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the lanterns were lit but they didn’t lead home

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Theo moves in with Liam after the shitshow with Monroe as a sort of supervised release program. The McCall pack may trust him, but they don’t trust him, and having him stay with Liam seemingly solves two problems at once: Theo is no longer homeless, and someone from the McCall pack is—in theory—keeping a near 24/7 eye on him.

Of course, Liam manages to nearly blow the whole charade within the first thirty seconds.

Two days after the showdown—the time between spent at the McCall house after it was uniformly and without discussion decided that no one was allowed nor wanted to leave each other’s sight for at least forty-eight hours—Liam sits his parents down at the table in the Geyer-Dunbar dining room and presents Theo to them with what is probably an unintentional flourish, and Theo can see the exact moment that Liam gives them the wrong idea. He’s stuttering and stammering and clearly trying to come up with some kind of winning explanation for why his parents should agree to host some random guy they’ve literally never seen before, but his complete inability to get to the point is letting them draw their own hilarious—but ultimately unhelpful—conclusions.

So Theo steps in to rescue him from himself, because there’d been a spectacularly awkward conversation in the McCall kitchen that morning in which Scott had made it clear that Theo was free to go and Argent and the Sheriff had then made it equally clear that Theo was not free to leave, and moving in with Liam had become the best solution to that sudden Catch-22 that anyone could come up with. The bottom line is that Theo needs a place to stay, and while the Geyers seem like open-minded people, they’re unlikely to open up their spare bedroom to the person that—if Liam doesn’t find some way out of the hole he’s digging for himself—would then become Liam’s live-in boyfriend by necessary implication.

“It’s me,” Theo cuts in quietly, coming off the wall where he’d been leaning, waiting for Liam to wind his way to the point of the whole exercise; he keeps his shoulders hunched inward, his head tilted down and slightly to the side, like he’s trying but failing to meet Liam’s parents’ eyes, one hand coming up to clasp his opposite elbow, “Liam found out that I’ve been living in my truck since my parents…”

Theo makes sure his voice breaks on the last word, jerks his shoulders in a perfectly-timed flinch. He knows better than to ruin the illusion by looking up, checking on the Geyers’ reactions, but he can tell from the way that their scents have whiplashed around from good-natured amusement at their son’s expense to a confused mix of horror, sympathy, and not a little anger—directed at Theo’s non-existent parents, Theo bets—that he’s hooked them.

“He said that you might be okay...he thought that you might be willing to…” Theo lets himself stammer a bit, uncertainty shining through every crack in his words. Then he stops, jerks a look upwards at the Geyers, lets panic show in his wide eyes and suddenly fearful expression like he thinks he might have already pissed them off, “It wouldn’t be forever, or even very long! The Sheriff is going to let me help out down at the station, I’ll be able to save up for an apartment. I’ve already started looking, I just need—”

And then he cuts himself off again, swallows audibly, clenches the hand he’s got wrapped around his elbow and glues his eyes back to the floor. He lets the silence drag but follows the Geyers’ scents closely, dissects the rhythms of their heartbeats, waiting for his next cue. In the next instant he has it; Mrs. Geyer’s chair creaks and Theo lets his eyes dart upwards, a skittish sort of hope all over his face, and catches the glance she shares with her husband.

“You need a place to stay,” She finally fills in gently.

Theo lets his head come up, his brow furrowing in confusion, then lets his expression fade into an embarrassed sort of wince as his cheeks flood with color, like he’s just realized that he never actually asked for a place to stay in all his previous stuttering.

“Ye-Yeah,” He stammers out an agreement, then makes sure to repeat, “Just—just for a little while.”

Theo very deliberately doesn’t look at Liam, who’s staring at him, slack-jawed, and instead lets his gaze dart around the room as he waits for the Geyers to say something else, though he makes sure that it returns like clockwork, like magnets, to the Geyers every few seconds, sat looking at each other and having an entire speaking conversation without words. Eventually Dr. Geyer gives an almost imperceptible nod and Mrs. Geyer turns back to Theo, smiles softly at him.

“Of course, Theo,” She tells him kindly, “You can stay as long as you need.”

Theo lets his whole body sag with relief at her words, and only some of it is faked. Scott’s bleeding-heart protestations aside, Argent and the Sheriff had been very specific about what would happen if Theo tried to leave Beacon County before they’d been assured of his intentions, and while the McCall pack would never have forced Theo back into living out of his truck, spending his pseudo-house arrest at Liam’s had been and continues to be the option least likely to end in murder, either Theo’s or someone else’s. Deliberately keeping that thought off his face, Theo gives Mrs. Geyer a wobbly, grateful smile.

“Thank you,” He tells her quietly, then bites his lip and looks at Dr. Geyer, gives him the same small smile, “Really, thank you.”

Mrs. Geyer takes charge of the situation after that, stretching to her feet and then clapping once as she settles back onto her heels. She starts rattling off a to-do list, instructions; Liam needs to change the sheets on the guest bed, apparently, and Dr. Geyer needs to clear out his extra shirts from the guest bedroom closet. Dr. Geyer rolls his eyes at this, puts his tongue in his cheek and wonders aloud if he’d have room in their bedroom if only it weren’t for someone’s taking over of the entire closet. Mrs. Geyer glares and socks him in the arm, talks over him when she asks Theo if he needs a toothbrush, any other basics; Theo shakes his head and lets some of the tension in his body shake loose when he does, like their easy demeanor is having its clearly-intended effect of putting him at ease.

Ten minutes later and he’s accepting an armful of clean sheets from Mrs. Geyer, dodging Dr. Geyer with a sympathetic grin as he comes out of the guest bedroom with his arms laden with shirts, hangers poking forlornly out of their tops. Theo steps into the room and pauses as he listens to Dr. Geyer finish walking into the master bedroom down the hall, start hanging up his clothes as he talks to his wife. Once Theo’s sure that they’re distracted and out of earshot, he lets the timid expression melt off his face and scowls, then chucks the linens in his arms, hard, at Liam, who’d already started stripping the bed. Liam yelps out a surprised protest and flails as he gets a faceful of fabric, winding up half under the sheets as they come unfolded with his wild movements.

“What the hell was that for?” He snaps after he manages to free himself, his ridiculous hair sticking up at all angles as he yanks the sheet off his head.

“Thank you for your help with all that,” Theo tells him waspishly, “Really, the part that truly came in handy was when you were staring at me with your mouth hanging open like you’d never seen me before.”

“Hey, fuck you,” Liam snaps back, though at least he does it quietly, his eyes darting to the half-open door, “I had it under control before you butted in.”

Clearly,” Theo returns, and he doesn’t even need to say it sarcastically; from the hunted look on Liam’s face, he knows he’s full of shit.

But then Theo drops it; he saved Liam’s ass, once again, and he has a place to stay while waiting for Argent and the Sheriff to decide whether or not they think he’s sufficiently reformed to release on the wider world, so. Ignoring Liam, Theo steps around the comforter left in a pile at the foot of the bed and moves to finish pulling the old sheets off, leaves them in a heap on the floor once he’s done. Then he gestures without looking up for Liam to hand him the fitted sheet.

He glances up at Liam when his hand stays empty and finds Liam staring at him, his arms full of the balled-up set of clean sheets. There’s a furrow between his brows and a hot note to his scent, and Theo finds himself picking at it without thinking, trying to untangle it, an automatic habit he’d picked up after spending the last few days chasing after Liam and trying to keep his temper from getting the best of him. But Liam speaks before Theo can fully dissect it, distracting him.

“How’d you do that, anyway?” Liam asks finally.

“Do what?” Theo answers, though he can already feel his hackles rising defensively; he’s got a pretty good idea what.

But Liam either doesn’t think he’s being deliberately obtuse or doesn’t care, since he simply clarifies, “That full-body lie thing.”

Theo rolls his eyes and plants one hand on the bare mattress between them, uses it as a brace so that he can reach forward and snatch the fitted sheet from Liam’s arms as he says, “It’s like you’ve forgotten how we met.”

He keeps his attention on tugging the sheet into place after he’s done, not particularly interested in seeing Liam remember precisely how and under what circumstances they did, in fact, meet. The McCall pack may seem to have the collective memory of a tankful of recently-concussed goldfish and a very mercenary attitude towards otherwise-unsavory allies in the middle of crises, but the fact remains that Theo didn’t nearly manage to destroy the McCall pack by accident. He’s always been an infiltrator, a spy; a liar. Conning Liam’s parents into thinking he’s some poor teenage victim of circumstance has very little on convincing a pack full of supernatural lie-detectors that he came in peace while he was simultaneously plotting their individual and messy demises.

Liam still hasn’t moved by the time that Theo has managed to fit the sheet over both corners of his side of the bed, so he grabs one of the free corners and holds it out towards Liam, finally looking back up at him as he demands, “Are you going to help with this or not?”

When he catches Liam’s eyes, Liam is frowning at him thoughtfully. But he reaches forward with one hand, his other still full of the rest of the sheets, and retrieves the corner that Theo is holding out; their fingers brush, and Theo drops his hand away like he’s been burned. There’s a part of himself that’s straining towards Liam’s scent, the revealing rhythm of his heartbeat, but Theo deliberately—for the first time in weeks—shuts that part down. After all, he can still remember him and Liam fighting—surprise!—in the hospital back during the previous clusterfuck with the Wild Hunt, sniping back and forth about Theo’s time in the ground, Liam saying whatever happened to you, you deserved it; he doesn’t need to sense the exact moment that Liam recalls the rest of his impressively checkered history.

Liam doesn’t say anything, though, just drops the top sheet onto the half of the bed already covered with the fitted sheet after a moment and starts tugging the remaining corners into place. Theo swallows past his suddenly tight throat and doesn’t say anything, either, just snags the top sheet and straightens it out, starts tucking it underneath the mattress. He looks up when he feels a pull on the sheet he’s just finished settling into place, sees Liam doing the same, his eyes on his hands and his lip between his teeth. Liam glances up at him when he senses Theo’s gaze and his expression twists, his mouth opening, clearly about to say something; Theo finds himself holding his breath.

Mrs. Geyer appears in the doorway in the next instant, hand on the jamb as she leans slightly into the room, “We were thinking of ordering pizza, that sound okay?”

Theo jerks at the sudden interruption, Liam across from him doing the same; his eyes dart up towards his mother and then back to Theo quickly, and then he shakes himself and stands, grins at Mrs. Geyer, “Sounds great.”

“I knew you’d be okay with it, you’re like a bottomless pit on legs,” Mrs. Geyer tells him dryly. Then she looks back at Theo, expression softening, “Theo?”

Theo blinks a few times, still a little lost in his held-breath anticipation of whatever Liam was going to say. But then he looks up at Mrs. Geyer and pastes on a tentative, but genuine—at least setting aside his ongoing and necessary subterfuge—smile.

“Sounds great,” He echoes.

Mrs. Geyer smiles back at him and nods, taps the jamb once with her knuckles and then disappears down the hallway already yelling out pizza toppings and sizes—to, presumably, Dr. Geyer stood somewhere with a phone—as she goes. Suddenly exhausted, Theo lets himself rock back on his heels from where he’d been half-crouched tucking in the sheet until he can sit heavily on the floor, drop his head back, eyes closed. When he tips his chin back forward and opens his eyes again Liam is staring at him, still stood awkwardly in the middle of the floor, his fingers tapping out a nervous rhythm on his thighs.

But he doesn’t return to their earlier conversation, and he isn’t going to; Theo can see the exact moment that he lets it go, swallows down whatever he was going to say. A confused mix of disappointment and relief tangles in Theo’s chest and he looks away, jaw working.

But he looks back in the next instant when Liam speaks.

“C’mon,” Liam says quietly, bending to pick up a corner of the comforter, “Help me get this back into place.”

Theo stares at the side of his face for a moment, at the uncharacteristic defensive hunch of his shoulders, and then he rolls to his feet and grabs the other side of the comforter without a word.

---

Theo makes himself scarce whenever Corey shows up.

It’s not that he doesn’t like Corey, because he does—it was his liking of every member of the McCall pack that got him into the continuous mess that he’s now forced to call his life, after all—it’s that Corey doesn’t like him. Which, okay, if Theo’s going to be honest, a lot of the McCall pack members don’t like him, and with the benefit of hindsight and that completely involuntary bout of self-reflection forced on him while he was trapped in that hellish whatever with his sister—thanks, Kira—Theo is willing to grant that they’re completely justified. But Corey doesn’t dislike Theo in the same way that the others dislike Theo; it’s more personal than that, and not something that Theo can brush off like he does Stiles’ peanut-gallery commentary or the particular sub-vocal growl Malia gives off when Theo’s done something she finds particularly irritating.

Theo knows that the McCall pack thought of the chimera pack as kind of a joke, and it was; Theo has enough self-awareness at this point to acknowledge that. But it was still a pack. Theo was still its alpha, and Corey was still one of his betas; they wouldn’t have been able to avoid feeling something for each other if they’d tried. No one’s ever bothered to tell Theo what happened to Josh’s or Tracy’s bodies after the whole mess with the Dread Doctors and the Beast—and Theo is genuinely curious if that’s because they’re convinced he wouldn’t care or because it’s honestly never crossed their minds that he’d want to know—but Theo sees enough of their ghosts, hovering accusingly over Corey’s shoulders every time he looks at Theo, his scent gone hot and stinging in Theo’s nose.

So, yeah. Theo makes himself scarce whenever Corey shows up.

Like, for instance: now.

Theo glances up from where he’d been staring down at Google Maps’ satellite imagery of the Preserve, occasionally dragging his finger across his phone’s screen to reposition the map as he idly studied it while finishing up his breakfast. He catches Corey’s eyes from where he’s stood a few feet behind Mason in the kitchen doorway, having followed Mrs. Geyer in from the front door, and has to suppress a wince as Corey’s expression twists and then goes flat almost instantly. Dropping his eyes back down, Theo scoops up another spoonful of oatmeal—gone half-congealed and lukewarm while he’d been distracted—and stuffs it in his mouth, more to wash away the sour taste of Corey’s suddenly conflicted scent than because he’s still hungry, his appetite all but vanished.

“Liam should be down in a second,” Mrs. Geyer is telling Mason and Corey apologetically. Then she raises her voice and adds, entirely for Liam’s benefit, “I honestly don’t understand how he still hasn’t mastered getting up in time for school after over two years.”

Theo isn’t sure that Mrs. Geyer can hear the crashing sounds upstairs as Liam trips over something in his room as she finishes speaking—corner of his bed, Theo is willing to bet; Liam’s room is practically an obstacle course it’s so chaotically arranged—and collides swearing with a wall. Swallowing back an amused snort, Theo finishes shoveling the last of his oatmeal into his mouth and stands from the table, heads to the sink so that he can rinse it out, put it into the dishwasher when Mrs. Geyer dances out of the way with a grin.

“Any idea when Liam’s car should be fixed?” Mason is asking Mrs. Geyer; if he’d noticed the sudden drop in the room’s temperature when Corey had spotted Theo, he’s gamely ignoring it.

Mrs. Geyer sighs, finishes shoving a Tupperware container full of last night’s pasta leftovers and a Diet Coke into a lunch bag along with a fork, “Hopefully no more than a few days. Though with that old rustbucket, who knows.”

She throws the bag’s strap over her shoulder and readjusts her sunglasses on her head, starts looking around for her keys. Theo gives it a few seconds and then reaches forward until he can hook a finger in the key-ring, slide them out from underneath the various piles of junk mail left haphazardly on the kitchen island. Mrs. Geyer smiles at him and squeezes his arm in thanks, scoops the keys up and starts heading towards the garage door; Theo very deliberately doesn’t look at Corey or Mason, but he can feel their gazes burning against the side of his face.

“Thanks for giving Liam rides this week, I appreciate it,” She tells Mason, stopping as she passes him to give him a quick kiss on the cheek, to pat Corey affectionately on the shoulder. Then she opens the door and starts down the stairs into the garage, adds over her shoulder, “Theo, please tell Liam that if he forgets to take out the trash again like last week, I’m going to do something drastic.”

“Sure, Mrs. Geyer,” Theo agrees, and catches her exasperated Jenna, Theo, my name is Jenna—she’d started insisting that Theo call her by her first name and Theo had been just as insistently not doing that—as the garage door swings shut.

Her departure leaves him alone in the kitchen with Mason and Corey, which is less than ideal, so Theo shoves off the counter where he’d been leaning, waiting for Mrs. Geyer to head to work so that he could flee the scene without setting off her absurdly well-tuned maternal instincts for emotional conflict. Luckily his keys are already in his jacket pocket, hung on a peg by the front door along with his backpack, so Theo heads that way with a muttered Mason, Corey, as he passes them. Mason says hey, Theo in a friendly enough tone, but Corey doesn’t say a word, just steps slightly closer to Mason to put more room between them as Theo goes by. Theo ignores the sudden cramp of feeling in his chest at that and shrugs into his jacket, grabs his bag and heads out the front door without another word.

Twenty minutes later and he pulls open the door to the sheriff’s station, catches it with his shoulder and steps back so he can hold it open for Johnson and Alvarez heading out for patrol. They thank him absently and make a beeline for their cruiser, and Theo finishes stepping into the station, the door swinging shut behind him. Deputy Nyugen—stuck watching the front desk in punishment for accidentally trampling Mr. Taylor’s prized begonias during a foot chase last week, which had led to the entirety of the Beacon Hills Gardening Society sending a veritable landslide of angry emails to the Sheriff—glances up when Theo passes him, and then immediately looks back down with a relieved sigh; a handful of the aggrieved gardeners had come to make their complaints in-person.

Theo snorts and finishes winding his way through the bullpen until he comes to the empty desk that the Sheriff had directed him to the first day that Theo had shown for the second half of his supervised release program, namely: helping the Sheriff, Agent McCall, and Argent track down Monroe and her missing followers. The Sheriff catches sight of Theo through his office’s window—Theo’s assigned desk purposefully chosen for maximum sightlines—and jerks an acknowledging nod, then returns to the paperwork in front of him. Shrugging his backpack off his shoulder, Theo pulls out his laptop and the stack of maps, public records, and other miscellaneous documents that he’s somehow already acquired and drops them onto the desk, then drops himself into his chair, starts spreading them out.

It’s hard to say who had ultimately been more surprised by the Sheriff’s and Argent’s second unofficial parole condition; Scott, Stiles, the rest of the McCall pack, or Theo himself. Theo had managed to recover more quickly than everyone else, at least, stood half-cornered in the McCall kitchen after Scott had attempted to let Theo off the hook and the Sheriff and Argent had immediately put him right back on it; he’d rolled his eyes and said fine, whatever, because honestly, what the hell else was he going to do with all his suddenly not-particularly-free time? Stiles had all but lost it, though; he’d still been arguing with his dad half an hour later as the two of them had left, the rest of the pack already having moved on to trying to figure out whose house they could stash Theo at like he was some tacky-but-indispensable heirloom furniture.

But Theo had seen their logic, as had Scott once he’d gotten over his initial shock and Stiles had stopped howling in his ear. He’d looked at Theo appraisingly, ignoring Stiles and the Sheriff still furiously arguing off to the side, and Theo could practically see him remembering exactly what Theo would later accuse Liam of forgetting; how and under what circumstances Theo and the McCall pack had met. Stood meeting Scott’s gaze those few weeks ago, Theo had wondered if Scott’s eventual acceptance of the Sheriff’s and Argent’s demands regarding Theo’s relative freedom had sprung from his grudging acknowledgement of their points or his more well-hidden mercenary streak; assistance willingly given or not, Theo had a skill-set that Scott knew the McCall pack could put to use.

Anyway, all it really means is that Theo hadn’t necessarily been lying when he’d told the Geyers that the Sheriff was going to let him help out down at the station; he’d just maybe made the whole arrangement sound more voluntary than it is.

A few hours after he arrives at the station, Theo comes out of the sort of fugue he’d fallen into, his senses tagging it even through his strategic haze as the Sheriff exits his office and beelines towards him. Theo’s desk is now fully covered with paper, Theo surrounded by marked-up maps, piles of phone records, stacks of credit card statements. The latter two had been pulled by Parrish and the Sheriff from Beacon County records and then supplemented by Agent McCall through the FBI’s resources, but rich as they were in detail, Theo had started out all but ignoring them. The Sheriff, Agent McCall, and Parrish had the law enforcement angle covered, and Argent for his part had started mercilessly squeezing his hunting contacts for any information on Monroe and her followers; it would have been a blatant waste of everyone’s time for Theo to duplicate their efforts.

Instead, he’d spent the past few weeks running every inch of Beacon County—the absolute limit of how far out he’s allowed to go without invoking unpleasant consequences—with his supernatural senses peeled for any trace of Monroe and her followers, filling cheap fold-out maps with coded marks and then coming back to the station to transfer them over to the more accurate, official Beacon County versions provided by the Sheriff. He had enough detail now that he could start combining his maps with the others’ information, start picking at the edges of the picture it all created, searching for cracks, for unexplained gaps in the pieced-together, paperwork puzzle of Monroe’s and her followers’ lives before their flight from Beacon Hills.

Like, for example, this gap: Seven Hills Self-Storage, showing up twice in one Eric Rossler’s—one of Monroe’s chief lieutenants—phone records two days before the showdown at the school and hospital and then never appearing again. Theo stares at where he’d marked down the name, just a few miles from a dense cluster of black Xs along the county boundary signifying places where he’d picked up the scent specific to Monroe and her hunters; gunpowder and wolfsbane, shot through with thin threads of mountain ash and mistletoe.

After a long minute, Theo realizes that he’d fallen back into studying the map and consequently had been ignoring the Sheriff, now stood at the corner of his desk with his eyebrows raised expectantly. Grimacing, Theo leans back in his chair and brings one hand up to dig into the muscles at the back of his neck, cramped from his position hunched over the map and phone records.

“You’ve found something,” The Sheriff says when he sees he finally has Theo’s attention; it’s not a question.

“Maybe,” Theo hedges. Then, because he’s stiff and hungry and, ultimately, still kind of an asshole at heart, he adds in an overly-breezy tone, “It’s outside the geographical limits granted by my parole, so I can’t know for sure.”

The Sheriff just rolls his eyes, jerks his head towards his office, “Inside, now.”

Theo grudgingly stands—snagging the map and the relevant sheet of phone records as he goes—and follows after him into the office, sprawls back in the middle of the couch along the back wall as the Sheriff calls Parrish in as well and then shuts the door behind him. Parrish gives Theo a friendly smile as he takes a seat in one of the chairs in front of the Sheriff’s desk, because he is, in fact, an incorruptible boy-scout; Theo doesn’t return his smile but he at least bites back the snarky remark he wants to make.

“What’d you find?” The Sheriff asks once he’s back behind his desk and sat once more in his chair.

For about half a second Theo considers continuing to be a prick, but ultimately he just leans forward to offer the map and sheet of phone records to Parrish, who stretches back to take them, “Storage unit, maybe. It only popped up twice in the phone records but I’ve been picking up Monroe’s scent close enough and often enough in that area that they might be actively using it.”

Parrish glances quickly at the map and records, then hands them off to the Sheriff, who takes one look at the stretch of miles between the county border and Theo’s messy label for the storage facility and asks mildly, “And you picked all this up from within Beacon County?”

The Sheriff isn’t looking at him as he says it—likely deliberately—but Theo still makes sure to control his expression, his scent and heartbeat; Parrish may be a boy-scout but he’s also a hellhound, and if the Sheriff asked, he’d break down Theo’s biological reactions for him.

“On clear nights, the wind can carry scents pretty far,” Theo answers neutrally.

And we’ve had a run of clear nights, he pointedly doesn’t add, shoving away the involuntarily, wounded prick he feels at the Sheriff’s suspicion. Sometimes he has to remind himself that the Sheriff’s—and Argent’s, and Stiles’, and Scott’s, and every other McCall pack member’s—skepticism of him isn’t unjustified.

Doesn’t mean it isn’t irritating.

The Sheriff hums thoughtfully but doesn’t reply. Theo tests his scent, wary, but then finds himself almost involuntarily relaxing; the suspicion that had briefly spiked in the Sheriff’s scent is gone, replaced with a cautious excitement; a lawman with a lead. Leaning forward, the Sheriff snags his desk phone with a finger and pulls it towards him, hits the speakerphone button and dials.

Argent answers on the second ring, “Sheriff.”

“Argent,” The Sheriff greets, just as shortly; this time Theo’s the one who rolls his eyes in exasperation, lets his head drop back against the back of the couch, “Scott and the others there with you?”

“Derek and I are here,” Scott answers, “Malia’s in the room next door, you want me to get her?”

“No, it’s fine. Fill her in later. We think we’ve got something for you,” The Sheriff replies, then starts explaining Theo’s theory about the storage unit.

Scott and the others listen without interruption, but when the Sheriff wraps up, Scott asks, clearly genuinely confused, “Isn’t that a few miles outside of the county limit? How’d Theo catch their scents there?”

Theo can’t help himself, his mouth already moving before he can think better of it, “Your obvious faith fills me with warmth. Jesus, you suspicious assholes— scents carry.”

There’s a muffled swear that’s likely Scott realizing that Theo is on the call along with the Sheriff, and an embarrassed scuffle of noise as Scott almost definitely gives entirely ineffective, apologetic puppy-dog eyes to the phone, “Sorry, Theo.”

“Theo’s right,” Derek cuts in; even only having known Derek for less than seventy-two hours, all told, Theo can recognize his vaguely impatient voice, “The nights have been clear, he’d have been able to catch their scents from miles away.”

Unexpectedly vindicated, Theo gives the Sheriff a pointed look, who then gives him an equally unimpressed look right back, “Yes, fine, glad that’s settled. We’re going to send you the address.”

By ‘we’, the Sheriff means Parrish; the Sheriff hates texting, complains incessantly about his phone’s tiny keyboard when he’s forced into it, his texts always filled with unintentionally hilarious typos. When Theo’s feeling exceedingly petty about his whole pseudo-parolee situation, he deliberately texts Argent, Agent McCall, and the Sheriff to update them while still out on the road instead of coming into the station to do it in-person. Of course, that almost inevitably leads to the Sheriff retaliating in small, equally petty ways: forcing him to accompany whatever poor deputy draws the short straw on picking up lunch for the station; helping Deputy Morales lug boxes of evidence in her ongoing case to and from her cruiser; and once, memorably, sacrificing him to one of the angry gardeners so that Deputy Nyugen could escape. It never really ends well for Theo when he does it, is what he’s saying.

“Okay, we’ve got it,” Argent says, “We’re still at the motel in Redding—” The FBI had tagged one of Monroe’s bands’ known vehicles on a traffic cam downtown, “—so it’ll take us a few hours to get there. We’ll let you know what we find.”

The Sheriff hangs up after Scott—potentially trying to make up for Argent’s occasional glaring lack of interpersonal skills—thanks him, Parrish, and Theo for the information. Office once more silent, the Sheriff frowns thoughtfully and steeples his fingers, taps them against his pursed lips.

Finally he drops his hands and looks at Parrish, “Call Anderson PD and have them check for our list of flagged plates. I’m going to call McCall and update him, see if the addition of this storage facility causes anything else to pop on his end.”

Parrish nods with a yes, sir and stands, heads out the door to go do as instructed. Theo watches him go from his place still sprawled out on the couch and then looks back at the Sheriff, who picks up Theo’s marked-up map and highlighted page of phone records and waves them pointedly at him. Huffing, Theo pushes himself to his feet and walks forward until he can retrieve them, then turns to head back to his desk, brief strategic interlude over.

He’s already fishing for his car keys in his pocket, his mind on where to go for lunch—Gabriela’s? He’d practically dreamed about her tacos al pastor even mid-evisceration by his sister, though a reuben from Daniel’s diner also sounds heavenly—when the Sheriff says his name. Theo hesitates in the doorway and turns to look at him, wary.

But the Sheriff just gives him a brief, approving nod, “Good work.”

Theo feels his mouth drop open like an idiot as he stares at the Sheriff in surprise. But the Sheriff just ignores him, attention once more on his desk phone as he prepares to call Agent McCall. The sudden blare of the dial-tone knocks Theo out of his stupor and he shakes his head, pretends he can’t feel his cheeks flooding with color as he finishes exiting the Sheriff’s office and shuts the door behind him. He hesitates for just a moment, fingers still on the handle, and then he deliberately marches forward until he can deposit the map and sheet of records on his desk, then turns on his heel for the door.

Gabriela’s, he decides. He wants Gabriela’s.

---

He gets back to the Geyers’ from the station later than usual, one arm full of a paper bag’s worth of groceries; milk and a handful of apples, a new jar of peanut butter, things that the Geyer-Dunbar kitchen had run out of.

Mrs. Geyer looks up from where she’s slouched lazily in one corner of the couch, Dr. Geyer sprawled across the rest of it and mostly half-asleep—he’d been working the seven-to-seven shift at the hospital the last few days and is clearly exhausted—when Theo comes through the front door. She catches sight of the bag in his hand and makes a face, now fully ignoring the Law and Order rerun playing itself out on the TV across from the couch.

“I thought we talked about the fact that you don’t have to worry about pitching in for groceries,” She reminds him exasperatedly.

“We did,” Theo agrees with a quick, shy-but-conspiratorial smile that he’ll never admit is only half-faked; Mrs. Geyer snorts a laugh and waves him off, turning back to the TV.

Picking up groceries—but only small amounts, only basic staples and the occasional pint of mint chip ice cream, always finished within a few days no matter what face Mrs. Geyer originally makes—had started out as another layer to his act, a hard-to-argue-with way for him to contribute to household expenses, reset the countdown clock ticking its way to him overstaying his welcome. But he’d found himself almost helplessly addicted to the warm, gratified edge that Mrs. Geyer’s scent takes on when he shows up with a bottle of olive oil to replace the one she’d finished the night before, or another box of Diet Cokes after she loads the last one into her lunch bag. It’s the same one her scent has now, and Theo takes a deep breath of it as he passes by the couch on his way to the kitchen.

He sticks the milk in the fridge and the peanut butter in one of the cabinets, drops the apples onto the corner of the counter designated as the bowl-less fruit-bowl section. That done, he folds up the paper bag and adds it to the recycling bin under the sink before pulling out his phone, checking for an update from some combination of the Sheriff, Argent, or Scott.

By the time the Sheriff had finally kicked him out of the station, Argent, Scott and the others had managed to confirm that the storage facility flagged by Theo was likely still in active use by Monroe and her followers, and the Sheriff had begun coordinating with Agent McCall and the Anderson Police Department on a stake-out. Theo hadn’t quite understood how either the Sheriff or Agent McCall had explained away their stated need for Argent, Scott, Derek, and Malia to be fully involved in that process, but hey; consultant really could be a helpfully vague term.

There isn’t much of an update, not that Theo was expecting one; finding the facility was one thing, but who the hell knew if or when Monroe or her people might be back. The facility had cameras and the Sheriff had requested copies of the last few weeks of footage, but it’d take more than a few hours to comb through to identify any patterns. Blowing out a huff of air, Theo slides his phone back into his pocket and climbs the stairs up to the second floor.

He catches sight of Liam through his half-open door as he passes his room, Liam sat at his desk with headphones blaring and his focus on his laptop, completely oblivious to the outside world. Theo resists the temptation to throw something or otherwise surprise him; Liam’s situational awareness has been and—if past behavior is any indication—likely always will be for shit, and that fact has always bothered Theo more than it likely should. Rolling his eyes, Theo continues down the hallway to the guest bedroom and tosses his backpack onto the bed, kicks the door shut behind him so that he can pull his shirt over his head to change into more comfortable clothes.

