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A Different Light

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—— Where are you?

—— 41.029389, -123.567242

Theo stared at his phone a little longer, waiting for some kind of reply. It was a strange answer to that kind of question. Most people said home or at the movies . The blue light of the screen got lost in the yellow light of the campfire that bathed his face in heat and radiance. He frowned a little at himself for expecting something further and set the phone down on the worn, all-weather cushion of his scavenged wicker couch. The threads had come up in places and mushrooms of foam burst through, but it was better than sitting on a log. Most of what he “owned” sat piled under a lean-to of corrugated steel and tree branches lashed with old seat belts. That and his truck formed a sort of wall around one side of the fire, and he could put his back to them without feeling a paranoid itch.

It was a mobile setup.

He popped the last bite of an energy bar in his mouth, stuffed the wrapper in a pocket, and leaned back, listening. He should be able to hear approaching vehicles miles away, given the contour of the landscape. Eventually, a smallish engine with a not terribly throaty growl came into range. He tracked it almost lazily. It stopped somewhere down by the road, and Theo turned in that direction, curious. He’d given Liam exact coordinates. If that was him—and who else would it be—he parked far.

The silence of the woods resolved into footsteps, and Theo sat up a little straighter, a wary tension in his limbs as he heard a heartbeat hammering hard.

Liam stepped into the glow of the fire, hunched and wearing a scowl, and slowed to an awkward stop.

Theo stared at him with growing concern as a cloud of astringent scent carried on the air, overpowering the smell of smoke.

“What’s wrong?” he resisted the urge to jump up, ready for a fight.

“Wh—” Liam frowned at him. “How did—”

“You smell like stress.” Theo glanced him up and down.

Liam nodded absently, ticking his head like he should have guessed that instead of asking. His gaze moved over the truck and lean-to and the wicker sofa looking bright in the firelight, and his scowl deepened.

“You live out here?”

Theo lifted one shoulder in a shrug and looked away, fighting the embarrassment creeping up his neck. His eyes drifted toward the lean-to sheltering busted suitcases, but they shifted back as Liam came closer to the fire. Theo watched him staring at the truck.

“You sleep in your car,” Liam said, mostly to himself, in a horrified whisper.

Theo swallowed, shrugged, plastered on a grin. “The Sheriff's Department didn’t like me doing it in town.”

Liam’s expression fell further, and he stared at Theo with wide eyes. Something, indignation maybe, slipped across his face, only to be replaced by guilt as he glanced around the little camp again. Theo watched Liam realizing all the things he’d never thought about. Where Theo came from when he called. Where he went back to when he left. From the ether and back to darkness, that was all. Liam had seen behind the curtain now, and Theo couldn’t decide if it was a good thing. His pulse quickened, waiting for judgment, and then he gestured at the empty space on the other side of the couch.

“Have a seat,” he said.

Liam met Theo’s eyes and hesitated, then darted for the couch and dropped into it with clipped motions. He kept his knees clamped together, his hands balled into fists, and he focused on the campfire. Liam’s heart started racing again, and Theo frowned. He thought he might wait him out. Sometimes Liam just needed time to get his words in order. But the silence stretched, and the rapid, terrified heartbeats were cinching Theo’s own stress higher.

“Liam—”

“They tell me I’m an idiot.” Liam cut him off with a sudden burst of words.

Theo tilted his head. “What?”

Liam chanced a look at him then. “That I’m playing with fire. That I need to wake up. That it’s a trick and I’m falling for it. I know they’re just trying to help, but they won’t leave me alone about it.”

“About what?”

“You!”

The word hit in the gut, and while Liam sighed and looked briefly at the sky, Theo curled away and dropped his gaze to the ground.

“Everyone keeps warning me not to trust you,” Liam went on. “And then tonight?” Belts tightened around Theo’s chest as he listened, squeezing out his air. “Tonight they had an intervention !”

Liam sounded outraged, and Theo ducked his head further. He shouldn’t be surprised. But he’d thought, recklessly, that he’d made more progress than that.

Theo shook his head and let his eyes fall shut. “Maybe they’re right,” he muttered.

“What?”

With effort he turned to look Liam in the eye. “I said—”

“I heard what you said.” Liam scowled. “You’re wrong.”

He said it with such conviction Theo could almost believe it. He scanned the lines of Liam’s face, the set of his jaw.

“How do you know?” he asked, more softly and more pleading than he intended. Perhaps the answer would be a good one.

“Because . . .” Liam said. “You’re different.”

Theo puffed a breath of disappointment from his nose and shook his head, turning to the fire. Different didn’t fix things. “I hurt a lot of people.” He dropped his head and stared at the leaves between his feet. Guilt roiled in his gut. “You should know. You’re on that list.”

“That was before . . . I don’t think you’d do it now.”

Theo scoffed.

“I’m serious.”

He glanced over, and Liam looked so . . . sincere . It was hard not to be drawn in by it. Theo’s shoulders eased back. Their eyes met, and Liam’s pulse kicked up so high it sounded like it might burst.

“Do you remember the day after Hayden left?” Liam asked. He wet his lower lip. “I spent the whole day on the couch.”

Theo nodded at him. “I know.”

“Crying.”

“I was there.” Gently. The memories flashed to him in sense impressions. The smell of salt and sorrow. The sound of sobs and guitar music.

Liam’s mouth turned up in a sad smile. “ Mason couldn’t take it anymore.” Emphasis, presumably, on how pathetic he must have been for his best friend to have given up. Liam paused, heart pounding, holding his gaze. “You didn’t leave.”

He didn’t. Theo smiled a bit, recalling that sense impression, too. The weight of Liam’s head, his heat. “You cried yourself to sleep on my shoulder.”

Liam nodded. “And all the times you’ve taken me out to teach me werewolf stuff.” Theo huffed at the phrase. “Or helped me study. Even subjects you hate.”

He tipped his head. He’d thought he’d covered a little better than that. But that wasn’t the point. The point— He didn’t know the point.

“Liam, what—”

Liam lifted a hand and pressed his fingers to Theo’s lips, shushing him. Theo stared as his own pulse shot skyward. He swallowed and tried to focus on anything but the burn of unexpected contact.

“My point is . . . they think I’m blind.”

Liam watched him carefully, never looked away as he shifted closer. Theo just stared, spellbound, stunned immobile as Liam ever so gently moved his hand, brushed his fingers along Theo’s jaw, and cupped his face. His thumb ghosted over Theo’s lips, feather light, tender. Theo couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move.

“I see you,” Liam said softly. So close. “And, I wonder . . . if that’s who you are when everyone hates you . . .” Another brush across the lips. “Who would you be with a little kindness?”

Theo shuddered and watched as Liam leaned in closer. Closed his eyes when he felt lips on his own. It was soft, chaste, unsure. He should react, he knew. But nothing worked, nothing moved. Below his ribs, something new and terrifying cracked with ice and fire, birthed into painful being writhing through dead clay. His senses worked double, turning touch searing. Liam’s scent lost the sharpness of stress. The heat of lips left him, and he heard over the rushing sound of his pulse in his ears, “Shit.” Muttered once. Then twice.

Liam started to pull away, and the things battering in Theo’s chest screamed. Everything unlocked with a gasp and surge of motion. His eyes flashed open and he caught Liam by the wrist, panted, and drew him back closer, placing the hand on his side—a request, hold here, don’t go. And one that brought those lips kissing-close again.

Theo gazed at him with awe, with unshackled wonder. With every inhale, the gratitude he harbored as coals in his chest flared, and he touched Liam’s face with light fingers.

“You think about that?” About me?

Liam turned into the touch and hid his face. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” he admitted, low and shy. But then he glanced up. “And I don’t think I’d feel that way if you were the same person you used to be.”

Fire flooded across Theo’s skin, and he could feel his pulse everywhere. Emotion gathered at the base of his throat, and a cautious smile cracked across his face. “I . . . I don’t wanna be.”

“You’re not .”

He had to look away. Hope is a dangerous, fragile thing—like happiness. But he let Liam turn his face back, and this time, this time, the anticipation had him rising up, meeting Liam’s lips halfway. This time he knew how to respond.

Kissing, hands in hair.

Leaning back into the arm of the chair, sharp inhales.

Drawing Liam’s weight over him, strokes up the back.

Theo gasped in surprise and pleasure when Liam licked at his throat. He braced a hand on the—

The wicker couch creaked, and Liam froze. Theo’s hands on Liam’s back froze, and the both of them waited, breathing hard. Liam glanced up over Theo’s head toward the truck and back down. Theo gazed at pink plush lips, his skin aching, and the animal urge to rock and rutt right where he was beat against his brain.

He took a calming breath and tried to imagine what Liam was thinking as he slowly frowned at the tight cabin. The cramped space.  “There’s a mattress in the back of the truck,” Theo managed to say.

A mischievous, predatory smile crossed Liam’s face as he got up and grabbed Theo by the shirt, hauling him up. But then Liam stopped and looked back. Theo swallowed, waiting, and Liam released his grip on the fabric. Pointedly, deliberately, he took Theo’s hand instead.

Theo’s heart thumped somewhere on the leaf-strewn ground. Every breath spread sparks across his chest as Liam let the tailgate down with one hand, hopped up without letting go, and pulled him up. Theo didn’t need the help, but . . . he didn’t want to let go, either.

For a moment they stood on the tailgate, features cut into strange shadows by the moonlight from above, firelight from below. Theo glanced at the mattress—it had a sheet, at least—and he let Liam’s hand slip from his. They were really going to do this. He met Liam’s eyes briefly, then pulled off his shirt and dropped it on the corner of the bed. He heard Liam’s breathing change and tried not to smile. He sat on the edge of the mattress, shoes next, stuffed them with his socks, and set them on the tailgate with a pointed look up at Liam. Dropping them in the dirt meant searching for them later. In the dark. Which sucked.

Then he crawled, conscious that he was on his knees. That Liam was watching. That his pulse kicked up when Theo lowered himself down, rolled over, and gazed back. Liam’s tongue darted out to wet his lower lip again, and then Theo watched him go through the same motions, revealing hard, heavy muscle burnished silver and gold.

Theo’s breathing went shallow.

He’d never thought of Liam this way. As important, yes. Central. His instincts pulled in Liam’s direction, to help, to protect. Pack , they screamed, and he didn’t fight it.

But this . . .

This . . . surge of blood.

Liam turned at the foot of the bed, coming onto all fours, and Theo’s eyes flashed golden. A second later, Liam straddled his thighs, flashing his eyes in reply, a little daring, a little hungry. He went straight for Theo’s mouth, testing once before pressing harder. The kiss turned heated, stung with bites and scrapes of teeth. Liam kissed his jaw and breathed a hot line to his neck.

He licked. Sucked.

