brow furrows. He glances over at Liam, who glances back—his brow just as tightly furrowed—and then Liam pushes off of Kaynor’s SUV to go investigate. Theo moves to follow—as do Lydia and Corey—but they don’t have to go far: Scott’s on one of the school’s sidewalks bordering the parking lot, hunched over and with his hands braced on his knees as he sucks in uneven mouthfuls of air. There’s a sheriff’s deputy bent over him, one hand on Scott’s back.

Still, Scott’s only response is to gasp out, “C’mon, Strauss,” in between wheezes, “you know better than to call me that.”

Strauss’ expression says that’s the thing he’s least concerned about at this exact moment, but that he’s unsure how to bring up the higher priority items. Luckily he doesn’t have to.

“I’ve got him,” Liam calls, nodding Strauss away and taking over with his hands on Scott’s still-hunched shoulders. “C’mon, Scott.” He chastises more quietly, once he has. “What the hell are you doing?”

Strauss takes advantage of the reprieve to hurry the hell away. Scott just twists around to glare half-heartedly at Liam. “I’m fine,” he insists. “I’m fine, you don’t need to—”

“Well there’s no point lying to me,” Liam reminds him irritably, “is there?” He ignores Scott’s protests and starts helping him—pretty firmly helping him, really, considering the fact that Scott’s doing his best to dig in his heels—back towards the cars.

“Noah has his people doing door-to-door checks of all the non-supernatural townspeople, now that Deaton undid his spell,” Lydia explains quietly, glancing up at Theo.

Theo frowns slightly, remembering. “And the supernaturals at Eichen?”

“Melissa’s there with Argent,” Corey pipes up, meeting Theo’s eyes when he looks over. He grimaces slightly. “The majority are fine, Argent’s people are essentially debriefing them. For the others…”

He leaves the thought trailing. Theo doesn’t press him to finish it.

That’s about the time that Liam makes it back over with Scott, anyway, Scott’s continued arguments be damned. At first Theo thinks he’s going to escort Scott to Kaynor’s SUV—he’s half-pushed himself off the side of the door in anticipation—but Liam veers right, suddenly, towards—

Scott’s and Malia’s crossover, parked a few spots down. He keeps Scott propped against his hip—Scott sagging a little—and pops the hatch, stepping back to let it finish rising and then pushing Scott insistently towards the edge of the trunk.

It’s only then that Theo realizes that someone is already in the trunk area: Malia is asleep in her coyote form, stretched out across the back of the car with one side exposed.

One side with five bright, parallel red scratches carved into it. Theo winces, even as he sees that the claw marks Scott had given her in his frenzy are already mostly healed, just like the wound in Theo’s stomach.

Still.

“Liam, I’m fine,” Scott is still trying to argue, even as Liam is just completely ignoring him, and practically puppeting Scott around as he gets him sat on the edge of the trunk, and then the edges of his sleeves pulled up, his shirt collar pulled down, as he—checks for lingering wolfsbane damage, Theo realizes. “I’m fine, and I really need to go—”

“You need to stay here,” Liam interrupts again, and plants his hands firmly on either side of the trunk to block Scott from sliding off the trunk edge, like Scott had clearly been about to. He glares at Scott, but his expression doesn’t match the heat: it keeps twisting up. “You almost died, if you’d do us all the favor of remembering. You all—” he continues, and he doesn’t look back at the cluster of Theo and Lydia and Corey, but then again—he doesn’t have to, “—almost died. So just sit,” he insists, “and trust the rest of us to take care of things, at least for a little while?”

Scott looks stricken. Theo’s expression probably doesn’t look any better; Corey’s and Lydia’s sure the hell aren’t, after all. Swallowing, Theo presses a gentle hand to Lydia’s arm and gives Corey a weak flicker of a smile, and then he steps out from between them and heads for Scott and Liam.

He gives another weak flicker of a smile to Liam as Liam spots him, and then he—very carefully—eases himself onto the trunk beside Scott. Behind him, he can hear Malia snuffle slightly before apparently catching his scent and relaxing right back down. He looks back up at Liam.

“Consider us benched,” he tells Liam quietly.

The look on Liam’s face goes stricken.

But he doesn’t get a chance to reply, if he’d even been planning to: Strauss suddenly reappears, already looking hangdog and apologetic. “Uh, Mr. Dunbar, sir,” he starts; Liam’s expression goes desert dry. “I’m sorry, but there’s a, uh,” Strauss hooks a thumb over his shoulder, “telephone pole down, blocking one of the roads. We were hoping…?”