An hour later, now dressed in sweatpants and a plain white shirt, a little pleasantly over-full from his dinner of warmed-up chicken stir-fry and rice—a bowl left in the fridge for him and eaten on the loveseat while debating the exact level of softness of CSI: Miami’s various scientific processes with Mrs. Geyer—Theo lounges back against the pillows he’d propped up against the wall behind the guest bed and frowns at Google Maps’ rendition of the Beacon County-Shasta County border. Even half-distracted by bad cop procedurals and Dr. Geyer’s heartfelt groans at his wife’s occasional and immensely self-satisfied puns, there’d been an itch at the back of Theo’s mind that he eventually couldn’t ignore; something about the storage facility wasn’t sitting right. So once the episode had wrapped, he’d made his excuses and put his bowl in the dishwasher, then headed back upstairs to dig once more into the data.

He catches a sudden burst of music that means that Liam’s taken off his headphones in his room down the hall, so Theo is already looking at the door a few seconds later when Liam appears in the guest bedroom doorway. Liam takes one look at the piles of paperwork spread around Theo in an unintentional nest of sorts and his eyebrows make a bid to meet his hairline; not difficult, what with his ridiculous hair. Theo returns his skeptical look for a beat and then drops his eyes back down to his laptop without saying anything, still teasing at the edges of the amorphous uneasiness in his gut; Liam would make known what he wanted eventually whether Theo engaged him or not.

As if to prove Theo’s point, the mattress dips in the next instant as Liam drops down onto the edge of it. Theo spares him a glare as the movement causes his stacks of paperwork to slide precariously around, but it doesn’t have much of an effect; Liam rolls his eyes and half-assedly pokes a few pages back into place, then abandons the effort to lean sideways on one elbow facing Theo.

“What?” Theo finally demands after a few seconds of staring.

“Why’d you run out of the house so fast this morning?” Liam asks, sounding genuinely curious.

It’s probably a good thing that Liam hasn’t noticed either Corey’s ongoing and involuntary hostile reactions to Theo or Theo’s ongoing and voluntary reactions to Corey’s reactions to him, but Theo once again finds himself despairing for Liam’s lack of situational awareness; Liam’s werewolf senses are occasionally just completely wasted on him. Theo doesn’t have any desire to get into that or his and Corey’s screwed-up relationship, though, so he just focuses on zooming in to a different section of satellite imagery on his laptop and checks it against the fold-out map covered in black Xs next to his hip.

“The Sheriff is making me help with the search for Monroe down at the station, you know that,” He answers.

Liam just scoffs, “Yeah, I know, but he’s not some psycho about it. He’s not going to throw you in jail if you don’t beat him to the station or whatever.”

Theo is not actually convinced that’s true. As the person who had to find new and increasingly creative ways to cover up the dozens of victims suffered by Beacon Hills due to the Dread Doctors’ plans—which Theo was admittedly instrumental in carrying out—the Sheriff has a lot of unresolved feelings about Theo, most of them negative, and Theo’s assistance during the Wild Hunt and with Monroe and the Anuk-ite notwithstanding, Theo knows the Sheriff is still wildly conflicted about letting Theo walk around relatively free. Theo knows he’s getting off way easier than he should—it’s one of the reasons that his resistance to the Sheriff’s and Argent’s initial demands had been token at best—and that thought stays with him every time he walks into the station, every time he’s allowed to walk back out of it.

But that’s another thing that Theo doesn’t want to argue with Liam about, so he just mutters, “He might.”

Liam rolls his eyes, “Drama queen.”

He lets it go, though, which is the outcome Theo wanted, so he doesn’t reply. He’s staring at the stretch of Interstate 5 between Seven Hills Self-Storage and Shasta Lake, his vague disquiet starting to solidify into an actual intuition, when he spots Liam reaching forward for a sheaf of credit card statements out of the corner of his eye.

“Stop that,” Theo demands, kicking out with one foot to intercept Liam’s hand, “You mess those up and the Sheriff really might arrest me.”

Liam yelps when Theo’s foot connects with his wrist, yanking it back with a wounded expression. He rubs at it while glaring at Theo, who glares unapologetically back; whatever insight he’d been about to grasp before Liam’s nosy interruption is gone, vanished like a puff of smoke.

“He’s not going to arrest you,” Liam insists petulantly, but he’s now primarily doing it to be a contrary asshole, so Theo doesn’t take it personally.

“Yeah, well. At the very least Parrish will give me Disappointed Face for the rest of the day, so hands off,” Theo tells him, then sighs and shuts his laptop before leaning back and closing his eyes with a groan; whatever had been bothering him, he’s officially too distracted to figure it out tonight.

He opens his eyes in time to catch the tail-end of some face Liam was making—likely in response to the Disappointed Face comment—before Liam apparently gives up being half-vertical and flops onto his back. The various stacks of documents on the bed shudder ominously but don’t fall, so Theo lets the remainder of his irritation go and just settles back more firmly against the pillows, blinking some in the oddly comfortable silence that descends on the room.

“Will you at least tell me what you guys found?” Liam finally asks a few minutes later.

It’s not a demand, or even very insistent; it’s literally just Liam asking him if he’s willing to share, already half-expecting to be turned down. Theo swallows past the sudden burn of feeling in his throat as he actually focuses and catches Liam’s scent: the last time it had been so subdued and unsettled, Liam had been waking up after Theo had stopped him from killing Nolan at the zoo. He meets Liam’s eyes and knows instantly that Liam’s remembering the same thing, bets that Liam’s thinking of their confrontation at the station, maybe hearing himself say they were murdered; they didn’t have anything to do with this.

He meets Liam’s eyes and realizes that Liam has his own ghosts.

“It’s not much,” Theo finds himself admitting before he’s fully decided to speak, “Just a storage facility that Monroe and her hunters might be using.”

Liam turns his head to frown thoughtfully up at the ceiling, chewing this over. Finally he concludes, “Well. Good then.”

Theo very narrowly resists the urge to say something like, what, that’s it?; with Liam’s investment in the hunt for Monroe and his fully-acknowledged impulse control problems, Theo had been convinced that he’d be on the receiving end of a continuous third-degree every time he walked in the Geyer-Dunbar front door. Instead, it’s been this: tentative inquiries and an unexpected amount of quiet faith. Theo still hasn’t figured out what to do with any of it, so he’s been mostly ignoring it.

They lapse back into silence, Theo thinking that he really should gather up the various papers spread throughout the bed before Murphy’s Law—always seemingly stalking Beacon Hills—strikes and they really do get messed up. He doesn’t move, though, oddly comfortable propped up as he is, Liam sprawled inches away from his feet on the end of the bed. Instead, eyes closed and arms crossed loosely over his chest, he finds himself idly following the sounds of the TV downstairs, interpreting the plot of whatever show the Geyers are watching from the flow of the dialogue and what he can hear of the abstract noise of the background track.

He gets a little lost in it, and isn’t jolted back to himself until the jarring interruption of a commercial break. Blinking his suddenly heavy eyelids, Theo glances around the room and then stops when he sees Liam, squinting. It takes him a few moments to realize that the reason Liam’s expression looks so slack and relaxed is because he’s asleep, his arms now folded over his chest but his legs still dangling over the edge of the mattress. A little amused, a little...something else, something that feels disturbingly like fond, Theo bites back the smile that wants to tug up the corners of his lips and reaches for his phone, tilts it to activate the screen so he can check the time: 10:13 P.M.

He knows he should wake Liam up, make him go back to his room, but the sight of Liam sound asleep—actually sound asleep, his breathing deep and even—stops him. Theo hasn’t said anything—and barring some kind of drugging or form of torture, never will—but he knows Liam’s been sleeping like shit, restless and light and clearly nightmare-plagued. There are dark circles under his eyes that even his werewolf healing can’t completely erase, and Theo’s pretty sure half his inability to get up in the mornings is just straight-up exhaustion from the fact that he’s not falling asleep until a few meager hours before he has to get up again.

So after a long minute of studying Liam’s peaceful expression, of listening to his slow, steady heartbeat, Theo ends up simply leaning carefully forward until he can gather up the papers closest to Liam, lean back with them in hand. He stacks them on top of the rest of the papers and then caps them with his laptop as a paperweight of sorts, leans over until he can deposit the full stack on the ground by the guest bed.

Then he resettles on his pillows, and—after another few seconds of searching Liam’s sleep-slack expression—he closes his eyes again and crosses his arms back over his chest, refocuses on the sound of the TV downstairs, the mindless background noise of it broken up by the steady thump-thump of Liam’s heartbeat in his ears.

---

A couple of weeks later and Theo is back in the Sheriff’s office, sat in one of the chairs in front of the Sheriff’s desk and trying not to let any Thousand Island dressing from his reuben drip onto any of the documents spread chaotically across the top of it. Across from him, the Sheriff is absently eating his own turkey club on rye—topped only by light mayo and Swiss cheese, because even back on the East Coast for school Stiles still has spies in place at the station—and ticking down his list of notes from the conference call they’d had that morning with what had sounded like the entirety of the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office jammed into a single conference room.

“I still maintain that Kaustinen is full of shit and that double homicide is unrelated to Monroe. It’s too far south,” Theo argues, barely managing to get his reuben over the deli paper it’d been wrapped in as a glob of dressing finally breaks free and narrowly misses the DVD holding surveillance footage of Rossler and Monroe from a truck stop off State Highway 44.

Sheriff Kaustinen—” The Sheriff starts pointedly, “—is pretty convinced it is. The M.O. is similar, you have to admit.”

“It’s too far south,” Theo insists, “Practically every other verifiable piece of evidence we’ve accumulated says Monroe and her merry band of psychos headed north. The double-homicide is so far south it’s almost Sierra County. And the victims weren’t supernatural, Agent McCall confirmed it.”

The Sheriff gives him a dry look that clearly communicates that the Sheriff doesn’t need Theo reminding him of facts they’d learned at literally the same time, “Monroe might not have known that.”

But he’s arguing for argument’s sake, his voice taking on the particular tone it gets when he’s forcing himself to explore all avenues of a theory for the sake of being thorough, not because he believes it. He sighs and drops the sad remainder of his sad sandwich onto its own protective cover of deli paper and leans back, rubbing his eyes.

“This would be far easier if we could tell the other sheriffs and deputies what’s actually going on,” He mutters, but it’s a toothless complaint and impossible besides; Agent McCall had managed to open up a legitimate FBI investigation into Monroe and her associates and that was letting them leverage the full might of California’s various law enforcement resources, but it wasn’t like they could tell the supernaturally clueless officers responding to various scenes to check the bodies for fangs.

Theo grimaces sympathetically and nudges his bag of chips towards the Sheriff in solidarity; Stiles may have an iron grip on the Sheriff’s lunch menu, but the man didn’t become Sheriff by accident; he’d found workarounds. Expression equally resigned, the Sheriff leans forward and takes a few chips, then settles back in his chair and eats them one by one while staring into the middle distance, clearly chewing over the information they’d received on the call that morning, trying to fit it into the existing mosaic of what they already knew.

“You haven’t picked up anything in your patrols that far south?” He finally double-checks.

“No. Everything’s been north, towards Shasta and even Trinity and Lassen Counties. The only traces I’ve picked up in Plumas are in that far upper northwest corner,” Theo says, then hesitates, weighing if he actually wants to say what he says next. But it’s true, and more importantly: relevant, “It’s a little hard to be sure, though, since I have to unceremoniously stop tracking whenever I hit the Beacon County border.”

Theo had gotten very good at knowing exactly where that border exists. By now he’s pretty sure he could walk the boundary in his goddamn sleep; he’d started idly wondering if maybe he should volunteer for the next county geological survey. Being confined to Beacon County under pain of having the entirety of the Beacon County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, and every hunter contact Argent had ever unceremoniously browbeaten into allying with his family placed immediately on his tail had ceased to be a source of bitterness for Theo and had become primarily a massive inconvenience; it wasn’t like Monroe’s or her people were so geographically limited. So Theo doesn’t think much about his statement beyond giving the Sheriff an important FYI.

As such, he’s in the middle of stuffing the last of his reuben into his mouth and looking around for the bag their sandwiches had come in, desperately in need of the stack of brown paper napkins that the diner had provided, when the Sheriff replies casually, “So don’t stop at the border, then,” and Theo nearly chokes.

After a truly graceful coughing fit that Theo only manages to get to subside by downing half his bottle of Powerade, Theo finally rasps out an incredulous, “What?”

“Don’t stop at the border,” The Sheriff repeats slowly, eyebrows raised.

His tone suggests that he thinks Theo is being an idiot and the Sheriff is clueless as to why, but his scent gives him away; he knows exactly what he’s offering. Theo stares at him, open-mouthed.

Luckily they’re interrupted at that moment by a brief knock at the door, Parrish sticking his head in immediately afterward, “You’ve got that meeting with the County Executive in half an hour, sir. We should probably get going.”

The Sheriff’s dramatic groan as he brings his hands up to cover his face and slumps back in his chair is worthy of Stiles, and even through his shell-shock Theo is still amused enough to snort an involuntary laugh. Dropping his hands, the Sheriff scowls at Theo—unamused by his amusement—and then he looks back up at Parrish.

“Grab the year-end budget report and Alvarez. I’ll meet you both up front in a minute.”

Parrish nods and retreats, closing the door behind him. The Sheriff stands, retrieving his various lunch detritus and throwing it into the trashcan next to his desk. He snags a few more chips from Theo’s bag and stuffs them in his mouth, then grabs his jacket and shrugs into it, starts looking around for the papers he needs for his next meeting, buried somewhere underneath all of the papers related to the hunt for Monroe. Theo watches him dumbly, hands still covered in Thousand Island and still hovering awkwardly in the air.

“I assume you’ll want the official maps from the other counties if you’re going to start running them regularly, too. Which ones in particular? I’ll tell Nyugen to make the requests on my way out,” The Sheriff picks back up on their previous conversation after a beat, bending some as he tries to tug a sheaf of documents out from underneath a precarious tower of FBI BOLOs and three-ring binders without creating a paperwork avalanche.

“Shasta, Trinity, and Lassen for sure,” Theo responds automatically, the gears in the tactical part of his mind already turning, even if the rest of it is still stuck on his geographical restrictions being unexpectedly lifted, “Butte and Plumas, too, if they’re willing to fork them over; doesn’t hurt to have them on-hand.”

“Great, I’ll have him make the calls. They should arrive by the end of the week,” The Sheriff manages to free the documents he’d wanted without catastrophe and straightens, starts heading for the door. Then he stops in the doorway and turns back like he’d just remembered something, “You still planning on running the Preserve today?”

Theo blinks and then shakes himself out of his stupor, determined to stop acting like some slack-jawed yokel. He locates the bag he’d been looking for and the napkins inside and starts finally cleaning off his hands as he answers, “Yeah, why?”

“Check the northeast section, would you?” The Sheriff requests.

Theo stops and looks up at him, interest piqued, “What would I be looking for?”

“Don’t know, it’s just a hunch,” Down the hall Parrish says his name and the Sheriff grimaces, leans out into the hallway to yell I’m coming, then settles back on his heels as he adds, “I trust your instincts, provided there’s anything to find.”

And Theo is once again left dumbstruck and staring at the Sheriff, who doesn’t even notice, just flips through the documents in his hands one last time to make sure they’re the right ones.

There’s a small, paranoid, but insistent part of Theo that’s convinced this is all some kind of trap, and it’s that part that says, testing, “I cover that much ground and it’s going to take me the rest of the afternoon.”

“Fine, see you tomorrow. Just make sure to lock up in here when you’re done, alright?” The Sheriff agrees absently, and then he waves a hand over his shoulder in a distracted goodbye and heads down the hallway.

“Sure,” Theo says blankly, though he’s saying it to an empty office, the Sheriff already gone.

He turns back to face forward, his eyes running over the mess of documents covering the desk, the notepad where Theo had written he’s full of SHIT during their call earlier, the bag of chips that had migrated into the middle of the chaos as Theo and the Sheriff had shared them back and forth. His guts a mess of conflicting emotions that the visuals aren’t helping, Theo abruptly stands, gathers up the remains of his lunch and throws it away, starts pushing the materials related to Monroe into some kind of order. He gets them divided up into his copies and the Sheriff’s, stuffs his own into his backpack and puts the Sheriff’s back in his office safe, left open while he and Theo had been eating and trading theories.

And that’s what really draws Theo up short, staring down at the open safe and the piles of evidence—a decent amount of it not even related to the hunt for Monroe—stacked inside of it. Theo works his jaw, hand on the safe door, and then he steps back and slams it shut, spins the dial to lock it.

Then he snags his backpack and heads out the door, shuts it behind him, thoughts deliberately, purposefully, to-the-exclusion-of-all-else focused on how best to incorporate the northeast section of the Preserve into his planned patrol.

---

As expected, adding the northeast section to his originally-planned run of the Preserve does take Theo the rest of the afternoon.

It pays dividends, though. Theo’s going to have to make the Sheriff run him through whatever winding thought process he’d had that led him to suggest it, because he’d found a nearly overlooked clearing just a few miles from State Highway 44 that someone had clearly been using as a basecamp of sorts. Theo hadn’t recognized the scent of whoever had been hanging around it, but he’d sure as hell recognized the distinctive mix of gunpowder and wolfsbane that’d been caught and held by the layer of dead leaves covering the forest floor.

He’s working his way back through one of the off-trail sections of forest towards the main parking lot, his senses deliberately spread out—looking for anything amiss, anything interesting, but his mind left to wander—when he jerks to a stop, a new scent catching his attention. Baffled, he raises his head and tests the air again, and is already reaching for his phone—about to text Liam and double-check that Corey hadn’t, by chance, been kidnapped any time in the last five hours—when he remembers he doesn’t have service this deep in the woods. Frowning, Theo takes another deep breath and this time deliberately focuses on breaking it down, but he doesn’t get any fear, or panic, or even anger in Corey’s scent.

He just gets grief.

Shit, Theo thinks silently, tapping his currently-useless phone against his lips; the part of Theo that very purposefully leaves a room every time Corey enters it is screaming at him to just walk away, leave Corey to whatever reason he’s out here alone in a near-untouched section of the Preserve. But there’s another part that stirs, restless, thinking of the hunter camp he’d just found. No one had been there when Theo had discovered it, and from the scent of it hadn’t been in a while, but he couldn’t ignore the implications; that Monroe and her people are still focused on Beacon Hills, still finding ways to slip back inside its borders even with Theo, Scott, the Sheriff and the others all on the lookout.

“God damn it,” Theo mutters under his breath, and then he starts following the sharp scent of Corey’s grief.

He keeps his steps silent, his breathing low, all the while swearing to himself that once he spots Corey and makes sure he’s fine, makes sure there aren’t any hunters lurking in the trees, he’ll turn around and leave without ever letting Corey know he was there. After ten minutes or so Theo comes to a brief break in the trees—not even large enough to be called a clearing—and spots Corey maybe twenty feet away in the center of it, kneeling on the ground in front of a large, moss-covered fallen tree.

What the hell, Theo thinks, and flares his eyes to try and see better, though it doesn’t help; he’s at the wrong angle and can only see Corey’s profile, can’t see whatever he’s looking at, which is clearly something.

Biting his lip, Theo considers. Corey is fine—ignoring the cloying scent of his grief, which Theo has to keep swallowing past, the taste of it cranking Theo’s chest tight like a winch—and from what Theo can sense, it’s just the two of them for miles. He’s clearly not in any danger, and he’s just as clearly in the middle of something immensely personal; Theo has to keep resisting the urge to look away, already feeling like a voyeur.

He’s still in the middle of debating what he should do—he swore he’d leave if Corey wasn’t in danger, and he isn’t, but there’s an itch at the back of Theo’s mind that he’s having trouble ignoring, desperate to know what could cause Corey to smell like that, out here in the middle of the woods with nothing around for miles—when Corey stands. Fuck, Theo silently swears, and jerks back so that he’s concealed behind the trunk of a tree, focuses his senses to try and determine whether or not Corey heard or saw him; if ever there was a time for Corey’s chimeric lack of werewolf hearing and scenting to come into play, it’s now.

By some stroke of luck, Corey must have missed him; Theo can hear him turn and start crunching away through the dead leaves. From the direction he heads, Theo realizes that he must have parked in the smaller lot towards the southeast section of the Preserve, less heavily-trafficked than the others. What are you doing out here? Theo wonders silently, back still pressed against rough bark. Then, as Corey’s footsteps finally retreat far enough away that Theo is comfortable coming out from behind the tree, he finds himself staring in the direction that Corey had disappeared and amending his previous question: what are you doing out here that you don’t want anyone to know about?

Suddenly hesitant, Theo stands and looks back at the spot where Corey just was. Even knowing that he’s in the middle of a public stretch of woods and that Corey can’t claim shit about this particular section being his, Theo still feels vaguely guilty, like he’s invading Corey’s privacy. That if he does what he’s thinking of doing, he’s about to force his way into something that he clearly has no right to.

But the part of Theo that makes him get up and leave a room every time Corey enters it, the part that has to go and find something afterwards to drink, or eat, to wash away the sour taste of Corey’s genuine distress at seeing Theo—a distress he’s clearly trying to manage, to make go away—that part hurts every time it happens. There are instincts that he can still feel eating away at the back of his brain, alpha instincts, unnaturally claimed as they had been, and seeing Corey and not being able to be near him, to be so completely rejected by him…

Theo grits his teeth, and starts picking his way carefully forward.

When he gets close enough, he has to stop again and stare, confused. He’s not sure what he was expecting but it isn’t two piles of rocks in an otherwise unremarkable stretch of forest. Glancing up and around, but seeing nothing to provide any other answers, Theo takes another few steps forward until he can kneel in front of the rocks; he doesn’t realize he’s all but kneeled exactly where Corey had been until he feels the slight, pre-existing give of the ground beneath his knees.

Setting that thought aside, Theo turns his attention to the rock piles. This close, he can see that they’re not just random piles of stones; a larger, flatter slab forms the base for both, with the others stones clearly deliberately arranged on top of them.

Markers, he realizes; the stones are markers.

Intrigued, Theo reaches a careful hand forward until he can touch one of the smaller stones in the leftmost arrangement. It shifts under his fingers, and it becomes clear then that the smaller stones had been placed to form a cover of sorts for something underneath them.

Immediately Theo moves to start pulling the rocks away, see what they’re covering, and just as immediately he stops. He sits back on his heels and bites his lip, considering; Corey had treated this place with a respect that had bordered on reverence, and Theo had felt that in his bones. And Theo...he’d been right, earlier, when he’d told himself he didn’t have any right to whatever meaning Corey had given this place. He still doesn’t. But the itch at the back of his mind had become a burn, an inescapable need, and so he says a silent apology to Corey and this time carefully, carefully reaches back out to remove the top stone from the leftmost marker.

And then he has to immediately lurch to the side to be sick, horror and nausea slamming into him like a freight train.

Oh god, he thinks weakly, and heaves up another mouthful of bile; a few feet away, the necklace Tracy had always worn glitters dully in the low winter sunlight, now half-revealed by Theo’s disturbing of the marker. Theo turns his head to glance at it and then immediately has to squeeze his eyes shut and drop his head back down, his stomach starting to cramp as he vomits again.

They’re graves, Theo’s mind just keeps repeating silently, a little hysterically; he’s on his hands and knees just inches from Tracy’s and Josh’s graves.

And finally that thought penetrates through his initial, horrified shock, and Theo’s mouth drops open in a silent, anguished cry. He drops down to his forearms as he starts to shake, his breath coming in short pants; after a moment he has to twist his head to the side, bite at the fabric covering his forearm to help muffle the wounded noises he can’t help but make. There are tears leaking hotly from his eyes, his shoulders shaking with silent sobs, his fingers digging furrows into the cold dirt. His chest twists painfully, so painfully, worse than any time his sister had her hand inside it; worse than every time his sister had her hand inside it. Theo brings one of his own now-filthy hands back to claw at his own sternum, unsure whether he’s trying to relieve the hurt or add to it.

He isn’t sure how long he stays like that, bent over on his knees and burying his wounded, animal noises in his forearm. Eventually, though, the pressure in his chest starts to subside, and Theo finds he can drop his hand away from his chest, only then realizing that at some point he’d grown claws and punctured his own shirt, his own skin, his fingers catching in the torn fabric as he pulls his hand away. Shit, he thinks, then uses his hands to push himself slowly back onto his heels. But this time the thought is just blank, just...hollow; he doesn’t want to look but he can’t not, his eyes sliding helplessly back to Tracy’s necklace, to Josh’s undisturbed marker.

And suddenly morbidly curious, suddenly desperately curious, Theo has to know; he stands on wobbly legs until he can take a few steps, collapse back down within reach of Josh’s marker. His leather bracelet, Theo silently predicts; Josh had refused to take the stupid thing off no matter how bloody or gore-splattered it got, just cleaned it off best he could and kept right on wearing it. Swallowing past his painfully tight throat, Theo reaches forward until he can move one of the covering stones, and then immediately has to bring his free hand up to cover another animal noise, the polished shine of Josh’s bracelet gleaming in the quickly-disappearing light.

You stupid idiots, Theo finds himself thinking, staring at the thin strip of leather, at the glint of Tracy’s necklace that he can still see out of the corner of his eye, Why did you ever trust me? You never should have trusted me.

Theo stays like that, flat on his ass on the cold ground and staring helplessly at Tracy’s and Josh’s headstones—because that’s what they are—for long enough that the sun completely disappears. Initially Theo doesn’t move, just flares his eyes so he can still see Tracy’s necklace, Josh’s bracelet, and stays right where he is. But after a while he starts to shiver, and then when his teeth start chattering hard enough to be painful he comes blinking back to himself, his dry eyes burning from his near-unblinking stare and his stomach twisting with hunger. Stunned, Theo glances around the night-dark forest, lit only by the weak moonlight that manages to filter through the trees, and thinks once again: shit.

Taking in a deep, shuddering inhale, Theo reaches up to scrub his face with his hands, then leaves them there for a minute while he just breathes. Then he drops them, and his eyes fall immediately, helplessly back to the markers. After a long hesitation, Theo leans forward and touches Josh’s bracelet with trembling fingers, then leans over some to touch Tracey’s necklace; he doesn’t realize he’s touched them with the fingers that’d been stained with his own blood until the dull shine of it gleams on his skin in the moonlight. Swallowing, Theo turns his hand over, studying the dirt and blood staining his skin, and then he clenches it.

Finally he bites his lip and looks back at the markers, picks up the stones and carefully replaces the ones he’d disturbed, makes sure they’re arranged exactly as they’d been before he’d appeared, before he’d forced his way into this place.

And then he stands on shaky legs and walks away, leaving Josh and Tracy to the peace that Corey had made for them.

---

Art by ArtZeppo

---

Forty minutes later, nearly back to his truck, Theo’s phone—gone dormant in his pocket with the lack of service—starts vibrating like a miniature earthquake against his leg. Wrapped up in his thoughts as he’d been, the sudden sensation startles Theo badly enough that he missteps and nearly rolls his ankle on a loose stone, has to twist awkwardly and flail a bit to regain his balance.

Swearing, Theo reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone, stares in surprise at the plethora of notifications cluttering up his screen. He keeps walking towards his truck as he glances quickly through them, then thumbs the most recent one open. It’s Liam, saying: Please tell me you’re not, like, chained up in someone’s basement doing your best Derek Hale impression—it’d probably been a mistake for Stiles to go listing through the greatest hits of Derek Hale kidnappings during their brief group slumber party at the McCall house—‘cause my mom hasn’t said anything, but from her scent she’s kind of starting to freak out.

Grimacing, Theo scrolls back through the earlier texts, spread throughout the night but getting progressively denser as the hours had gone by: Theo?; Dude, where are you? Mom wants to know if we should wait for you or just save you some dinner for later; Theeeooooooo; You don’t respond soon and I’m going to tell the Sheriff, and then he really will arrest you.

And evidently Liam had cracked and checked in with the Sheriff, because Theo has two missed calls and a brief missive from him, time-stamped one hour ago: Call me the instant you get this.

“Fuck,” Theo swears, and taps the Sheriff’s name. The second it connects he blurts out, “I just got out of the Preserve, no service. Sorry.”

The silence on the other end of the line is a very loud silence, and then the Sheriff says neutrally, “Running the Preserve, even that big a chunk of it, doesn’t take eight hours.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Theo agrees, wincing, “But I found something.” Theo’s throat nearly closes and he has to swallow around the tight squeeze of it as he remembers Tracy’s and Josh’s headstones, hopes the Sheriff somehow misses the sound of it but doubts it, “You were right about the northeast corner. There was a hunter camp. Abandoned, but definitely one of Monroe’s people.”

He doesn’t try and oversell his discovery, make it sound like he’d spent the whole eight hours on it; the Sheriff isn’t stupid, and he knows—he must know—that something else happened. But after another long few seconds he just hums thoughtfully.

“Fine, you can fill me in tomorrow. Right now, get back to the Geyers before Jenna or David start trying to file a missing persons report,” The Sheriff orders, and the stern disappointment in his voice is infinitely worse than the suspicion that Theo would have expected, so soon on the heels of the Sheriff lifting his geographical restrictions, “And Theo?”

“Yeah?” Theo replies warily, his gut squirming uncomfortably.

The Sheriff’s tone takes on a certain dryness as he says, “Radios work in the Preserve. We’ll issue you one tomorrow.”

“Right,” Theo says, and can feel himself coloring even in the cool night, “Sorry. Again.”

The Sheriff hmphs, then hangs up. God damn it, Theo swears silently, staring down at his phone. Then, sighing, he starts navigating back to his text thread with Liam as he unlocks his truck and pulls the back door open. Once the ringing starts, he puts the phone on speaker and tosses it onto the back seat, listening to it ring as he reaches for the bag he keeps behind the passenger seat. He gets ahold of the beat-up duffle and yanks it towards himself, starts rifling through its contents: a few changes of clothes, some cash, other essentials; it’d been the bag he’d been living out of during his brief stint with homelessness post the Wild Hunt, and he’d just never unpacked or otherwise done anything with it once he’d moved in with Liam.

He’s in the middle of stripping off his ruined shirt, pulling a clean one over his head, when Liam picks up, “At this point, you’d better actually be dead, because otherwise you’re just a giant fucking asshole.”

Theo grimaces and finishes straightening out his new shirt, “I was in the Preserve, I didn’t have service.”

Even without seeing him, Theo is virtually certain that Liam just rolled his eyes, “For eight hours? The Sheriff said he thought you left the station right after lunch.”

“It’s a big place,” Theo reminds him defensively, cracking open a bottle of water as he does so that he can start dumping it over his hands, then sets the bottle aside so he can pick up his ruined shirt and scrub at the dirt and blood covering his fingers, lifts his clean shirt briefly to get the streaks of dried blood on his chest. Then he stops as he remembers Liam’s last text, “Look, I didn’t realize how late it’d gotten, I didn’t mean to be out this long. Tell your mom—tell your mom I’m sorry.”

Liam makes an incredulous noise, “Oh, hell no. That is one-hundred percent on you. I’ll tell her you’re alive and just an inconsiderate dick. You can try and explain how you’d somehow forgotten how to use a phone for half a day.”

“I didn’t have service,” Theo repeats insistently, but the uncomfortable twisting sensation in his chest feels a lot like guilt, “I’m leaving now, I should be back in twenty. Thirty if I hit that stupid light on Palmera.”

“Yeah, okay, fine. Whatever,” Liam says, but if Theo didn’t know any better he’d think that was relief in Liam’s voice, “See you soon.”