Theo arched, and weak sounds fell out him, sounds he didn’t know he could make. Icy fire shot to his groin. It hurt. So vulnerable it hurt, but even if he wanted the words to stop it, he would never. His hands moved on their own, over hard planes and smooth muscle. A flick of tongue, and Theo’s fingers bit into Liam’s back in a desperate spasm.

Liam lifted his head, and Theo urged him into a kiss to buy time. Pulled him closer, encouraging a rhythm. Denim ground and scraped, loud to their ears, and Theo sucked Liam’s lower lip between his teeth, as his own heartbeat steadied. He reached a hand between them, searching for the button on Liam’s fly.

They parted suddenly as Liam sat up and back on his heels. He panted, eyes dark, and rubbed his hands up and down his jeans in slow circles.

Theo tipped his head, frowning, curious. He brushed a hand up Liam’s bare skin and across his chest, letting his fingers play lightly across one nipple, just to see.

Liam shuddered and swallowed hard.

Ahh . . .

He brushed Theo’s hand aside with an embarrassed smile and  dug into one pocket. Their eyes met as he drew out a small foil square and what looked like ketchup packets. Liam’s heart was racing. Theo frowned for a second, puzzling it through.

Christ . . . Lube packets .

Laughter bubbled up through the morass of emotions in Theo’s chest, and he dropped his head back to let it out.

“You came prepared ?”

Liam shrugged, grinning and blushing. “I was planning ahead.”

Theo sat up, warm with amusement, and slid a hand to the back of Liam’s neck. He pulled him into a kiss. Something warm and reassuring. “Yeah,” he muttered. “I like that about you.” He kissed along Liam’s jaw and gave in to the urge to rub temple to temple, to nose around his throat with gentle licks and bites, and nuzzle again on the other side. Thoroughly canine. Affectionate. Two could play the softness game.

“You know we can’t get pregnant, right?” His whisper smiled.

Liam leveled a deadpan look at him, and Theo plucked the condom from his hand. He held it up between two fingers.

“Or get sick.”

Liam snatched it back. “It’s called courtesy.”

Theo smiled with patronizing amusement and mouthed the word back at him as he dropped back down onto the mattress with a little bounce. He shouldn’t have granted himself that. That lightness. The glow that burned beneath his breastbone left him unnaturally calm. He shouldn’t be calm. He’d never looked at a man twice, and now . . .

He couldn’t look away as Liam quickly abandoned the rest of his clothes, leaving them in a small heap on the tailgate. Theo’s breath caught at sight of skin glowing in fire and moonlight. Half-hard cock swaying heavy as Liam moved. Theo reached for his own jeans, but Liam batted his hands away. So he laid back. Breathing. Concentrated on the feeling of fingers grazing the fabric. So close . He throbbed with the need for friction but held still. Short breaths.

Theo’s eyes fell shut on their own when Liam slid his fingers under the elastic band of his underwear, gathering that and his jeans in a single grip, ready to pull them off at once.

Motion stopped.

Theo’s eyes popped open at the hesitation, and he found Liam staring at . . . something, an unreadable expression on his face. Theo’s pulse pounded in his fingers.

“You don’t have to,” he said gently. And it was an echo of lines he’d used before, in cheap motels, challenging a conquest to let him down. They took the bait almost always, defying their way into compliance.

Guilt bubbled up from the memories, and Theo moved to take Liam’s wrists and nudge him away, because not this time . Not because of a silver tongue.

Liam’s expression changed suddenly, his lips going thin and determined. He pulled the briefs and jeans off, not with violence, not rending the few clothes Theo had, but with concentration, care. He lifted, waited, patient, caressing. He spent time just feeling, exploring the body revealed to him, relaxing away everything but the sensitivity to touch. It was so foreign a thing, Theo couldn’t feel the mattress beneath him for a moment, couldn’t feel his limbs or hear their heartbeats, like reality shifted too far and he was just now catching up with the fact this was a dream.

A hand touched the inside of his knee, and he became solid again, resolving into a naked form that lay pliant and yielding. Liam crawled closer, pressing Theo’s knees apart to make room for himself. Theo’s breathing went shallow, and he watched in fascination as Liam stroked knee to hip, to belly, to chest, and all the way back, sending thrills to his spine. His cock jumped at the touch, and Liam smiled, almost to himself. He paused with a hand lightly gripping the meat of Theo’s thigh, and his expression went serious.

So much skin to skin. He wanted that touch again. That long appreciative reverence, but Liam stayed frozen and seemed a thousand miles away.

Theo couldn’t read minds, but he could read people. “Hey,” he said, voice rough.

Their eyes met, Liam looking up from where their cocks were almost touching.

“It’s a first for me, too.”

Liam nodded, chancing a grin, and the hard bundle of his shoulders relaxed some. “Hayden and I, we—” He cut himself off with little wince and frowned. “Sorry. I—I shouldn’t—” He shook his head, casting the thought free.

Shouldn’t what? Talk about his ex? Because it would . . .

Hurt my feelings?

It was sweet unto ludicrous, and Theo tried not to laugh. In the silence, Liam seemed to lose focus, growing quiet, just holding on with his gaze locked somewhere below Theo’s eyes. A gust of cool air blew, and Theo felt it acutely across his bare body.

“So,” he said, almost conversational. “Nice weather we’re having.”

Liam looked at him then and scowled. “Shut up.”

“Are you waiting for me to—” Theo gestured between them vaguely, not sure what he was offering, exactly, but the longer they did nothing, the more foolish he felt.

No. ” Liam sighed and shut his eyes, embarrassment flashing up his chest and neck. “I only know one way to . . . do this.”

Theo’s brows pulled together in a frown. It wasn’t a question, though it felt like one. “Okay . . .” He drew the word out.

Liam sucked a deep breath and let it out slowly, calming himself. “Okay.” A nod.

Trepidation skittered down Theo’s neck as he realized he’d just agreed to . . . something and didn’t know what. He tensed when Liam shuffled backward and held his hands up and out of the way. If Theo would have guessed what would come next, it wouldn’t have been this. Liam spreading warm palms in a caress across his midsection, fingers curling gently around his sides.

Theo’s breath escaped in rough sigh as Liam touched a kiss to soft skin of his belly, and he laid back, surrendering to the sensation. Liam kissed a slow line up his chest and traced light fingers up his sides. Shivering soft. Unhurried.

Liam’s tongue found a nipple and swirled, tasted, but all Theo’s attention centered on the fingers tracing up his arms, almost tickling, so gentle. Hands gripped his, entwining fingers, and Theo bucked at the sudden confinement, the sudden intimate closeness. His breath quickened. Liam’s weight against him shifted, and he opened his eyes as a breeze chilled his wet nipple to a fine point. Liam hovered over him, looking thoughtful, gazing where his mouth had just been.

“It—” Theo cleared his throat, and his voice shook a little. “Not that sensitive,” he managed.

Liam glanced at him, nodded, and pressed Theo’s hands just above his head.

Pinned. Theo’s heart pounded, despite the light grip.

Another line of kisses, and Liam touched his lips to the curve of Theo’s neck. He nudged, nuzzling as Theo had done, inhaling deep. Theo shuddered and turned toward him, raking his lips across anything he could find.

Then Liam started on the soft, vulnerable skin with a hot tongue. Wet lips. He sucked and licked and flicked, and Theo’s nerves melted by degrees. He turned liquid-weak and pulled one hand free to keep from drowning. Weighty, languorous pleasure arced through his body, and it was nothing like their excited clamoring.

Liam dug his newly freed hand into Theo’s hair and held him so he could kiss his jaw, his cheek, his mouth. Theo opened to him with a moan, letting him taste, explore. Tongues slid, and he felt Liam smile. Then start to laugh. Laugh. He hid his face in Theo’s shoulder, giggling. It was strange and innocent, and when he got over the fit, Liam squeezed on his hand.

It made Theo’s heart race.

It was insane, the two of them. This.

Liam lifted up enough to gaze at him, eyes still dancing with mirth.

“What do you want from me?” Theo asked, in the smallest of voices.

Liam brushed his fingers along Theo’s hairline in reply, startlingly affectionate, and Theo flinched before he could control it.

“Okay?” Liam whispered, his hand hovering.

Theo nodded, barely a motion, and when the fingers brushed again leaned into the affection while something small and dark and sharp in the back of his mind screeched its warnings.

“I want to know when I get it wrong.” Liam kissed his shoulder, and Theo had no reply.

No one was like this. People were not like this. Liam hated him; he’d said so. And yet . . . it was so warm, so intoxicating to be the center of that attention. For a while they just kissed, caressing skin, eliciting soft, delicious sounds.

Theo took Liam’s cock in his hand and stroked him the way they kissed, long and slow. Liam moaned into his mouth, and it was water for a parched soul. Every kind touch sank too deep, to the bone. It hurt . Dead tissue massage back to life, announced in pain. But he couldn’t make Liam stop—he let go and laid back—couldn’t wish for him to stop. Fear howled in his heart and flashed its teeth. Every inch of skin familiar with tortures touched and touched again. The terrible thought blazed through his mind that if he made Liam angry, it would stop. The stream of shattering touches and blistering softness would end.

He could not take . . .

He could not take . . .

Please . . .

“Theo?”

“I c-can’t, I can’t . . .” He tried to nudge Liam away and sat up, but somehow Liam was still there, still in his space.

“You’re shaking.” He sounded so concerned, so genuinely troubled. Liam wrapped his arms around Theo’s midsection from behind and pressed a kiss to his shoulder blade, rocking him gently.

It felt . . . like love.

Stop . . .

He fought the trembling, and his breathing came ragged. “If you’re gonna do it, do it . . .”

He’d been on the other side of this dance, and it seemed to him now freshly cruel.

“Not if you don’t want me to,” Liam said. Another kiss on Theo’s shoulder, a nuzzle along his neck.

“It’s okay.” His voice came out shaky, unconvincing even to himself. He swallowed and tried again. “I’m just used to something else.”

Liam rested against his shoulder for a second, then tightened his embrace and placed another kiss. He unwound and moved away, and in the few seconds of solitude Theo found his edges. He could breathe again.

“I think,” Liam said, packets in hand, “you should lie on your side.”

Theo glanced at him, fear spiking through his blood. But he stretched out and rolled as requested, pillowing his head on one arm. He could see the glow of the fire over the side of the truck, but not the flames.

“Here.” Liam knelt behind him. “Like this.”

What he wanted was Theo’s knee bent, pointing skyward. Theo shuddered at how naked it felt, how exposed—which was the point. The cold fingers of fear tickled his scalp, and the silence while Liam worked turned deafening. Alone . He could hear Liam’s heart beating and still the fear of abandonment sloshed over him. He cast a cautious look over his shoulder.

Liam smiled back at him, looking ruffled and soft. “I’m . . . not really sure about this part,” he admitted. One lube packet already lay discarded next to him.