“Yeah,” Liam agrees, cutting Strauss off and thereby rescuing him from his own awkward request. “Yeah, we’ve got it. Derek!” He calls, as he steps back, and then nods at Strauss to lead them where they need to go. Derek jogs after them as they head away, down the street.

Lydia immediately heads back to hers and Stiles’ and Derek’s SUV; to Stiles, now technically alone without Derek there. Corey’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He answers it with a warm, “Hey, Mason,” as he turns away to take the call.

Theo just sits exactly where he is with Scott, and Malia, and doesn’t move.

He stays benched.

Various deputies come and go, checking in with each other and with Noah via radio; Noah out with his people doing the same door-to-door checks. Every now and then one of Argent’s people will show, pulling into the parking lot and then asking to be put to use; the majority of the supernaturals at Eichen safe and sound, then. Theo watches it all and feels more and more tension leak out of his muscles as he does; as he watches the town recover.

But Scott must not be seeing the same things. He suddenly hunches over, after about twenty minutes or so of the same silent study, and drops his face into his hands. Theo glances over at him, startled.

“Scott…?” He ventures, but Scott just shakes his head, and doesn’t lift it away from his palms.

Years,” he says, his voice muffled and hoarse. “Years, Allison had said.” He raises his head, finally, and looks out at the town in front of him. “The Nemeton had been dying for years, and I never—”

He cuts himself off, this time with his head dropping back to stare sightlessly up at the crossover’s roof. Behind both him and Theo, Malia stirs with a soft, distressed noise; Theo automatically swings a hand back to wind it in the fur of her ruff, and massage his fingers in a soothing stroke. He doesn’t look away from Scott.

Scott turns to look head-on at him.How could I not have…?” He whispers, the self-recrimination thick in his words even though he’s barely whispering them out.

“Scott,” Theo tries, but Scott doesn’t let him finish. He shakes his head again.

“We lost a lot of people today, Theo,” Scott just says, still in that same broken tone. “Not as many as we could have, maybe,” he allows, his head turning away and his eyes going hooded, “but too many.”

He says ‘we’ but what he means is ‘I’: each and every one of them a personal failure.

His expression screws up. “If I’d just known. If I’d just realized, I—”

“What?” Theo interrupts, cutting him off. “Would have immediately known how to fix a fucked-up situation so complicated that even the Doctors had never come across it before?”

Scott’s lips flicker without his permission, seems like. “Don’t let Liam hear you calling them the Doctors without the Dread,” he warns, reflexive and light. “You know he—”

He cuts himself off, his expression crumpling again.

“I should have known,” he repeats insistently. “Years, Allison said. For years she was trapped, trying to hold the Nemeton together. For years she was—”

Suffering. That sentence ends suffering, and both Theo and Scott know it. Scott squeezes his eyes shut. The sudden pressure sends moisture cresting over his eyelids, and down his cheeks. He covers his face with his hands again.

“This is the second time she’s sacrificed herself for my pack,” Scott breathes, and Theo winces, but.

But: “Her pack,” he corrects, firmly and without hesitation. He looks over at Scott when Scott looks over at him, clearly taken aback. “Her pack,” he insists. “You heard her. She said she wanted to protect her pack. Yours, and hers, and—” he says, nodding out, towards Lydia and Stiles and Corey and Derek and Liam somewhere; towards the rest of the town, “—all of theirs, too.”

Scott stares at him, open-mouth stunned. But: “Yours too,” he adds; he insists. He swallows, loud enough that Theo hears his throat click, and repeats more firmly, “It’s yours, too.”

Theo doesn’t say anything, but after a long, stretched moment he nods. Scott studies him for a few more seconds, and then he looks away. His eyes are dry now but his cheeks are still salt-stained, and glimmering slightly in the late afternoon sunlight.

He stares out at his town.

“Her pack,” he finally states quietly, like he’s testing it out. He looks back at Theo, and now there’s steel behind his eyes. “Our pack,” he concludes, and now there’s no hesitation in his voice.

No hesitation at all.

Theo looks right back at him for a few long, stretched seconds, and then he agrees:

“Our pack.”

---

Eventually they all wind up at Scott’s and Malia’s house out on the edge of town, little clumps of two or three of the pack at a time heading there without discussion, or debate, almost as if drawn by instinct.

Exactly as if drawn by instinct, Theo corrects later: all of them denning up. Seeking out each other. Seeking out home. He looks up at Liam in the reflection of the mirror in the bathroom of his and Liam’s shared room on the second floor of the house, and can see the same thought on Liam’s face from where Liam is sat on the edge of their bed, his hands dangling loosely between his knees. Theo lets his latest breath leak slowly, slowly out of himself as he keeps watching Liam, and then when it’s gone he sucks in a new one, and turns, and makes his way carefully over so that he’s standing just in front of him instead.