The line goes dead and so Theo doesn’t bother to reach forward to hang up, just lets his phone lock automatically. Instead, he snags the mostly empty bottle of water from where he’d set it and takes a swig of the dregs of it, swishes it around his mouth to try and wash out some of the sour, lingering taste of his earlier bout of vomiting. Then he leans to the side and spits, tosses the empty bottle back into his truck and slams the back door shut. Once it’s closed, though, he can’t help it; he leans forward and rests his forehead against the cool metal of the frame for a moment, a long, deep breath, before moving to climb into the driver’s seat and start the engine.

He hits the light at Palmera, of course, and so it is thirty minutes later that he manages to pull back into the Geyer-Dunbar driveway, past Liam’s beat-up SUV parked on the street and off to the side and out of the way of both Mrs. and Dr. Geyers’ cars in the garage. For a moment he hesitates, but sitting in his truck isn’t going to make his upcoming conversation any easier, so he opens the door and hops out, then stops and gives himself a brief once-over, checks for any lingering signs of blood or dirt. Once he’s as certain as he can be that he looks like he usually does, and not like he just spent three hours accidentally wounding himself and sitting on the forest floor, he heads inside.

The living room is dark and silent when he walks in, so Theo spreads his senses through the house, looking for its occupants; Mrs. Geyer is in the master bedroom reading, from the sound of it, which means the steady hum of the shower is Liam in the hallway bathroom. Dr. Geyer must have gotten called into surgery, Theo realizes absently. He bites his lip, and then he starts climbing the stairs.

He heads past Liam’s room, past the hallway bathroom, past the guest bedroom, until he reaches the master bedroom at the end of the hall. The door is half-open and from the way that the sound of turning pages has gone silent, Mrs. Geyer must have heard his footsteps in the hallway and realized it was him from the process of elimination, the shower still running.

She’s already looking at the doorway when Theo finally steps through it, and the way her expression goes slack with relief and she heaves out a huge breath makes Theo’s chest—which had unwound some on his drive back—clench right back up, “Theo, hey.”

“I’m really sorry,” Theo finds himself blurting out, and the sheepishness in his voice, the earnestness, has nothing to do with his act, his lost-little-boy cover-story; he genuinely feels like—as Liam had labeled him—a giant fucking asshole, “I stayed late at the station after everyone had left to finish something up, and didn’t realize how late it had gotten.”

Mrs. Geyer cocks her head, a little helplessly skeptical, “I thought Liam said he texted you a bunch.”

“Turned my phone off,” Theo improvises quickly, “It rang during a meeting. I didn’t remember to turn it back on until just before I left the station.”

Mrs. Geyer nods slowly, accepting that. Then she gives him a somewhat reluctant smile, though it doesn’t go near her eyes, “Okay, no problem. We were just, you know, wondering.”

“Sure,” Theo agrees automatically, inanely.

Then he hesitates, gnaws on his lips as he considers; Mrs. Geyer’s scent had leveled out some, sure, the low-grade anxiety she’d been trying to keep off her face and out of her voice fading away, but there’s a lingering sour note to it that Theo knows he put there.

“I could...text you, next time, if I think I’m going to this late again,” He offers tentatively, unsure even as he says it whether or not he’s reading too much into her concern.

“Oh god, would you?” Mrs. Geyer replies instantly. She heaves out a huge breath, her shoulders slumping like she’d been holding herself back from asking for exactly that. Then she stops, laughs a little, but it’s a self-aware, embarrassed laugh, an indication that she thinks she’s being absurd but can’t seem to help it, “I know I’m not your mother, but I just kept picturing you dead in a ditch somewhere, and I couldn’t help worrying.”

“Yeah, of course,” Theo assures her immediately, equally off-balance, “Next time I’ll be sure to—I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“Great,” She tells him, smiling widely, her eyes crinkling, and now her scent really does clear, “Great, I really appreciate that. Thanks, Theo.”

“Yeah,” Theo just says stupidly back, “Um. Good night, then. Sorry, again.”

This time Mrs. Geyer really does just wave him off, “Don’t worry about it. Have a good night.”

She gives him one last grin and then picks her book back up, gently dismissing him. Theo lingers for a beat longer, feeling completely off-balanced, and then he quietly retreats from the doorway, turns on his heel to head for the guest bedroom. He’s so wrapped up in his thoughts that he completely misses Liam stepping out of the bathroom, dressed in sweats and a ratty t-shirt that’s clearly been washed a few hundred times, his hands above his head as he rubs a towel over his wet hair.

So he jumps and has to bite back a swear when Liam suddenly says, “Dude, what happened to you out there? Your scent is all wacky and you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Two, actually, Theo finds himself thinking a little hysterically, but out loud he just says, “Say that a little louder and your mom is going to start worrying about what’s wrong with you.”

Then he ignores Liam to open the guest bedroom door, step inside. He slings his backpack onto the bed and moves towards the dresser, suddenly desperate to be out of his current clothes. He knows he’s just imagining the clinging scent of Tracy’s and Josh’s blood, the exact stench of the air in the sewers where he’d killed them both, but it doesn’t matter; he needs out of the clothes he’d been wearing at their graves.

Liam follows him, of course, towel now slung around his neck, “Seriously, Theo, what the fuck? The Sheriff was going to give it another hour, and then he was going to call Scott and the others back to start looking for you.”

Theo can see the exact train of thought they must have been riding: Theo had gone out looking for traces of Monroe, and had found more than a trace. His chest clenches again guiltily but Theo just swallows, mentally shakes himself and reaches for his fly so that he can shuck off his jeans, change into the sweats he’d pulled out. He pauses and looks pointedly over his shoulder at Liam, who just leans back to kick the guest bedroom door shut and then gives him an equally pointed look back.

Huffing, Theo turns back to the dresser and focuses on getting changed, though he answers, “I told you. I was out in the Preserve and didn’t have service. I was looking for traces of Monroe and lost track of time.”

If he’d been hoping that his dangling of a potential update on Monroe would distract Liam, he’s instantly disappointed; Liam steams right past that and presses, “Why are you lying?”

He sounds almost hurt, and Theo stops, surprised, and turns to look at him, “I’m not.”

“You are,” Liam counters, and he still doesn’t sound angry, just...a little childishly confused, maybe, “Something else happened out there and you’re refusing to tell anyone what. And don’t try and say that it didn’t. You wouldn’t reek like you do if you’d just gotten distracted looking for evidence of Monroe.”

“Thanks for that,” Theo snaps back, but there’s no heat in it, and Liam doesn’t budge, just keeps staring at him, brows furrowed.

So Theo sighs, pivots some so that he can drop onto the edge of the guest bed, scrub his hands over his face before dropping them down so that they’re dangling between his knees.

“Something else did happen,” He admits quietly. Then he looks back up at Liam, and deliberately lets the truth show raw on his face, “But it doesn’t have anything to do with Monroe and no one is any danger because of it.”

Liam considers this, his lip between his teeth, “Then why won’t you tell anyone what it is?”

“Because it’s not mine to tell,” Theo answers, and has to hold back a wince at the flood of guilt that snarls up his gut. It hadn’t been his right when he’d invaded the gravesites that Corey had made for Josh and Tracy, either, and he’d still done it; refusing to tell Liam or the Sheriff about it post-hoc doesn’t do shit to fix that, “Look, I’d tell you if you needed to know. If anyone needed to know. I swear.”

He must actually be succeeding at looking—or smelling—as honest as he feels, because after another long few seconds Liam nods. His still got his hands wrapped around the ends of the towel around his neck and he swings them idly, seemingly a little lost now that he’s essentially trapped himself in with Theo in the guest bedroom by closing the door. Warily, Theo reaches out with his senses and tests his scent, but before he can get much of anything useful, Liam makes a face at him.

“It’s a little creepy when you do that,” He says pointedly.

Theo jerks and feels himself color, but throwing Theo off-balance seems to help settle Liam and he grins, takes a few steps forward until he can spin on his heel and fall backwards onto his back on the guest bed just inches from Theo’s left hip. Once prone, he tips his head to meet Theo’s eyes and grins again.

“How pissed was my mom?” He asks, not even trying to hide his amusement at Theo’s expense.

“She wasn’t, really,” Theo answers quietly, “Just worried, I think.”

Either his mother’s concern or Theo’s muted reaction must penetrate through Liam’s schadenfreude because his snarky smile falls off his face, “Oh.”

“I told her I’d text her, next time,” Theo finds himself confessing; Liam must be a little surprised by the admission, too, because his brow furrows.

But after a beat he just shrugs, “Good, you should do that. She was starting to get mad at me, I think, for not knowing where you were.”

Theo just rolls his eyes in response and then, after a second’s hesitation, lets himself fall back flat next to Liam as well. They lay side by side in silence for a long minute, and then the question that had been burning at Theo since he first saw Corey at Josh’s and Tracy’s graves becomes overwhelming.

He knows better than to approach it head-on, though, so he tilts his head to look at Liam and asks, “What were you doing home for dinner, anyway? I thought you, Mason, and Corey had plans.”

Theo actually has no idea if that’s true, but it’s true often enough that it’d be a reasonable assumption for him to make. But Liam just shrugs best he can while lying flat and then turns his head so that he can meet Theo’s gaze.

“Nah, Corey had some thing so Mason went out to dinner with his parents,” He answers, apparently buying Theo’s casual curiosity.

“‘Some thing’?” Theo repeats skeptically, but mentally he can feel his instincts snap taut, “What thing?”

But Liam just makes a face, “How should I know? Mason says he does this sometimes, goes to visit some friends out of town, I think.”

Some friends out of town; Theo repeats silently, and has to resist the urge to curl inwards around the starburst of pain that radiates out from his ribcage as he does. Good for Corey: the truth was the best kind of lie, after all.

His scent must do something dramatic as he thinks this, because Liam turns onto his side so that he can prop himself up and peer intensely down at Theo, “Okay, what the hell is going on with you? Your scent just did it again.”

What a time for you to discover your sense of smell, Theo snarks mentally, vaguely and—admittedly—unfairly irritated, “Nothing. I’m fine.” But then he can’t help himself, even setting aside Liam’s absolutely unconvinced expression, “He really hasn’t told you or Mason where he goes?” He presses, trying to sound only idly interested but knowing that he sounds desperately invested.

“No, he hasn’t,” Liam answers acidically, “And way to make us sound freakishly codependent, by the way.”

“You are freakishly codependent,” Theo replies automatically, but his mind is whirring away as it slots this newest piece of information into place; Corey hadn’t told Mason, or Liam, what he’d done.

He hadn’t told them that he’d retrieved Josh’s and Tracy’s bodies from the sewers where Theo had left them to rot and buried them in as beautiful—as meaningful—of graves as he could manage for the two outcasts. Theo has to close his eyes against the rush of shame and self-loathing that cascades over him, his teeth gritting and his eyes starting to burn. When he opens them again, Liam is staring down at him and his concern is written all over his face.

But he must remember what Theo had claimed earlier—it isn’t mine to tell—because he doesn’t push it.

Instead, after a few seconds, he meets Theo’s eyes, expression and voice gone uncharacteristically solemn as he double-checks, “You’d tell me if I needed to know? If we needed to know?”

Theo bites his lip as he looks up at him, and then he nods carefully, “I would. I swear.”

Liam searches his face for a few beats longer, and then he flashes Theo a quick, muted smile, “Okay.”

Then he crunches himself upwards and scoots forward until he can push himself up off the bed, stand. Theo watches him go, ignoring the pinch of loss that he feels as Liam’s heat disappears from his side; his chest’s already such a roiling mess of guilt and shame and a half-dozen other barbed emotions that it almost doesn’t register.

It almost feels deserved.

“I’ve got to finish studying for my history test,” Liam tells Theo, who swallows and nods in acknowledgement, still flat on his back, “I guess I’ll...see you tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Theo echoes quietly.

Liam hesitates, lip once more between his teeth, before he spins on his heel and heads for the door. Theo stares after him, Liam leaving the door half-open behind him, and then he brings his arms up and drops them over his head, his face hidden in the crooks of his elbows.

He stays like that for a few deep, shuddering breaths. He stays like that for a long time.

---

Hours later, with the rest of the Geyer-Dunbar household silent in sleep, Theo lays on his back under the covers on the guest bed and plays a game with himself, trying to see how long he can count the heartbeats of Liam or Mrs. Geyer or Dr. Geyer—back from the hospital around two that morning—before he loses track. His record so far had been Liam’s; he’d managed about two hundred before a dog had barked down the street and Theo’s concentration had broken.

Even closed, his eyes still feel gritty and dry, every muscle in his body heavy with exhaustion. But he hadn’t been able to fall asleep, had known even before he’d finally forced himself to get up some time after Liam had left, run through his nightly routine on autopilot and climb under the comforter that he wouldn’t be able to; he keeps seeing Tracy’s and Josh’s headstones, keeps seeing Corey kneeling before them, head bowed and his scent suffocating in its grief.

And so this is the best he’s got: counting heartbeats.

He’s tracking Mrs. Geyer’s and is up around forty-five when he stops, his hazy mind clearing instantly as his senses tag Liam’s scent suddenly tanking, his heartbeat suddenly racing. Nightmare, Theo realizes; he’d gotten used to recognizing the signs over the past few weeks, Liam’s distress sometimes pulling him from his own uneasy sleep. Theo tips his head towards Liam a handful of walls away, listening to Liam’s quick, shallow breathing.

Theo follows the signs of Liam’s nightmare, waiting for it to end, for Liam’s scent and pulse and breathing to even back out. After half a minute or so, though, all three are still elevated, and Theo can’t take it anymore; he climbs carefully out of bed, then pads on quiet feet towards Liam’s room. But when he reaches the doorway, left cracked, he hesitates. Then Liam inhales sharply, his breath hitching, his scent spiking with fear, and Theo finds himself already moving, pushing the door gently open as he moves forward until he’s standing by Liam’s bed; Liam’s expression is twisted with distress, his hands white-knuckled around his sheets, his eyes moving rapidly behind his eyelids.

Carefully, aware that there’s a non-zero chance that Liam comes out of the nightmare clawed and swinging, Theo leans down until he can get a hand on Liam’s shoulder, shake him gently as he whispers hoarsely, “Liam, wake up.”

Liam startles awake, hands jerking free of his sheets and his eyes snapping open, but to Theo’s surprise he doesn’t shift or otherwise react, just blinks a few times and then squints up at Theo, clearly confused, “Theo?”

His voice is raspy with sleep, his tone burring on Theo’s name, and Theo feels it in his bones, in the stiff, tense muscles of his shoulders; he takes his hand back and straightens but doesn’t step away from the bed, “You were having a nightmare.”

“Oh,” Liam croaks, letting his head drop back to his pillow, and Theo’s a little caught by Liam’s instant and unconditional acceptance of Theo’s explanation for what Theo is doing in Liam’s bedroom at such an unholy hour of the morning. Liam frowns slightly at the ceiling, then adds, “I think I was dreaming about the hit-and-run.”

Theo winces, remembering his and Liam’s confrontation at the station over that exact tragedy, but Liam just sighs and lets himself sink further into the mattress. His scent starts to level back out after a few long seconds, the sour note from his nightmare dissipating, his heartbeat starting to slow back towards sleep as he blinks slowly in the dim light from the window, so Theo bites his lip and prepares to turn around, head back to the guest bedroom. But a gentle pressure on his wrist stops him; when Theo looks down, he sees that Liam had tugged a hand free of his sheets and snagged Theo’s wrist as Theo had turned to go.

“You too?” He asks sleepily. He must then catch Theo’s brow furrowing, because he clarifies, “You having nightmares, too?”

Theo just stares at him, thrown, “What makes you say that?”

But Liam just grins at him, still half-asleep and his expression blown open because of it, none of his usual walls in place; he reaches up with his free hand to clumsily tap his own nose as he says, “Dude, werewolf,” cheekily and with absolutely no sense of irony.

Theo thinks of all the times that Liam has completely missed some obvious biological signal and has to resist rolling his eyes. As it is, all he feels is an overwhelming surge of fondness, the swell of it pushing some of his shame, his grief, back. And maybe it’s that, that sudden hollowed-out sense of relief that Liam’s easy manner creates, replacing the snarling, clawed tangle of Theo’s self-loathing that had taken up residence in his ribcage, that leads Theo to saying what he says next.

“Josh and Tracy,” He tells Liam, their names feeling barbed and stinging sharp in his mouth.

He sees Liam’s brow furrow, the seeming non-sequitur throwing him off. Then his expression clears as he connects Theo’s confession with his earlier question—you having nightmares, too?—and he murmurs, “Oh,” soft and surprised and clearly at a loss for what to say.

But somehow that helps, too, and Theo just quirks him a tired smile, twists his wrist—still held loosely in Liam’s hand—so that he can gently break Liam’s grip, take hold of Liam’s hand in turn and place it gently back on the bed, “You should go back to sleep, you’ve got that test in a few hours.”

Liam nods, and while there’s a thin thread of concern woven through his scent, now, it’s clear that—unless Theo pushes it—his exhaustion is going to win out. So Theo returns his nod and then turns for the door, is almost through it when Liam says his name quietly.

Theo glances back at him over his shoulder, “Yeah?”

“Thanks for waking me up,” Liam tells him softly.

Theo studies him for a beat and then just says, meaning it more than Liam probably realizes; more, really, than Theo had realized before the words had left his mouth, “You’re welcome.”

He heads back to the guest bedroom and climbs back into bed, resettles under the covers and stares up at the night-dark ceiling. The tearing mass of emotions in his chest has subsided, some, replaced by the quiet sense memory of Liam’s hand on his wrist, but Theo still doubts he’ll be able to fall asleep. So instead he just closes his eyes and refocuses on Liam’s heartbeat—gone slow and steady, Liam already back asleep—and starts to count.

He jerks awake some time later and blinks at the ceiling, shocked as he realizes that he’d actually managed to fall asleep. Then his instincts flare again and he realizes what had woken him up, feels his chest twist when he catches the sound of Liam’s galloping heartbeat, when he smells Liam’s sour, fear-drenched scent.

Grimacing, Theo rolls over so that he’s facing towards Liam’s room. He’s not sure what to do. His immediate instinct is to go wake Liam up again, but clearly it’s a bad night for nightmares, and chances are if he does, Liam will just wind up in the throes of another one later. Maybe letting him sleep through them—as distressing as Liam’s distress is to Theo—would ultimately be better.

Then Liam gives a muted, wounded cry, and Theo hears him breathe out no, please, so quietly that it’s almost inaudible.

Theo is up and out of bed and halfway to Liam’s room before he even fully registers that he’s moved. He pauses in the middle of the hallway, a little embarrassed at his own reaction even though there’s no one around to call him on it, and then Liam gives another small cry. Gritting his teeth, Theo shoves aside his own discomfort and starts moving again.

Liam is flat on his back and twitching restlessly when Theo steps into the room, one hand clenched tightly in the sheet over his chest, a low, lupine whimper issuing from his throat. The sound hooks into Theo’s chest and yanks, and Theo quickens his pace some, suddenly desperate to silence it. But a few steps from Liam’s bed, the whimper cuts off, Liam’s tight expression and tight shoulders losing their tension.

Theo draws up short, caught off-guard by Liam’s sudden relaxation. The nightmare’s quick end means that Theo is left in the middle of Liam’s room without good reason, and his face flames as he contemplates his own overreaction. Swearing silently at himself, he turns to leave, determined now to return to the guest bedroom and stay there. But he only makes it a few feet before Liam’s breath hitches again and his heartbeat—which had started to slow—picks right back up.

Theo freezes, baffled, and pivots some on his heel to look back at Liam. He’d turned towards Theo at some point after Theo had spun around to leave, and his expression is once more pinched.

Worst of all, he starts to whimper again, low and lupine and awful.

“What the hell, Liam,” Theo mutters quietly, but there’s no heat in it.

Uncertain and still flush with lingering embarrassment, but with a theory pricking at the back of his mind—skeptical as he is of it—Theo takes a few slow steps toward Liam, his senses tuned to the slightest changes in Liam’s scent and his heartbeat and the tight, unhappy expression on his face. Once Theo gets near enough to be within arm’s reach of the bed, Liam suddenly heaves in a huge gasp of air, then lets it out as a one gusty breath, and the tension just melts from his frame as he does it, just disappears; his scent clears and his pulse slows and the frown between his brows smooths out.

Dumbstruck, Theo stops and stands by the side of Liam’s bed and just stares down at him. Liam just snuffles some and shifts some to roll over onto his side, the covers falling down to his waist and revealing his t-shirt-clad back. Theo stares at the vulnerable stretch of Liam’s spine, the easy way his shoulders rise and fall as Theo stands over him, and has to swallow back a sudden surge of desperate, choking emotion.

He stands there for a long few minutes, just listening to Liam’s easy breathing, his steady heartbeat, and then he closes the last few inches between himself and Liam’s bed so that he can gingerly lower himself to the ground beside it, twist to put his back to Liam’s mattress. Above him, Liam makes a satisfied-sounding huff and the mattress creaks as he settles more firmly against it.

His throat still tight, his chest a confusing tangle of warmth and grief and gratitude and lingering shame, Theo lets his head fall gently back against Liam’s mattress, closes his eyes, and focuses on the steady sound of Liam’s easy breathing just inches away; he just closes his eyes and breathes when Liam does.

---

Mrs. Geyer’s alarm down the hall goes off at six—same time as it always does during the week—and Theo startles awake.

His eyes snap open and he stares at the dawn-lit wall of Liam’s bedroom opposite him, frozen. He takes stock quickly as his brain comes fully back online, his system suddenly flooded with adrenaline as he realizes several things in quick succession: he’s still sat, one leg bent and one leg sprawled out in front of him, with his back to Liam’s mattress; Liam is still fast asleep above him; the door to Liam’s bedroom is still cracked and open to anyone looking in from the hallway; and he’s got about thirty seconds before Mrs. Geyer exits the master bedroom to head downstairs to start her morning pot of coffee.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, Theo swears, and scrambles upright as silently as he can.

Moving as quickly as he can without either waking Liam or alerting Mrs. Geyer to the fact that he spent a not insignificant part of the night in her son’s bedroom, Theo slips out Liam’s bedroom door—leaving it cracked behind him, just like he’d found it last night—and manages to dart back into the guest bedroom and ease it carefully shut behind him a few bare seconds before he hears the master bedroom door creak open. Leaning his forehead against the cool wood of the guest bedroom door, Theo listens to the floorboards groan as Mrs. Geyer walks by towards the stairs.

Once he hears her hit the first floor, Theo exhales out the tense breath he’d been holding and lets his shoulders slump, then pushes off the door and backs up a few steps until he feels the mattress hit his knees. The second it does, he lets himself collapse backwards onto his back and brings his hands up to cover his face, groaning quietly.

His whole body is one giant mass of conflicting, contradictory feedback. He feels better rested than he has in weeks, but the inside of his ribcage still feels hollowed-out and numb, and there’s a persistent churn of nausea in his gut, his mind’s eye alternating between his perfect recollection of the way Tracy’s necklace had glinted in the weak afternoon sunlight and the sleepy grin that Liam had given him as he’d tapped his nose and reminded Theo that he’s a werewolf without any irony whatsoever. Groaning quietly, Theo curls his fingers inward so that they’re digging lightly into the thin skin of his forehead, his cheeks, wanting—needing—the low, grounding sensation.

But his touch stays light, and his claws stay sheathed.

He spends the next half hour listening to the sounds of the Geyer-Dunbar household waking up, the quiet, easy flow of it helping to settle him some. Mrs. Geyer pours and drinks her first cup of coffee of the day before heading back upstairs to actually begin her morning routine. Dr. Geyer comes awake automatically before seemingly remembering that his on-call surgery last night means that he won’t be due back at the hospital until that night, and he settles back down with a relieved, heartfelt sigh. And Liam—who has to keep his phone with its multiple alarms on the opposite side of his room from his bed—groans dramatically and swears as the first one goes off.

Finally enough time passes that Theo can head downstairs without raising any suspicions, and he scoots off the bed, all at once desperate to be out of the suddenly-close walls of the guest bedroom. He heads out into the hallway and towards the stairs, glancing in at Liam as he does; Liam has one arm and one foot out of the covers, his second alarm screeching merrily away. Snorting to himself, Theo hits the stairs and jogs lightly down them, hangs a quick left and makes a direct line to the coffeemaker.

He’s poured a cup, taken a few deep, fortifying sips of it, and is in the middle of dumping out the old grounds and preparing a new filter for a second pot when Mrs. Geyer walks back in, now freshly showered and dressed for work. She notices him measuring out coffee and smiles appreciatively, squeezes his shoulders briefly as she scoots between him and the island on her way to the fridge.

They spend the next twenty minutes in comfortable silence, Mrs. Geyer bustling around making her breakfast and packing her lunch and Theo sat at the kitchen table blearily drinking his coffee. She’d offered to toast some additional bread for him, and while Theo’s first instinct had been to agree—he’d realized he hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s reuben with the Sheriff after she’d asked—he’d immediately had to turn her down; the second he’d thought of eating, his mind had conjured up a perfect sense memory of how it’d felt to bury his claws in Josh’s stomach, and his gut had rolled so hard and so fast that he’d had to focus on not being immediately sick, his mouth flooding with saliva. Even fifteen minutes later, he still has to drink his coffee gingerly, in small sips, his stomach occasionally twisting unpleasantly.

Ten minutes later and the quiet of the kitchen is broken by Liam thundering down the stairs and then into the room; Mrs. Geyer and Theo wind up looking at him and then at each other in perfectly timed exasperation, and Theo has to bite back an amused grin. Mrs. Geyer must see it regardless because her eyes crinkle.

In the next instant, though, she has to raise her arm with an irritated hey! as her son tries to dart between her and the counter on his way to the coffeemaker and mostly just ends up nearly catching a butter knife slathered with raspberry jelly across the face. Liam apologizes absently and finishes retrieving a cup of coffee, then scoots around the other side of the island to come join Theo at the table.

Mrs. Geyer rolls her eyes and returns to spreading jelly across her plateful of toast. Then something seems to occur to her and she stops, leans back some so she can look first at the clock on the microwave, then at Liam, eyebrows raised.

“I think it’s a miracle,” She announces, then adds, “Quick, Theo, check outside for flying pigs, Liam is awake on time for school.”

“That or locusts,” Theo finds himself bantering back automatically, a little helplessly, even with his unsettled stomach; his unsettled everything, “I think I read somewhere that that’s a sign of the apocalypse.”

“Ha, ha,” Liam intones dryly, shoving at the side of Theo’s head, Theo making a half-assed and mostly-unsuccessful effort to lean out of the way, “What a bunch of comedians.”

“Seriously, though,” Mrs. Geyer presses, “You go to bed early or something?”

Liam just shrugs, “Not really. I think I just slept well. Feels like it, anyway.”

Theo freezes, but Liam isn’t looking at him, instead focused on his coffee, on asking his mom to throw some more bread in the toaster in what could charitably be called a request but is really more of a whine. Jaw working, Theo picks up his coffee as an attempted distraction and takes another drink, bracing himself for the expected jolt of nausea. But it doesn’t come, his stomach finally starting to settle, and Theo lowers his cup, stares at it in surprise.

He’s caught up enough in that thought that he misses a few minutes of conversation, and doesn’t jerk out of it until Mrs. Geyer slides a plate of toast and then a jar of jelly and a knife in front of her son. Liam thanks her and starts putting jelly on a slice as she returns to the island, and Theo watches his hands work for a few moments, which Liam apparently interprets as Theo wanting some, because he holds out the now-jellied slice towards him with a small grin.

Theo hesitates, but only for a moment, and then he accepts it with a quiet thanks.

Liam just leans over to bump their shoulders companionably and keeps topping his toast, talking with his mother. Theo takes a tentative bite, and then another when his stomach doesn’t protest. In practically no time at all he’s eaten the whole slice, and Liam is nudging the plate of toast so that it’s between them, his mouth already stuffed with a piece. Theo makes a face at the visual—which Liam just returns—but he takes another slice and starts in on it, joins in the conversation between Liam and his mom when Mrs. Geyer asks him an idle, easy question.

Finally Liam stands, brushing off crumbs from his jeans as he does, “I better head out.” The he stops and peers at Theo, “You heading back to the station today?”

“That was my plan, yeah,” Theo answers, now a little wary.

Liam just rolls his eyes at Theo’s apparently obvious suspicion, but out loud he just says, “See if the Sheriff will let you off early so you can come to the game tonight, okay? We’re playing Devenford.”

Theo catches the way Liam flinches slightly as he says the name, remembers him last night murmuring, I think I was dreaming about the hit-and-run while his distress faded slowly, slowly from his scent.

“Okay,” He agrees quietly, and Liam beams, claps him on the shoulder as he bounds towards the stairs to retrieve his backpack.

When he drops his gaze away from where he’d been following Liam, Mrs. Geyer is smiling at him, “If you do wind up able to make it, come find me and David. We usually sit with Melissa, and she’s got some secret hot chocolate recipe that she brings to share. No clue what she puts in it, but it’s addictive. I’ll save you some.”

Then she finishes throwing her lunch bag strap over her shoulder and snags her keys—holding them up and jangling them briefly, triumphantly, to show Theo that she’s capable of finding them without his help—and heads for the garage door and her car with one last have a good day, thrown over her shoulder. Theo echoes it, following it with his senses as she gets into her car, opens the garage and starts off. A handful of seconds later Liam comes clattering back down the stairs, yelling out see you tonight as he darts out the front door to his beat-up old SUV parked on the street.

It leaves Theo sitting alone at the table in the quiet house, no sound but that of Dr. Geyer upstairs breathing deeply in his sleep. Theo taps his fingers against the side of his coffee cup, glances down at the crumbs left on his and Liam’s shared plate of toast, and then he stands and forces himself to start his day.

---

The Monday after Thanksgiving, Theo is in the middle of shoving the last of the truly absurd amount of shit he’s started carting around with him daily into his backpack, preparing to head out to the Preserve for an early-morning patrol of it, when he catches the distinctive, asthmatic rumble of the Sheriff’s cruiser turning onto the Geyers’ street, and he freezes.

His first, immediate thought—unbidden and entirely instinctive—is that the Sheriff woke up this morning out of whatever post-adrenaline fugue he’s been in since the McCall pack survived the dynamic duo of Monroe and the Anuk-ite and remembered how he actually feels—how everyone in Beacon Hills should feel—about Theo, and is here to arrest him. Or, more likely: to drag him back to Noshiko Yukimura for a return trip to the skinwalkers, Kira’s broken sword notwithstanding.

The thought passes—though not without some mental shoving—and Theo sets his backpack down with a furrowed brow, starts heading towards the stairs just as he hears the cruiser’s engine stop in the Geyers’ driveway, the car door slam as the Sheriff steps out. The Sheriff still beats him to the front door, knocking with what Liam calls his ‘law enforcement knock’—loud and unmistakable—and Mrs. Geyer pulls it open just as Theo hits the main landing.

“Sheriff, good morning,” Mrs. Geyer greets, coffee cup in hand, “Well. This is a somewhat alarming surprise.”

“Noah, please, Jenna,” The Sheriff answers with a sympathetic smile, “And sorry for the housecall, but I need to borrow Theo for the day.”

“What’s going on?” Theo asks, coming to stand next to Mrs. Geyer in the doorway; he’d talked to the Sheriff last night about his plans to run the Preserve this morning, so the Sheriff showing up in-person to request his company implies all sorts of unsavory things.

“Agent McCall called. There was a new development late last night, so he’s having all the various departments and offices working the Monroe case come to San Francisco to compare notes. We need to get on the road if we’re going to make it on time,” The Sheriff answers, his explanation overly-casual—likely for the sake of Mrs. Geyer, looking on curiously—and completely out of step with his hoarse voice and his tired, bloodshot eyes.