“It’s okay,” Theo told him, settling back down. “Whatever you want.” Whatever tithe was demanded, he would pay. There was no thanks enough for being raised from perdition. No limit.

He closed his eyes when Liam’s hand settled on his hip and jerked with a small gasp when a slicked up finger slid between the globes of his ass. The hand on his hip moved in small, calming circles, and he tried, tried to be calm, but his breath came in short pants. It was an alien sensation. Liam teased and circled, and the air punched from Theo’s lungs when he pressed inside too fast.

The grunt and cry he let out earned a “Sorry, sorry,” but he shook his head and squeezed his fists tighter. If this was what Liam was after, he could have it. He could have anything. Theo took a few breaths, deeper and longer each time. He focused on the friction of Liam’s palm rubbing circles on his skin. The heat spread to his legs, to his abdomen.

“Okay?” Liam asked him.

Exhale . . .

“Theo?”

“Mmhmm.”

Motion. Slight at first. That was Liam trying to be cautious. Everything burned, his body burned. A band tightened around his lungs.

“I have to add another one,” Liam whispered to him. “They say that should be enough.”

Theo quirked an eyebrow and glanced over his shoulder. “They?” It came out breathy.

“Online.” Liam shrugged, grinning. “I looked it up.”

Theo huffed a laugh, and some of the tension bled out of him. Looked it up.

“What?” Liam’s voice held a frown. “I brought lube, didn’t I?”

Theo shook his head and waited for the second finger, the renewed burn as his muscles fought against it. He let out a slow breath.

“I can’t believe you planned this,” Theo said eventually.

“Why?”

Liam thrust his fingers deep, and Theo hissed, rocking with the motion.

“I can’t believe”—Theo panted—“you want me.” Heat rushed to his face. It was a bald truth. He couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make any sense, except as a ruse.

Liam paused. Paused , with his fingers deep as they would go, and Theo groaned at him and rolled his hips. Motion was better.

“You’re good to me,” Liam said, threading the fingers of his free hand into Theo’s hair, rubbing at his scalp.

Theo shook his head in denial, but Liam dropped a kiss onto his shoulder.

“Yeah,” he whispered. “You are.”

Something inside touched just right, and Theo’s answer disappeared into a buck and cry. He sighed when Liam withdrew and waited in the darkness behind closed eyes as a body stretched out next to him. Their weight dipped the mattress, and he tipped, his back settling against Liam’s chest. He could hear  the crackle of the foil package, the close, wet sound of Liam stroking himself, distributing lube. It lanced straight to his groin. The breath across his neck sparked nerves, and he hardened, aching.

Sex, in Theo’s experience, was quick and greedy. Participants clamored for their release and disappeared from each other, sated. He’d thought once Liam’s drawn out preamble was done, he could find his moorings again. A thrust, some pain, a grunt, and animal lust would drive them on.

Liam was . . . insufferably tender, aggravatingly attentive, and Theo bent toward it like sunlight. Liam pressed at him, kissed him through the first breaching. Swallowed his groan and stroked him everywhere. It took awhile to realize that every time he made a sound or movement that might be distress, Liam stopped and swarmed him with tongue and touch, melted his spine with pleasure.

“Relax,” Liam whispered, lips touching the shell of his ear. “I won’t hurt you.”

Theo could have cried. Did he sound as earnest when he said it to others? Did they fall like he was falling?

Sensations built and tumbled out as sounds. Pressure and pain and exhilaration. Small bursts of flashing stars. Quivering need.

The effort of being so attentive, so controlled broke sweat across Liam’s skin. Made his hair damp to the touch when Theo drew him in for long lingering kisses. Liam ran a hand down his thigh, then hooked his arm under Theo’s lifted knee. Theo broke the kiss and panted. Dropped his head as the position stretched him open wider.

One hand held the back of Theo’s head. The other, now, wrapped the architecture of his ribs, embracing him like he was delicate, breakable. Precious. Emotions unnameable washed through his core, and Theo surged up into a kiss that trailed into a moan as Liam rocked his hips and pulled out, dragging an ocean tide of sensation with him. It was overwhelming. Different. He stopped trying to catalogue.

In. Slow . . . Ohh . . .

His body quivered. Liam licked at his neck.

Out. Burning. Breathless . . . Sigh . . .

It was soft and unhurried. For a boy so capable of violence, Liam was so capable of care.

Theo’s shaking built like a darkening sky over the ocean. He gasped with jolts of lightning pleasure but he couldn’t feel a direction, a finish line. He had no compass for reaching. Just endless waves and stars behind his eyelids. But the longer they spent writhing, rocking, kissing, sucking, the shorter his breaths came. The harder he shook. He needed more . Harder, deeper.

“Please.” The word ghosted out, and he searched for Liam’s lips. Waves of pins down his arms. He whimpered, shameless. “Please . . .”

A harsh exhale and a sound that might have been assent in his ear. A hard suck at the crook of his neck. And then Liam’s pace changed. Quickened. Theo’s bones went molten as Liam bore down. Pleasure blossomed. He strained to breathe as his partner let out high, broken moans. Seeking. Seeking.

Liam clamped on as he came, shuddering and holding Theo as close as he could. He jerked, harder, and Theo felt it in his throat. The fullness. He swallowed, and his pulse throbbed across his skin. Liam touched his cheek, and he turned to receive a sweet, sloppy kiss on the mouth. A distracting slide of lips that he bucked into as Liam’s hand wrapped around his cock. Fuck . . .

He stroked once, confident and quick, and the aching turned sharp. So hard it hurt . Another. He moaned into Liam’s mouth. Another.

Theo arched with the pleasure of it. Liam thrust, hitting nerves, and Theo broke the kiss with a burst of incoherent sounds.

They were out of rhythm, strokes and thrusts. He didn’t know which way to move. Only that the pleasure built and crested. Uncoiled as his throat burned. He came with a quiet shudder that rolled out to his fingertips.

Everything slowed.

And the ache subsided.

And when he opened his eyes he could breathe again. And the glow from the fire was dim.

The air smelled like sweat and sex and smoke. Liam unwound their limbs and brushed a gentle palm down his arm and side. Theo swallowed as they parted and then rolled onto his back carefully, still quivering. He stared up at the stars, casting a glance at Liam as he tied the condom in a little knot. Courtesy.

Too many things rattled around his chest. The hot, lingering memories of lips and hands. The sharp tug of need, not for the sex but the care . Pathetic. He scowled at himself. Liam stretched back out on the bed beside him and tentatively reached out a hand. Brushed their fingers together. Theo turned to find Liam watching him with hooded, glazed eyes and a soft, pleased expression.

It didn’t make any sense. None of it made any sense. It was too good. Too much a simulacrum of real caring, and only a fool would believe it. Like the parade of fools who had believed his honeyed lies. Theo frowned and snatched his hand away. He sat up with a rush of humiliated anger. He was no one’s fool. Not again. Whore maybe, but no fool.

He rocked forward on unsteady limbs and reached for his pile of clothes.

“Get what you were after?” he asked, grinding out the words with his back to Liam.

“What?” Liam’s voice sounded groggy. “What’s wrong?”

Theo snorted, pulled on his socks and shoes last, and hopped off the truck bed. New aches protested in places he didn’t know he had, but his healing dulled the edge. He checked the fire and paced over to a pile of dry wood to find more fuel. As he laid new split logs in the pit, he kept track of Liam’s movements on the bed. The truck suspension creaked as Liam’s feet in the ground.

Theo clenched his jaw and found a spot to feed some kindling to the coals. His chest hurt, and his stomach twisted tighter as Liam approached.

“Theo . . .” Liam stroked a hand up his shoulder blade, but Theo shrugged him off and wheeled on him.

“What do you want from me?” He shouted it, ringing with anger, indignation.

Liam jolted and retreated a step. “What?” It wasn’t a real question.

“No one just does . . . that .” He waved toward the truck, toward, fuck, hours of intimate whatever-the-hell and shook his head. “Not for free .”

Liam’s expression shifted from confused to mortified. “I thought . . . I thought you liked it.”

He growled. “That’s not the point.”

“It’s kinda the entire point!”

“Just tell me what you’re after!”

“Nothing!”

Theo closed the space between them, chest rising and falling with quick anger. “Everyone’s after something,” he said, voice low. His grip on anger slipped a little toward hurt. “I just don’t know why you thought you had to fuck it out me, when you could’ve just asked.” A breath. “I’d have said yes.”

Liam just stared at him. His eyes grew wider, and he swallowed, and he looked inexorably sad. “You are so broken, dude,” he said, shaking his head. He stepped back, wearing an expression Theo couldn’t untangle, and then turned away. He headed back in the direction he’d come from.

Good. Leave. You shouldn’t be here.

Theo watched until he couldn’t hear his heartbeat anymore and then sank down onto the couch and dropped his head into his hands. His face burned. Tears slipped down his fingers. Of all the people he thought would play him, use him, Liam was bottom of the list. Everything felt raw and wrong. He shied from the thought that maybe, maybe Liam was genuine, because if he was, then—

He didn’t even try to keep quiet. But that was wrong too. Silence let them forget you were there. Silence kept you alive.

Footsteps came back toward the camp and stopped within the circle of heat of the fire.

Theo waited, still covering his face, ashamed at the show of weakness.

Liam waited.

Theo broke first.

“What!” he barked and jumped to his feet, stared at Liam hard.

Liam met his gaze, unflinching. “Wanna know what I want?”

Silence.

Liam lifted his chin. “Come home with me.”

“What?” Theo frowned at him, his anger disarmed, and Liam took a step closer.

“You’re living out here like a homeless person.” He gestured at the camp.

“I am a homeless person.”

“So . . .” Another step closer. “Come home with me. I asked my dad. He’s cool.”

Some of the heat from the crying drained from Theo’s face and he snorted. “You asked your dad if a murderer you know could stay in your house?”

Liam scowled at him. “I asked him if my friend who needed help could stay with us for a while.” He moved closer still, within an arm’s reach. “Hot shower. Hot food. Warm bed—”

“Yours?”

Liam glanced aside shyly and scratched at his neck. “If you want,” he admitted.  “But I was thinking the guest room, you know. Space to yourself.”

Theo stared hard at him, searching for signs of a lie. For a scent or a skip in heartbeat. “Why are you being nice ? You hate me.”

Genuine surprise sparked across Liam’s face and he shook his head. “You’re an idiot. And you don’t deserve to live like this.”

Theo’s shoulders hunched, and his gaze dropped to the ground. “Maybe I do.” The pressure of tears built again, but he held them in.

“No.” Liam closed the rest of the gap and touched his face, drawing a thumb through the tear tracks with one hand, then both. “You don’t.”

Theo let out a shuddering breath, suddenly so tired, and Liam went on.

“Please? For a night? Leave tomorrow if you don’t like it. And . . . it’s free. Okay? Totally free.”