Liam looks up at him. Theo cups his hands around Liam’s jaw, and leans down to press their foreheads together.

He doesn’t protest when Liam pulls back a half-minute or so later, and starts rolling up the edge of his shirt. He stands still and lets Liam run his hands over his stomach, pressing in and stroking over it; checking for lingering damage.

Melissa is parked in the makeshift gravel driveway when they come downstairs, and step outside to investigate the sound of an engine. The hatchback to her trunk is popped, and the space inside filled with—just a ridiculous assortment of alcohol. She shrugs when she catches their raised eyebrows.

“We’d already paid for it all at the venue,” she explains.

They don’t demand anymore of an explanation than that; don’t need one. Liam just steps down to go help her start carrying it in, and Theo follows.

The three of them have pulled all of the patio furniture in the background into a loose circle around the firepit by the time Lydia and Stiles and Derek show up. Lydia tries to help keep setting up, at first, but eventually winds up sat in a padded lounge chair after both Derek and Stiles immediately protest, high-pitched and a little hysterical, and guide her over with gentle but firm hands on her arms, and shoulders.

“You two are being absurd,” she tells them in no uncertain terms, but she also—goes where they lead. She doesn’t get back up, and Theo doesn’t think it’s because of the reproving finger that Stiles had pointed in her direction while she’d rolled her eyes.

She meets Theo’s eyes from across the way. She smiles, slightly.

Theo smiles right back.

He turns back to the box he’d been kneeled over before, after, his hands working to pick up individual bottles of alcohol and hand them up to Melissa as she arranges them on the patio’s built-in counter space above him. There’s a Happy Retirement banner folded into the bottom of the box, he eventually sees; his hands slow and hesitate over it, and then he glances up at Melissa.

They leave the banner in the box.

Mason and Corey show up next, Mason’s parents in tow. After that it’s Noah and a handful of deputies, though no Jordan. “He went home to shower,” Noah explains wryly, when he sees them seeing Jordan’s absence, “and to, you know, pick up a new uniform to replace the one that went up in flames today.”

“What number uniform is he on now, anyway?” Liam asks, offering Noah a cap-less beer. In his other hand he’s holding his own bottle, two purple flowers—though it’s impossible to tell their color through the amber of the glass—resting at the bottom.

“Seven,” Strauss pipes up, reaching forward to accept the drink that Theo offers him. “I know this, because I’m the one who keeps having to order him new ones.”

They all laugh, but the sound of it is a muted, quiet thing.

Theo’s made it through his first drink and is watching Melissa pluck a handful of flowers off the wolfsbane plant left carefully on the far edge of the patio counter to add to his second, when Scott, and Malia, and Argent finally arrive.

The noise level in the backyard just drops.

Scott staggers to a stop when it does. He’s still wobbly, his arm around Malia’s shoulders as she helps support him, and Theo can see the way his whole body hunches inward, immediate and helpless. Malia just leans forward and presses her forehead to his jaw, and Argent drops a hand on his shoulder and squeezes.

He goes to find Melissa, after. Theo can hear the way that he shudders out an uneven breath when he gets his arms wrapped around her, the sound of it half-buried in Melissa’s hair.

He pretends like he can’t hear it. He gathers up the two drinks that Melissa had already prepared—the wolfsbane flowers now soaked and resting lightly on the bottom of the bottles—and carries them over to Scott and Malia. He offers them silently out.

Malia takes hers first. Scott takes his after another long second’s hesitation.

By the time a handful of Argent’s people arrive, the majority of the pack is camped out among the patio chairs circling the firepit, which itself is roaring with crackling fire thanks to Jordan, who’d walked into a series of wolf-whistles and good-natured ribbing and had raised an acknowledging hand, his expression wry. He’d also stopped by the lounge chair where Theo had been lying with one arm around Liam’s shoulders—Liam sprawled out against his chest—and he’d murmured, “Sorry. About, you know...” He’d trailed off.

“Saving our asses?” Theo had filled in, and had grinned softly; easily. Jordan had grinned back. He’d gone to get his own drink, and had started up the fire with a touch of his briefly glowing hand soon after.

It means that when Gonzalez, and Belomo, and Marykwas and Kaynor all step around into the backyard, along with another handful of Argent’s people, their faces are all backlit in shadow; limned in firelight. It makes them hard to read, but then it’s mooted, to a certain extent: Gonzalez picks his way over to Mason’s and Corey’s chair, and offers Mason a hand.

Mason takes it, after only the barest hesitation, his and Gonzalez’s palms clasping with a firm sound that Theo hears even from across the way.

And then he looks up, and looks at Marykwas.