‘A new development,’ Theo repeats silently, mentally wincing: well shit. From the pinched, unhappy expression on the Sheriff’s face, it’d been bad, too, whatever it was. But one thing still doesn’t make sense.

“Since when does ‘we’ include me? Why aren’t you taking Parrish?” Theo demands cautiously, curious and a little wary.

Setting aside the fact that the Sheriff and Parrish know all the same things Theo does about the hunt for Monroe from their near-daily check-ins, the fact remains that Theo has some reservations about walking into a mass of law enforcement professionals. While he may have become something of a fixture to the Beacon County Sheriff’s Office, a known and therefore essentially harmless quantity, Theo spent years with the Dread Doctors; Beacon Hills isn’t the only town in which he’d left a trail of bodies.

But the Sheriff just gives him a dry—if knowing—look, “Parrish isn’t the one with first-hand knowledge of the various pieces of evidence you’ve tracked down. This is what happens when you make yourself the subject matter expert on a given topic, Theo: people want to consult you as an expert on said subject matter. Congratulations. Now grab your stuff and let’s go. We’re going to be gone most of the day.”

Theo hesitates for a half-second, maybe prepared to press the point, and then he gives the Sheriff a jerky nod—and Mrs. Geyer a quick, reassuring half-smile—and turns to head back up the stairs. He can hear Mrs. Geyer and the Sheriff pick up an idle conversation as he goes, Mrs. Geyer asking after Stiles and the Sheriff’s voice taking on an exasperated but proud tone as he answers. Theo follows it absently as he passes Liam’s empty room—Liam gone to an early lacrosse practice, to his continued and vocal irritation—and steps back into the guest bedroom, stops in front of the bed.

Once there, though, he pauses again. He’d managed to jam his laptop and most of the random papers and DVDs of surveillance footage he’d been combing through last night back into his backpack before the Sheriff’s arrival had interrupted his packing, but the two small, tissue-wrapped items he’d been just about to load are still sitting innocuously next to his half-zipped bag. Unthinkingly, Theo reaches out and runs feather-light fingertips across the tops of them, his chest twisting in a way that’s become familiar enough over the past couple of weeks that the sensation is almost welcome; a comfort.

They’d been impulse buys, both of them. He’d been at the mall with Mrs. Geyer as the only other member of the current Geyer-Dunbar household willing to brave the post-Thanksgiving crowds with her, Liam and Dr. Geyer choosing instead to stay prone on the couch and loveseat respectively in their pajamas with Tupperware containers full of leftovers and ESPN on low. Mrs. Geyer had left Theo outside Pottery Barn an hour into their excursion with their previous purchases and a knowing smirk as she’d headed in to buy her mother-in-law’s Christmas gift, and Theo had spotted the first of the two out of the corner of his eye.

It’d been sitting on the shelf of one of those pop-up, kitschy gift stands that all malls seem to acquire like fungi over the holiday season; a chunk of purple quartz that had been the exact shade of Josh’s lightening when he’d used his powers. Seeing it had been like getting slammed directly in the solar plexus by some supernatural force—a feeling not unfamiliar to Theo—and Theo had had to hunch over the core of himself for a long minute while he waited for the pain to subside, for his hitching breaths to even out. They had, finally, and had luckily done so before Mrs. Geyer had returned, arms laden with oversized bags.

Every fiber of his being had wanted to grab the quartz there and then, but some skittish, animal part of himself had kept him from doing it; he’d waited instead until they’d made it through a few more stores and then excused himself to the ‘bathroom’ and returned to the cart. The quartz had still been there and Theo had purchased it with shaking fingers from the thankfully-disinterested teen attending the stand, had taken it and tucked it away in his jacket pocket where it’d sat, heavy and sharp-edged and nearly feeling like it’d been burning-hot, same as Josh had been whenever Theo had laid on a hand on him; in violence or otherwise.

He’d been on his way back to where Mrs. Geyer had agreed to wait for him when the pendant had caught his eye, its opalescent shimmer in the over-bright fluorescent lights of the mall catching just like Tracy’s kanima scales used to, even in the dirty, dull glow of the Dread Doctors’ operating theater. Theo had been better prepared for the sudden shock of feeling that time and had managed to shudder his way through it, had caused only a minor traffic jam when he’d suddenly darted across the hall towards the small jewelry shop. His hands had been steady when he’d traded his money for the pendant, but only barely.

Mrs. Geyer had looked up at him from where she’d been absently scrolling through her phone when he’d finally returned, and while Theo had been expecting irritation or at the very least an inquiry—he’d been gone way too long for a bathroom stop, crowded conditions notwithstanding—she’d merely smiled and asked if he was hungry. They’d ended up splitting a plate of nachos at one of the mall’s Tex-Mex restaurants—Mrs. Geyer taking great glee in sending a picture of the frankly gargantuan platter to her husband and son, Theo desperately trying to swallow back a laugh in the background—before wrapping up the rest of their shopping and heading home.

Theo had spent the entirety of the ride trading easy, idle conversation with Mrs. Geyer, his hands inside his jacket pockets and his fingers wrapped carefully around Josh’s quartz, Tracy’s opalescent pendant; he’d spent the entirety of the ride with his mind wrapped protectively around the flare of warmth that the strangely domestic and strangely satisfying trip had set to smoldering in his chest.

Now, Theo exhales out a quiet, disappointed breath and after another moment’s hesitation reaches forward with gentle hands to take hold of the tissue-wrapped totems, place them one by one in his bag; he wouldn’t be able to take them to Josh’s or Tracy’s graves like he’d planned to during his run, but—ridiculous as he knows he’s being—he can’t bear to leave them behind.

“Theo, get the lead out! Traffic is already going to be a nightmare,” The Sheriff suddenly yells from downstairs, breaking Theo’s pensive mood.

“Hold your freaking horses,” Theo shouts back even as he grimaces at himself, finishes zipping up his bag and heads back out into the hallway, “There are such things as phones, you could have called and warned me you needed me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

When he hits the landing Mrs. Geyer has a look on her face like she’s desperately trying not to smirk, and the Sheriff just looks completely unimpressed.

“You really want to talk about which of us is worse at appropriately leveraging phones?” He asks mildly, which, no; now that he’s brought it up, Theo doesn’t.

So Theo just readjusts his backpack on his shoulder and gestures towards himself—now ready and waiting—and then the Sheriff—stood blocking the front door—with a significant expression. The Sheriff just rolls his eyes and ignores Theo momentarily to smile at Mrs. Geyer.

“Sorry again for the interruption, I’ll try and have him back at a reasonable hour,” He tells her.

“I’ll text you,” Theo offers immediately afterwards, quickly and while trying not to color, the Sheriff glancing at him, eyebrows raised.

“Sounds good. Thanks, Theo,” She reaches out and wraps one arm around his shoulders, squeezes him gently; the same absent-minded half-hug she’d started giving him off-and-on after their conversation a few weeks ago post Theo’s accidental eight-hour adventure in the Preserve.

Theo returns it, realizing as he does so that he’s completely failed at not flushing, and then follows the Sheriff out when he bids Mrs. Geyer goodbye and starts heading for his cruiser, Mrs. Geyer closing the door behind them. He circles around to the passenger side and opens the door, then pauses, noticing the case file sitting on the seat, knows instantly that it’s not there by accident. Shrugging out of his backpack, Theo swings it gently—his mind on the quartz and pendant tucked inside—into the footwell and snags the file as he ducks into the car and shuts the door behind him, the Sheriff doing the same seconds later.

“Read that,” The Sheriff orders when he sees what’s in Theo’s hands, attention only half on Theo as he starts the car, twists around so he can see as he backs out of the Geyers’ driveway.

“What is it?” Theo asks, not arguing, just curious; he’s already flipping the file open, skimming over the pages quickly to get a basic idea of its contents before turning back to the beginning.

“Preliminary case file on a triple homicide that happened up in Siskiyou County Friday night,” The Sheriff answers; something in his tone causes Theo to pause, and then he flips back to the beginning of the file, starts again with a new intuition at the fore of his mind.

“They were werewolves,” Theo realizes, even before he gets to multiple gunshot wounds and abnormally high levels of unknown toxin, which Theo knows instantly and without question is wolfsbane; the poor bastards had been shot full of wolfsbane, “Monroe went after an entire pack?”

“A four-person pack, yeah,” The Sheriff answers, sounding grimly conflicted about the necessary implication of that fact; someone survived.

Theo glances at the side of his face—the parts of it that Theo can see twisted unhappily—and then back down at the file, skims through it until he gets to the part that he was expecting; one of the victims had significantly more gunshot wounds than the others. Shit, Theo thinks, already having an inkling of where this story is heading.

“What happened to the new alpha?” Theo asks reluctantly, a little surprised at his own instant, overwhelming desire not to know; this type of tragedy—all too common in the supernatural world, and not infrequently inflicted by Theo himself in his previous life—never used to bother him.

If the Sheriff is surprised by Theo’s insight or catches his discomfort, he doesn’t show it, “He managed to get away from Monroe and her hunters, but…” He hesitates, sighing, and takes one hand off the steering wheel to rub at the deep lines furrowing his brow, “He was killed by another pack early this morning. He’d...gone insane, I guess. Argent said it can happen sometimes when werewolves become alphas upon the entire loss of their packs.”

“It can,” Theo confirms neutrally, and this time he has to force his voice to stay steady and detached in the face of a sudden rush of unwanted memory; the Dread Doctors had pretty thoroughly... documented that phenomenon, once upon a time.

Theo can feel it when the Sheriff glances over at him but he keeps his eyes on the file, concentrates on keeping his grip on the edge of it relaxed instead of white-knuckled. After a beat the Sheriff silently turns back to the road.

“Well. This one had already bit a nineteen year-old kid by the time the pack who went after him caught up with him. Apparently he was ranting about the need to create more werewolves, enough for an army to fight back against Monroe and her followers,” The Sheriff continues.

Theo hums to show he’s heard and understood, “What happened to the kid who was bitten?”

“Scott, Argent, Derek and Malia went after him, got to him before Monroe did. They’re with the pack now, working out what to do with him.”

Sounds familiar, Theo nearly says out loud. But he resists the urge; picking that fight—and it would be a fight; they’ve spent too much time in each other’s pockets over the last few weeks for it to be anything else—wouldn’t do either of them any good, and it wouldn’t do shit to settle the low-grade, simmering nausea that takes root in Theo’s gut as he stares at the glossy, clinical spread of the gruesome crime-scene photos. Instead he turns back to the summary at the beginning of the file, his eyes searching for and then fixing on the town where it’d all went down: Dunsmuir.

“Which pack went after the alpha?” Theo questions slowly as he stares down at the name, a tug of intuition hooking into his gut.

“Like it’s official ‘pack’ name? No idea how those work and Argent didn’t say, but he did mention their alpha is a woman named Shohreh,” The Sheriff answers, then starts to add, “Why? Is that—”

But Theo ends up talking over him, “The Yreka pack.”

“—relevant?” The Sheriff stops and turns to look at him straight-on; they’re at the thrice-cursed light on Palmera, so he has the time, “Well. That answers that. Why is that relevant?”

Theo doesn’t answer him right away, since he’s already crunched forward and half in the footwell as he digs in his backpack for one of his cheap fold-out maps, the high-quality, official county versions stored safely at the station. He finds the one he’s looking for and sits back up, spreads it out on top of the case file in his lap and starts running his eyes over it, searching for Dunsmuir. He finds it and marks it with the tip of one finger, leaves it there as he swivels his hand around until he can tap his thumb over Shasta Lake; two inches away on the map, less than an hour away in reality.

He doesn’t realize that he’s lapsed into silence, thoughts racing as he studies the map, the space between his anchored fingers, at least not until the Sheriff snorts out a dry laugh and turns back to the road, starts moving them forward again as the light finally—finally—changes to green.

“Shasta Lake again. What is it with you and Shasta Lake?” The Sheriff wonders aloud as he cuts over two lanes towards the highway, weaving fluidly between cars as the drivers experience the immediate and universal reaction to people noticing cop cars behind them and suddenly slow to a jarring crawl.

Theo looks up and over to frown at him, “What are you talking about, ‘me and Shasta Lake?’”

The Sheriff gives him a look, dry as tinder, and takes a hand off the wheel to point at the badge on his chest; it’s a somehow grown-up version of one of Stiles’ typical gestures and it’s just as irritating, “Sheriff. If I hadn’t noticed you always glancing at that lake when you’re going over the maps, always tapping at it with whatever you’ve got in hand, I’d be an embarrassment to my profession.”

If the Sheriff actually was Stiles, Theo would have something smart—if blatantly untrue—to say to that, but he’s not so Theo doesn’t. Instead he just scowls, but he doesn’t take his hand away from where his thumb is—admittedly—tapping at the cheerful text label scrawled in the middle of Shasta Lake.

“The Yreka pack—Shohreh’s pack—territory includes Shasta Lake as well as Dunsmuir,” He explains, though he’s pretty sure the Sheriff already drew that connection, his urge to needle Theo notwithstanding.

The Sheriff hums an acknowledgement and then ignores Theo briefly as he merges onto the highway, performing an awkward dance with the cars coming on and off as suddenly panicked drivers try to weigh the relative dangers of speeding up to give the Sheriff and his cruiser room behind them or slam on their brakes to give him room in front. Sighing in irritation, the Sheriff smoothly picks his spot and then crosses over a few lanes to the left-most one, starts to pick up speed.

“But the Yreka pack territory wouldn’t include the northeast corner of the Preserve, would it?” The Sheriff asks once he’s settled into the lane and activated cruise control, picking back up on their conversation.

Thrown, Theo turns to squint at him, “What? No, that’s Scott’s territory. The whole Preserve is.” Which you know, Theo thinks, so he adds, wary, “Why?”

“Because I was hoping your obsession with Shasta Lake might explain your obsession with that part of the Preserve,” The Sheriff answers wryly.

Theo’s first instinct is to panic: there’s no way that the Sheriff saying that part of the Preserve is referring to anything other than the section where Theo had stumbled upon Josh’s and Tracy’s graves, and where he’d started returning with clockwork regularity at least once a week, no matter how hard he tried to stay away. His second instinct—and the one that wins out, Theo finding himself in the odd position of blessing his time with the Dread Doctors—is to raise a skeptical eyebrow in the Sheriff’s direction, like he’s not sure if he’s missing something obvious.

“You mean...the section of the Preserve where the hunter camp was?” He replies dubiously.

The Sheriff catches his tone and rolls his eyes, says exasperatedly, “The abandoned hunter camp, yes. Unless there’s something you haven’t told me?”

The panic is still there and clawing mercilessly at Theo’s chest, but ignoring it is almost automatic, second-nature; if Theo hadn’t learned how to lie perfectly and without any noticeable effort, after all, he’d have been murdered by the Dread Doctors—or a member of the McCall pack—long before this moment. So Theo just rolls his eyes right back, regardless of the fact that the Sheriff has his eyes on the road and isn’t looking at him.

“I haven’t found another, but I figured it’d be a good idea to keep a pretty close eye out. Unless you want another hunter camp to pop up?” Theo answers, and then he puts a certain amount of faux-brightness in his voice as he adds, “I thought that was something you and Scott wanted to avoid, but I’m willing to change my behavior for the health and comfort of the McCall pack psyche.”

The Sheriff huffs out an unimpressed breath, then reminds him mercilessly, “You went from running the Preserve maybe once every two weeks to running it at least twice a week, minimum. And it all started after I asked you to check out the northeast section.”

“It all started after I found a hunter camp that we’d all missed for weeks,” Theo counters doggedly.

“Which requires you to spend hours in a nearly untouched section of the Preserve, most of which is an hour away from any of the major highways Monroe or her people would need to stick close to in case they needed to leave in a hurry?” The Sheriff responds just as insistently.

Theo feels another flare of panic in his chest—how in the hell did the Sheriff know that?—but he forcefully redirects it into a sort of righteous indignation, turns to look at the Sheriff through narrowed eyes, “Are you...tracking my phone?”

The Sheriff throws up his hands, briefly letting go of the wheel, and repeats, “Sheriff, Theo. I’m the Sheriff. I didn’t buy this outfit at a costume shop.”

Theo’s running out of things to say that aren’t just stubbornly insisting that he’s—rightfully—worried about another hunter cap popping up. But as he’s racking his brain, trying to come up with some winning explanation, some innocuous reason that would explain away his habit of disappearing into the woods for hours on end to go sit silently at Josh’s and Tracy’s graves, the Sheriff suddenly sighs.

“Does whatever you’re doing have anything to do with Monroe or her followers?” He asks bluntly.

“No,” Theo answers after a beat, a cautious sort of hope starting to battle with the panic in his chest.

“Is it going to put anyone in the pack, or anyone in Beacon Hills, in any danger?” The Sheriff continues relentlessly.

Besides me? Theo thinks silently, with a rash of sudden and admittedly undeserved self-pity; stepping into that clearing and seeing Josh’s and Tracy’s headstones, occasionally scenting Corey’s lingering grief clinging stubbornly to the leaves and stones—like Corey had been running reverent fingers over them, unintentionally marking them—has been and continues to be one of the most painful experiences of Theo’s life, after all. But out loud he just says:

“No.”

The Sheriff considers this for a few moments, his jaw working; Theo watches him silently, fear and hope grappling in his chest. Finally the Sheriff inhales a slow, deep breath, then exhales it out in a steady stream through his nose.

“Okay,” He says finally, and Theo stares at him, taken aback; he thinks, unbidden, of Liam saying the exact same thing weeks ago, in response to this same conversation.

Then he thinks of his own barbed thought sitting in front of Josh’s and Tracy’s graves that first time—why did you ever trust me?—and has to turn away towards the window, blink suddenly hot eyes. For a moment the truth burns on the tip of tongue, ignited by the unexpected faith inherent in the Sheriff’s quiet response, the way his scent loses its temporarily hot edge and settles, but the fact of the matter is that Theo would die before he ever told anyone where to find Josh’s or Tracy’s graves: that’s Corey’s secret to tell, or not tell, and Theo had already done him enough damage to last a lifetime.

So instead he swallows past his tight throat, finds himself confessing, just like he’d confessed to Liam weeks ago, “I’d tell you. If it was something you needed to know about, I’d tell you.”

The Sheriff glances away from the long stretch of highway, from the surrealist smear of the obnoxious California traffic against the background of bland brick buildings and snow-capped mountains, and meets Theo’s eyes. Theo doesn’t know what his expression is doing—all of his focus is on keeping the riot of feelings in his chest from clawing its way out of his ribcage—but the Sheriff must see something there, something he trusts, because he says:

“Strange as it sounds, kid—I believe you.”

Then he turns back to the road, breaking their stare, and Theo has to swallow against the sudden swell of something in his throat. He drops his gaze back down to the fold-out map in his lap, the case file underneath it, and takes a few deep, unsteady breaths. He realizes that his thumb is still covering Shasta Lake—still focused on it, just like the Sheriff noticed he always is—and he runs a finger gently over the jagged stretch of blue.

“About the lake,” Theo starts, his voice a little helplessly ragged, “I don’t know if it’s anything. It’s just...a hunch.”

The Sheriff taps his thumbs against the top of the steering wheel thoughtfully. Then he glances at Theo briefly and grins—a little strained, a little forced, because he knows just as well as Theo what kind of bullet they both just dodged—but there all the same.

“Welcome to police work, Theo.” He finally tells him, voice dry as the desert, and then he says, “Well, we’ve got almost three hours to kill. Walk me through it.”

And Theo, after another half-second of hesitation; Theo does.

---

Agent McCall’s emergency, where-in-the-great-state-of-California-is-Tamara-Monroe confab starts off swimmingly three hours later when Theo walks into the conference room behind the Sheriff and a Trinity County deputy takes one look at him and says, “You’ve got to be kidding. This is Stilinski’s ‘consultant?’ He looks twelve.”

Theo opens his mouth, ready to ask something particularly incisive about why, exactly, the deputy is spending so much time around twelve year-olds to be able to make that assessment, when Agent McCall—probably fortuitously—cuts in.

“Considering Theo’s the one who compiled all that data you’ve been salivating over, Wilmot, no, no one is kidding,” He answers caustically, looking pointedly at the mess of papers and maps spread out in front of apparently-Deputy Wilmot, all of which are covered in scrawled notes and streaks of highlighter, “Now, unless anyone else has any other enlightening peanut gallery commentary to add?”

Wilmot gets an expression on his face approximately like Agent McCall just shoved a lemon into his mouth, but he doesn’t say anything else. Theo just barely manages to keep the smirk off his face as he looks away from him, and instead focuses on the FBI agent handing out stacks of documents to each of the officers as they enter the room. He accepts his stack and starts flipping through it, following the Sheriff to an open set of two seats mostly by ear; the room is sizable, but the table takes up the lion’s share, and the air is continuously punctuated by officers muttering sorry and excuse me and the occasional swear as they trip over themselves and each other trying to get to seats.

The meeting starts off well enough with Agent McCall demanding brief updates from the officers of the different departments and offices represented, each providing a detailed overview of activity in their jurisdictions that is either suspected or confirmed to be connected to Monroe, but it doesn’t take long for the inter-office squabbles to start. Anderson PD thinks ending the stakeout at Seven Hills Self-Storage was premature. Deputy Wilmot gets into a sniping match with a Yuba City detective—Wilmot being an equal-opportunity asshole, apparently—about whether a particular robbery of a gun-supply store was perpetrated by Rossler and a handful of Monroe’s other goons. The Plumas County Sheriff’s Office remains convinced that Monroe has set up shop somewhere in their jurisdiction, which a deputy from Lassen County thinks—and Theo agrees—is bullshit.

Too far south, Theo scrawls on his FBI-branded notepad, and tilts it so the Sheriff can see; the Sheriff’s lips twitch and his scent takes on an amused edge, but his otherwise-studious expression doesn’t change.

The only truly interesting break in the chaos is when a Siskiyou County deputy slips into the meeting two hours in and takes one of the only remaining seats up against the room’s back wall. Theo’s head jerks up from where he’d been ignoring the ongoing argument between the Plumas and Lassen deputies to study a set of phone records from Dunsmuir on Friday night, his nostrils flaring; the deputy meets his eyes and gives him a brief, acknowledging nod.

The Sheriff must catch Theo’s sudden interest because he writes what? on his own notepad and tilts it towards Theo. Pulling his notepad towards himself, Theo scrawls WW and tips it towards him. The Sheriff’s eyes narrow and he looks at the deputy consideringly, then drops his gaze back down and adds from Yreka p? underneath his earlier what. Theo nods, impressed that the Sheriff managed to put that together: Theo knew from scent and his encyclopedic—gained for admittedly malignant strategic advantage during his time with the Dread Doctors—of western United States packs, but the Sheriff must have put it together from a combination of Yreka’s location in Siskiyou County and the more-likely-than-not fact that a Siskiyou County werewolf spent last night hunting down the rogue alpha as part of Shohreh’s pack. The Sheriff gives him a dry look like he knows what Theo’s thinking—which causes Theo to smirk—but doesn’t say anything.

“Deputy McPherson, we’ve been waiting for you,” Agent McCall interrupts the continuing—and now circular—argument to say, “Does your office have an update on the location and status of the fourth Dunsmuir victim?”

“We do,” The Siskiyou County deputy—McPherson—replies, voice low and even and a quietly forceful sort of commanding; the room immediately goes silent. If Theo didn’t already know he was one of Shohreh’s lieutenants, he would now, “Unfortunately, it appears in the victim’s desperation to get away from his attackers, he headed into the woods and stumbled across some kind of animal. The body is with our coroner, we’re hoping to identify what kind soon.”

I’d put money on wolves, Theo thinks, watching McPherson silently as the room breaks out into unhappy murmurs and creaking furniture as the officers around the table all trade looks; even with the slightly gamey smell of a room packed with too many bodies and McPherson’s own scent, Theo can still catch the sharp bite of blood. McPherson meets Theo’s eyes calmly, and after a beat Theo returns his earlier nod; the killing of the rogue alpha may have been necessary, but the lesser of two evils is still, by definition, an unfortunate evil. After a moment McPherson’s eyes bleed briefly gold; an acknowledgement and an acceptance.

Oblivious to this byplay, Agent McCall exhales out a heavy, disappointed breath—impressively genuine, considering he already knew the rogue alpha had been killed, and why—and says, “Understood. Make sure Agent Buerle gets a copy of the coroner’s report as soon as it’s available, she’ll make sure it gets distributed to everyone.” Then he turns back to the rest of the room and adds, “Moving on. Redding PD—your preliminary report from Friday night said you thought Monroe and her people headed your way after the attack. Did you manage to confirm whether that was the case?”

Three hours later, Theo is in the hallway outside of the conference room, sat on a bench with his eyes closed and his head tipped back against the wall. Agent McCall had finally called a break around hour five, interrupting the room’s well-meaning if slightly overbearing interrogation of Theo regarding the data he’d collected. He’d been able to answer all of their questions—though he’d obviously had to fudge his collection methods, since saying I know they were at that place on that date because I smelled them there wouldn’t exactly fly—but by the time Agent McCall had released the room to go claim their shitty, government-tab catered sandwiches and burnt coffee, Theo had been only too happy to get out of the stifled air of the room.

Now, his plate of leftover limp pieces of shredded lettuce and smears of mustard beside him, Theo idly listens to the noise of the other officers moving around the floor, occasionally talking about Monroe but mostly talking about sports, the upcoming California state law enforcement fair, the apparently-perpetual home improvement project that Officer Lettvin has been ‘just about to finish’ for a year. He keeps one ear tuned to the conversation that Agent McCall, the Sheriff, and McPherson are having in McCall’s closed office on the opposite end of the hallway as McPherson finishes giving them the rest of the details that he couldn’t in front of the full group; Theo had nearly joined them, but Wilmot had been watching, and after trading a knowing look with the Sheriff, Theo had instead gone to claim his current seat on the bench.

He hears the conversation wrap up and Agent McCall’s door open, absently tracks the three men as they split up: McCall gets almost immediately pulled into another conversation with a waiting agent, McPherson’s phone vibrates against his leg and he heads towards a quieter stretch of hallway to answer it, and the Sheriff heads for whatever sad, picked-over leftovers remain of lunch. Theo listens as he grabs another cup of coffee, and only opens his eyes when he realizes the Sheriff’s footsteps and steady heartbeat are headed straight towards him.

The first thing he sees is the generic paper cup that the Sheriff is holding out to him. Theo reaches out for it automatically before he’s had time to register that it smells slightly sweet, which means that it’s sugared, no cream; the way he takes it. Glancing past the cup in surprise, Theo catches the Sheriff taking a drink from his own cup, the straight black scent of it bitterly strong even from where Theo’s sitting.

“Thanks,” Theo tells him after a beat, and takes a sip; the caffeine wouldn’t do anything to push off his creeping exhaustion—thanks a lot, supernatural metabolism—but the sugar helps, some.

The Sheriff nods and then leans down to move Theo’s empty plate even further to the side so that he can sit. He lets out a gusty groan as he does, his free hand coming up to scrub at his face; Agent McCall had called him early that morning after the Yreka pack had found the alpha, and reading between his lines, he hadn’t slept between that call and picking Theo up at the Geyer’s.

“You get all that?” He asks after a few long moments, gaze drifting over the controlled chaos of the hallway and the other officers, studying the room, the people, the general feel of it; a lawman’s irrepressible instincts.

“Yeah,” Theo confirms, then adds, “You think McCall will be able to get anything out of the two hunters the Yreka pack managed to catch?”

“I don’t know,” The Sheriff replies honestly, “I hope so.”

They lapse into silence for a few minutes after that, Theo working his way slowly through his gifted cup of coffee, absently watching the Sheriff out of the corner of his eye as he merely sits, elbows on his knees, his own cup cradled between his hands but practically untouched. Staring at it, there’s a twinge of something that feels a lot like concern in Theo’s chest, but before Theo can do much more than frown thoughtfully at the rough, scarred backs of the Sheriff’s knuckles, the Sheriff speaks.

“You and Corey seem to be doing better,” He says, apropos of absolutely nothing; he glances at Theo after he’s done and his lips quirk, “You didn’t flee the room when he sat down next to you at Thanksgiving, anyway.”

Theo stares at him, dumbstruck. It’s not that he’s wrong—because he’s totally right; Theo hadn’t, in fact, fled the McCall’s living room when Corey had sat down next to him on the couch after dinner, though it’d been an absolutely close call—but Theo had been firmly convinced that no one had picked up on his deliberate habit of making sure Corey never had to spend too much time around him. He’s about to open his mouth, a rote denial on his tongue, when the Sheriff gives him a firm—if amused—warning look.

“I swear to god, kid—you try and tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m putting you on front desk duty at the station for a month,” He promises.

Theo closes his mouth, caught, his jaw working. Then he nods a little to himself and taps a finger against the side of his paperboard cup, “Sheriff, huh?”

“Sheriff,” The Sheriff agrees, eyes crinkling with his smile, “So?”

Theo looks away from him, out into the rest of the hallway; he can see across into another glass-walled conference room, where a handful of FBI agents are huddled at one end of another of the massive tables, all of them bent over a laptop and arguing passionately. For a moment Theo nearly sharpens his hearing, curious in his not-really-reformed-spy way to know what they’re discussing, but it’s a distraction, and a poor one, and he knows it.

“It’s Mason, I think,” He finally answers.

Or, well: Theo hadn’t been able to come up with any other practical explanation for Corey’s behavior in the days since Corey had dropped into a loose-limbed, ungainly sprawl next to Theo on the McCall couch, joining Theo’s, Derek’s, and—shockingly—Stiles’ patently pointless but nonetheless spirited debate on Bond versus Bourne. Thank god Derek and Stiles had been there to effortlessly keep the conversation going after Theo had gone mute in surprise, staring idiotically at the side of Corey’s face, the muscles between his shoulders winching instantly tight. Corey hadn’t looked at him, just kept right on sassing Derek and siding with Stiles—wrongly—about the superiority of Bond, but his scent had been a roiling mess of conflicting emotions.

But the steel-cored thread at the center of it all had been determination, and so Theo—who by that point had developed a laundry-list of practiced excuses for needing to suddenly be somewhere else whenever Corey appeared—had taken a deep breath and jerked his eyes away from Corey’s face, refocused on the conversation. He’d been too tense, his responses too stiff, but he’d forced himself past the painful, barbed ball of something in his chest, past the vivid memory of seeing Corey kneeling before Josh’s and Tracy’s graves, and hadn’t moved.

And Corey—he’d spent the rest of the night there, trading stories and pop-culture trivia with the rotating cast of McCall pack members who’d floated in and out of the living room throughout the evening. He’d spent the rest of the night close enough that Theo’s whole side grew warm from his heat, Corey finally—willingly—in arm’s reach like he hadn’t been for months; like he hadn’t been, truthfully, ever.

Theo had spent a lot of time over the past few days thinking about those few hours.

“It’s some armchair psychology thing, maybe,” Theo adds, several seconds too late but what the hell; clearly there’s no hiding anything from the Sheriff, anyway, “Mason thinking Corey needs to, I don’t know, reconcile himself with the past or something.”

The Sheriff hums thoughtfully, “You don’t think Corey’s doing it on his own initiative? That he’s interested in working things out?”

But Theo just snorts, and if he wasn’t so inured to his own bitterness, the force of it would surprise him. But, well: he is, “No. No, I don’t.”

Then he sighs, and the bitterness drains out of him to leave that same hollow between his ribs that had cracked open wide when he’d found Josh’s and Tracy’s graves, and had only ever temporarily gone away ever since.