Theo’s defiance crumbled, and he leaned in until their foreheads touched. He couldn’t speak, just breathed harsh and deep while Liam brushed at his hair.

“So . . .” Liam asked lightly. “Is that a yes?”

Theo sighed, concentrating on the feel of fingers across his scalp. “Scott’ll be pissed,” he said softly.

“I’ll deal with it. All right?” Liam said.

He didn’t answer.

“Theo?”

“No promises.”

Whatever you want.

Chapter Text

Time has weight. The pressures of its passing transform, easing scars. Or making them.  Theo felt time like an itch on the nape of his neck and clocked it by the gathering unease in his gut. It was a feral instinct, and one that clashed with painted walls and interiors well-lit past sunset.

He paused in washing off a plate and glanced at the dining room with four chairs askew. The Geyer-Dunbar household had actual family dinners, when schedules allowed. Liam’s mom asked him about his school day and watched with interest while he answered. Dr. Geyer complained about ER staffing and turnaround times and the unnatural spike in gunshot injuries. Theo had stayed quiet, observing, ducking his head to eat.

No one asked what he did with his time.

He moved the plate under the running faucet and then leaned to stack it in the dishwasher. He could’ve just put it straight in. But then . . . why have him at all? What’s the bonus? The value-add? So he scrubbed each dish a little first.

Any day now, Liam’s parents were going to start asking questions that well-adjusted adults ask well-adjusted kids. Like, how about school? Or, how about a job? He didn’t know what he’d say, but they would deserve an answer.

Theo picked up another plate and gave it a quick scour under running water. He felt Liam enter the kitchen before catching him out of the corner of his eye. Liam stood leaning against the entryway quietly watching while Theo finished up the plate and moved to a glass. His presence was a weight in the room, always a weight in the room, dragging Theo’s attention toward him like gravity. He hadn’t asked anything either. How long are you staying? Do you need money? Do you want another fuck?

Nothing. Small talk. Unimportant talk.

Theo put the glass in the dishwasher, grabbed a casserole dish that would need a little scrubbing, and paused, feeling the pull of Liam’s gaze and too long silence. People generally wanted something when they stood around watching. Theo turned a little, unsure, and lifted his eyebrows, inviting conversation—hoping for it. Anything to shatter the closed case of unasked things. Liam just smiled back, an opaque wall of suburban pleasantry. Theo frowned into the sink and started working at some blackened grease and cheese, with Liam’s silence echoing.

The house was so full of people, full of voices and constant motion—things that flowed around the obstruction of his presence. They were being kind to a stranger because they were good people. Nothing personal. Never personal.

“It’s been three days,” Theo said, words slipping out before he could craft them.

Liam stood straighter. “What?”

Theo’s hands stopped, and his heart pounded as he closed his eyes. The water from the faucet seemed to roar. “I’ve been here three days, and you haven’t touched me,” he whispered. He couldn’t bring himself to say words so delicate with wounds in Liam’s direction.

Liam moved closer, sound and scent betraying him, and Theo glanced up, because he must, because that specific gravity pulled at him, because he had to know .

“I told you,” Liam said, looking earnest. “It’s free. You don’t owe me anything.”  

Words spoken with such compassion, a resolution to the wrong problem. Theo frowned slowly and looked away. Three days of memories living in his bones. Three days of reliving . . . that.

He doesn’t have a word for what they did. Not the gay part, the—

The caresses like caring. The kisses like love.

The house was huge, and empty when everyone left. Emptier, somehow, than the forest, because it’s where life was supposed to be. And he had nothing but the burden of memories and silence.

“What if I want something?” Theo’s voice was barely louder than the splash of the water, a ponderance to the stars, a hypothetical.

He glanced at Liam, whose frown had softened.

“Like what?” Liam asked him, and it made the question real.

What if I want something.

Theo’s heart beat a little faster.

What if I .

The risk. The fear .

What if.

To want.

I . . .

To ask.

He swallowed and met Liam’s eyes for a second. Glanced down to trace the contours of his mouth. A breath flared a frisson of lust, and then Theo leaned toward him, lips slowly parting. Theo kept his wet, soapy hands hovered over the sink, and he couldn’t quite reach. But Liam met him. Let himself be kissed. It was tender, chaste, barely breaking the silence. Theo couldn’t remember the last time he’d kissed someone with those intentions.

Maybe never.

He pulled back, coloring a little, and then pushed away the embarrassment enough to chance a look at Liam.

Liam . . . smiled. More than smiled. He bit his lip and turned away, as though trying not to smile quite so much.

Delighted , Theo realized. Liam looked delighted. Brushing his hands through his hair and spinning a little in place. Blushing. Theo watched Liam try to get control of himself, quite sure he’d never made anyone look like that before. A powerful sort of pride flooded Theo’s chest, and he laughed a little, giddy with relief. He had wanted— was wanted. And not everything he wanted was wrong.

***

“You—what?” Liam blinked at him in clear blue astonishment.

Theo shrugged slowly at the creeping sensation of inadequacy. “Never really came up.”

“Any of them.”

“I lived in a sewer.”

“Not all the time.”

Theo’s gut tightened, and he felt the heat of shame rush to his face as he grew silent. Sure. There was that time he abducted some strangers and forced them to play house, simulating normal life. He’d forgotten to feel guilt for that recently.

“Hey,” Liam broke the silence, voice low. “Sorry, I—”

“No.” Theo flicked a forced a smile at him. “You’re right.” The smile slipped off. “I wasn’t really in a moviegoing frame of mind, though.”

Liam chewed the inside of his lip for a second and then set the pencil in his hand very purposefully down to mark the page in his textbook. “I can solve this,” he said.

Theo lifted an eyebrow at him.

“Your cultural deficiency,” he clarified. Not your moral failings. Liam picked up his phone to check the time, and then got up, pushing the dining room chair back with a small scrape of sound. “C’mon,” he said.

“W— Now ?” Theo watched him stepping away from a table full of homework.

Liam turned and gave him a steady, serious look before extending a hand. “You’re very behind.”


They made a pile of pillows and blankets on the floor at the foot of Liam’s bed. Liam flicked off the lights, and the glow of the Xbox home screen filled the room while he found the disc and then popped in Iron Man . Theo, dutifully, leaned back against the mattress and watched as the Marvel logo emerged on the screen. He watched Robert Downey Jr. lift his arms with dramatic flair, conducting an orchestra of violence. Mostly, he felt Liam sitting next to him. Painfully close. Painfully far.

The movie drew him in. The betrayal of old friends. The forging of a new identity. Learning to care. To be better.

Theo shifted closer, self-conscious as he pressed against Liam’s side. Liam tore his eyes from the screen long enough to smile at him. And then take his hand. Like he knew . Like he’d picked it on purpose. Theo’s body flooded with heat, and he turned his gaze back to the movie with intent and focus—

Until Liam starting stroking the back of his hand lightly with a thumb.

A delicate, ghosting pleasure. And all Theo’s attention narrowed to that one sensation.

He lost track of the film.

His skin went hot and cold in waves, and he found himself staring at Liam’s profile in the dark, watching the shifting light play across his face. Nothing, no one—

The screen went black as the credits started to roll, and he could tell from the shush of hair against the comforter that Liam turned toward him.

“There’s a secret ending,” he said. “After the credits.”

Liam was so close. And they’d been touching for an hour. Holding hands. Theo’s heart fluttered with that same fear of jumping, but he leaned in. Found soft lips in the dark. Liam smiled and chuckled as he pulled back.

“You have to watch,” he said, warm, rounded whispers. “It’s important.”

Theo swallowed, lingering, and then dragged his eyes back to the screen when Liam raised their clasped hands toward it. He watched Nick Fury step out of the shadows and announce The Avengers. An alpha assembling his pack. One that Tony, with his new vision, his new heart, would be welcomed to.

This was what Liam wanted him to see. It’s important .

His pulse beat against the inside of his skin. He felt it throb in his fingertips. In his tongue. Liam turned to him.

“Well, what’d you—”

Theo kissed him. A hot wanting, needing kind of kiss. He scored Liam’s lip with his teeth. Moved to jaw. Licked down his neck. Liam’s pulse quickened, and Theo’s body thrilled to the sound of it. He freed his hand and pulled Liam’s collar aside to get at the soft skin. His other hand skimmed Liam’s chest, stomach. Pressed hard and gripped down his thigh with the heat of friction.

A harsh breath in his ear.

Theo snaked his hand up under Liam’s shirt. Flicked his tongue hard against a pulse point.

“S-stop.” Liam shoved at him, breath ragged. Then firmer, “Stop!”

Theo froze, the sound of his blood racing in his ears, heat twining in his gut. Tight with alarm, he pulled back, breaths short, and flashed his eyes to see what was wrong. Liam glanced at him, and then away as he pulled his shirt back down into place. He held himself closed, embarrassed, even. Theo sat back, frowning in confusion. His heart still pounded hard.

For a moment it looked like Liam was going to say something. But what could he possibly say?

Theo stared. And the twist of heat in his body turned black—flash-frozen by a wall of cold mortification and a howling wind of anger.

So stupid .

He’d been so stupid , and fully exposed. A blatant, honest fool.

The rejection rang through him like a bell, and he bolted to his feet.

“Theo.” Liam reached for him, and he dodged out of the grasp.

It didn’t make any sense. Theo scowled down with enough anger that he could feel the shift in his eyes. He hadn’t hurt. Hadn’t forced. He’d just . . . wanted. Wasn’t he allowed that now? So then why, suddenly—

His stomach churned, and he started for the door.

“Hey!” Liam jumped up and stepped into his path, flipped on the light.

Theo stopped short, a snarl coming to his lips. Stupid, stupid fool . “You fucked me already, and now I can’t even take your shirt off?”

Liam frowned, looking hurt. Like he had a right to feel hurt. He lifted his hands, and Theo shied from the gesture before stilling himself. A lip curled anyway, but Liam moved slowly, unafraid, and took Theo’s face in his hands.

“That’s how you think of it?” he asked. “I fucked you ?” His voice cracked, pained, like each word cost him to say. “Cause those aren’t the words I’d use.”

The disappointment in his tone dragged Theo’s gaze down, and the anger lost its wind. What do you want from me? cleaved to Theo’s tongue but he couldn’t form the words. Wrong. He’d done wrong, and that was all he knew.

Liam dropped his hands, and their sudden absence felt like abandonment. “I’m gonna ask you something,” Liam said. “And I want you to say the first thing that comes to mind. Okay?”

Theo barely moved to nod.

“What do you want?”

Almost the same words that echoed in his own mind. Theo blinked.

“First thing,” Liam said. “What do you want?”

“Touch me.” Was that his voice? Theo didn’t remember thinking anything . And yet whispered. Desperate. His heart lurched in his chest. “Please.” He could beg.