“Good work out there today,” Marykwas murmurs. It’s awkward, and stilted, and more than a little wary, but. His feet are planted into the earth. He’s looking at Theo head-on.

“Yeah,” Theo agrees, offering up his free arm. “Yeah, you too.”

Marykwas takes it, his hand squeezing around Theo’s forearm as Theo’s squeezes around his, and then he walks away; he goes to join another cluster of Argent’s people now talking with Derek and Noah, and accepts the drink that one of Noah’s deputies holds out.

When Theo looks back, and away from him, Liam is watching him. He spends a few seconds searching Theo’s face, and then he grins, and settles a little more firmly against Theo’s chest.

But eventually Theo has to get up, and head briefly inside. He’d about to head back out—Liam had grumbled unhappily when Theo had gotten up, Liam more than half-asleep with his face turned into Theo’s neck—when he realizes he’s not the only one in the house, rather than the backyard.

Or not in the house. Lydia is standing on the front porch when he steps out, and quietly closes the door behind himself. She glances back at him, the look on her face a little—unreadable. She turns back forward: to the stretch of Beacon Hills spread out in the distance, lit up with streetlights and bordered on one side by the Preserve, the trunks of the trees dark against the night sky and their leaves rustling lightly in the slight breeze blowing through. Theo steps up to her side.

“What is it?” He wonders, so softly that his voice is at risk of being carried away on the wind.

But Lydia must hear him. But she says, “Can you feel it?” She twists her head sideways to look at him, and her expression isn’t unreadable anymore; there’s something banked there, something waiting to burst into full flame. “Can you feel it?” She presses.

Theo’s brow furrows. “Feel what?”

Lydia jerks her head back forward, her expression spasming. Theo worries for a second that he’s upset her with his answer, but the look on her face isn’t tight with unhappiness; it’s tight with something far closer to joy.

“I thought I was imagining it, at first,” she breathes, and Theo still has no idea what she’s talking about, but it doesn’t matter: she turns back to look at him and orders, “The shift. Flare your eyes, call your claws, whatever. Just shift.

Theo hesitates, but. He closes his eyes. When he opens them back up, they’re flared; he can see the outlines of the trees in the distance, the contours of the town, no longer hidden by the darkness. But.

But.

He breathes out soft, and slow, and surprised. “You can feel it,” Lydia concludes, and her voice cracks. When he jerks and looks over at her, her eyes are spilling over, and she’s pressing the heels of her hands to her cheeks.

Still, the wide, helpless smile she’s wearing peeks through.

“What is it?” Theo demands, a little desperately and harsher than he’d meant. “Lydia. What is—”

“It’s her,” Lydia answers, all but talking over him in her haste; in her excitement. Theo stares at her, stunned, and the tears start to fall faster from her eyes but she’s still smiling. “It’s Allison. It’s—”

She stops, and covers her face with her hands, but it’s still not grief.

“We only ever knew the Nemeton when it was corrupted,” she continues after a few uneven, shaky breaths. She drops her hands. “When it’d already been cut down. When it’d already been corrupted by the dark things others had used its power to do. But now. But now—

“It’s been reborn,” Theo realizes. His head jerks sharply back around; towards the Preserve, and the Nemeton sitting somewhere within it.

Lydia nods. “And Allison. She was—”

“—inside it when Deaton finished replanting it,” Theo finishes, looking back at her, his flared eyes wide; stunned.

“I can feel it,” Lydia tells him. “I can feel her.” She lifts a hand, palm up and with her fingers curling lightly through the air. She looks quickly back over at him. “Can you—?”

“Yeah,” Theo agrees, closing his eyes and tipping his head back as he takes in a deep breath, until his lungs are full up with it; with the magic of the replanted and reborn Nemeton spreading out through him, cell by cell until he’s feeling it in the tips of his fingers, his toes, every bit of him feeling scoured clean by it.

“Yeah,” he agrees, opening his eyes back up and looking at her. “Yeah, I can feel it.”

“We did it,” Lydia whispers. Her cheeks are still wet but her expression is cracked open and raw with her joy. “We saved our town. We saved our family.

Just like Allison asked, Theo thinks, and he’s still thinking it when he follows Lydia back into the house, and then back out of it into the backyard. He’s still thinking it when he looks around at Argent’s people mingling with Noah’s deputies inseparable from Scott and Derek and Stiles and Corey and Mason and Malia, from Argent and Melissa and Noah and Mason’s parents.

From Liam, who tilts his head up when Theo gets close enough. Theo leans down and kisses him, lingering and thorough and deep.

He kisses him, and he listens to his pack—his family—surrounding him, and he feels the pulse of the Nemeton and it’s magic inside him, and he kisses him.