“I can’t—I don’t—blame him, either. What I did to him, and to—” Here his voice breaks, humiliatingly, but it’s no more than he deserves, so he continues, “—to Josh and Tracy…” Theo brings one hand up to absently dig at his chest, the pain there cramped just under his sternum, “I’m not sure what I did can be forgiven.”

He has to look away after he’s done speaking, the unforgiving truth of his own confession momentarily overwhelming him. He drops his hand and focuses on the background noise of the hallway, the sound and smell of the officers moving around and through it, the low hum of electronics and the scent of ink and paper, all of it the living, breathing, anthropomorphic manifestation of the hunt for Monroe. Theo thinks about that, and the tissue-wrapped shard of brilliant purple quartz, like Josh’s lightening frozen in stone, and the opalescent pendant, like Tracy’s scales catching the light just right, the both of them tucked safely—reverently—into his backpack, left carefully on his vacated chair in the conference room.

He thinks about the way the Geyer-Dunbar house smells late at night when he can’t sleep, the way that the warm, comforting weight of it had become shot through with his own chimeric scent.

He thinks about all of that, and then he thinks: it’s not a pack, but it’s not nothing.

When he finally looks back at the Sheriff, the hollow in his chest filled in, some, with the fragile bloom of that knowledge, the Sheriff is studying him carefully. His eyes are dark even in the too-bright, fluorescent glare of the hallway, heavy with their own color, and Theo braces for pity, maybe, or even a harsh sort of satisfaction—the Sheriff and Argent had demanded that he stay in Beacon Hills as punishment for his crimes, after all, and what better punishment is there than a person’s own inescapable realization that all their worst hurts are their own, terrible and terribly unchangeable—but what he gets is a quiet sort of understanding.

After a long few seconds of holding Theo’s gaze, the Sheriff exhales softly and looks down at his cup of coffee, undoubtedly gone lukewarm. He knocks it back anyway after a beat and then stands, reaches forward and snags Theo’s empty cup with two fingers and tugs it gently out of Theo’s unresisting grip, stacks it underneath his own. Theo can feel the Sheriff’s gaze burning against the top of his head, but he can’t bring himself to meet it, stares at the dull shine of the badge pinned to his chest, his name stenciled in thin black capitals—STILINSKI—above it instead.

“I’m going to give you a piece of unsolicited advice,” The Sheriff finally says, then waits until Theo forces his eyes upward to meet his own before he continues, “If someone is trying to forgive you, whatever their reasons—you should let them.” He stops, holds Theo’s gaze, and Theo can feel his expression going cracked open and raw, much as he tries to fight it, “Do it for their sake, if not your own.”

He gives it another few beats and then smiles softly, sympathetically—no pity hidden in the corner of his mouth or his eyes, no harsh satisfaction at the weight of Theo’s entirely self-inflicted regret—and holds out his free hand.

“C’mon. McCall wanted to get restarted by one, and since it’s nearing one-thirty, the yelling is about to begin. We’d better get back in there.”

Theo hesitates for a second, and then he reaches out and clasps the Sheriff’s offered forearm; he hesitates for a second, and then he lets the Sheriff pull him up.

---

The Sheriff’s well-meaning pledge to try and get Theo back to the Geyers’ at a reasonable hour aside, they don’t actually get back to Beacon Hills until nearly midnight.

Theo shuts the cruiser’s passenger-side door and flicks a hand in a lazy wave as the Sheriff reverses out of the driveway, then turns to head for the front door, swinging his backpack over his shoulder as he goes. He digs his keys out of his pocket as he stretches his senses towards the house, searching for each of the Geyers to see whether they’d already headed to bed. From the three sleep-slow heartbeats Theo manages to detect, they had, so he opens the door as quietly as possible, closes and locks it behind him just as softly.

Twenty minutes later and he’s in the upstairs hallway bathroom brushing his teeth, jeans and thermal swapped for sweatpants and a loose t-shirt, when he catches Liam’s sleep-warm scent suddenly taking a nosedive for distressed. Closing his eyes, Theo leans over and spits out a mouthful of foam, then stays braced over the sink for a few long moments as he listens to the shallow, rabbit-paced breaths Liam is panting out, now firmly in the grip of whatever nightmare he’s having. But after another handful of slow seconds, Theo forces himself to shove aside his awareness of Liam and reaches for the faucet, twists it to start the cold water flowing so he can rinse out his mouth, finish getting ready for bed.

That done, he steps out of the bathroom and flicks off the light. Then he hesitates, fingers still resting lightly on the switch as he considers.

He’d come up with a set of rules for himself after the first few nights that he’d woken Liam up from his nightmares; he’d had to. Liam’s nightmares are chronic and always, always bad, and if Theo tried to wake him up every time they pulled Theo from his own slumber, neither of them would ever sleep. And underneath that— more than that, really—is the fact that Liam’s unconscious reactions to Theo, the way that oftentimes Theo doesn’t even need to wake him up for Liam to calm, just needs to get close enough that Liam could reach out and touch him if he were awake, have become like a drug; an instant hit of wonder and exhilaration and desperate, clinging gratitude.

Theo knows that if he let himself, he’d chase that feeling every time. But Liam isn’t some meaningless distraction, and his subconscious trust of Theo—which still comes as a shock, every time—isn’t some resource to be exploited to soothe Theo’s own screwed-up insecurities.

So when Liam’s nightmares had woken him up for the fourth time in three weeks, Theo had resisted his initial, nearly irresistible urge to go to Liam immediately and instead had forced himself to stay still, to wait. After a handful of long, torturous minutes of listening to Liam huff short, frightened breaths into his pillow, of counting his rapid-fire heartbeats, Liam had slowly settled. Wide awake by then, Theo had turned on his side towards the direction of Liam’s room and had spent the rest of the night tracking Liam’s uneasy sleep, waiting for another nightmare. Liam had had two more, both brief, and Theo had his first rule; he could only go wake Liam up if Liam had more than three.

His second rule he’d had to add a few nights later. Liam had met Theo’s self-imposed threshold, and at the advent of nightmare number four, Theo had allowed himself to get up, pad on quiet feet to Liam’s bedside. He’d woken him up gently, explained the situation in a soft, soothing voice and accepted Liam’s sleepy, quiet thanks just like he had the first time, and returned to his own bed. But it hadn’t been long before Liam had been back in the throes of another nightmare, and Theo had spent a long, syrupy minute sitting in the guest bed, debating with himself, before he’d finally tossed back the covers and returned to Liam’s room.

He’d been three steps from the bed when Liam had relaxed, his painfully tight shoulders going loose like they hadn’t earlier—like they didn’t, always, when Theo came in to wake him up—and Theo had had to stop, close his eyes and breathe past the dizzying rush of feeling that broke over him. Once the initial surge of it had passed, had settled into a heady, warm pool of awareness in his gut, Theo had turned on his heel to head back to his own bed, a prick of guilt already lodging uncomfortably under his ribs.

But Liam had almost immediately made a protesting, agitated sound, and Theo had frozen with a low, conflicted exhale. After a beat he’d turned and headed back to Liam’s bedside, had lowered himself against the mattress with a then-practiced familiarity that had made the prick of guilt in his chest sharpen into a splinter, barbed and unignorable. So he’d pulled out his phone and started a silent timer: thirty minutes; his second rule.

He’d fallen asleep anyway, of course, and had had to scramble awake to Mrs. Geyer’s alarm just as frantic as he had the first time. And so rules number three and four had been born; he could only stay in Liam’s room to quiet his nightmares that way if he tried waking him up first, and if that didn’t work and he did stay, he couldn’t lean against Liam’s mattress. After that, he’d spent one of Liam’s worse nights and his allotted thirty minutes sitting cross-legged a few feet from Liam’s dangling arm, staring at the books in his bookshelf through flared eyes and idly trying to imagine their plot-lines from their titles. Another time he’d laid flat on his back, his phone with it’s constantly-ticking-down alarm resting lightly on his chest, staring up at Liam’s ceiling and counting the cars passing by on the highway a mile away that he could hear if he concentrated.

The last time it had happened—two nights ago—Theo had sat in the middle of Liam’s floor, his arms wrapped around his knees, and had thought about the phantom warmth he could almost still feel from Corey sitting next to him after Thanksgiving at the McCall’s, full on good food and good conversation and the steady, grounding weight of a pack settling his bones; even if it wasn’t his own.

Now, Theo lets his hand fall away from the bathroom light switch and turns away from Liam’s room with a quiet exhale, ignoring the disappointed ache that lodges under his breastbone as he does. He shuts the door to the guest room softly and climbs into bed, and then after a quick debate with himself, allows himself the indulgence of reaching back out with his senses, testing Liam’s heartbeat, his scent. The first is slowing, the second clearing, and so Theo closes his eyes, tells himself: one.

He comes awake with a panicked jolt some time later, the creak of the guest bedroom door breaking through whatever hazy nightmare of his own he’d been having. The remnants of it cling just enough that his claws and fangs instinctively lengthen, and from the way that he can perfectly see every inch of Liam’s startled expression framed in the night-dark doorway, his eyes had flared, too.

“Whoa, simmer down, Wolverine,” Liam hiss-whispers, quickly stepping the rest of the way into the room and shutting the door behind him, “What if I’d been my mom or my dad?”

“Your mom or dad would have knocked first,” Theo snarls back quietly, but he sheds the shift quickly and groans, covering his face with his now-human hands. After a few deep, calming breaths to try and flush the rest of the adrenaline from his system, Theo drops his hands and squints at Liam, now an inky blur without the benefit of his enhanced eyesight, “What are you doing here, anyway?”

Liam doesn’t answer right away, just crosses the room on surprisingly silent feet until he can start to climb onto the bed next to Theo, who stares at him and doesn’t so much as budge. It doesn’t do much to deter Liam, who just rolls his eyes and tugs hard enough on a fistful of sheet and comforter to free it from under Theo, and then slips underneath. He flops onto his stomach once he’s done, head pillowed on his crossed arms, and meets Theo’s baleful glare with a grimace.

“I can’t sleep,” He finally admits, voice hoarse and rasping.

Theo—who’s beginning to feel entirely too distracted by the way that Liam’s heat is steadily bleeding into him—finally scoots a few inches over so that he and Liam aren’t practically on top of each other, “You were asleep when I got back.”

Liam huffs and kicks out a foot to catch Theo in the ankle, “It’s creepy when you do that.”

Theo bites back a pained sound and kicks Liam in return, who grunts but doesn’t otherwise react, “What, actually use my senses like someone with a brain?”

“You use them to cheat,” Liam insists sleepily, like that makes any sense whatsoever.

But that’s a rabbit-hole down which Theo might never escape, so he sets it aside and this time nudges Liam hard with the foot he’d used to kick him, “Liam. Okay, fine, you can’t sleep. That doesn’t explain what you’re doing—” He nearly says in bed with me and quickly revises, “—in here, waking me up.”

Liam—pinnacle of class that he is—blows out a raspberry, “Oh please, are we really going to pretend like you haven’t been acting like some anthropomorphic dreamcatcher?”

Theo stares at him, feeling approximately like Liam just socked him in the chest. Some small corner of his brain immediately wants to return to his earlier panic, but after a moment of waiting for that part to take over, for the panic to bloom, Theo’s surprised when it doesn’t. Maybe Liam’s unconscious trust of Theo goes both ways, because after a moment of indecision Theo reaches out with his senses—creepiness and/or cheating be damned—and when he tests Liam’s scent, he doesn’t get mocking, or even Liam’s and Theo’s default sort of mutual-ragging; he gets nervousness. More than a little embarrassment. And underneath both of those things—riding just along the surface of a snarled mess of other emotions that’d take Theo a full night’s sleep and at least one cup of coffee to start to untangle—is a quiet sort of gratitude.

That recognition settles something in Theo, lets him swallow down the instinctual denial on his tongue, and instead he just says blandly, “I’m mostly surprised you know how to pronounce ‘anthropomorphic.’”

This time Liam rolls over onto his side so that he can punch Theo in the thigh, “You’re such a dick.”

Theo forces himself not to wince; tired or not, Liam is still a werewolf—and a strong one at that—and that hurt like a motherfucker.

“I thought I was a dreamcatcher.” He counters, falling back on old instincts; fake it ‘till you make it.

This time when Liam goes to hit him, Theo dodges. Liam gives it a few more tries, each more half-hearted than the last, and then finally he slumps back flat on his back and stares quietly up at the ceiling. Theo watches him, his own mix of nervousness and embarrassment at getting caught still snarling up his insides, but his better sense is overriding it, a creeping realization slowly smothering his lingering panic: Liam had apparently figured out that Theo had been keeping an eye on his nightmares, had been occasionally interceding, and instead of being mad, or feeling violated, Liam is...here. Reversing the order of their usual behavior and coming to Theo himself.

“Look, whatever, asshole, I know and you know that you’ve been coming in to wake me up when my nightmares get especially bad, and I just…” He stops, chews on his bottom lip; Theo jerks his gaze away from the sight and back up to Liam’s eyes, “They’re bad tonight, okay? They’re just...really bad.”

Theo realizes instantly and with a not insignificant amount of relief once Liam’s done speaking that while Liam had apparently remembered Theo coming in to wake him up enough to put together a pattern, he hadn’t realized that Theo sometimes stays. On that thought’s heels there’s another, some tenuous half-insight about the fact that Liam’s nightmares happened to get bad enough to drive Liam to seek Theo out, and happened to do so on the first night since Theo started staying with the Geyers that Theo had been gone at night, but it feels too close to Theo’s hidden craving for Liam’s faith in him to be trustworthy, so he shoves it away. Or tries to, anyway; he’s still wrestling with it when Liam speaks again, this time in a frustrated huff.

“I know you’re probably only waking me up and stuff because my nightmares sometimes like, bother your delicate senses—” This time it’s Theo who rolls his eyes and punches Liam in the thigh, Liam biting back a yelp before he manfully continues, “—and I know they weren’t bothering you tonight, but...”

Theo frowns down at him, thinking weren’t bothering me…?, before he realizes that Liam must have equated Theo not coming in to wake him up with Theo not getting woken up by them—and therefore not caring. Theo winces, but Liam continues before he can think of something to say.

“But I’m just tired,” He confesses, voice cracking open on the last word, “I’m just so tired, and I keep seeing…I just keep seeing…”

“Liam, stop,” Theo cuts in firmly, suddenly unwilling—unable—to hear more, “I get it. Sorry for...sorry for being an ass about it.”

Liam looks at him, then quirks him an—admittedly—tired smile, “In your defense, I think I started it.”

Theo stares at him, a little taken aback by the unexpected show of maturity, especially after their literally-seconds-ago pseudo-wrestling match. He has to look away after a beat from the intensity of Liam’s gaze, either his exhaustion or the late hour or both stripping away some of his usual walls.

“Are you...good then?” Theo asks finally, unsure what else to say, “I mean, if you’re awake now, and have…”

Seen me, he thinks, but doesn’t say, and then immediately berates himself for the thought; whatever comfort Liam was getting from Theo waking him up, that’s clearly wishful thinking.

“I guess,” Liam answers quietly, but he doesn’t sound convinced, and he doesn’t move.

Then he sighs and brings his hands up to cover his face, and maybe he’d meant to keep Theo from seeing his expression, but he can’t hide his scent, which floods with embarrassment and—and fear.

“I just—I’m afraid if I try to go back to my room, I’m going to see them again when I fall asleep,” He admits, his voice muffled by his hands. After a beat he must realize that Theo likely doesn’t know who he means, and he slides his hands far enough down his face that he can speak clearly, clarify, “Brett and Lori. Right...right after the hit-and-run.”

“The murder,” Theo corrects quietly, thinking back to their argument all those months ago at the police station.

Liam’s expression spasms with surprise and he bites his lip, then agrees, “The murder.” Then he looks away, and the embarrassment surges back through his scent, “Look, I don’t know if it’s a werewolf-being-around-another-werewolf thing or...or whatever, but I feel better here. Make fun of me all you want tomorrow, but just...can I just…”

Theo studies him for a few long, slow seconds, a desperate sort of want tangling with an immediate, terrified sort of hesitation. He and Liam had always been pretty terrible at having boundaries, and Theo had done the ones they had left some further violence with his anthropomorphic dreamcatcher act—to borrow Liam’s phrase—but this feels like something different. But frantic as the analysis going in his head may be, Theo knows—had already decided the instant Liam got up the courage to ask—that he’s going to let him stay.

“Your mom wakes up at six,” Theo finally reminds Liam quietly. Liam’s brow furrows and he doesn’t move, so Theo nudges Liam’s leg with his knee, feeling the hard edge of Liam’s phone in his pocket as he does, and he adds gently, “So set an alarm for five forty-five.”

The confusion drains from Liam’s expression, replaced almost immediately with a naked sort of gratitude that hits Theo right between the ribs like a blow. He gives Theo a wobbly smile and nods, but he doesn’t actually move to take his phone out and set the alarm until Theo—still reeling some from Liam’s raw honesty, from his confession and his closeness—nudges his phone again pointedly. After that he colors and reaches down to wrestle it out of his pocket, sets the alarm and then rolls over to set his phone carefully on the nightstand by his side of the bed.

Theo—unsure what else to do—scoots over another few inches to give Liam some more space and then slides back down under the covers, separates out his stack of two pillows and pushes one towards Liam, now turned on his side facing Theo. Liam takes it after a hesitation—clearly about to insist he doesn’t need one—and tucks it under his head, lip back between his teeth. Theo drops his head onto his remaining pillow and meets his eyes, waiting.

“I don’t…I’m sorry I…” He starts, then stops, clearly frustrated. After a few seconds and an annoyed exhale, he finally gives up and simply says, “Thank you.”

Theo doesn’t respond immediately, his fingers clenching around the edge of his own pillow, his head just as much of a tangled mess as Liam’s still-rioting scent. So after a few of his own frustrated seconds, he does the only thing he can think of: he reaches forward and just flicks Liam in the middle of the forehead, Liam jerking back with an irritated hey.

But when he looks back at Theo, one hand rubbing his forehead, his scent has cleared some and there’s a genuine smile playing at the edge of his lips. The sight of it settles something in Theo, and he finds he can drop his head back, give Liam his own quirked smile.

“Go to sleep, Liam,” Theo tells Liam finally.

And after another few long seconds of studying Theo’s face, his eyes; Liam does.

---

Art by ArtZeppo

---

Two weeks later, Theo is back at Josh’s and Tracy’s graves, squeezing in one last visit before he has to go pick up Alec for his turn on baby-werewolf duty and he’s unable to come back for a week.

He’s in the middle of clearing a layer of early-morning frost from the stones that make up their headstones, checking to make sure that the quartz and pendant he’d hidden in the fallen log just behind them are still safely tucked away, when something hard and sharp strikes the back of his head. Swearing, Theo whips around as the rock falls to the ground, one hand flying to cover the stinging—but already closing—gash across the back of his scalp. Then he catches sight of Corey standing at the edge of the clearing, his camouflage fading and his arm clearly cocked from having just thrown the rock, and Theo feels all of the color immediately drain from his face.

“Shit, Corey,” Theo says blankly, stupidly, as Corey starts to storm towards him, fury evident in every line of his body.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” He demands furiously.

“Corey, listen, I can—” Theo starts, climbing quickly to his feet.

But Corey doesn’t let him speak, “How did you even know they were here? Did you follow me here?”

Theo shakes his head, hands instinctively coming up, palms out in front of himself, “No, I didn’t—well, yes, but it was an accident, I didn’t—”

“God, of fucking course you did,” Corey snarls, cutting him off, and this time he’s close enough that he can punctuate his statement with a hard shove, Theo stumbling back a few steps, “Let me guess. You came here to gloat, right? To appreciate your handiwork?”

“What?” Theo replies, stunned even past his own knowledge of Corey’s conflicted feelings about him at the vitriol dripping from Corey’s every word, “No, Corey, that’s not—”

But Corey doesn’t let him finish, just shoves him again, and Theo—still too shocked to react—goes staggering back another few steps and straight into a tree, “It wasn’t enough that you had to murder them, was it? You had to come here to laugh at them, at us, at how pathetic—”

This time it’s Theo who can’t take it anymore, who interrupts.

“I came here because I’m sorry!” He all but yells, Corey’s accusations slashing open the constantly festering wound that Theo carries around; the inescapable knowledge of his own worst crimes.

He stops, chest heaving. Corey stares at him, just inches away from having followed Theo back against the tree, all but pinning him there. His expression is still furious, anger in the furrow of his brow and the half-snarl on his lips, but his mouth is dropped slightly open; surprised, maybe, at Theo’s sudden—and vehement—denial. So Theo seizes the opportunity, Corey’s momentary silence, and adds softly:

“I came here—I come here—because I hate what I did to them, because I hate—”

Myself, Theo thinks, his gaze pulled almost involuntarily to Josh’s and Tracy’s headstones, just visible over Corey’s shoulder, I hate myself, for this. For them. Then he steels himself and forces himself to look back at Corey, still stood silent and shaking minutely with either anger or some other emotion just inches in front of him, thinks: for you.

“No,” Corey denies after a few long seconds, but there’s the thinnest thread of uncertainty running through his words, “No, I don’t—you’re lying.”

Theo shakes his head, feeling the rough bark of the tree behind him catching on his hair; on the blood drying tacky in it, “I understand why you think that, but please, just give me a chance to—”

He cuts himself off abruptly, his head jerking to the side, instincts snapping immediately taut and arrowing out, deeper into the Preserve. Ignoring Corey’s confused sound, Theo closes his eyes and concentrates, listening. In the next instant he feels the bottom drop out of his stomach, his attention snapping back to Corey as his heart-rate starts to speed and adrenaline starts to flood his system.

“You need to camouflage,” Theo tells him, his voice somehow miraculously steady even as he beats back his instinctual fight-or-flight reflex, as he forcibly boxes up his confrontation with Corey and shoves it away for—hopefully—later, focuses instead on letting the coolly rational part of his mind take over.  

“What, why?” Corey demands, and doesn’t move, so Theo gets his hands around Corey’s upper-arms and forces him back a few steps so that Theo can get out from against the tree, take a few steps out into the middle of the clearing.

He closes his eyes again—ignoring Corey’s irritated hey and Corey’s hand closing insistently around his wrist—and strains his senses forward, searching. Then he swears colorfully under his breath and whips back around, breaking Corey’s grip and shoving him back a few steps towards the opposite edge of the clearing. Corey’s foot catches on something and he trips, landing hard on his ass and right side; Theo feels a twinge of guilt, adds it to the list of things that he’ll sincerely apologize to Corey for after the coming shitstorm, and turns back around as he hiss-orders:

“Camouflage. Now, Corey.”

Fuck,” He hears Corey swear, but he does as he’s told; in the next instant Corey just disappears from his awareness, immediately and without warning: his camouflage kicking in.

It’s not a moment too soon. Three men step out of the trees and into the clearing just opposite Theo seconds after he does, all of them dressed head-to-toe in professional hunting gear. They could almost pass for sport hunters if it weren’t for the military-grade rifles strapped to their chests; if it weren’t for the stinging scent of wolfsbane and mistletoe in their bullets. Theo eyes them warily, though he fights his body’s instinct to drop into a fighting stance or shift.

“Well god damn, Mr. Raeken,” The first man drawls as the three come to a stop just inside the circle of trees, “We were in fact trying to avoid Mr. Bryant doing that.”

Theo smothers his instinctive flinch at the implication; so they knew Corey had been here: they’d come here looking for him. The cornered-animal feeling in his chest resurges as the other two hunters take a few steps to either side, flanking him, their hands tight on their guns, but Theo mercilessly smothers it. Instead, breathing deep, he sinks into the part of himself that had fooled the McCall pack for months, that had let him survive so many years with the Dread Doctors. It’s that part that lets him smile lazily at the three heavily armed hunters with teeth just a little too sharp to be fully human.

“Rossler, Preston,” Theo greets. Then he stops, looks at the third man and cocks his head, “...whoever the hell you are.”

The third man sneers and takes a threatening step forward, his hands spasming around his gun, but Rossler just laughs and waves him back. Then he looks back at Theo, face split in a wide smile that doesn’t go anywhere near his eyes.

“I see you’ve been doing your homework, half-breed.” He says; Theo notes the insult but doesn’t react to it, too aware of Rossler’s viper eyes looking for exactly that. Seemingly realizing that Theo isn’t going to bite, Rossler shrugs and adds, “We’ve been studying up, too. For example—it’s the chameleon’s visiting hours, not yours.”

They’ve been watching this place, Theo realizes, his blood going cold; how had he missed that? He’d been coming here for weeks, and evidently so had they; they wouldn’t know enough to make casual cracks about Theo’s and Corey’s very deliberately non-overlapping visiting habits otherwise. But that complete intelligence failure is something else that he’ll have to deal with later, so Theo shuts down the vicious, berating voice in his head and raises his arms in a wide shrug: shit happens.

“Last minute schedule change, you know how those can be,” He explains dismissively.

“Oh, of course. Our dance cards are just endlessly full, aren’t they, boys?” Rossler replies easily, looking to Preston and the no-name hunter in turn for confirmation; Preston grins nastily and nods, but the no-name hunter just glares.

Laughing lightly, Rossler turns back to Theo and gives him a wide grin, shrugs his shoulders to resettle the strap of his gun across his chest and back. The movement makes his gun barrel dip and weave through the chill air of the Preserve, and Theo’s eyes flick involuntarily down to it, just like Rossler intended them to; when Theo glances back up at him, he smirks.

“Well, Mr. Raeken. We know Mr. Bryant was here, followed him all this way. Heard him shrieking, too.” Rossler tells him, and Theo silently curses; he’d hoped their timing was a coincidence, or at least less informed, “So why don’t you rescind your previous order and tell him to reveal himself, and we can all go back to our busy lives.”

Truthfully Theo has no idea where Corey is—he sincerely hopes that he took off running once the hunters appeared, though he doubts it—but even if that weren’t the case:

“Not happening,” Theo answers bluntly.

Rossler seems to consider this for a moment, nodding, and then all at once he swings his rifle up to point directly at Theo’s head; almost immediately Preston and his other no-name crony follow suit. Theo clamps down on his immediate, instinctual urge to flinch back or otherwise move and just stares impassively back at them.

“What if I threatened to fill you full of holes? Think he’d show himself then?” Rossler asks; he’s still looking at Theo, but he directs his question outwards, to Corey, wherever he happened to be, or not be.

But Theo just snorts out a laugh, and this time is grateful for the constant burn of bitterness that coats the inside of his ribcage, since it lets him say, scornfully and entirely honestly, “Seriously, Rossler? If you actually think Corey would risk his life for me, then you haven’t been doing your homework after all.”

Rossler stares at him for a few long, deliberately stretched seconds, and then he grins. He just grins and lowers his gun, Preston and the other hunter doing the same after a few reluctant seconds. Theo lets his physical tension lesson, some, but mentally alarms start ringing; Rossler would only give up on that course of action that easily if he had another already thought through.

“You’re right, of course,” Rossler agrees graciously, tapping his index finger against the trigger of his guard thoughtfully, and Theo knows the instant before Rossler’s gun barrel starts to come back up what he’s thinking, “But you know, from what we’ve gathered, Mr. Bryant can’t hold his parlor trick when he’s badly wounded, so I wonder—”

“Try it,” Theo cuts him off.

He’d meant his words to come out breezy, unconcerned, but seeing Rossler’s gun barrel start to track where Theo last knew Corey to be had driven a spike of panic hard through his chest, and instead it comes out as a vicious snarl. Rossler freezes, the threat apparently getting through, and Theo lets his fierce expression melt once more into a lazy smile.

“Seriously, Rossler—try it,” Theo encourages, voice going low and deadly, “Take your guns off me long enough to see if you manage to hit an invisible shapeshifter who’s probably long gone by now, see what happens.”

Rossler flicks his eyes up to look at Theo, and Theo gives him another wide smile, this one filled with teeth. Rossler laughs, but his eyes drop to Theo’s mouth—to the reminder of his fangs—and his scent dips briefly. After a moment he resettles his gun barrel towards the ground, though the tension doesn’t leave his shoulders.

“Can’t say I understand you, half-breed, risking your life for a kid that you admit hates you,” Rossler tells him, and he’s almost sound sympathetic if it wasn’t for his flat stare.

Then he sighs and rolls his shoulders again, stretches his neck side to side and bounces a bit on the balls of his feet. Finally he settles back on his heels and refocuses on Theo, his mouth quirking up in an equally-flat smile.

“Well, Mr. Raeken, you’ve put us into something of a state with your presence. You see, we were supposed to come back with the chameleon,” He tells Theo conversationally, like they’re discussing an embarrassing miscommunication and not the interruption of an attempted kidnapping, “Not that we figured he’d have any truly valuable information, but Monroe still figured she could—ah—encourage him to share whatever he knew, and then she could trade whatever was left of him back to Scott and his little band of do-gooders.”

Theo fights back another snarl at his casual description of their plans for Corey’s interrogation and likely murder, but he must not be fully successful because Rossler’s eyes gleam, satisfied, and after a moment he continues:

“But you’ve gone and derailed that plan. So what are we to do instead?”

The question is rhetorical but the threat isn’t, Preston and the no-name hunter shifting in Theo’s peripheral vision as they recognize the same thing Theo does; the coming climax of the confrontation. This time Rossler doesn’t chastise them, just slips his index finger from the trigger guard onto the trigger itself. Theo catches the small movements and releases the stranglehold he’d had on his adrenaline, on the shift rising hungrily under his skin, just waiting for the right moment.

“You know, I think this may shake out in our favor,” Rossler suddenly says, and he looks briefly away from Theo to glance at Preston and the no-name hunter in turn, “The chameleon would have given us something, but Stilinski’s pet K-9 unit...?”

Rossler turns back to Theo, and the smile that spreads across his face is self-satisfied and patently cruel; Theo stops fucking around and lets his eyes flare, his mouth open in a fanged, threatening snarl, lets his fingers curl into sharp-tipped claws.

Rossler grins widely at the sight, his scent spiking with excitement and adrenaline and a sadistic sort of pleasure, and he brings his gun up as he confides—as he threatens—silkily, “You’re going to give us everything.”

And Theo—he tries to fight, he does. He even kills the no-name hunter and takes a chunk out of Rossler’s right thigh, scores five deep lines across Preston’s face in the resulting frenzy.

He just doesn’t win.

---

If he ever gets out of this, Theo thinks hazily some unidentified and unidentifiable time later, he’s going to have to congratulate Argent on his family’s truly brutally effective interrogation methods.

As it is, he just focuses on trying to relax his jaw so that he doesn’t crack his teeth from the pressure of clenching them against the pain, focuses on not biting off his tongue whenever the overwhelming surges of electricity slacken enough to let him suck in huge, heaving gulps of air before they restart and his jaw snaps shut again. And after the first few hours of that, of realizing just how thoroughly he’s being kept from shifting and fighting back by a simple modified car battery hooked up to the chains suspending him from the ceiling, he focuses on anything, on everything, and sometimes on nothing, to keep from telling Monroe—sat backwards in a chair, chin propped up on the arms she has folded over the back, watching him, while a dead-eyed hunter named Richmond raises and lowers the voltage on her command—whatever she wants to know to make it stop.

Theo had set himself a single goal for the length of his capture, the seed of it sprouting during the long, drugged hour it’d taken Rossler and Preston—both seriously injured in their own right—to drag him to their hidden ATV and then to drive back to their van at a campsite off State Highway 36, Theo slung over the back, feverish from wolfsbane poisoning and delirious from blood loss. It’d grown, ruthless and unstoppable, during the hours it’d taken them—arguing furiously, both occasionally cursing as the tourniquet around Rossler’s leg came loose, or Preston tried to see out of his potentially-ruined left eye—to drive back to a nondescript wooden house surrounded by dense woods, the scent of fresh water nearby and the idyllic setting seeming jarringly out of place with the reek of blood and gunpowder subtle in the air.