Liam’s thoughtful expression turned sad. Maybe, bittersweet. He glanced around his room at the TV and the nest of pillows on the floor. Then, his fingers closed lightly around Theo’s wrist.

“C’mere,” he said.

Theo went where he was led. A guarded energy kept his nerves on edge, senses sharp. The impulse to flee spun through his muscles, but he sat instead, vibrating with the effort of stillness, because Liam asked him to. Because thus far trusting had earned him kindness, sweetness, rest, and shelter.

Liam changed discs in the player. He left the light on this time as he sat and settled himself, then opened his arms like the invitation to a hug and motioned with his fingers.

“What?” Theo stared at him, and Liam rolled his eyes.

“Come over here.”

Theo moved with a wounded animal’s wariness. He edged closer, the pillows and blankets shifting beneath him. Liam brushed a hand along his back, down his side, urging him closer. He hesitated, trying to imagine how you hug someone with their back flat against a solid object.

Liam smiled at the pause. “Here . . .” And then he guided one of Theo’s arms into the space between his back and the mattress. With a gentle pressure, he brought Theo’s head to rest on his chest.

Theo adjusted his position against the warm solidity of Liam’s body, trying to settle. He did not relax.

Couldn’t.

Liam touched his face. Lightly. Backs of fingers drawn down his cheek. A thumb tracing between his eyes. Down his nose. Across his lips.

The movie started.

And Liam threaded his fingers into Theo’s hair and rubbed at his scalp.

Theo’s world tipped sideways. He exhaled audibly and gasped when Liam touched nerves that sent sparkling, tingling sensations down his arms, into his legs. His eyes drifted shut, and he felt the tension melt out of him as his breathing slowed. His limbs grew too heavy to move, but sensitive, to the air, to touch, to the fabric of his clothes. Every swirling, methodical caress traveled his body with liquid pleasure. He wanted to moan, to respond , but nothing obeyed. Not a muscle.

The movie became an audioscape. Crashes and words amid swells of music.

He was receptiveness. Aroused but not needy. A brimming cup of ecstasy the slightest motion might spill. He was, always, the awareness of this moment, pinned at a crest of joy, and around him, through him, drama unfolded and the sensations changed.

Liam tugged lightly at his hair, and the caresses left him weak. Powerless. Glowing.

The soundscape stopped. And Liam stopped. And it took the span of a breath for Theo’s body to remember him. He surged to motion on a tide of ragged joy and captured Liam’s lips, needing him to feel, needing him to know .

Liam laughed against him. “I thought you were asleep.”

Theo cupped Liam’s face in both hands and gazed at him. Into him, until the contact shivered. Not asleep. Awake. So very awake. Theo closed the gap slowly, searching. And when their lips met again, he tried, god, to feel every good and generous emotion he could muster. To be imbued with it, so he might might translate some. So Liam might know .

He kissed mouth and cheek and jaw. Breathed hot against Liam’s ear. “Please, please.” The glow was too bright, too searing to keep to himself. He needed to share.

“What?”

“I need you to know,” he said, and restrained himself from touching any more, closing the hand that drifted from Liam’s cheek into a fist to keep from doing so. Liam had stopped him before for crossing a line he could not see.

He waited.

Liam played with the short hairs at the base of Theo’s skull, and he shuddered.

“Okay,” Liam said, and Theo groaned with relief.

He let himself touch. Chest first, and stomach, over the soft fabric of Liam’s shirt. Down a thigh. Liam’s breath hitched. Back around, lighter up the inner thigh, and he watched Liam’s eyes flutter shut. Theo rubbed at Liam’s crotch through the denim, enough to make him arch. To make him squirm.

Theo kissed him while he traced his fingers up and worked the button. Licked into his mouth while he undid the fly. He slipped his hand down under the waistband of his briefs and closed his fingers gently around Liam’s cock. Liam arched and broke the kiss so he could bite his lip.

Theo stroked him slowly to hardness, kissing at his neck, while Liam clenched his hands into the pillows.  He stroked him quicker, building friction. Liam gasped and Theo kissed him, tasting the whimpers of restraint. Theo hovered over him, rhythm relentless. Touched his lips to the shell of Liam’s ear.

“Come for me.”

Liam breathed out, harsh, and slung his arms around Theo’s neck, pulling them closer. He made a desperate sound. Theo could have helped him. Could have quickened the pace, the pressure. But then he wouldn’t drag on the ragged edge of ecstasy, until it was too much.

Liam bucked into his hand, crushed him close, and Theo felt a hot wetness spill across his fingers. Liam clung to him through a few panting aftershocks and then relaxed back, dropping his arms to his sides, boneless. An emotion Theo could hardly recognize rolled through him, and in a moment of painful affection, he dipped down and kissed Liam on the temple, earning a sound like a smile.

Dark eyes met his lazily as he sat back, and then Liam glanced down at himself, shirt rucked up, the head of his cock peeking above the waistband. Theo moved to get up, and Liam’s gaze flicked to him.

“What about you?”

Theo warmed at the question, smiled, shook his head. “I got what I wanted,” he said quietly, and got to his feet with a rolling grace.

He grabbed the box of tissues Liam kept on his bedside table and cleaned off his hand, then returned and did what he could about the rest of the mess. Liam stretched and slid further down on the floor, and Theo found himself just gazing. Admiring. Hard abs. Pink tip.

“What?” Liam drawled, drowsy.

How do you say “I never thought I’d have opinions about a dick that wasn’t mine” without sounding like an idiot?

Theo shook his head and smiled, and Liam took it as some kind of judgment, maybe, because he arranged himself and zipped his jeans and pulled down the shirt that needed to go in the laundry. He pushed himself up to sitting, and they were back where they had started, a little apart, leaning against the bed as though ready to watch a movie.

The bliss ebbed into languid weariness, and Theo felt the pull of time. He turned his head, watching Liam breathe.

“Can I stay here tonight?” Theo’s tone was light, and all an act. His heartbeat betrayed him.

Liam met his eyes, frowning. “I told you, you can stay as long as you want.”

Theo let out a small, exasperated sigh and leaned in closer, until his lips touched the shell of Liam’s ear. “In your bed,” he whispered.

Liam’s shoulders shrugged up, and he ducked away, smiling shyly before he caught himself. “Yeah,” he said, and nudged Theo with his elbow. “’Course.”

And then he got up and started to strip, no preamble. A second later, Theo followed, going slower so Liam would get done first. Liam grabbed the pillows and blanket off the floor and tossed them back on the bed. Theo folded his clothes into a neat pile and left them where one of the pillows on the floor had been. He waited to see which side of the bed Liam would take—the right—and then turned off the light before easing himself under the covers on the side closest the windows, a quick escape route, though he didn’t know if that was intentional.

He sank into the mattress. Into the softness. Into the stillness.

“Big spoon!” Liam said, louder than necessary, and then rolled onto his side.

Startled, Theo turned to look at him, blinking. “What?”

“Big spoon. I called it.”

Light through the window cut a slash across Liam’s face, catching the corner of his smile and glinting off his eye. Theo pressed his lips together.

“That’s not a thing,” he said, narrowing his eyes.

“It’s a thing,” Liam insisted. “I called dibs.”

Theo gave him a long, dubious look, but there was no upside to arguing. He rolled to face the window, and a moment later Liam snuggled up behind him and threw an arm across his midsection, pulling him in close.

“You realize it’s going to be like a million degrees,” Theo said.

“Shut up.”

“Okay, but—”

“Theo.”

Liam placed a light kiss on the nape of his neck, and Theo fell silent. He lay staring at the silver etched tree outside the window, swarmed with a sense of strangeness. His heart beat too hard, too loudly, and Liam’s light breathing seemed to roar.

“Hey . . .” Liam whispered. “It’s okay to relax.”

Theo took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Trying. Liam rearranged their feet to something less constricting and curled his fingers against Theo’s breastbone, rubbing lightly.

“You’re safe here,” Liam told him. “I promise.”

A tension in his core eased and felt like a cloud of lifting sparks from a fire. The rigid line of his shoulders softened, and he relaxed into the feel of a solid body at his back.

They kicked off the covers ten minutes later, but he couldn’t even feel smug.

***

Theo woke with the brightening dawn. A couple of days under artificial lights hadn’t changed his primal clock, and blinked at the broad gray sky through the window before stretching. He listened for a moment to the heartbeat beside him, slow and steady, before easing from his side onto his back. Liam had his face mashed into a pillow, and he was drooling a little. Theo held in his urge to laugh, and it came out as a quick exhale and a smile. He slipped carefully from the bed, conscious of the movement of the mattress and the sound of his steps. He kept an eye on Liam as he dressed, making sure he didn’t stir, and then crept out the door, closing it slowly with the smallest of clicks. He turned, and Liam’s dad stared at him from the bathroom door.

Theo’s mind went blank. A vacuum. No lie sprang to mind—nothing that could explain away him coming out of Liam’s room in the morning. His heart hammered at his ribs, and he stood frozen with a hand still on the doorknob, staring, stuck on the knife edge between fight and flight.

“Good morning,” Dr. Geyer said, voice low in deference to the hour.

Theo swallowed hard and removed his hand slowly from the door.

“Uh.” Think. Think! “Hi.”

Liam’s dad huffed a laugh and shook his head. He took up the thin end of his tie and start tying the knot. “Don’t usually get that look until I saw the word ‘surgery,’” he said, grinning.

Theo blinked, deciphering his tone, body language.

Dr. Geyer looked up at him as he tightened the tie and straightened it. “Did you think I don’t know you’re dating my son?”

Theo’s body tensed as the word struck him in the chest. He wasn’t sure he knew he was dating the man’s son. They hadn’t used that word. They hadn’t used any word. Theo glanced at Liam’s door, and he mouth opened to make some sort of reply, but nothing came out. Panic dripped quicksilver in his veins.

Dr. Geyer just snorted. An easy sound. An amused sound. And Theo turned back to him with wide eyes to find him grinning. “How do you take your coffee?” he asked, turning and tipping his head toward the kitchen.

Theo swallowed down his panic and now that Dr. Geyer looked elsewhere, he could move again. He trailed Liam’s dad toward the kitchen.

“Uh. Lots of cream,” he said eventually, voice small as he stood on the opposite side of the kitchen island.

Theo’s hands felt like useless clay at his sides while he watched Liam’s dad move around the kitchen, not looking at him, but maybe not pointedly not looking at him, either. Theo didn’t know. His lungs were too small, suddenly. Mouth dry.

Dr. Geyer turned and set a mug down in front of him, coffee, lots of cream. Theo picked it up to give his hands something to do, and watched warily as Liam’s dad leaned back against the counter behind him. Was he supposed to say something? Apologize, maybe. Or, or offer to leave. He could offer to leave. He scowled down at the coffee and took a sip to buy time.

“You were there for him when Hayden left,” Dr. Geyer spoke finally, and his voice was low and serious.

Theo met his steady gaze and nodded.

“Biding your time?”

Theo flinched a little, struck even though he’d tried to be ready. “What? No! I . . . I—” He put the mug down, shaking his head and frowning at it. What—what if he had. What if he had been predatory in staying.  

“Hadn’t figured it out yet?” Dr. Geyer offered gently.

Theo lifted his eyes, and that thought . . . that thought rankled far less. That felt true. He nodded.

Liam’s dad took a careful sip of coffee and hummed thoughtfully. “My son loves with his whole heart,” he said.

Theo nodded. “I know.”

Dr. Geyer nodded back, and they fell into a tense silence. Theo’s heart wouldn’t stop racing. The man was a suburban doctor. No powers. Not a whiff of the supernatural. All he wielded was his opinion, his approval, sharp as a scalpel. Theo had intimate familiarity with many kinds of terror. But this kind was new. He stared at a simple man who excised cancers for a living.

Theo swallowed, his throat clicking. “Is this where you threaten to kill me if I break it?”

Dr. Geyer gave him a long look. “No,” he said eventually. “He doesn’t need that from me, and I can’t protect him anymore.”

Some of the pain of tension in Theo’s shoulders relaxed, and he offered a small smile. “He’s pretty good at protecting himself.”

“And . . . a pretty good judge of character.” Dr. Geyer held his gaze for a pointed second.

That—he couldn’t be sure of that. But Liam’s dad was sure, and he wanted Theo to know it. A shy smile crept across Theo’s face, and he ducked his head. The quicksilver panic turned to smoke, and he closed his hands around the coffee mug again.

Dr. Geyer went on. “I noticed the showerhead’s working like new.”

Theo looked up at him, brightening. “Oh, yeah, it was calcified.” He shrugged.

“And you fixed it.”

A smaller shrug. “Easy fix.”

Liam’s dad smiled at him and nodded. “Well, it’s appreciated.” He finished his coffee and set the mug in the sink. “I’ve got a double shift today, so nobody wait up.”

“Sure,” Theo said, watching him grab his jacket. “I’ll tell Liam.” And then belatedly as Dr. Geyer stepped out the door, “Have a good . . . day.” The last word struck the door as it closed, and Theo was left standing in the silent kitchen by himself.

He stared down at the coffee mug, still mostly full. He hadn’t thought anyone would notice about the shower. It just . . . It was broken a little. And he fixed it a little. It felt like helping.

He lifted his gaze and glanced around the rest of the house with a slowly spreading smile.

***

Liam came home like a battering ram.

Theo startled on the couch and sat up, pulling out his earbuds, as Liam charged into the kitchen without a word. The fridge rattled, cabinets whacked, and then something heavy hit the counter with a thud. Theo leaned forward, the hackles on his neck rising, and he tensed when the something hit the counter again, bangbangbangbang , and Liam roared.

A human roar. But only barely.

Fear injected into Theo’s blood, and he felt the itch of fangs in his jaw. He glanced at the hallway that housed his room. His room. And his instincts told him to go, to vault the couch and fly to it, and lock the door behind. Energy coiled while his senses focused on Liam, the way his heart raced, the sharp tang of stress in his scent, any evidence that he was coming closer.

Something scraped along the countertop and then crashed to the floor with the unmistakable dull shatter of ceramic. Theo winced, the sound painful to his heightened hearing. And then he heard Liam mutter “Fuck,” under his breath with a tone more defeated than vengeful. The sharp end of that blade pointed inward.

Theo crept from the couch, dropping Liam’s old iPod on the coffee table, and padded into the dining room with a silent, wary curiosity. He felt light, fleet. And he found Liam standing in the far corner by the sink, clenching his fists at his sides, head bowed. The muscle in his neck stood out, and Theo could see his lips moving in familiar shapes. The sun, the moon, the truth .

A few more steps, and Theo could see around the island enough to glimpse shards of a dinner plate. He glanced at the plastic tupperware on the counter. He could still go. Avoid this mess, avoid the risk . But Liam was trying . And maybe success was a small kindness away.

Theo scratched at the stubble he’d been letting grow, his shoulders still rounded with apprehension, and then he cleared his throat. Liam turned slightly away, an instinct to hide his shame, Theo thought. Perhaps the only thing worse than an angry animal was a shamed human.

He took the long way around, hoping to avoid broken pottery shards and kept himself primed for any number of responses. A snarl, a claw, a punch to the face.

“Hey,” Theo said gently, approaching with a slow, steady glide that could have been a prowl with different intent.

Liam’s knuckles turned whiter. Theo watched him mouthing his mantra and picked up just as he started over.

“What three things cannot long be hidden?” Theo asked softly.

Liam found his voice, and together they continued, “The sun, the moon, the truth.”

Liam’s chest heaved, but he angled in Theo’s direction, and they said it again. Slower. Theo breathed intentionally loud, drawing deep, exhaling to a count. The sun . Inhale. The moon. Exhale. The truth . Pause.

He touched Liam’s shoulder with tentative fingers, and Liam released his balled fists. A second later, he lifted his head and met Theo’s gaze.

“Okay?” Theo asked him, trying to sound calmer than he felt.

Liam nodded, a jerky, short motion as his breathing calmed. He stared down at the broken plate with such intensity that Theo glanced too.

“I’ll get it,” Theo found himself saying. One more item to add to his count, beside the clean dryer vent and balanced washing machine. He moved to get the dustpan and broom, but Liam snagged his arm, and a second later he found himself wrapped in an embrace. He returned it automatically with the light, non-committal hug of social nicety.

Liam squeezed him harder and buried his face in Theo’s neck, barrelling beyond nicety into distinctly intimate. Theo settled his hands on Liam’s shoulder and side and applied a firm, steady pressure. He tipped his head against Liam’s.

“Why are we hugging in the kitchen?” he asked gently.

Liam heaved a sigh. “Shut up. I had a shitty night.”

“You don’t say.”

Liam loosened his grip and pulled back enough to fire off a deadpan glare. Theo’s mouth twisted in a smirk, and it was enough. Enough wise-ass levity that Liam’s glare disintegrated into an eye roll. He dropped his head back on Theo’s shoulder.

“They’re gearing up,” he said.

“Who?”

Liam shrugged, his muscles sliding under Theo’s hands. “Everyone. Scott says we need to find people like us. Warn them.”

Theo frowned. “He should be recruiting them.”

“Yeah.” Liam exhaled, his breath warming Theo’s skin. “Derek said the same thing.” He paused, and through some shift of stance and pressure brought their bodies closer. “I wish you could’ve been there.”

Theo made a noncommittal sound, too distracted by the heat, by the way Liam’s hair kept tickling against his beard. Liam lifted his head and gave him a long look.

“You should be there,” he said. Theo shrugged lightly, and Liam went on. “I tried to tell them.”

Ahh . . .

Theo nodded. He could only imagine how poorly that went.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

Liam clenched his jaw and touched their foreheads together. “Yeah. I did.”

He didn’t know what to say to that, and his throat grew hot and tight. Theo adjusted his hands, searching until he could press his palms to the skin of Liam’s lower back. He took small, rocking steps until he bumped against the counter.

Liam smiled and pressed his hips forward in a little grind. “I have an idea,” he said, and moved his fingers to play with Theo’s hair.

Theo lifted an eyebrow, shivering a little. “Yeah?”

Liam made a little space between them, a slow, wicked smile spreading across his face. Theo’s heart kicked as Liam slid from his grasp, and his skin buzzed electric when fingers closed around his wrist. It wasn’t the first time Liam touched him this way, and it communicated a tone and intent with such subtle question. May I? Will you?

He followed with Liam’s thumb against his pulse. Shut the door as they entered his room. Watched and waited with burgeoning anticipation as Liam pulled him in close and walked him backward toward the bed with only the heat of his gaze and the language of his body in motion. Liam could be intimidating if he wanted, and it made his tenderness shine by contrast.

Sex could be serious.

Sex could be funny.

Theo dropped to sitting on the edge of mattress and looked up, breathless to find out which this would be. Liam’s smile turned impish, and his eyes darkened, blown black.

“Lie down,” he said. A command, not a request.

Theo quivered at his core, breaths coming shorter as he complied, lying back against the pillows. Still watching, wondering. His eyes flashed in hunger when Liam got up on his knees at the very end of the bed and swept him slowly with a lingering, appreciative look.

Christ . . .

What could he look like? Borrowed t-shirt. Borrowed sweatpants. Finally, finally, Liam’s eyes met his with a brush like physical contact, and Theo’s body shuddered with a thrill. Liam dropped his gaze, smiling to himself, and reached for the waistband of the sweatpants with both hands.

He could’ve peeled them off. Quick and efficient. Instead he used them as an excuse to slide his hands around Theo’s ass and squeeze on the muscle with a strong, steady grip. Theo sucked a breath, smiled, and lifted a little. Warm hands drew down the backs of his thighs, cradling, caressing. He’d never thought of them as neglected before, but damn, the trembling heat suffusing outward said otherwise.

Liam’s fingers came to the backs of his knees, and he jumped a little in ticklish surprise. Made a sound like a startled laugh, and he could hear Liam’s exhaled smile. The pressure against his calves molded him anew. Something lighter. Calmer. Liam dropped the sweatpants on the floor, and Theo lifted his head to stare at him with a dazed and gathering need.

The mattress dipped as Liam stretched over him, balancing on one arm, and dipped down for a kiss that lasted not nearly long enough.

“I plan to keep going,” Liam said.

A warning? A . . . promise?

Theo nodded at him, breathless. “Good.”

And then Liam retreated, hooking his fingers under the waistband of Theo’s briefs. Heat skimmed over Theo’s hipbones as Liam moved the band down, fractions of an inch at a time. Theo arched off the bed to make it easier, but he went slow, slow. There was being undressed and being unwrapped . Soft cock revealed while Liam’s fingers stroke and stroke his skin. He lowered down when the heat of hands reached his knees, and Liam cast him another mischievous smile as he sped up from there, added the briefs to the pile.

Theo lay half-naked, watching Liam drink in the sight. He didn’t know what to do with his hands and so brushed one up his own chest and rubbed at his collarbone. Waiting. Inhale. Waiting . . .

“Is it stupid if I tell you how hot you are?” Liam said, voice gone low.

The sound touched nerves down his spine, and he smiled. “No.”

It was a useful trait. One he’d valued precisely for its utility. It made people pliable, willing. He’d used it as a predator would.

Liam touched his knee and caressed his thigh and the knowledge seeped into him that he did not mean that word this way.

Precious.

Desired.

Theo swallowed and exhaled with a sound of need when Liam pulled his shirt a little higher to kiss his hip. He felt exposed, more exposed, as blood rushed to his groin, and threaded his fingers into Liam’s hair, long and curling at the ends.