And by the time another posse of hunters had spilled from the house to help pull Theo—half-dead and helpless to stop them—out of the back of the van and down into the house’s concrete basement, it’d become his single, overriding thought:

He had to get one of the hunters to kill him.

He’d resisted the thought at first, staring up at the sky in the Preserve through the trees while the ATV underneath him bucked and whined and black blood dripped from his hand, dangling limply over the back of the vehicle from where he’d been carelessly slung. It’d seemed dramatic, unnecessarily fatalistic; a capitulation to his own worst flaws. But as the hours had dragged and Theo had been dragged from one place to another, getting weaker and all the more incapable of escape all the while, he’d recognized it for what it was; the only way out that didn’t end in him betraying the McCall pack.

Everyone breaks.

It’s what he’d realized, thrown in the back of the van with Preston occasionally turning around to scream abuse at him, his ruined face glistening horribly even under his makeshift bandage in the midday light coming in through the dirty windshield. Theo had watched the Dread Doctors do it to humans, to supernaturals, to anyone they needed for their experiments, over and over again. Then, after a few years of that, it’d been Theo who’d done the breaking; physically, psychologically, whatever had been required to fulfill his orders. And, well. At the end of all that it’d been Theo who’d broken; by the end of his time with his sister, he hadn’t even bothered to move when she’d come to him, just stood still and waited while she drove her hand into his chest and reclaimed her stolen heart, over and over.

So, yeah. Everyone breaks, given enough time.

And Monroe and her goons would have time, Theo had realized next, the hands of a half-dozen new, unidentified hunters hauling him out of the back of Rossler’s and Preston’s van. They’d have time because neither Scott, nor Argent, nor Agent McCall, nor the Sheriff—whoever Corey told, because he’d tell someone, his hatred of Theo notwithstanding—had any idea where to find them. Guesses, sure, and well-informed ones, but Theo had been intimately involved in the hunt since the beginning, had gone over the current state of their intelligence just that morning before going to Josh’s and Tracy’s graves, and guesses were all that they were.

So by the time the hunters had strung him up in the basement, had healed his wolfsbane poisoning only to start coursing electricity through him to keep him from healing fully, to keep him from shifting, Theo had known what he’d had to do.

He’d almost done it, too.

His first interrogator had been a cruelly enthusiastic but not particularly bright hunter, who’d spent the first half-hour ‘softening’ Theo up before starting in on his checklist of questions: what did the McCall pack know; how did they know it; where were they vulnerable. But Theo was a master at this game where the hunter was clearly an amateur, and he’d been able to spin out a tail of believable bullshit even through the mind-breaking pain of the electricity; close enough to the truth to be attractive, but just subtly wrong enough to get whoever tried to use it captured or killed. It’d take a few days, maybe, for the consequences to become clear, but Theo had no doubt that Monroe’s fanatics lacked the discipline to keep from coming back and taking it out of Theo’s defenseless hide once they figured it out.

So he’d been bracing himself for that, mentally trying to prepare himself to make it through those few, necessary days, when Rossler had limped his way into the basement, and Theo had had to hide his grin.

Somebody had replaced the field tourniquet around his thigh with an actual dressing, had apparently stitched up the worst of the damage to the point that Rossler could stumble his way into a cheap folding chair, settle in like he was planning to fully enjoy the show of Theo’s interrogation. He’d smirked when Theo had looked at him through an exhausted, ducked brow, but it wasn’t amusement that twisted his lips, cruel or otherwise; he’d been enraged. And it hadn’t taken him long—Theo deliberately turning up the ridiculousness of his responses—for him to realize that Theo was playing them.

“You fucking idiot!” He’d shouted at the interrogator, surging to his feet; he’d staggered when he’d tried to put weight on his bad leg, but that had only made him angrier, “He’s fucking with you!”

The interrogator had tried to argue, explain the plausible-sounding intelligence Theo had been spoon-feeding him, but Rossler wouldn’t listen.

“This piece of shit half-breed mutt killed Stalnaker and half-blinded Preston, and now he’s down here lying to us,” Rossler had exclaimed incredulously, practically shaking with fury.

And then he’d done exactly what Theo had wanted him to; his eyes had dropped to the car battery controls, and he’d surged forward towards them and cranked the voltage all the way up.

It’d been the worst pain that Theo had ever felt; it’d been indescribable. He couldn’t think through it, all thought immediately blasted away: he couldn’t think yes, do it; he couldn’t think thank god, it’s almost over; he couldn’t even think make it stop.

But stop it had.

By the time Theo had been able to recover enough to hear past the roaring in his ears, to blink past the swimming colors in his vision and refocus what remained of his senses on the room, there had been a trio of hunters holding Rossler back as he strained forward and furiously argued with Monroe, stood calmly by the battery controls. She’d soothed him in a calm, almost hypnotic voice, Theo still unable to hear most of the words; he could feel blood trickling down the sides of his neck from his shattered eardrums, his body able to heal him back to human with the lower voltage but no further. Whatever she’d said to Rossler must have worked, though, because he’d eventually let himself be dragged back upstairs, leaving Theo alone with Monroe and the hunter she’d called Richmond.

Now, some unidentified and unidentifiable time later, Monroe nods to Richmond, who decreases the voltage to a low enough setting that Theo can slump in his chains, panting and shaking helplessly, desperately trying to swallow back the wounded noises that keep escaping his throat. Monroe straightens in her chair, elbows now propped on its back, chin resting on her interlaced fingers as she studies him.

“That was very clever, Theo,” She finally tells him, sounding genuinely impressed, “I told Rossler not to underestimate you—told them all not to—but, well. It’s hard to find good help these days, isn’t it?”

She grins at him and then swings gracefully off of the chair so that she can stand, approach him. Theo can’t help the way that his body instinctively tries to flinch back, the way that his heart starts to race even harder, the sick, rolling feeling in his stomach rising like bile in his throat. But Monroe stops a few feet away from him, mindful of the electricity still coursing through him. She cocks her head and folds her arms over her chest, taps her lips with two fingers.

“I wonder…” She starts thoughtfully, “You are clever, Theo. Smart enough to survive the Dread Doctors for years, which takes a special kind of ruthlessness. A very well-developed sense of self-preservation, one might even say.”

Theo just stares at her, his abused muscles occasionally seizing and forcing his whole body taut, his eyes squeezed shut, until the spasm abates. When he opens his eyes after the last one, Monroe is watching him carefully, curiously.

“I bet you and I could make a deal,” Monroe concludes when she sees that she has his attention again, voice once again that low, hypnotic murmur, like a potential promise made physical, “We could forget this messy, imprecise way of extracting information and come to some kind of agreement that would benefit the both of us.”

She flicks a hand over her shoulder and the voltage lowers further; still high enough to keep him from shifting, but low enough that the seizures mostly stop. Theo turns his face into his arm to hide his helplessly relieved expression, tries to fumblingly grasp the frayed edges of his ability to think clearly.

“You’re fucking unbelievable,” Theo finally manages to croak out, turning back to face her.

Monroe just laughs, “Oh, I’m hardly that. You’ve made deals with worse devils.”

Theo grimaces before he can smother the expression, and Monroe smiles, ducks her head some so that she can better catch his eyes.

“C’mon, Theo,” She coaxes, softly and seductively, “You and I both know that you’re not a real member of the McCall pack. This playing house thing you’ve got going on with Liam, the Sheriff and his pseudo-fatherhood act—all of it is just the shiny wrapping they’re trying to use to cover up the fact that you’re their prisoner.”

Theo flinches back with a wounded, involuntary sound, the hollow in his chest cracking wide open. God, but fuck Monroe and her uncanny ability to strike right at the heart of his worst fears. But there’s nowhere for him to go, strung up and weak as he is, and Monroe just makes a soft, sympathetic noise.

“Maybe your leash has gotten longer, maybe they’ve loosened up the collar a bit, but tell me, Theo—what would happen if you tried to leave Beacon Hills permanently?” She asks him.

I don’t know, Theo thinks forcefully, but it’s a lie; the Sheriff and Argent had made it clear—and had never made it un -clear—what would happen if he tried to leave without permission. He realizes that his whole pathetic train of thought must be showing on his face and he jerks his head away from Monroe’s penetrating stare, but it’s a useless gesture and he knows it.

“That’s right,” Monroe agrees, even though Theo didn’t say anything, “So shake off this pathetic bout of Stockholm Syndrome you’ve got going, and let’s help each other.”

Theo forces himself to laugh, to respond through an unimpressed sneer, “Help each other how? I tell you what I know about the McCall pack and their hunt for you, and you, what, let me go? You and your bunch of psychos are fanatics—it’s not in your DNA to let someone like me walk away.”

Monroe doesn’t rise to the bait, counters easily, “Oh, Theo. If there’s one thing that fool Gerard taught me, it’s how to compromise with unsavory allies. You help me deal with the McCall pack and Agent McCall’s very irritating task force, and I’ll make sure my people know that you’re not to be touched.” She pauses, smiles at him, “You can live out the rest of your pathetic supernatural life however you choose, free from me and mine and the McCall pack’s sanctimonious bullshit.”

For a moment, a breath—every nerve-ending sparking with agony, his lips cracked and bleeding from dehydration, his heart pounding weakly with strain—Theo is tempted. He could be free. He could leave Beacon Hills without worrying about taking a wolfsbane bullet in the back when either the Sheriff or Argent caught up with him. He could go anywhere, do anything. Sure, Monroe’s promise to leave him alone would be absolute bullshit, but without the threat of the McCall pack on his tail, he could stay ahead of her.

But it’s just a moment, a breath, and then he remembers the cold, empty, seemingly never-ending stretch of days he’d been living before his capture by Monroe and her people when this all first started. The way that his thumb had hovered over Scott’s name on his phone after his first encounter with the Anuk-ite in his truck, how he’d been too hesitant—too ashamed—to call. He could go back to that, he supposes, could return to way he’d been living, strung up in another basement just like this and being tortured for fun, not even for information, no one looking for him and no one to care that he was gone.

But now— now...Theo lets Monroe’s seductive offer go, so very tempting in its simplicity, and meets Monroe’s eyes, lets a slow, lazy smile spread across his lips. He can tell from the way that Monroe’s eyes gleam, the way her own smile goes sharp and self-satisfied, that she thinks she’s hooked him; he can practically smell her sudden eagerness, her excitement.

So Theo leans forward, much as he’s able to with his toes barely touching the floor, Monroe mirroring him unconsciously, until he can tell her quietly, slickly, “Go fuck yourself.”

Then he leans back, slumping once more heavily in his chains, and grins, viciously pleased, when Monroe’s smile slides off of her face, replaced with a humiliated sneer. She works her jaw, all her fake solicitousness evaporating, and then she looks briefly away from him, shakes her head in clear disappointment.

“What a waste, throwing your life away for them,” She says, looking back at him, “Because I can guarantee you, Theo—no one’s going to find your body and give you a beautiful grave in the woods.”

Theo’s breath catches, the hollow in his chest winching painfully tight at her implication, and Monroe smiles cruelly at the sight of it.

“I’m going to leave you here with Richmond for a while, Theo, but I’ll be back in a few hours to see if you’re feeling more gracious,” She tells him conversationally, raising a hand over her shoulder; Theo tries to brace himself for the sudden resurgence of electricity but it’s a useless gesture, and he can’t stop his pained cry.

He tries to follow her actions as she says something to Richmond, as she turns on her heel and heads back up the stairs, leaving Theo and Richmond alone, but he can’t manage it, his fingers curling around the chain suspending him and his mind just one agonized, jumbled mess. It’s somehow worse this time, Theo realizing that he’d pretty thoroughly burned the last bridge he’d had out of this cluster, Monroe now fully aware of his previous plan to trick one of her hunters into killing him, and now equally aware that he won’t give in without additional...convincing. Squeezing his eyes shut, Theo gives in to his body’s urge to scream as Richmond cranks the voltage higher, can feel his fingernails starting to split from the force of his grip around the chains.

And then, suddenly, the pain stops.

It doesn’t lessen, like before, the electricity still there but lowered; it stops. His breaths coming in huge, panting, wounded half-cries, Theo loosens his abused fingers—his cracked fingernails already starting to knit back together as his healing kicks back in—and forces his eyes open.

And looks straight at Corey, eyes wide and with one hand on the car battery’s controls, Richmond crumpled at his feet and a length of rusty pipe held in his other hand.

---

For the first ten seconds of his and Corey’s initial, shocked exchange of stares, Theo is convinced that the torture finally broke something in him, and that he’s hallucinating. Then Corey sucks in a huge gulp of air—apparently faster to recover—and drops the pipe, hurries over to Theo. Theo just keeps staring, a confused mix of relieved and horrified and elated and just absolutely fucking baffled, and then he says blankly:

“You can’t be here.”

Corey shoots him a furrowed look but otherwise ignores him, keeps focusing instead on reaching up to Theo’s bound wrists. The feel of his hands on Theo’s abused skin is at once the best, most balming sensation Theo can currently remember ever feeling and yet immediately and unbearably agonizing, Theo biting back a harsh yelp as Corey’s fingers slide over the rubbed-raw flesh of his wrists, the skin only sluggishly healing.

But the more seconds that pass without the return of the electricity, the faster Theo’s healing accelerates and the clearer he’s able to think. And the more clearly he’s able to think, the more horror takes over for every other emotion he’d been feeling.

Corey,” He hisses, jerking helplessly away as Corey tries to twist his hands in their chains to better see how to release them, and accidentally drags his fingers over bruised and bleeding flesh, “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“What’s it look like?” Corey snaps back, releasing Theo’s hands with a frustrated huff.

He turns and heads back to the table with the car battery, starts searching around it; looking for the key to the padlock holding the looped chains around Theo’s wrists. Theo stares at the back of his head, the pain of his healing body almost an afterthought to the sudden frenzy of terrified what-ifs that start whirling through his brain.

“You can’t be here,” Theo repeats forcefully, and feels no shame whatsoever at the desperation that turns his consonants sharp, “You have to go, you have to go right now.”

Corey must find the key because he straightens and starts picking his way over Richmond’s slumped—dead? Theo instinctually stretches out his hearing to check and yeah, dead—body and back to Theo.

“What are you talking about? Did they already manage to break your brain or something?” Corey replies caustically as he stops in front of Theo once more, reaches up with key in hand to fumble at the lock; he’s seeming to have trouble looking at Theo head-on, and Theo can’t blame him; he knows he looks more than half-dead, jump-started healing or not.

“They are going to kill you,” Theo snarls at him, wincing as Corey’s fingers catch on his not-yet-fully-healed skin, “There are at least two dozen hunters here, including Monroe.”

“Two dozen minus one,” Corey chirps back, but instead of sounding blithe and unconcerned like he’s clearly trying to, he sounds sick.

Corey,” Theo hisses forcefully, but Corey just stops, hands still outstretched and wrapped as carefully as possible around Theo’s abused wrists, and meets Theo’s eyes.

“I’m not leaving you here,” He says simply, implacably, no room for argument or hesitation.

He stares at Theo long enough to be satisfied that Theo got his message, apparently, and then he looks away from Theo’s shocked eyes and back up at the chains. Theo can’t think of anything to say, his body still throbbing with pain and his ability to think still compromised by the damage reports his every nerve keeps sending him. It gives Corey the time to finally get the key in the lock and unthread the padlock from the chains, the first loop falling away and freeing Theo’s right wrist.

“Okay,” Corey mutters under his breath, “Okay, I just need to—”

But Theo’s senses snap taut and his head jerks up towards the basement door, “Corey, someone’s coming. Get to Richmond’s body and camouflage it and yourself.”

Corey gives him a frozen glance and then looks back and upwards towards the door, but this time—thank god—doesn’t argue with him, just drops his hands away from Theo’s wrists and dives for Richmond’s body, both disappearing a half-second later. Theo closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, centering himself, and then he gets ahold of the chains with his right hand, loops them as convincingly as possible back around his right wrist, and waits.

Rossler limps down the stairs seconds later and then limps right past—by some stroke of luck—where Richmond’s prone body and Corey are camouflaged, until he comes to a staggering, unsteady stop a few feet away from Theo.

“We heard your pathetic crying stop, figured someone should come turn the heat up,” Rossler explains, lips stretching in a vicious, satisfied smile. Then he stops, his expression going slack with confusion and the very beginnings of concern, “Wait, where the fuck is—”

Theo doesn’t give him a chance to finish, just whips his freed—and clawed—right hand out and catches Rossler right across the throat. The attack splits open Rossler’s carotid arteries and severs his voice box, cutting off the alarm he’d been about to raise, his hands coming up to try to cover his ruined neck. Theo ignores him as he crumples and instead focuses on reaching up, trying to free his left wrist.

He’s too fucking weak, though, his momentary flood of adrenaline fading and leaving him even shakier than before. Luckily Corey’s there in the next second, Richmond left behind and Rossler—choking out his last on the ground at their feet—determinedly ignored. He slaps Theo’s useless right hand out of the way and carefully unloops the chains himself, and then—either because he senses it coming or has a working brain—he catches Theo as Theo tries to stand unassisted and immediately collapses.

“Fuck, shit,” Theo pants into his shoulder, his legs trembling with strain.

He can feel Corey’s grimace against the top of his head, and then feels the movement as Corey looks around.

“Here, let me—” He starts, and begins to move, half-dragging Theo towards Monroe’s earlier, abandoned chair.

“No!” Theo croaks, voice shredded and the effort stinging, “No, we don’t have time. If Rossler was wondering at the lack of noise, the others will be soon.”

Corey grasps his implication immediately and stops, thank god, “Should I camouflage us? Where should we hide?”

Theo shakes his head, tentatively tries to shift more of his own weight back onto his own legs and nearly sends both of them to the ground.

“Shit, sorry,” He gasps, as Corey rapidly readjusts to keep them from overbalancing. Closing his eyes, Theo allows himself to momentarily dig his forehead against Corey’s shoulder, the heat and pressure grounding, “No, we can’t just wait. Do you remember the layout of the house?”

Corey nods, his cheek ruffling Theo’s hair, “Yeah, I think so.”

“Okay,” Theo says, the beginnings of a plan forming in his head, “Okay, that’s good. The stairwell door is the only way out of the basement—” Theo had at least been able to ascertain that, even if he’d been poisoned and delirious during his transportation into the basement, “—so when they come down to investigate, we have to get through it, and as quickly as possible, okay?”

“Okay,” Corey agrees, and Theo feels him looking around again, “There’s a five-foot space between the stairwell and the back wall. I’ll camouflage us there to wait.”

Theo nods, “Yeah, good.”

He pulls back enough after that to actually meet Corey’s eyes, and Corey grimaces at him, “Look, I’m not arguing with the wisdom of your plan, but are you...going to be able to make it?”

Theo snorts—even that movement setting off a starburst of pain in his chest that then shoots out through his abused muscles—and slowly, slowly rocks back onto his heels, hands still firmly on Corey’s shoulders.

“Considering that our lives depend on it?” Theo says as cheekily as he can manage, which really isn’t much, “Yeah, I think I’ll figure it out.”

Corey gives him the smallest of grins, and then it drops off his face as he refocuses, gets one of Theo’s arms across his shoulders and starts half-walking him, half-dragging him towards their agreed-upon waiting spot. Theo does what he can to help, but in addition to trying to get his jelly-like muscles to cooperate, his attention is split; the half of it not focused on keeping himself upright is stretched up, out, desperately seeking out the hunters upstairs. His senses are still slightly off, like a train just barely off its tracks, so he can’t hear exactly what’s being said, can’t place them around the various rooms like he usually would.

But he sure as hell hears it when the tenor of their voices goes suddenly sharp and then quiet, listening, and then a burst of noise as several sets of feet hurry towards the basement door.

“As soon as they start down, we start up,” Theo reminds him; Corey nods, and Theo shivers as he feels the waterfall of sensation rushing down his spine as Corey camouflages them both.

It’s not a moment too soon; three hunters come thundering down the steps almost immediately after, and it only takes them half the set of stairs to see that Theo is gone and instantly start shouting. One of them yells out that Rossler and Richmond are dead, another swearing, all of them looking around frantically as upstairs more rapid footsteps sound.

But Corey, bless him, ignores it all and starts hauling Theo up the stairs as soon as the door opens. He plasters them back against the wall while the three hunters pass them on the stairwell, then immediately continues up. They spill out of the doorway and into a surprisingly kitschy hallway—Theo absently identifying the house as some kind of vacation rental—just as another set of hunters comes barreling down the hallway from the other end, guns in hand.

It’s amidst the cacophony of yelling, the exchange of snarled accusations and orders to find him, he couldn’t have gotten far, that Theo hears someone realize, “The fucking chameleon is here.”

Shit, Theo swears, but loses the train of thought in the next moment as Corey pulls Theo’s arm tighter around his shoulders and starts dragging him towards the other end of the hallway. Considering he has no idea how the hell the house is laid out, Theo concentrates on moving with Corey as quickly as he can, occasionally stopping him with a jerk or shoving him forward to avoid hunters suddenly swinging around corners or appearing from doorways, Theo’s senses alerting him before Corey’s can.

It’s the longest few minutes of Theo’s life, but they make it out of the front door and out into the yard without discovery. Corey stops once there a few feet from the door, panting, and Theo can sense his hesitation.

“The forest,” Theo tells him, the trembling in his legs getting worse, not better; without food and a chance to rest, his healing had stalled, “It’s our best shot.”

“Not one of the cars?” Corey asks, and Theo can feel his body straining towards the collection of SUVs and vans parked nearby.

But Theo just shakes his head, “We don’t know where the keys are, and besides—” He stops, stretches his hearing out as far as he can to double-check, but he’d been right the first time, “—we’re in a pretty secluded area, they’d be able to catch us and run us off the road too easily.”

“Right,” Corey mutters under his breath, “Right, okay. Forest.”

He starts that way, Theo still only some help in moving his uncooperative limbs alongside him, his senses turned back to the house. His hearing still feeling like he’s listening to everything from underwater, he nonetheless catches Monroe’s forceful tenor suddenly cut through the other hunters’ directionless panic. Straining, Theo tries to make out her words, and though he misses most of them, he gets the one he’d dreaded: outside.

Monroe was ordering at least some contingent of her hunters to search outside.

“Tell me you have your phone,” Theo half-asks, half-pleads, though he’s pretty sure he can already guess at the answer based on the distinct lack of cavalry swooping in; Theo’s phone, of course, had been tossed out the window of Rossler’s and Preston’s van somewhere along Highway 36.

Corey shakes his head, “It must have fallen out of my pocket when you and I were fighting in the Preserve.”

Goddamnit, Theo thinks, but shoves away his initial burst of fatalistic despair as they continue to move towards the trees, “We’re on our own then. How much longer can you hold your camouflage?”

Corey grimaces, glances sideways at Theo as he answers, “Not much longer.”

Shit, Theo thinks again, but out-loud he just says, “Drop it once we get into the trees, don’t overtax yourself. You go down and we’re both dead.”

What he doesn’t say, though the truth of it catches like acid in his throat, is: we’re probably both dead anyway. Instead, he pulls some of his attention away from the house and back to his own feet, concentrates on helping Corey get them into the trees faster.

Maybe they were both as good as dead, but they weren’t dead yet.

---

Two hours later and they are—miraculously—still alive.

Monroe’s Trojan-horse of a vacation-home hideout may have been convenient for staying off of Agent McCall’s and the entirety of California law enforcement’s radar, but the fact that it’s surrounded by dense woods on three sides winds up working against her as Corey and Theo manage to lose her hunters in the sprawling trees. The first half-hour had been the hairiest, with Corey having to camouflage them several more times to avoid detection by searching hunters, but after awhile—as they’d gotten further out, and the potential area of where they could have gone forced Monroe to spread her people out thinner and thinner—they’d been able to relax, some.

It’d been a good thing, too, because Corey’s constant use of his camouflage ability had started to affect him, and by an hour and a half into their escape, Corey had been leaning just as hard into Theo as Theo had been into him. Eventually, after the third or fourth time in five minutes that one of them had snagged their feet on roots, or rolled their already-unsteady ankles on loose stones, nearly sending them both flat on their faces, Theo had called a halt.

Sprawled on his back and panting, Corey beside him with his knees pulled up to his chest and breathing just as hard, Theo stares up at the infuriatingly cheerful spread of late-afternoon sky he can see through the tree-cover, and feels some of his earlier gratitude for Corey’s completely unexpected rescue start to transmute into disbelieving irritation.

“Corey,” Theo starts, and waits until Corey gives a questioning hum to continue, “How the fuck did you even get here?”

Corey glances down at him, brow furrowing in confusion and—to his credit—the beginnings of suspicion.

“I came with Rossler and Preston when they took you,” Corey answers, “That ATV ride was the worst of it, I kept almost falling off.”

“And you were there in the back of the van,” Theo fills in neutrally; no wonder Corey’s ability to hold his camouflage had been so drained; he’d been using the power practically all day.

“Well, yeah,” Corey agrees, “I pressed myself up against the back of Rossler’s seat and came in and out of the camouflage when I could, since all three of you were pretty fucked up and didn’t always seem with it enough to catch me.”

He hesitates then, and Theo glances at him, caught by the sudden spike of guilt in his scent. Corey looks down at him and then away, his fingers starting to pick compulsively at each other between his braced knees.

“I kept trying to find opportunities to free you, but you were so weak from the wolfsbane, I didn’t think…” He explains quietly, “And then in the basement, even after they healed you, it wasn’t until right after Monroe left that I got the chance. Before that too many people just kept coming in and out.”

Theo feels a sudden rush of sympathy, not a little motivated by the burn of Corey’s guilt in his nose, “You did the right thing. I’d probably just have died on you if you’d tried while I was still poisoned, and they were keeping a pretty close eye on me up until the end there.”

Corey shrugs, but his scent clears some, and Theo finds his breath coming a little easier. It’s a trap, though, because it isn’t going to last.

“I just have one more question,” Theo tells him, and Corey tips his head down to give Theo his full attention, waiting. Theo works his jaw for a long second, and then he asks, “Why the fuck didn’t you just go get help?”

Corey stares at him, mouth dropping open in shock, “Are you really critiquing my rescue style? I just saved your life!”

“Damn right I am!” Theo returns hotly, rolling up on an elbow to stare Corey down more effectively, even as the movement makes his exhausted muscles screech in protest, “You do realize that if you die here, which you probably will, because you clearly have no common sense, that Scott or Argent or the Sheriff or some combination of all three will kill me anyway, even if I somehow miraculously survive?”

Corey looks like he’s having trouble deciding which part of Theo’s comment he wants to take issue with first, “You’re fucking unbelievable! First off, you and I both know that if I’d gone to get help, you’d be as good as dead, because we’d never fucking have found you. And second, you ridiculous drama queen, everyone knows you and the Sheriff are like, best law enforcement buddies now, he’d shoot Argent before he’d let him shoot you. And third, if you’re so convinced we’re both going to die, why bother helping me with your escape at all?”

“I’ve been spending too much time with Liam the-hopeless-optimist,” Theo shoots back in response to Corey’s third point, ignores his first because, well, he’s right; and as to his second: “And what the hell are you talking about, me and the Sheriff are ‘best law enforcement buddies?’ I’m still on his and Argent’s goddamned parole, which your death will almost inevitably revoke, by the way.” He pauses, then adds incredulously as Corey’s phrasing sinks in a little more, “And what the hell does that even mean? We’re not members of some slumber party club.”

“You can’t be serious,” Corey responds, staring at him through narrowed, disbelieving eyes, “Still on parole? You were at the McCall’s Thanksgiving last month. You and the Sheriff eat lunch together practically every day, Stiles bitches about it all the time. Hell, Scott has practically been begging you for help training Alec. You haven’t been on parole for weeks.”

“Well, that’s fucking news to me!” Theo nearly shouts back, just barely remembering to keep his voice to a half-whispered snarl at the last moment, “You heard the Sheriff and Argent, they promised me I was as good as dead if I left Beacon Hills without permission, and no one’s told me otherwise.”

“Because you haven’t tried to leave, asshole!” Corey shout-whispers back.

And that draws Theo up short. It just completely takes whatever wind out of his sails that he’d managed to muster in his depleted state, the truth of it landing like a blow, because he hadn’t tried to leave, had he? He’d assumed he couldn’t, and he’d stuck to the—eventually expanded—bounds of the arrangement that the Sheriff, Argent, and the rest of the pack had hammered out that first morning, but he’d never asked if it’d changed.

Why hadn’t he asked if it’d changed?

“God, and I thought the rest of us had issues,” Corey mutters unkindly, “I thought the Sheriff was overreacting a few weeks ago when he told Scott that telling you that you were free to go had to be handled carefully, but he was dead-on.”

Theo’s head is whirling, but he still manages to ask, “What? Why the hell were he and Scott talking about my deal in the first place?”

Corey makes another incredulous face, but he must be coming around to the idea that Theo genuinely thought he was still on conditional release, because his scent goes a little muted and his voice is quieter when he answers, “Scott told the Sheriff and Argent he wasn’t comfortable with keeping you under watch anymore, that you’d proved you’d changed. Both of them agreed, but apparently the Sheriff had been thinking about it for a while, and he told Scott that they had to be careful about how they told you, or else you’d interpret it as them throwing you out. He asked Scott to give them a bit more time.”

Corey sighs when he’s done speaking and brings his hands up to scrub at his face before folding them over his raised knees, dropping his cheek onto the top of them, head turned so that he can study Theo through soft, sad eyes.

“We all thought he was being crazy,” Corey adds. Then he stops, seems to reconsider, “Or, well. Everyone but Derek and Argent did.”

Theo stares at him, but he can feel his expression going cracked open and raw and has to turn his head back to the sky, Corey’s sympathetic—because that’s what the soft, slightly bitter edge to his scent was—pricking at him. He tries to marshall his thoughts, tries to fit Corey’s new information into his existing understanding of the world, but he’s too goddamn tired, both mentally and physically.

But there is one thing he wants to know, that’s been eating at him: “Is that why...Thanksgiving. Why’d you come sit next to me?”

Corey just gives him a hard, narrow-eyed look and counters, “Why didn’t you take Monroe’s deal?”

Theo jerks to look at him, expression horrified, “The deal where she was offering to let me go in exchange for my help in killing you all. That deal?”

“Yeah, that deal,” Corey presses unapologetically, “If you thought you were still on parole, that you were still—what’d she call it?—our prisoner, why didn’t you take it?”

And what the hell is Theo supposed to say, I didn’t take it, because even being a parolee, the past few months have been the best of my wasted life? That he’d happily have died—had been trying to die—to protect the very people that he’d just admitted to thinking had been keeping him, for all intents and purposes, prisoner?

God, no wonder the Sheriff had thought he’d needed to be gentled into his new status as a free man.

“That’s why,” Corey tells him quietly, and Theo is confused for a moment before he realizes that his previous train of thought must have been written all over his face.

Corey sighs again and turns his head so that his chin is digging into his forearm, so that he’s staring out into the quiet stretch of forest in front of him. He’s quiet for a few minutes, Theo still too stunned to fill the silence, and then he pulls his bottom lip between his teeth, gnaws on it briefly.

“You...really meant what you said this morning, didn’t you,” He says, and it’s not a question.