“You had an idea?” Theo asked, his voice unsteady.

Liam looked up at him from under long lashes and licked his lips, then glanced at the cock a few inches from his face, still only just awakening to the game.

Theo’s pulse kicked. Oh . And his cock twitched at the rush of lust.

But Liam hadn’t—

His thought cut off when Liam ran a finger lightly down his length, teasing, and followed with a cautious touch of wet lips. A tentative swipe of slick tongue.

Theo squeezed his eyes shut and curled his hands as Liam licked, stroked, stealing his breath with jolts of pleasure. He groaned with the effort of stillness when Liam slipped his lips full over the head. Swirled his tongue— Theo’s legs turned honey-heavy —sucked— he pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes .

The cautious motions turned confident. Deeper. Theo moaned and tried tried not to buck. Panting—

The door to the bedroom exploded open, and several things happened at once.

Scott roared into the room, red eyes and fangs.

Liam whirled, fell onto the floor, and came up in a crouch.

And Theo made a startled grab for the blankets, hauling them over himself and he scurried back against the headboard. “What the fuck?”

Liam stared. “Scott?”

Scott let the color out of his eyes, but his anger radiated. “I knew it,” he said, voice dangerous and low. He jabbed a finger in Theo’s direction and stared at Liam. “ This is what he’s making you do now?”

Liam stood to his full height and squared his shoulders. “Get out.”

“No.” Scott took a step closer toward the bed. “No, I’m putting an end to this.”

Liam’s muscles bundled. “Get! Out!” And his voice rang with some of an animal’s roar.

It put Theo’s hackles on edge. “Liam . . .” he said and leaned forward, reaching for him.

“Don’t you touch him!” Scott’s eyes flashed red again, and the air filled with the force of his command.

Liam dropped his chin and stalked closer, putting himself directly between them. “He can touch me all he wants,” he said, growling and showing his eyes. “I like it when he touches me.”

Theo swallowed and glanced around for an escape route.

Scott jabbed another finger in his direction. “He’s dangerous!”

I’m dangerous!” Liam’s words were bent to the shape of fangs, and Scott scowled at him, thrown for a second.

“I don’t trust him.”

Liam lifted his chin. “I didn’t ask. Get out of my room. Get out of my house !” He shoved Scott for emphasis. “I don’t care if you don’t like him. I don’t care if you don’t trust him. I do!”

Scott just shook his head, glaring. “I’m not leaving him here with you.”

Liam’s anger spiked. “It’s not up to you! You don’t own me. You don’t get to tell me what to do!”

That struck a chord, and Scott flashed his eyes red again, moving at Liam with a threatening snap of fangs. “I’m the alpha!”

For a few seconds, a suspended moment, Liam’s chest heaved and they glared at one another, testing wills. “Well I said . . .” Liam started, his voice shaking. “Get!” He flicked out his claws and slashed Scott across the chest. “Out!” In Scott’s moment of stunned astonishment, Liam grabbed him and hurled him through the door. He hit the opposite wall with a loud thud.

Theo’s heart hammered, and Liam’s breathing got faster, deeper.

Oh . . . Oh no no no no.

He could see it. See it coming. That precipice, that spiral. Liam stalked a step toward the hall, and Theo forgot about modesty, about trying to hide his nakedness. He tossed the blankets aside and darted, ducking and sliding and standing over Scott.

“Liam.” Theo raised his hands, fingers wide. “Liam, don’t. It’s okay.”

Liam breathed like bellows, filling the doorway. He peered down at Scott and growled, baring his teeth.

“It’s okay,” Theo said. “ I’m okay. You don’t have to, all right? Liam?” Liam’s eyes flicked to him. “Big breaths. Calm down . . .” He kept his hands visible, placating, and moved slowly closer. He made a shushing sound and slide carefully into Liam’s space, placing a hand on his shoulder, then his face.

Liam peered around him, growling at Scott while Scott pushed himself up off the floor.

“Look at me,” Theo said.

Heaving and twitching with rage, Liam glanced, and after a moment his eyes stopped glowing. Theo nodded, encouraging, and Liam’s fangs pulled back. He wavered on his feet, and Theo ducked under his arm, pulling him closer to take his weight as the adrenaline left him scoured thin and trembling. Liam clung and used his waning energy to glare at Scott. Theo turned, aware, again, of being half-naked in Scott’s presence.

Scott stared at Liam. Only at Liam. “He’s not in the pack,” he said, flexing the muscle in his jaw. “He wants it for himself, and that’s not happening.”

Liam panted, fighting exhaustion, and offered the most defiant look he could muster. “Get out . . . of my house,” he said. He found the power to flash his eyes, and Scott just shook his head.

Theo might have been a statue. Or wallpaper. He held Liam up while Scott stormed away, turning them in the direction of the front door until they heard it close.

Liam sagged. He pulled away on shaky legs and dropped onto his bed, holding his head in his hands. Theo watched him for a second, letting his own instincts settle. He glanced at the dent in the wall where Scott hit and back at Liam, folding in on himself.

Theo collected his clothes and put them on, preserving the sanctity of post-violence silence. He was . . . unacceptable. Scott made that clear. And unless Liam found himself a new alpha, their pack bond was immutable. It was a simple puzzle. And Theo the odd piece. A monster playing house. He stopped fiddling with the hem of his shirt and glanced up to find Liam watching him, looking miserable.

“I’m so sorry,” Liam said.

And in three words, the tender wound of Theo’s fresh and blossoming heart closed. Clicked shut. His chest ached, and his throat hurt. He looked away, trying not to let it show, and started for the door.

“I’ll just get my stuff,” he said quietly, not looking back.

“What?” The mattress springs moved. “Why?” Liam grabbed his arm, turning him like a compass.

Theo gestured in the vague direction of the door. “You heard him.”

“Yeah.” Liam frowned. “But did you hear me ?”

Theo blinked at him, flooded with too much self-pity to fill his mouth with words.

“I decide for me,” Liam went on. He let Theo’s arm go. “If you want to leave, you can. But . . . I like you right where you are.”

Theo stared, slowly absorbing the words, the far flung tendrils of their meaning. “He’s your alpha,” he said carefully. “You’re in his pack.”

Liam’s expression darkened. “Yeah. And he’s been pissing me off, lately.”

Theo’s thoughts jumped to the slammed door and broken plate, to the irrational fear that he had been the target. It hadn’t been anger at him.

“Because of me,” he said, brittle. But it had been about him. “There’s no place for me.” There was only one inevitable conclusion to an equation like that, and Theo waited for Liam to find it.

Liam stared at him, searching. His scowl softened. “You need me to say it, don’t you,” he said. A statement, not a question.

Theo’s brows knitted in confusion, and he tensed when Liam settled a hand on the back of his neck.

“I choose you,” Liam said, meeting his eyes. “I didn’t choose Scott. It happened.” He lifted his shoulders in a light shrug. “But I didn’t choose it.”

The tender spot in Theo’s chest tore back open a little, bleeding unspeakable relief. Liam tugged and rested their heads together, squeezed gently at his nape.

“Okay?” Liam asked.

He didn’t have words and resorted to the smallest of nods.

Beyond the walls of the house, a car engine rumbled, then cut off. The front door opened and closed, and Liam’s mother’s voice rang from the living room.

“Boys! I got pizza!”

They both lifted their heads, and Theo smiled a little at the call—like they were family. I choose you. “I like where I am, too.”

Chapter Text

Theo eased down onto the nest of blankets and pillows and into the bracket of Liam’s knees. He leaned back against Liam’s chest and settled with a sigh as hands snuck around his waist.

“Which one is this?” he asked.

“Mine.” Liam’s voice held a smile.

Theo craned to look at him. “Yours?”

A smirk and a quirked eyebrow. “The Incredible Hulk.”

Theo narrowed his eyes, and Liam dipped to whisper in his ear.

“You won’t like me when I’m angry . . .”

Theo let out a breath of a laugh and turned back to the TV. “Right,” he said. That made sense, actually. Rage disorders and all. He knew the basics of superhero lore; never read them as a kid. Didn’t read them now. So the details, the how and why, were all new.

The credits flipped through the Marvel logo and changed to dreamy, washed out flashback shots of Ed Norton in a lab, green crosshairs on his forehead. Liam slipped one arm free and traced his fingers along Theo’s hairline above an ear, a light caress as the scene changed to a cityscape. Old. Dense. Not the US.  A soft, involuntary sound escaped at the touch, and the nerves down Theo’s side sparkled to the hip. He could hear Liam’s heart skip a little in reply.

A few long, slow caresses more, and those tender, talented fingers brushed up into his hair.

It was a temptation. But Theo summoned will enough to tilt his head away.

“Don’t,” he breathed. “I wanna watch this one.” This movie Liam claimed as his.

“Sorry,” Liam whispered. The unworried, casual kind that friends didn’t keep track of. He slipped his hand back onto Theo’s stomach again, and they spent the movie in close, intimate silence.

As the credits rolled, pitching the room to darkness, Liam stroked one of Theo’s arms lightly with a contemplative rhythm.

“Well? What’d you think?” he asked.

Bruce Banner had powers he never asked for and spent 80 percent of the movie trying to cure. The quickest trigger for his rage? Threatening someone he cared about. Theo thought of Liam flying at Scott and nearly spinning out of control.

“I can see why you like it,” Theo told him. “Kinda glad you don’t turn green, though. Or get ten feet tall.”

“I’d ruin all my clothes.”

“Bulletproof would be pretty handy.”

Liam made an amused sound and nuzzled into Theo’s hair, squeezing their entangled embrace a little harder. “Yeah. But I couldn’t get my heart rate up.”

“Fair point.” Theo ran his hands up and down Liam’s arms. “Guess you should stay like you are.”

There was a wash of heat as Liam exhaled against his scalp and then sat back. The TV flicked to the Xbox home screen and glowed like a tiny moon. Theo felt the rise and fall of Liam’s chest and lingered in the silence and the warmth of touch. It was maybe only that focus that let him sense it—the breath in a little too quick. The long pause that yearned for something to fill it only to fail into a breath out. It sounded like the start of speech, aborted.

Theo let it go. Relaxed. Draped his hands on Liam’s arms and let his eyes fall shut.

Only it happened again.

He shifted to the side and looked back. “What?”

Liam frowned at him. “What?” Innocent-like, as though his heart rate hadn’t ticked up a notch.

Theo’s eyes narrowed briefly. “You’re breathing funny. What is it?”

Liam rolled his eyes skyward, tipped his head back, and sighed. It set Theo’s nerves on edge. And when Liam drew his arms away, planting his hands down in the pillows instead, oh alarms sounded. Theo sat forward and twisted to stare at him.

“I think . . .” Liam said to the ceiling. He worked his jaw a few times, testing unsaid words, then met Theo’s eyes. “I think I should apologize.”