Theo—who’d taken a lot of abuse in the last few hours—has to wrack his hazy brain to recall exactly what Corey’s referring to: what I said this morning…? Then he remembers, and he feels his breath hitch, the hollow in chest momentarily flare wide even through his exhaustion.

“I’d give anything—” Theo starts, initially horrified by the burn of unshed tears he can feel in his eyes but then—all at once—uncaring. So the truth fucking hurts; at this point, so does everything else, “ Anything to take back what I did to Josh and Tracy.”

Corey seems to consider this for a few long moments, still staring out into the middle-distance of the forest, and then he turns to look at Theo, “I...I believe you.” Then his expression twists with sudden amusement, Theo’s brow furrowing in confusion, at least until Corey adds, “I, uh. Didn’t this morning, though, obviously.”

And Theo can’t help his own snort of laughter, Corey’s smile widening when he sees it and then growing further when Theo suddenly says ow petulantly and hunches in on himself as his body protests, and then the two of them start to laugh helplessly; at each other; at the situation; at the completely unbelievable fact that they were still alive to do it. They peter off fairly quickly, but as their laughter drains, so does some of the heavy, suffocating weight of their shared history, and Corey straightens some and then rolls over onto his knees, offers Theo a hand.

“We’d better get moving again,” He explains, and hauls Theo’s arm back over his shoulder when Theo takes his hand after a moment of hesitation, “ Please tell me you have some idea where to go that isn’t just us wandering around in this forest until we die from exposure or get caught.”

Theo stumbles some as Corey stands, pulling them both up, but manages to keep his feet. He jerks his chin towards the northwest.

“That way. My senses are still pretty fucked, but it smells populated a couple of miles further. We get there, we can find a phone, call for help. At the very least, Monroe and her people will have a much harder time killing us in front of a bunch of witnesses,” Theo tells him, and bites back a grin when Corey mutters what, you sure?

But he starts moving them in the direction that Theo indicated, slowly and steadily.

---

They don’t talk much as they go, both exhausted physically and—at least for Theo—in every other possible way. Theo keeps his senses peeled best he can in a three-sixty circle around them, searching for any sign of Monroe or her hunters picking up their trail, but he gets nothing; a sign either that they hadn’t, in fact, picked up their trail, or that Theo’s senses are worse off than he’d thought. Every now and then Corey asks for an update, or has to stop and readjust Theo’s arm over his shoulder, but for the most part he just quietly accepts Theo’s directions, keeps them moving forward.

But it’s not that easy; it was never going to be that easy.

Maybe two miles out from the town—or campsite, or truck stop, or whatever the hell it happened to be, Theo’s senses still too blunted to tell for sure—he hears the gut-wrenching, spine-straightening sound of a rifle cocking several yards behind them, and he does the only thing he can think of:

He uses the last bit of strength he has left to put his body between it and Corey.

The bullet pierces his lower back and Theo can’t even cry out, the pain immediate and blinding and all-consuming. But it isn’t until his legs start to crumple underneath him, boneless—Corey turning around to try and catch him with a shocked, horrified Theo—that he realizes where, exactly, the bullet had hit: his spine.

“Corey,” Theo manages to grit out, the all-encompassing sensory blank past his waist even more completely terrifying than the fire licking up the rest of his spine as Corey grapples with his arms, tries to keep him from hitting the ground, “You’ve got to go. You’ve got to drop me, camouflage, and go.”

“What? No, Theo, we already—we already talked about this,” Corey insists, still struggling with him.

His eyes keep darting up towards the forest behind them, so the hunters who’d found them must have gotten close enough that Corey could hear them even without enhanced hearing. Theo, for his part, can’t hear shit past the roaring in his ears, and he clenches his jaw, digs his fingers hard into Corey’s arms.

“Corey, I can’t move my legs,” Theo tells him lowly, “I’m not getting out of here, and if you don’t leave soon, you’re not either. You’re so close, Corey, please.”

But Corey just glances between Theo and back out into the forest, and Theo can see him calculating his odds. His expression twisting with frustration, Theo—not for the first time—curses the McCall pack’s collective lack of any self-preservation instincts, their compulsive attraction to lost causes. He grits his teeth, thinking no, not this time, Corey, please; but he can already feel Corey’s muscles tensing as he prepares to camouflage them, his depleted energy-stores notwithstanding.

But Monroe steps out of the trees before he can, and though Theo can’t see her, facing away as he is and his back too much of a white-hot strand flare of agony to turn, he can hear her carefully-controlled steps, her carefully-controlled breathing as she warns, “Don’t even think about it, Corey. That last bullet went into his spine. You try to camouflage and I’ll put the next one in his head before you can finish.”

Theo can feel Corey hesitate, his head resting against Corey’s hip as Corey holds him up. God damn it, Theo thinks brokenly, god damn it; so they were both going to die after all.

So he’d gotten Corey killed, after all.

He listens to it—all he can do, his eyes squeezed shut and burning with sudden, frustrated grief—as Monroe and her people spread out, circling him and Corey, as Monroe comes to a stop a few feet behind them and murmurs, “Well. This is unexpected. I didn’t think anyone would bother coming to look for Theo here, but if they did, I figured it’d be that bleeding heart Scott, or maybe lovesick little Liam. You, though, Corey—you’re a surprise.”

“Fuck you,” Corey spits out, his fingers spasming in their messy grips around Theo’s collar, the back of his shirt; the places they’d landed when he’d hurriedly grabbed him as Theo had collapsed.

“Charming,” Monroe replies, and then her voice goes a little sharper, a little less amused, “All of you McCall pack supernaturals are all so charming.”

Monroe must gesture to some of her hunters to come forward then, come get them, because Corey’s hands tighten around Theo’s shirt and he startles back some, Theo unable to bite back an agonized cry as the movement jostles his shredded spine. Corey immediately freezes, his scent flooding with guilt even underneath all the terror as he apologizes—sorry, I’m sorry—and desperately tries to rebalance without shifting Theo further.

“Corey, please,” Theo begs, quietly enough that Monroe and her hunters won’t hear him, “You have to try. Drop me, camouflage, and go.”

But Corey just shakes his head; Theo can feel it where his forehead is still braced against Corey’s hip, “No, I won’t. I won’t!”

Corey, god damn it,” Theo replies brokenly, and it’s a protest, an acknowledgement; an acceptance, as much as he doesn’t want it.

Still, there’s something indescribable in feeling the way that Corey shakes a little with silent, humorless laughter against him—and Theo can almost hear his thought; all the other shit we’ve survived and this is how it ends—and the way that his grasping, desperate fingers flatten out into more of a hold; his own acknowledgement and acceptance.

“I guess you were right about that common sense thing,” Corey tells him, voice shaking slightly; amusement and terror both. Theo presses his forehead harder against Corey’s hip in silent answer, tightens his fingers around Corey’s forearms.

“How very sweet,” Monroe observes, then: “Take them.”

Theo swallows and braces himself to be ripped away from Corey, tries to mentally prepare himself for the agony that’s going to follow as his shredded spine gets disturbed. Above him, Corey makes a helpless, distressed noise, and his hands—his earlier bout of serenity notwithstanding—tighten around Theo’s back.

And then, just before the crunching of the hunters’ boots gets close enough to drag them apart, the forest just explodes with noise.

What the fuck, Theo thinks blankly, as all around him gunfire rings out and someone—someones—yell, in pain and otherwise. But it’s the primordial, ferocious snarls that cut the air that catch and hold his attention, because those were werewolves making those noises.

“Holy shit, holy shit,” Corey exclaims above him, flinching and swearing and—eventually—tripping, as he reacts to the chaos.

Theo whites out for a moment as they hit the ground, but when he comes back to himself, he realizes he’s laying half on Corey, Corey half-sitting up with Theo draped awkwardly over his lap from where he’d fallen. Corey has his hands on his shoulder and in the middle of his spine, holding him as steady as possible as he chants out apologies intermixed with more swearing. If he could get his jaw to unstick, Theo would tell him it’s fine, it’s fine—even though it really isn’t, Theo feels like someone lit his back on fire—but the best he can do is pant against the edge of Corey’s hip, try to bury his pained cries in his thigh.

It doesn’t take long for the gunfire to stop, though the sound of pursuit—pounding feet and cracking branches, the sub-vocal growl of a full-shift werewolf on the hunt—continues in the distance. The yelling starts back up, but this time it’s recognizable, and Theo has to close his eyes against the sudden urge to sob with relief as he catches Agent McCall’s booming baritone, Parrish’s answering tenor, even Deputy Wilmot’s—that fucker—voice through the cacophony of law enforcement officers all shouting status reports at each other. And then, even better:

“Theo? Corey?” The Sheriff calls out, and this time Theo really does sob with relief, the sudden flare of agony up his back almost overcome by it.

“We’re over here!” Corey shouts, his voice breaking, “Here!”

Theo can’t turn his head to see the Sheriff as he approaches, but he can hear him, feel the vibration of his heavy steps as he runs to them. In the next instant Theo feels him kneel by his side, can hear his unsteady breathing and his pounding heartbeat.

“Ah, hell, kid,” He murmurs; catching sight of his back, Theo bets.

“Monroe said she shot him in the spine,” Corey explains, voice trembling, “He says he can’t move his legs.”

“Jesus Christ,” The Sheriff breathes, and Theo feels it when he reaches towards Theo’s spine and pulls part of his ruined shirt away from the wound; even the momentary catch of the fabric on shredded nerves sends a bolt of pain up Theo’s back and he jerks, “Sorry, Theo, sorry. It looks like the bullet shattered on impact, we can’t just remove it.”

Theo squeezes his eyes shut and digs his forehead against Corey’s hip, Corey’s hands tightening in solidarity around his shoulder and back as Corey asks, “What do we do?”

“We wait for the paramedics, get him to the nearest hospital,” The Sheriff answers gently, “Shohreh’s pack has a couple of medical professionals that—ah—specialize in cases like this, they’ve already put them on alert.”

Shohreh’s pack…? Theo thinks hazily, and out-loud manages to croak, “Where…?”

Above him, the Sheriff lets out a disbelieving huff of laughter and cups a gentle hand around the back of Theo’s head, strokes a comforting thumb across his scalp.

“Shasta Lake, Theo,” He answers, and Theo can hear the smile in his voice, the mix of disbelief and relief and raw joy:

“We’re three miles from Shasta Lake.”

---

Close-up shot of Corey's hands clenched in Theo's shirt.

Corey standing with his hands clenched in Theo's shirt, holding him up, with Theo on his knees and Theo's hands clutching at Corey's forearms.

Art by ArtZeppo

---

The next six hours are a blur.

Shohreh’s promised paramedics arrive, two of them appearing in a rescue ATV and strapping him onto a backboard, facedown and with Deputy McPherson’s hand on the back of his neck, taking as much of his pain as he can. McPherson had reappeared shortly before the paramedics had pulled up, hands and mouth bloody, but where Theo had half-expected the Sheriff to be horrified—or at least professionally insulted—he’d just ordered him down to Theo’s side to do that pain drain thing, the one with the black veins.

Corey insists on riding with them, the Sheriff arguing for maybe ten seconds before abruptly cutting himself off and agreeing. He tells McPherson that he’ll meet them at the hospital, that he has to call the others and tell them where they’d finally found Theo and Corey, Corey climbing carefully up into the back of the ATV by Theo and putting a hand on arm. His touch isn’t pain-draining like McPherson’s, but Theo still closes his eyes against the rush of sensation, helplessly grateful for the connection.

The ride from the ATV to the waiting ambulance is hell, and one of Shohreh’s lieutenants and clearly a powerful werewolf or not, McPherson can’t do much about the sudden spikes of overwhelming agony that cut through his attempts to control Theo’s pain. But it’s over fast enough, and once the paramedics get him transferred over to the ambulance and on the road, it’s only maybe another half an hour until he’s being wheeled into an operating theater.

McPherson follows him in, Corey left outside to his vocal displeasure. There’s a handful of people already dressed in scrubs in the room prepping, but there’s also an older woman stood silently next to the operating table, radiating such poise and presence that Theo automatically recognizes her, even having never met her in-person: Shohreh.

The paramedics transfer Theo over to the table and then leave the room, leaving McPherson, Shohreh, and Theo alone with the surgical team. Theo can’t do much more than wait, too weak to even turn his head, and Shohreh seems to realize this; she walks around the table until she’s within Theo’s vision and crouches down so that she can look him eye-to-eye, her own flared a comforting, burning red.

“Daniel and I are going to be your makeshift anesthesia while these good people do their work, but I’m not going to lie to you, Mr. Raeken—” She tells him, her accented voice pleasantly raspy, “—this is going to fucking suck.”

The unexpected profanity coming from such a poised woman catches Theo off-guard and he nearly laughs before he swallows it back, manages to smother it down to a snort that nonetheless jars his back. Shohreh grins at him but reaches forward at his wince, and immediately once her hand touches his skin, the pain evaporates.

“Ready?” She asks, and Theo studies her a long few seconds, looks at the surgical team hovering over her shoulder, and then nods best he can.

Shohreh’s right—the surgery fucking sucks—the surgical team having to constantly reopen his body’s attempts to heal over the damage, to cut purposefully into his spine, his muscles, looking for the shards of shattered bullet. Theo concentrates on the feel of Shohreh’s and McPherson’s hands on him, on the cooling, slightly unreal feeling of his pain draining away into the soft pressure of their grips, and desperately tries to stay still. He isn’t fully successful, but this clearly isn’t the first time this surgeon has operated on a supernatural; she compensates best she can for the fact that her patient is awake and occasionally incapable of not moving, and keeps going, ruthlessly efficient.

By the time she pulls the last shard of hollow-point out of Theo’s spine, Theo is so completely drained that he’s fading in and out of consciousness, live-action surgery or not. He only vaguely hears it as the surgeon removes her mask, talks briskly with Shohreh and McPherson, but he feels it when the last of the damage closes; he feels it—the overwhelming swoop of relief in his chest stealing his breath—when his toes curl, his left thigh twitches. Shohreh must feel the change in his breathing, her hand still on his neck, because she strokes a thumb over his cheek and tells him you’re safe now, Theo, go to sleep.

Theo does.

When he wakes up, he’s out of the operating theater and in a hospital room, an IV hooked up to his arm and one of those nose-fed oxygen tubes hooked over his ears. He blinks, looking around, and then stops, caught, by the sight of Corey curled up and passed out in the room’s single armchair, the Sheriff’s jacket draped over him. Beside him is the man himself, head tilted back against the wall and arms crossed over his chest, sat in an uncomfortable-looking chair that Theo bets he dragged in from some waiting room somewhere. There’s the smell of werewolves in the room—Shohreh and her pack—as well as Parrish’s smoke-and-ash scent, the tang of Agent McCall’s aftershave.

“The others are on their way.”

Theo jumps and looks over at the Sheriff, now blinking owlishly in the washed-out fluorescent lights coming in through the room’s windows from the hallway. He yawns and looks over at Corey—checking on him—and smiles softly, then turns back to Theo.

“We were spread out across the goddamned state of California looking for the two of you once we realized you were gone, they’re coming from all over,” The Sheriff explains, voice croaking. Then he grins, though it’s a little strained, like he’s still adjusting to being able to make jokes, “Me, though. I had a theory.”

Theo can’t help grinning back, remembers the Sheriff’s answer to his earlier question, “Shasta Lake?”

“Shasta Lake,” The Sheriff confirms, eyes crinkling.

Theo laughs and drops his head back against his pillow, still exhausted. It’s the good kind of exhaustion, though—the healing kind, rather than the slow-death kind—so Theo almost revels in it. He laughs again to himself, quietly, and wiggles his toes, flexes his feet, shifts his legs, just to feel them moving; just because he can. Then he rolls his head back to the side so that he can look at the Sheriff without lifting it.

“How’d you know we were gone?” He asks quietly, some of the good mood fading from the room as he does.

The Sheriff inhales slowly, exhales out just as carefully, “First clue was you not showing to pick up Alec. Pretty soon after those alarm bells started ringing, Mason called Scott—Liam had texted him asking where Corey was, since he didn’t show for Finstock’s Saturday practice, and no one could get ahold of him. It seemed too much a coincidence.”

The Sheriff shifts in his chair, resettles, looks over at Corey almost compulsively; Theo gets the feeling that both he and Corey are going to be frequent visitors around the station in the coming weeks, if by choice or by order.

“We pinged your phones. Corey’s was in the middle the Preserve, and yours was in the middle of a field off Highway 36. Wasn’t hard to put it together after that,” He finishes.

“Still pretty impressive. Finding us, I mean,” Theo murmurs, turning his head back forward and staring sightlessly at the bleached-out stretch of hospital wall opposite him, “Talk about a needle in a haystack.”

“We weren’t sure we were going to be able to,” The Sheriff admits softly, and Theo looks back over at him, “Scott, Argent, and the others who have been out looking for Monroe started pouring back over what they knew, trying to find a clue, and McCall must have screamed at every police department and sheriff’s office from San Diego to Yreka, but, well.” He stops, grimaces, “You know better than almost anyone; we were grasping at straws.”

Theo feels his brow furrow, “So how did you…?”

The Sheriff looks away, his jaw working, “I told McCall I was taking Parrish and the rest of my deputies and going to Shasta Lake. All we had was a bunch of seemingly random data points and your self-admitted hunch, but I couldn’t…”

He trails off, then suddenly leans forward and braces his elbows on his knees, scrubs his hands over his face.

“You’d been right about practically everything else, so I told Parrish and Johnson, Alvarez, anyone and everyone to get in their cruisers and head for Shasta Lake. And then I called McPherson and I begged,” The Sheriff says, and then he looks up at Theo, expression almost defiant.

Theo just stares back at him, stunned. The Sheriff meets his eyes for a second longer and then drops his gaze again, his adam’s apple bobbing as he swallows.

“McPherson connected me with Shohreh, and that was all it took,” The Sheriff explains, tone taking on an edge of wonder, “She ordered all her people to the lake and the surrounding areas to start combing them for you. Called in some other packs, too, apparently—there were nearly a hundred werewolves out searching for you by the end.”

“Jesus,” Theo murmurs quietly.

The Sheriff hums in apparent agreement, “McCall rallied what members of the task force he could get, too, gave everyone the world’s most inadequate werewolves exist speech and sent them off to work with Shohreh’s people.”

“Deputy Wilmot,” Theo mutters darkly, but it’s rote, toothless, almost an inside-joke; it just needs to be said, even though Theo’s going to have to thank Wilmot at some point for helping save his life.

The Sheriff smirks and agrees, “Deputy Wilmot.”

Corey shifts in his chair, snuffling quietly, and they both pause and look at him. The jacket covering him as a makeshift blanket slips down his balled-up form and the Sheriff reaches over, pulls it back up.

“Theo, I have to ask,” He says, once that’s done and he can lean back in his chair, “We went to the part of the Preserve where Corey’s phone was pinging, and found the dead hunter. It’s how we knew that you two had been taken by Monroe and not some, y’know, other completely crazy but completely plausible monstrosity. But what I don’t understand is what you two were doing there, in the middle of nowhere, where you knew we were having trouble tracking Monroe’s people.”

Theo sucks in a long, slow breath, holds it as he turns to look at Corey. The half-drained-battery scent of him had cleared—he’d eaten something, maybe, or eaten a lot of something—the last tinges of exhaustion fading the longer he slept, but he still seems...small, curled up under the Sheriff’s jacket. He still seems vulnerable.

“I can promise you there’s a good reason,” Theo finally tells him, exhaling slowly, “But you’ve got to ask Corey.”

The Sheriff studies him carefully, then probes, “This is the big secret, the thing you’ve been keeping from everybody for months?”

Theo hesitates, and then he nods. The Sheriff sighs, rubs two fingers against his forehead.

“I hope it was worth almost dying for,” The Sheriff finally says ruefully, dropping his hand and leaning back in his chair again to peer at him from under heavy, tired eyelids.

Theo doesn’t even need to think about it, just assures him quietly, “It was. It is.”

The Sheriff studies him for a moment longer, and then he sighs heavily and looks away. Theo reaches out instinctively with his senses to check his scent, his heartbeat, curious at his sudden turn in mood, and has to stop, close his eyes; his senses were back. Having them muted throughout his and Corey’s escape, having them be nearly useless, it’d been almost like losing a limb.

But just almost, a judgement Theo is now depressingly qualified to make.

He’s still reveling in his recovered senses—stretching them out to the rest of the hospital, tracking the staff and the patients and the visitors by ear and sound and nose, just because he could—that he forgets to turn them back to the Sheriff, and so he’s caught off-guard some when the Sheriff speaks.

“Look, Theo. Speaking of Corey…” He starts, “He told me about your conversation in the forest.” He hesitates, then, but after a beat continues, “Theo, I’m—”

Don’t,” Theo suddenly interjects, and then stops, taken aback himself at his own outburst.

The Sheriff stares at him, brow furrowed, and Theo chews his bottom lip, tries to keep meeting his eyes but eventually has to look away, his fingers starting to pick at the cheap hospital blanket in his lap. He knows where this conversation is going, knows what he just cut the Sheriff off from saying, and he just...can’t. He’d just had a pretty brutal twenty-four hours. He’d been shot, poisoned, tortured. He’d been temporarily paralyzed and nearly killed, had nearly been forced to watch Corey killed.

And yet, out of all of that, hearing the Sheriff apologize might just be the thing that breaks him.

“You were right,” Theo confesses, fingers pulling harder at a loose thread in the blanket as he does, “When you told Scott that you’d have to be careful about telling me I wasn’t on parole or whatever anymore, you were right. I would have thought you were…” His throat closes as he looks up at the Sheriff, as he imagines his own reaction; his own idiotic, self-defeating, entirely predictable reaction, “I wouldn’t have been ready to hear it.”

The Sheriff thinks this over for a few long seconds, then asks, voice left trailing as he catches the implication in Theo’s phrasing, “But now…?”

Theo lets his gaze drift from the Sheriff to Corey, still passed out and sleeping peacefully beneath the Sheriff’s jacket. He stills his compulsively moving fingers and studies Corey’s relaxed expression, thinks about him saying that’s why earlier in the forest. He looks at one of his hands, peeking out from underneath the Sheriff’s jacket; the same hands that had held him up when he’d been too weak on his own, that had dragged him out of danger; that had saved his life.

He thinks about the headstones that Corey had made for Josh and Tracy with those hands, and he thinks about the quartz and the pendant that he, himself, had added to their graves.

On the heels of that is the memory of how they’d felt, tucked away in his pockets like the best kind of secret while he’d shared that ridiculous plate of nachos with Mrs. Geyer after all their post-Thanksgiving shopping. And then, like the chic-chic-chic of a film reel cycling, he sees all the times that he’d dropped his bag of chips, or pushed his oversized deli cookie into the middle of the desk between himself and the Sheriff during their one-on-one strategy sessions, the Sheriff accepting them wordlessly, automatically; thoughtlessly.

And then he remembers Liam, curled up beside him and nightmare-free, breathing easy and close enough to touch; breathing easy because he was close enough to touch.

But, at the end, those moments aren’t the ones that make the hazy feeling in his chest solidify. Instead, it’s the last moment before his and Corey’s rescue that sticks with him; the way that Corey’s grip on him had gone from desperate, disbelieving to steady, serene. He remembers the way it’d felt, his face braced against Corey’s hip where Corey had caught him when he’d fallen, everything below his waist just a blank void, Corey shaking with silent, helpless laughter, as he’d accepted his and Theo’s shared fate: so this is how it ends.

But that hadn’t been how it ended. And now...and now…

“Tell me now,” Theo says suddenly, and looks back at the Sheriff, the hollow in his chest twisting some, a rock-solid sliver of certainty starting to bloom inside it, “Tell me...tell me now.”

And the Sheriff, after a moment’s stunned hesitation, and then after fighting to control the wide, uncontrollable smile that breaks across his face; the Sheriff does.

---

When Theo wakes up again sometime later, the IV and oxygen-tube are gone, and there’s a note folded and tucked between the edge of the mattress and the end of the bed; left where Theo would immediately see it.

He reaches forward and grabs it, then flops back against the bed, mind still cobwebbed with sleep and his body’s steady work to heal the damage he’d taken. It’s written in the Sheriff’s spiky scrawl: Had to go help McCall clean up M mess. Back ASAP. Underneath, where Theo would have expected to see his name, or maybe just an S, the Sheriff has instead doodled an outline of his Sheriff’s badge. Theo stares at it for a moment, blinking, and then snorts with laughter.

He folds the note back up and then looks around, searching for a place to set it. There’s a nightstand next to his bed, but that’s not what snags his attention; Corey had apparently vacated the armchair at some point after Theo had fallen asleep, and instead, Liam is now curled up inside it.

His clothes are torn in places and he’s absolutely filthy, dried mud streaked up his jeans and dirt smudged across his face, the backs of his hands. Theo stares at him, realizing, he’d been out looking for us. Then, the voice in his head gone even quieter, wondering, he’d been out looking for me.

Swallowing past the sudden burn of feeling in his throat, Theo stretches out his senses to try and get a better read on him, but ends up stopping short. Liam smells like pack, which isn’t unusual, but so does the entire hospital floor, which is. Taken aback and more than a little curious, Theo quickly takes stock of his various limbs—remembering the last time he tried to stand without help—and then slowly slides over to the edge of the bed, the Sheriff’s note left carefully on the bedspread.

Theo wobbles a bit when he pushes himself to his feet, but his legs hold him. Closing his eyes and basking in that for a moment, Theo then takes a few cautious steps forward, heading for the doorway. He stops when he reaches Liam, though, the instinct immediate and irresistible.

Liam—still fast asleep—turns so that he’s facing Theo, one hand flopping out against the armrest of the chair. After a second’s hesitation, Theo lets himself reach forward with one careful hand, touch his fingers lightly to the back of Liam’s grubby wrist. Liam makes a soft noise and shifts, settling down further into the chair, some of the tension in his frame—either from the stress of the day or his contorted position, or both—draining away.

Smiling slightly, Theo starts forward again, his fingers falling away from Liam’s arm as he does. But when he reaches the doorway, looks out into the waiting room across the hall, he’s brought up short again.

The entirety of the McCall pack is squeezed into the too-small space, all of them fast asleep.

Corey’s absence from his room suddenly makes sense when he spots him curled up with Mason, the two of them having pushed two chairs together front-to-front to form a makeshift—if cramped—bed of sorts. Across from them, Malia is asleep against Scott’s shoulder, Scott’s head tipped back against the wall and his arms crossed loosely over his chest. They still look more comfortable than Alec, who’d apparently given up on the chairs and just laid down on the ground a few feet away, Derek asleep in a chair above him with his legs stretched out in front of him.

A soft sigh catches Theo’s attention and he jerks to look at Ms. McCall, her head pillowed on Argent’s thigh in one of the room’s two tiny couches. Argent for his part has one hand on her back, the other crossed over his chest and resting, Theo knows, against the butt of his gun, hidden under his jacket.

But it’s the room’s final two occupants that really get to Theo; curled up on the other couch, their heads resting one against the other and their hands tightly clasped, Mrs. Geyer and Dr. Geyer sleep soundly, Mrs. Geyer’s shoes kicked off and her legs tucked underneath her. Theo feels his throat close up at the sight, at the dark circles under both of their eyes; at the scent of fear-sweat and grief and, ultimately, relief, that he can smell on their clothes and skin.

He doesn’t know what to think as he takes in the sight, the smell of the full—of the full—room, but what he hears is Corey’s voice in his head: you haven’t been on parole for weeks.

Guess not, Theo mentally answers Corey, helpless and with the newly-filled hollow in his chest twisting some—but twisting contentedly, greedily—around his new knowledge, around the sight of the Geyers and the sight of the pack; around Liam, asleep behind him. Leaning heavily against the doorway, Theo tilts his head against the cool metal of the door jamb and just drinks it all in.

Eventually, though, the half-muted signals that his body had been sending him become more insistent, and Theo grimaces, straightens. His first instinct is just to head straight back to the bed, but awake—truly awake, aware and without grievous bodily injury or the threat of death to contend with—he’s realizing just how much of a mess he is. Between the original fight he’d had with Rossler and the other hunters, the gunshot wounds, his and Corey’s flight through the woods, his other gunshot wound, and a bout of major surgery, Theo is pretty inarguably disgusting; he probably shouldn’t have been casting aspersions on Liam’s cleanliness earlier, mentally or otherwise.

Still standing in the doorway, Theo tries to calculate his odds of, first, there being towels in his room’s en-suite bathroom, and two, whether he’ll be able to successfully take a shower without falling and cracking his head open. He’ll never know the answer to the first without checking, and he’s officially grossed out enough by himself that he’s willing to risk the second, so he pivots on a slightly unsteady heel and heads for the bathroom.

He makes it as far as the sink.

Groaning quietly, Theo folds his arms over the edges of it and drops his head onto them, his whole body feeling approximately a million pounds. He’s in the middle of re -calculating his odds and trying to reevaluate how grimy he feels versus how exhausted he is, when a noise behind him catches his attention and he whips around, adrenaline flooding his system.

Liam stares at him from the bathroom doorway, wide-eyed, “Sorry.”

“Jesus Christ, Liam,” Theo complains, exhaling out his previously-held breath in a huge rush and slumping back against the sink; at least he isn’t tired anymore, he thinks ruefully.

He almost expects Liam to apologize again, if only to fill the sudden silence, but he doesn’t. In fact, he doesn’t do anything; he just stands in the bathroom doorway, his arms down by his sides and his whole posture...lost, somehow.

“Liam…?” Theo asks after a few more slow, stretched seconds.

“You know, I genuinely thought the worst things that would ever happen to me had already happened,” Liam suddenly tells him, apropos of absolutely nothing. Theo stares at him, but Liam just continues on, oblivious or ignoring him, “It was the one silver lining of all of the absolute bullshit of the last few years.”

“Liam, I—” Theo starts, though it’s probably a good thing when Liam just talks over him, because he has no idea what he was going to say.

“But then I had to watch the Sheriff tell my mom that they probably weren’t going to be able to find you in time,” He finishes, and his tone is almost ruthless in its even-handedness, Theo’s breath freezing in his chest, “He came over to check the house when everyone realized you were gone, you see, and my mom—you know how my mom is—” And if Liam didn’t mean that as a rebuke, Theo takes it at as one, flinching, “—she didn’t understand, she just kept pushing. He wasn’t trying to be cruel, I don’t think, he just...didn’t want to lie to her.”

He stops, eyes dropping from Theo’s face to his chest, but it’s immediately clear that whatever he’s seeing, it isn’t Theo.

“She didn’t even care about finding out about me, or you, or the rest of it,” He murmurs finally, “She just genuinely thought she’d never see you again.”

Theo watches Liam’s adam’s apple bob as he swallows, his fingers clenching on the sink behind him, too stunned even to reach out with his senses, to try and read Liam’s scent, or his heartbeat. And then Liam renders it all moot, anyway, when he looks back up, blank eyes suddenly gone sharp, posture suddenly anything but lost.

I genuinely thought I’d never see you again,” He tells Theo calmly.

But there’s nothing calm about the way that he surges forward, hands coming up to grip Theo’s head and body pressing flush against Theo’s, bending him back against the sink as he crushes their mouths together. Theo can’t help his confused noise, his hands flying to Liam’s shoulders more as an instinctual defense than anything else. But as the initial shock passes and Theo realizes that Liam is kissing him, he moans and slides them up from his shoulders and to the back of his head, cupping it as he tilts his own head, angles his mouth over Liam’s to better deepen the kiss.

Liam makes a hurt sound and presses against him harder, but it’s not the pressure against his back that drags Theo’s attention away from the kiss; it’s the sudden sting of sharp fangs against his tongue, the sudden pricking sensation of claws on his scalp. Pulling back, Theo finds himself staring at Liam’s golden eyes, his expression raw like an open wound.

“Liam…” Theo breathes, but Liam’s expression just twists further.

“Hours, Theo,” Liam tells him hoarsely, “We were out looking for hours, and the longer we were out the more everyone kept losing hope, and I could...I could—”

He doesn’t finish, just surges back into Theo, kissing him again. His lower fang opens up a tear in Theo’s bottom lip and Theo can feel Liam’s claws scratching thin lines across the back of his head, Theo’s hands flying up to hold Liam’s wrists automatically. But he doesn’t stop him, just holds on gently, grounding them both, and lets his healing close the wound on his lip, the scratches on his head; he just holds his wrists and lets Liam keep kissing him, blood—from one of them, from both of them, Liam’s fangs tearing open his own tongue or Theo’s—in both of their mouths.

God,” Liam groans, ripping himself away from Theo’s mouth after a few long minutes of that, “I want—”

He yanks his—fully human—hands out of Theo’s lax grips, shoves back some as he drops them to Theo’s hospital-supplied sweatpants. Theo sucks in a startled breath as Liam cups him through the material, his hands landing on Liam’s shoulders and clenching hard around the fabric of Liam’s thermal. But the fact that Liam isn’t kissing him anymore gives him a chance to look over Liam’s shoulder and realize that the goddamned door is still open, the rest of the McCall pack and Liam’s parents less than fifty feet away.

“Liam,” Theo tries, then has to stop and bite back a moan as Liam slides his hands up across Theo’s stomach and then back down into his sweatpants, taking hold of Theo’s cock in a firm grip.

He pants as Liam starts to move his hand, starts to experiment with rhythm, with tightness, clearly on a mission, but Theo only just recently found out that he’s a free man; he has no desire to be a dead man so soon afterwards. So by some Herculean effort he manages to reach down, still Liam’s hand around him. Liam makes a complaining noise and looks up at him, eyes still gold but teeth blunt.

“The door is open,” Theo hisses at him.

That does draw Liam up short and he glances over his shoulder like maybe Theo had lied to him, but there it is; the open door. But he does not, in fact, move to shut it, and he doesn’t take his hand off Theo, so Theo groans and brings both hands back up to Liam’s shoulders and shoves him back a few necessary steps, Liam’s grip falling away automatically. Liam scowls and makes a grab for him, which Theo—and seriously, how did this situation turn into a goddamn comedy skit—dodges, skirting past Liam so that he can get ahold of the bathroom door and pull it out from its anchored place against the wall, let it swing shut.

Almost immediately Liam pushes him up against it, the sudden force of Theo’s back hitting the wood sending it the rest of the way closed. Theo barely has time to think of a smart remark—let alone say it—before Liam is kissing him again and putting his hand right back where it had been. This time Theo doesn’t protest, just drops his head back against the door with a moan and lets Liam work him.

At some point Liam must get frustrated with the way that Theo’s sweatpants restrict his movement, because he pauses with an irritated huff and gets them off, Theo lifting his hips at Liam’s guiding touch to help. But that gives Theo all kinds of ideas, and before Liam can take him back in hand, he leans forward and cups his face, kisses him hard before dropping his hands to the hem of Liam’s thermal. Liam catches on with a moan and lifts his arms to allow Theo to strip it off, their kiss breaking at the last moment.

Liam immediately reaches for Theo’s t-shirt—also hospital-supplied, he doesn’t even want to think what happened to the clothes he’d put on this morning—and strips that off, too. That leaves Liam in his jeans and briefs, which Theo takes care of swiftly.

It means that when Liam presses back into him once he’s done stepping out of the fabric pooled at his feet, all Theo feels is heat, and skin; he shudders and pulls Liam harder against him, both of them falling back against the door with the movement. It’s goddamn cold, though, and Theo jerks at the feeling. Liam laughs—Theo biting the tip of his ear in retribution—but then something seems to occur to him and he drops his hands from where they’d landed against Theo’s chest, slides them around to his back until they’re resting right above the dip of his pelvis, the very tips of his fingers just barely touching the bumps of Theo’s lower spine.

“This was too close,” He murmurs, and then all at once his grip tightens, his fingers digging furrows into the muscles of Theo’s lower back, “This whole fucking day was too close.”

Theo doesn’t know what do say—there’s nothing to say—but he has some idea what to do, his hands sliding from Liam’s back to his head so that Theo can pull him into another warm, deep kiss. Liam’s teeth against his tongue feel too sharp to be human again, the tips of his fingers pricking with claws against his back, but Theo doesn’t stop, just tightens his grip around Liam’s head, kisses him deeper, and eventually Liam’s hands—nails once more blunt—relax.

They relax, and his right slides back around and over Theo’s left hip, his fingers trailing along Theo’s inner thigh until he can take his cock in hand again. Theo’s hands spasm around Liam’s face and he drops them, drapes them over Liam’s shoulders and clenches them against the firm muscles of Liam’s back. He has to turn his face away from Liam’s mouth as Liam starts to work him again, presses his temple hard against Liam’s and just pants as his hips start to jerk in time to Liam’s motions.

“That’s it, Theo, c’mon,” Liam murmurs, turning into the pressure of Theo’s face against his, his hand working faster and faster until finally Theo’s muscles lock and he comes, his moan buried in Liam’s hair and his fingers spasming against his back.

Liam works him through it but takes his hand away before Theo can start to get to oversensitive, ducks his head until he can get his mouth back on Theo’s, lick between his slack lips. Theo turns into it and responds best he can through the pleasant white noise of his brain.

But it doesn’t take long for his own overwhelming desire—Liam’s cut-off I want earlier echoing in his head—to reassert itself, and he shifts enough that he can pull his arm back, trail it down Liam’s chest, Liam’s muscles tensing with anticipation and his breath catching, to take ahold of Liam’s hard cock. Liam’s the one who breaks their kiss this time; he drops his forehead against Theo’s cheek so that he can watch it as Theo works him, his hands coming up to Theo’s chest and clenching there.

Theo closes his eyes and focuses on the feel of Liam in his palm, Liam’s breath against his cheek; the smell of Liam’s arousal and the smell of his own completion and the smell of them both, together. His hand tightens minutely in response and Liam lets out a startled, heady moan, so Theo does it again, keeps doing it until Liam yanks one of his own wrists to his mouth and bites down, muffling his loud cry as he spills over Theo’s hand, his other hand digging furrows into the muscles of Theo’s chest.

Theo takes his hand away and Liam falls, panting, against him, his hands sliding up to the back of Theo’s neck and anchoring there. Burying his face in the top of Liam’s head, Theo wraps his arms around his back and holds him there, just concentrates on the feeling of Liam’s breath fanning out against his chest and listens to Liam’s heartbeat pounding out against his own.

Eventually it slows, and between that and the sudden tensing of Liam’s shoulders, Theo’s prepared for it when Liam leans back. He meets Liam’s eyes, lets him search Theo’s own, but still has to stifle a surprised jerk when Liam suddenly brings his hand up and rubs his thumb along the skin just underneath Theo’s bottom lip. When Theo glances down at it, curious, he sees a smear of half-dried blood from his earlier torn lip. He flicks his eyes past it, to Liam, who clenches his upraised hand, then lets it fall against the hollow of Theo’s throat.

“You were already out of surgery and asleep by the time the rest of us got here,” He suddenly says, voice soft and back to sounding a little lost, “They’d changed your clothes, cleaned up the worst of the blood and dirt for the procedure.”

He stops, and Theo wonders at his point, because clearly there is one. Luckily Liam doesn’t keep him waiting.

“If it hadn’t been for the IV and the oxygen-tube, it would have been like nothing happened at all,” He finally concludes, and while he sounds matter-of-fact, his scent dips, “You looked almost exactly like you did the last time I saw you.”

Theo meets his bright eyes, his twisted expression. He tries to think of something to say, but what is there to say? I’m okay would be dismissive. It’d looked worse than it was would be a lie. I’m glad you didn’t see it would be the truth in some ways, and complete bullshit in others; it’d been bad enough knowing that Corey was going to die with—for—him, but Theo would have given a lot in the forest, paralyzed and just completely out of options and hope, to see Liam one last time.

Liam suddenly huffs out a gentle laugh, and Theo realizes that he’d ended up saying exactly what he’d needed to say—nothing—and that Liam had seen the rest of it on his face.

“Yeah,” He agrees lightly, voice wet with quixotic humor, “Good answer.”

Theo laughs quietly and cups his face again, kisses him again; because he can, because he wants to, because it seems like a better answer. Liam opens his mouth and kisses him back just as hard.

They break apart eventually, and it’s shortly after they both really take a hard look—at themselves and each other—that Theo gets his answer about the towels; there are two threadbare hospital towels in the cabinet underneath the sink. There’s some momentary hemming and hawing about whether they’re going to try to manage the tiny shower at the same time, but after Theo stumbles a bit—his exhaustion back with interest—Liam makes the executive decision that yes, they are.

They shower quickly, because as heavenly as the hot water feels and as tempting as Liam’s naked body remains, they’re both practically asleep on their feet. Liam ends up doing most of the work, scrubbing them both down the best he can without soap or a washcloth, Theo mostly relegated to leaning heavily against the wall and letting Liam have his way with him. Liam comments mercilessly on it, but his hands are gentle, comforting, only ever incidentally arousing, and it’s somehow just as heady as their earlier sex; more so, maybe.

Liam gets them out of the shower and dried off, and then—the faces they both make notwithstanding—back into their old clothes. Thank god they did actually end up taking them off, the lack of actual planning going into that decision notwithstanding, since Theo is pretty sure at least one of the supernaturals in the other room is already going to sense something; no need to up the chances of the humans noticing, too. Then—Theo’s stumbling cranked up to eleven—Liam gets his shoulder underneath Theo’s arm and gets him back to the bed out in the main room, the door awkwardly but successfully opened and stuck back in its open position against the bathroom wall.

He lowers Theo to the bed carefully, then stands over him with his bottom lip between his teeth, expression conflicted. Theo can almost see his train of thought, and is grateful when Liam’s expression goes resigned—disappointed—but resigned, since he probably wouldn’t have been able to resist temptation, himself.

“Probably a bad idea, huh?” Liam says aloud, but he’s already moving to help Theo wrestle the covers out from underneath himself instead of climbing in with him.

He hesitates by the bedside, though, once Theo is settled. Theo looks a question at him, and all at once Liam leans down, kisses him fast and hard before straightening again.

“Don’t—don’t go anywhere, okay?” He says, and from the pleading look in his eyes, he knows his statement is completely nonsensical.

But Theo gets it, and he just smiles softly, reaches up until he can pull Liam back down into another kiss.

“See you in the morning,” He murmurs against Liam’s mouth, then lets him straighten.

Liam stays braced over him for a moment, and then he nods, decisively and like he’s going into battle, and turns on his heel for his abandoned armchair. He settles back into it, squirming hard like it’s important that he gets the shitty foam filling exactly as he likes it, before crossing his arms and stretching his legs out before him pointedly; Theo bites back a smile, because he knows that Liam is going to curl into a ball the second he falls asleep.

But he doesn’t say anything, and Liam just nods once more and says, like a promise, like a gift:

“See you in the morning.”

---

Theo wakes up at six the next morning because the McCall pack has apparently given up on sleeping in the uncomfortable waiting room chairs—or floor, in Alec’s case—and is awake and talking.

Blinking awake, Theo tips his head towards the door and comes face to face with Corey, sat once more in the armchair, eyes somber. He’s wearing one of Mason’s Beacon Hills hoodies—Theo knows from the smell, but mostly from the frayed hole in the sleeve of the right wrist, worn through from Mason worrying at it—and looks marginally better than the last time Theo saw him, but not by much.

“Hey,” He says quietly.

“Hey,” Theo rasps back.

The sound level in the waiting room drops like a stone, which means one of the supernaturals heard them, and—like some demented Rube Goldberg machine—the others had quickly caught on. Chairs scrape and feet hit the floor, but someone must give someone else a significant look, because while nothing is said, no one approaches the doorway. Subtle, Theo thinks, snorting a laugh, but he’s not ungrateful.

Corey’s lips flicker in a there-and-gone smile, too, but it falls off his face quickly. Theo bites his lip and looks away from him, his left shoulder and the side of his neck burning with the sense memory of Corey’s hands, desperately holding him upright after he’d been shot in the back; they’d been shaking, Theo remembers, but their grip had been strong.

“Corey…” Theo starts.

“If you try to thank me, I swear to god I’m going to punch you,” Corey interrupts him.

Theo looks back over at him, thrown, but Corey just glares at him, expression mulish. After a second he jerks his head towards the side, jaw working.

“That’s what pack does for each other, okay?” He says, almost aggressively, “You...you’re part of this now, part of us, so it’s just...what we do for each other.”

He doesn’t sound like he believes it, not totally, but what Theo hears is the promise of it; that he doesn’t sound like he believes it yet. Corey meets his eyes again like a dare, and Theo—after a beat of hesitation—Theo just nods.

The potential for an awkward silence is high—Theo doesn’t have any idea what to do with the conversation as it stands and Corey doesn’t look any better off—but at that moment his senses finish fully engaging and he catches the sent of fried food and strong coffee wafting in from the waiting room, and his stomach growls. They stare at each for a few startled seconds, and then Corey guffaws with laughter.

“Oh, screw you,” Theo mutters, “You had a chance to eat real food. I’ve had nothing but a saline drip in the last ten hours.”

He winces after he’s done speaking, the casual glibness of his comment out of step with the sudden lightening of the atmosphere. But Corey takes in the spirit it was meant and just grins, starts to lever himself out of the chair.

“Argent and Ms. McCall practically bought out the diner down the street. What do you want? I’ll go get it,” He offers.

But Theo’s already moving to get out of the bed, suddenly sick of it. Corey makes a noise, clearly concerned, and darts forward, hands outreached like a spotter. Giving him a dry look—but a little embarrassingly touched, not that he has any intention of drawing attention to that fact, for both their sakes—Theo finishes getting to his feet, no assist needed.

“Are you sure you should be out of bed?” Corey asks doubtfully, still unconvinced.

Theo just rolls his eyes, because what’s he going to say? I conclusively demonstrated that I can stand for at least half an hour at a time when I got Liam off in the bathroom last night? So instead he proves by doing and starts heading for the door, ignoring Corey hovering over his shoulder.

Theo’s appearance in the doorway sets off a rolling wave of noise as pack members closer to the door spot him and exclaim, alerting other members further back. Scott’s the closest and hurries over, and Theo prepares for him to stop, maybe give him a hearty clap on the shoulder and profess his happiness at Theo still being whole and alive. Instead he just keeps coming, and before Theo really knows what to do about it, Scott’s wrapped him in a tight hug.

“Uh, hi, Scott,” Theo tells the top of Scott’s head, too thrown to do much else.

Scott pulls back and grins at him, and there’s the hearty shoulder-clap. Then, of course, he ruins whatever good-will he’d earned by squinting at him and asking in his serious, True Alpha voice:

“Should you be out of bed?”

Behind Theo, Corey crows with laughter. Theo turns his gaze to the ceiling with an annoyed huff, and apparently that’s it, that does it, because whatever tension had been in the room just breaks, and the rest of the McCall pack comes forward to greet him. Scott’s unexpected hug serving as something as an early-warning system, Theo retools his expectations and just accepts the rest of them as they come, feels something come loose in his chest as he wraps his arms around Malia, Mason, Alec, and Derek in turn.

Liam’s the last, and for a moment—for the first time ever, maybe—Theo doesn’t know how to react to him; they’d pretty conclusively demolished the last of their barriers last night, but that doesn’t exactly give him a blueprint for this morning. But Liam just comes forward, claims his own hug, his hand on the back of Theo’s neck like a promise, and Theo allows himself the indulgence of turning his face a little into the side of Liam’s head; now clearly wasn’t the time for a grand reveal, but they’d figured it out.

The adults are nowhere to be found, and Scott must see Theo wondering at that fact because he explains, “My dad and the Sheriff are both still coordinating clean-up, I think they’re downstairs taking calls. My mom went to go help Mrs. Geyer forge convincing paperwork for your stay here, and Liam’s dad asked if he could see the x-rays from your back.”

Theo gives him a narrow-eyed look, then glances at Derek, who smirks and says, “Argent said something about finding a very deep, very dark hole for the Sheriff and McCall to throw Monroe into. Scott’s pretty sure he was kidding. He’s downstairs, too.”

Theo just snorts, and then his stomach growls again. The others grin and laugh, but they break up the little circle they’d formed around Theo and lead him over to the food. Corey wasn’t kidding about Argent and Ms. McCall practically buying out the diner; there are three boxes packed with breakfast sandwiches, plastic containers of pancakes and waffles, bacon, sausage, and two portable containers of coffee crammed onto three of the cheap waiting room side-tables pushed together. Theo practically moans at the sight and starts gathering up a plate, the others returning to their own abandoned breakfasts as he does.

He winds up sat on the floor, legs stretched out in front of him and the McCall pack arranged around him as they eat, talking easily. Theo can feel it—can certainly hear it—every time someone goes to bring up what happened and stops themselves, everyone somehow universally and without discussion agreeing to save it for later. It means by the time the adults—minus Ms. McCall and Mrs. Geyer, apparently still stuck in paperwork hell—return, Theo is feeling pleasantly full enough that when the Sheriff catches sight of him and goes to open his mouth, Theo just holds up a warning finger.

“If you ask me if I should be out of bed, I’m going to throw this packet of non-dairy creamer at you,” He promises.

“What if I ask it?” Comes a soft voice, and Theo jerks to look at Mrs. Geyer, now stood a few feet away, Ms. McCall beside her.

Theo scrambles to his feet, “Mrs. Geyer, I...um.”

But Mrs. Geyer just laughs wetly, “You nearly die and you still can’t call me Jenna, huh?”

Her words are teasing, but her arms open, and before Theo even knows what he’s doing he’s stepped forward into them, buried his face in her neck. He can feel tears burning in his eyes as her arms come around him, squeezing tight enough that he can feel it in his ribs, but he doesn’t care, just tightens his own arms around her back and holds on.

The room goes silent again but Theo ignores it, ignores the burn of several pairs of eyes that he can feel on his back. Mrs. Geyer holds onto him for several seconds longer and then she pulls back, brings both hands up to cup his head so that she can hold it steady as she looks at him. There are tear-tracks on her cheeks, and they distract him enough that it isn’t until she sweeps her thumbs underneath his eyes that he realizes that his own wet eyes had spilled over, too.

“So,” She starts, voice trembling some with emotion but still managing to sound light, “Werewolf-coyote chimera, I’m told.”

“It’s a long story,” Theo answers, his voice cracking some, “I’m sorry for lying, I’m sorry—”

He as to cut himself off, his throat closing. Mrs. Geyer just smiles softly and then gently encourages his head downward until she can raise up some on her toes, kiss his forehead.

“It doesn’t change anything,” She tells him— promises him—quietly.

Theo feels his whole expression twist and surges forward back into her, hiding his face in her neck. She wraps her arms back around him and just holds tight, swaying some as she does.

“Oi, rubberneckers,” Theo hears Ms. McCall suddenly say, “If you’ve got time to stare, you’ve got time to clean up after yourselves. How did you even create this much mess in the time we were gone? C’mon, get moving. Paperwork’s been convincingly forged and Theo’s all checked out.”

Theo’s distantly grateful for Ms. McCall’s intervention causes a flurry of sound, everyone immediately jumping to be busy, suitably chastised. He holds on to Mrs. Geyer for a few seconds longer and then pulls back, returns her wobbly smile and then huffs out an embarrassed sound, brings his hands up to scrub at his tear-tracked cheeks.

When he drops his hands, Dr. Geyer is there, and this time Theo doesn’t hesitate, just steps into his waiting arms as well. Their hug is quicker but just as tight, and then Theo steps back and catches sight of the Sheriff, stood off to the side watching the breakfast clean-up with the air of a drill-sergeant. He glances at Theo when he notices Theo’s attention though, and Theo gives one last quick smile to the Geyers and makes his way over.

The Sheriff gives him a once-over, looking satisfied. Then his expression goes mischievous.

“So, should you be out of bed?” He asks, voice bland but eyes crinkling.

Theo just rolls his eyes, “See if I help you circumvent Stiles’ lunchtime rules again.”

The Sheriff just grins, but then the smile melts slowly off his face and he mutters ah, hell, kid, and yanks Theo into a hug. Theo goes with it, the Sheriff’s badge digging into his chest and his tool-belt digging into his hip. Releasing him after a few long seconds, the Sheriff smiles and goes to say something, but his phone starts to vibrate against his hip—Theo can hear it jangling against his money clip—and his expression goes long-suffering.

“Call it—Lassen or Plumas County Sheriff’s Office?” He says, and Theo smirks.

“That’s not even a contest,” Theo answers, “Like Kaustinen would ever accept that Monroe was hiding somewhere other than Plumas County.”

The Sheriff barks a laugh and claps him on the shoulder, then fishes his phone out of his pocket and starts to walk towards the elevators. Theo hears him say Sheriff Stilinski and then Sheriff Kaustinen, how I can help you? and has to bite back a laugh.

Theo watches him go for a few moments, and then he goes to help the others finish cleaning up.

---

Theo falls asleep in Mrs. Geyer’s cheerfully-admitted soccer-mom car on the way back to Beacon Hills from the hospital, Liam beside him in the backseat chattering away with his parents. He isn’t in any pain—he’s just exhausted, his body still working its way back up to one-hundred percent after the brutal twenty-four hours he’d had—but Liam keeps his hand on Theo’s wrist anyway, and the steady pull of his attempts to take Theo’s nonexistent pain winds up being more soothing than effective, a focal point of pressure and warmth that Theo focuses on.

When they reach the house, Liam insists on helping him in, Theo humoring him, because every now and then he sees Liam stood framed in the hospital bathroom doorway, saying I genuinely thought I’d never see you again. They get to the couch and both collapse onto it, Mrs. Geyer and Dr. Geyer following them in. It’s then that Theo learns the downsides of living with a doctor as Dr. Geyer starts rattling off surgical follow-up procedures, ignoring Theo’s and Liam’s attempted protests—Liam looking and smelling secretly ecstatic to be able to have this argument—by saying that unless Theo and Liam could point him towards peer-reviewed studies on the efficacies of supernatural healing, the person with the medical degree got to determine appropriate medical treatments.

The inevitable conclusion of Theo and Liam losing that argument is Theo on the Geyer’s couch, buried underneath the fleece blanket usually kept folded in the basket by the TV, Liam in the loveseat and both of them watching terrible television, while Dr. Geyer and Mrs. Geyer tag-teamed making some kind of soup in the kitchen. Theo’s almost asleep again when Liam shoots a crafty look over the back of the loveseat towards the kitchen, and then—apparently satisfied with what he sees—scrambles over until he’s on his knees in front of the couch by Theo’s head.

“Liam…” Theo murmurs warningly, somehow already able to recognize the gleam in his eye.

“We both have supernatural hearing, we’ll hear them coming,” Liam answers dismissively, and before Theo can protest again, Liam is kissing him.

Theo means to pull back, disengage—he wasn’t kidding yesterday about not wanting to immediately lose his parolee-free status—but really, he doesn’t have a prayer. He gets a hand on Liam’s head and pulls him in closer, opens his mouth to let Liam lick inside, Liam leaning awkwardly over to press closer, still on his knees and Theo still laying on his side on the couch.

Of course, supernatural hearing notwithstanding, neither of them hear Liam’s parents coming.

They do, however, hear Mrs. Geyer’s throat clear from behind the couch, Liam jerking back hard enough that he cracks his back on the coffee table and falls sideways, swearing colorfully. Theo flails some and manages to get himself tangled in the blanket, and only manages to turn and look up at Mrs. Geyer after a few awkward moments of freeing himself.

Mrs. Geyer is peering down at them both, eyebrows raised, Dr. Geyer looking over her shoulder curiously.

“Um,” Theo says intelligently.

“Good start,” Mrs. Geyer says, but there’s laughter bubbling in her voice, and the sound of it pops the swelling panic in his chest.

“This is new,” He manages to come up with, “Very new.”

Less new than Theo is hoping she and Dr. Geyer interpret it as, since his and Liam’s interlude in the hospital bathroom last night would probably be less well-received than an admittedly-heated bout of kissing in the middle of the Geyers’ living room.

”Uh huh,” Mrs. Geyer replies encouragingly.

“I...have an apartment lined up?” Theo hazards, and isn’t actually bullshitting; the Sheriff had told Theo last night that Derek had already had a set of keys made for one of the apartments in his building.

He’d also informed Theo that his pseudo-parolee position down at the station was being changed to a permanent consultant one, and had assured him—sounding vaguely sinister about it—that he and Agent McCall already had a stack of cases for him to look at.

“Glad to hear it,” Mrs. Geyer replies, but behind her, Dr. Geyer is clearly trying not to laugh, so Theo is pretty sure he and Liam are—mostly—off the hook, “Liam? Anything you want to add?”

Liam freezes from where he’d been continuing to roll around in overly-dramatic pain from his meeting with the coffee-table, “Um. Just...want to echo how new it all is?”

Mrs. Geyer looks at him incredulously, and then looks back at Theo, “I seriously don’t understand how you two have managed to lie to us all this time. It’s baffling.”

But then she just throws up her hands and turns back to the kitchen, Dr. Geyer making a face at Theo and Liam that clearly indicates what kind of bullet he thinks they just dodge. Theo is desperately trying to bite back a laugh, sure that Mrs. Geyer won’t appreciate it, when the woman herself calls his name again and pokes her head back into the living room.

“Yes, Mrs. Gey—Jen— ma’am?” Theo tries, and whips the pillow from behind his head down to hit Liam when Liam snorts.

Mrs. Geyer gives him an unimpressed look, “New apartment or not, Sunday night dinners are still not optional.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Theo answers immediately, and grins when he hears Mrs. Geyer mutter, at least I’ve got him to stop calling me Mrs. Geyer, and then Dr. Geyer’s answering careful what you wish for, ma’am, and then a yelp as, in all likelihood, Mrs. Geyer whips him with a kitchen towel.

But Liam, of course, can’t leave well enough alone; he sits up and hollers, “Does this mean I can lay on the couch with Theo without one of you fainting from the scandal?”

Theo’s out of pillows to hit him with so he balls up the blanket and throws it at him instead, but he must have been on to something, because he hears Mrs. Geyer sigh longsufferingly and then yell back, “Lunch will be ready in half an hour!”

Liam takes it as the permission that it was probably meant to be and scrambles up next to Theo, dragging the pillow and blanket that Theo had thrown at him back up with him. It takes them a while to get settled, Theo nearly catching an elbow to the face, but eventually they wind up with Theo settled against the back of the couch, Liam curled into the curve of his body, the blanket thrown back over them both.

Theo dozes, the sound of the TV a comforting sort of white noise and the heat and scent of Liam the best sort of sleep-aid. He comes awake with a jerk when there’s a knock at the front door, though.

“I’ve got it,” Dr. Geyer announces, and Theo lets his eyes drift closed again, listens to him as he walks to the door and opens it. But his eyes snap back open when Dr. Geyer says, “Hey, Corey.”

He sits up automatically, the blanket coming with him, Liam complaining, and looks towards the front door to where Corey is stood awkwardly just outside it.

“Hey, Dr. Geyer,” Corey answers, “I was...hoping to talk to Theo?”

Theo doesn’t wait for Dr. Geyer to repeat Corey’s request, just climbs over Liam—dumping the blanket onto his face, Liam letting out a muffled hey!—and heads for the front door. Dr. Geyer smiles at him when he sees him coming and steps back, lets Theo comes to a stop in front of Corey.

“I’m going to go help Jenna with the last of the lunch prep,” He says, and Theo quirks him a small, appreciative smile.

Corey doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself or his hands, eventually settles on shoving them deep into his jacket’s pockets. He’s still wearing Mason’s hoodie but—in deference to the chill December air—had thrown on a heavier jacket on top, and the added bulk leaves him looking a little...lost. Eventually he jerks his chin towards the living room.

“How long’s that been going on?” He asks, clearly referring to where Theo had just been curled up with Liam.

“About eight hours,” Theo answers automatically, a little wary; there’s no way this is what Corey came here to say.

“I think Lydia won the pool, then,” Corey murmurs, brow furrowing like he was trying to recall something, “It was either her or Ms. McCall who had ‘life-threatening injury’ on when you two would finally get your heads out of your asses.”

Theo blinks, “There was a pool? What was the prize?”

Corey snorts, “Primarily? Not having to drown in your unresolved sexual tension anymore. But ultimately a gift card to Daniel’s diner.”

Theo considers this, “I would have totally offered to rig it for you if I’d known in exchange for half the proceeds—Daniel’s reubens are to die for.”

Then he winces at his own phrasing—second time today—but Corey just smiles absently, though it doesn’t touch his eyes, “I mean, I had never, so.”

“Oh,” Theo answers blankly; the way Corey says it, he almost sounds embarrassed, but Theo’s willing to let it go; they’d both been forced into some pretty large leaps in character growth in the last twelve hours.

Corey huffs, expression twisting with frustration, “Look, that isn’t why I’m here. I wanted to know...I thought you might…”

He stops, arms crossing over his chest, eyes jerking to the side. Theo waits as long as he can stand to, and then he gently prompts, “Thought I might…?”

Corey takes a deep breath and then lets it out just as slowly, “Yesterday, in the Preserve...I obviously didn’t have time to check if the fighting disturbed—disturbed Josh’s and Tracy’s graves.”

Theo absently notices Liam’s head popping up from the couch like a meerkat in the living room as Corey says this, and so he steps a little closer to Corey, blocking Liam’s view; Liam’s intentions were usually pure, but conscientiousness wasn’t necessarily always his forte. The movement distracts him from the sudden pain in his chest, anyway, his heart twisting; he hadn’t even thought…

He’s distracted enough by the thought, in fact, that he almost forgets Corey’s trailing explanation, but Corey sucks in another huge breath and then finishes, “I’m going to go check on them. Do you want—want to come with me?”

“Yes,” Theo says, immediately and without hesitation; the word is out of his mouth before he’s even fully processed Corey’s question.

His surprise at his own quick response is mirrored on Corey’s face, but in the next instant his expression softens some and he bites his lip, his defensiveness—Theo can recognize it now—melting away.

“Okay. Okay, good,” He says, voice getting steadily stronger.

But after that he stops, looking a little lost. Theo bites his lip for a moment, considers, and then he takes a gamble, “Mrs. Geyer—Jenna—and Dr. Geyer were just finishing up lunch. Do you...want to join? Then we can go after.”

Corey darts a look at him, his expression going a little hunted. Theo’s about to backpedal, say nevermind, we can go now, offer to get his coat, when Corey’s face clears and he looks over Theo’s shoulder and into the house; he wouldn’t need supernatural senses to catch the warm scents of garlic and spices drifting out of the kitchen. So Theo waits instead, and after a few seconds Corey looks back at him, nods once, like they’re sealing some kind of deal.

“Okay. Lunch first,” He agrees, “Then we’ll go see Josh and Tracy.”

“Yeah,” Theo echoes, stepping back to let him in, “Sounds good.”

He shuts the door after Corey walks through, hears Liam and then Mrs. Geyer greet him. But Theo—Theo stays by the door for a moment, hand still on the knob and his eyes on Corey’s back.

Lunch first, he repeats silently to himself, and then starts heading after Corey; Liam snags him on his way into the kitchen and leans over the back of the couch to kiss him, quick and warm, eyes crinkled in a wide grin when he leans back.

Then we’ll go see Josh and Tracy.