Theo frowned at him in clear, perfect confusion. “For what?” He started to trace back through the day.

“For . . . the night in the woods”—Theo’s heart stopped—”I think I went too fast. Asked too much.” Liam’s gaze dropped to the floor.

Ice. Ice from his frozen heart to his numb tongue. Skeletal fingers squelched through Theo’s gut and twisted, forcing out his air. “You . . . regret it?” He couldn’t— His heart wasn’t frozen, it was hammering, panicked, and the numbness melted into pain.

“No,” Liam said, meeting his gaze and gripping his fingers into fists. “But I think you do.”

That was a blade slipped between the ribs. “What? Why?” He’d done something wrong, gotten something wrong.

“Because you can’t even talk about it,” Liam said with a small lift of his shoulders. “Do you remember last week? What you said?”

He did. He bowed his head, remembering the grasp of mortified anger and the sharp, hard satisfying way “fucked” felt on his tongue. He remembered the look it put on Liam’s face, too. Horror and shame brewed a sick heat in Theo’s stomach, but he forced himself to lift his eyes.

“I remember you saying those weren’t the words you’d use,” he said. He had planted this doubt then, and it bloomed now.

Liam nodded, wordless, looking miserable. They were still so close, one gesture away from Theo’s head on Liam’s shoulder, one small gap to a kiss. Theo put a hand to Liam’s cheek.

“I don’t. Regret. Anything,” he said, making these words soft.

Liam’s expression turned hopeful. “Really?”

Theo nodded as the internal alarms dialed back, and he touched Liam’s lips with his thumb. “Yeah.” So small a sound to carry so much. Regret, regret! He didn’t hold any dearer memories, and Liam thought . . .

Liam turned into the touch and kissed the palm of his hand. Crisis averted. Order restored, however tenuously.

Theo untwisted carefully and settled back against Liam’s chest, sighing as strong arms barred him in place. The acid of emotion left him feeling thin, breakable. As vulnerable as he had then, when tenderness pierced his shell.

“How do you think of it?” he asked. “What words?”

Liam took a long time in answering, and his voice came out velvet.

“I think of it as . . . the first time I made love to you.”

It stuck in Theo’s chest like a dagger, stealing his oxygen. Embarrassment buckled him, and part of him wanted to laugh. Dismiss it as cliche, even twee. No one talked like that. Liam didn’t think that, not for real. So he turned, delicately around the pulsing pain in his chest, and met Liam’s gaze. Breathtakingly earnest. Theo’s heart pounded, and he could feel the pain, the heat gathering at his eyes.

Liam bit his lower lip for a second as he studied Theo “And . . . I think you should know. Every time?” He stroked Theo’s cheek. “That’s how I think of it.” Liam kissed the skin where his fingers had been. “Every time.”

The words broke something.

Theo’s chest hollowed, and his walls collapsed inward. He guttered, choking on an emotion too raw and hot. The tears came too messy for it to be weeping. Bawling, maybe. He couldn’t breathe. Sniffed and swiped at his eyes and face.

“I don’t. I c-can’t—”

He pinned his eyelids shut with the heels of his hands trying to staunch the flow. But it came from some place deep, and each quake had its way. Theo shuddered a breath into burning lungs and realized the swaying wasn’t him losing all sense of balance. Liam still held tight, rocking him gently side to side.

It was ridiculous. Even as hot tears streaming out from under his hands, he knew it was ridiculous. A euphemism, a coat of paint on something base. It meant the same thing.

Liam didn’t mean the same thing . . .

Theo panted, catching his breath, and wiped away fresh tears, drying his hands on his jeans.

“I don’t know why I’m crying,” he managed to say, and sucked a few more, steadier breaths.

The rocking stopped, and Liam rest a chin on his shoulder.

“You’ve got crazy damage, dude,” he said. “And I don’t—” Liam paused, and Theo turned to look at him, blinking to clear the blur. “I don’t know how to fix it.” It sounded like an admission, a confession.

Theo wouldn’t have thought he could ache more than he already did. “That’s not your responsibility,” he whispered.

“No.” Liam shrugged. “But I kinda have a vested interest.”

Theo’s smile felt faint and brittle, but it was genuine. He leaned back and stared at the TV screen. Liam hugged him harder, and he felt the coolness of tear tracks drying on his face. The words tumbled through his mind.

I made love to you.

Made love.

It should sound old and lifeless to ears raised in grim pornographic reality. But wasn’t that what cracked the armor of his soul? The lingering kisses, the soft touch, the care of it. He shuddered and touched Liam’s arm. Slowly, so slowly, Theo picked up the pieces of his courage. They cut his fingers and smeared with blood. He turned by degrees, heart rabbit-fast, and took a breath to speak. His nerves failed him, and it burned brightly up his neck instead.

Liam reacted to the motion and to the change in his breathing. He made space and sought Theo’s eyes. Questioning. Concerned.

Theo pressed his courage in place a second time, but he couldn’t, he couldn’t look at someone and say this. He closed his eyes and swallowed the burning lump in his throat.

“Will you”—ten seconds of courage—”make love to me again?”

It was the dumbest and most fragile thing he’d ever said. His courage shattered beneath his hands, and shame burned bright enough to catch fire.

He couldn’t see Liam’s expression, but the tactile reaction was enough.

“Yeah,” Liam breathed lightly into his ear, touched their heads together, hugged with his arms and knees.

Relief washed down Theo’s body like rain. It filled in the cracks, sealed him whole. He had not broken this thing between them.

After a moment’s pause, Liam lifted his head. “Did you mean like . . . now?”

Theo couldn’t help but huff a laugh.

“Cause, I mean, I’m good with now . . .”

Theo put his hand on Liam’s knee and slowly slid it around to the warm crook underneath. He stroked a broad circle up the hamstring, and Liam made a pleased sound behind his ear. That seemed like a good start, a balm to frayed nerves.

Liam nuzzled at him, that canine comforting gesture. “Do you want it to be like last time?” he asked at a murmur. He spread his hands across Theo’s torso, warming him with slow friction. “Or . . . rougher?” Lips and hot breath touched Theo’s ear, and he shivered. “Or . . .” Liam moved to the other side of his neck. “We could switch.”

“No.” The answer came quick and easy, and Liam’s roaming hands paused.

“Really?”

Theo’s heart jumped, and he considered how to put it to words. “It feels different,” he said. Frowned. “Makes me feel different.” That was the important thing. Liam remained quiet, his hands not moving, and a voice in the back of Theo’s mind screamed that he had answered poorly. “But . . . if that’s what you want—”

He started turning to check Liam’s expression, but Liam pulled him closer. Kissed his cheek where his beard had grown soft.

“No. Someday. But . . . I asked first.”

The relief was small, but palpable as Theo relaxed back. He moved his hand up the underside of Liam’s thigh again, squeezing at the heavy muscle.

“Like before,” he said.

Liam placed a kiss behind his ear. Then another. Lower. A light drag of tongue across sensitive skin, and Theo’s lips parted on an exhale. He turned his head aside, opening, allowing access. Liam’s lips found nerves. Pleasure to be kissed, turning an arc toward weakening pleasure-pain when sucked.

Theo gasped, spasmed, and touched Liam’s hair, unsure whether to hold him there or urge him on.

Liam moved on. Drew the fabric of Theo’s shirt aside and dragged the soft skin of his lips along the collarbone, and then kissed. A light lick. His free hand skimmed low on Theo’s belly, barely felt for the thick denim. He stroked down, to the heat of the groin, and Theo’s body responded by opening. Knees wider, shoulder wider.

He didn’t think it, plan it. Pleasure curled through him and escaped again a small moan.

He felt Liam smile. And then hands were sweeping up under his shirt. The want clear. He leaned away from Liam far enough to strip the shirt off and leaned back to find waiting palms catching his shoulders, holding him upright.

He turned, wanting to see. His skin felt tight already, active and alive. Liam squeezed at the tense muscles in his shoulders, and Theo grunted at the burn, dropping his head. Thumbs scored out his shoulder blades, releasing a wave of prickling heat.

“You’re beautiful, you know that?” Liam whispered.

Many deadly things in this world were beautiful. Theo started to shake his head, to turn, but Liam placed a kiss on the nape of his neck, and he paused as goosebumps rippled down his arms. Hands came around as Liam pressed against his back, and Theo swallowed, letting the denials die.

“Bed?” Liam asked him, in that gentle, teasing voice.

He nodded, but lingered a moment longer, pressing back hard before he rocked forward and found his feet.

Liam stayed on the floor, gazing up at him, calculating something by the way his tongue touched his lower lip. Distracting, dark lips. Theo felt his blood rush staring at them. Knowing what they felt like, wet and hot and pulling pleasure from his bones.

“Coming?” he asked, voice rough and low.

Liam met his eyes and rolled forward onto all fours. He flashed his eyes a wolfish yellow, and Theo responded in kind on instinct. Liam prowled forward, closer than arm’s length, and came up onto his knees. Theo’s heart quickened watching him. The grace of movement. The sense of purpose. Feeling himself the focus of that attention.

Theo’s hips rolled forward on their own when Liam undid the button on his fly and pulled the zipper down with great care and attention. The third time Liam had undressed him this way. Theo tucked that knowledge behind his heart and held himself still as Liam molded palms around his hips and ass, urging his clothes away. Theo’s fingers throbbed. He felt his pulse in his cock. Liam ignored the growing bulge in Theo’s briefs, instead intent on tracing his calves with strong fingers. When he finally withdrew his hands, Theo stepped from the clothes and brushed them aside.

Still, Liam didn’t stand up.

Theo stared down at him, breathing gone shallow. He watched with a disbelieving fascination as Liam’s gaze lifted to the waistband of his briefs. Oh, Christ , they were going to do this again . . .  

A tremble went through his legs. The anticipation of standing stock still. Being touched, light and warm and undemanding. Transmuting his whole being to an erogenous zone while he gave nothing back.

Theo let out a long, loud breath, and Liam paused, his fingers just under the waistband. He glanced up, and by the reflected light from the TV, Theo could see his eyes gone lusting dark.

“What?” Liam asked.

“Nothing . . .”

A frown scored Liam’s forehead. “It’s not. What is it?”

Theo swallowed, wavering in place. His fingers ached. “I want—” His hand flexed in an aborted, reaching gesture.

Liam gave it a long look, and Theo couldn’t see his expression. “You want to touch me,” he said eventually, in that soft measured cadence of realization.

Theo felt a burn of shame on his cheeks that he was so easily read. Then Liam met his eyes with a look of fondness, and relief untwined that he was so easily read.

“You can,” Liam said gently. “There’s not a rule or anything.” He turned his focus to Theo’s waist and the thick elastic band, running his fingers back and forth beneath it. “I meant what I said,” he added. “I like it when you touch me.”

A brief, sweet pain clenched in Theo’s chest, and then he reached out and brushed Liam’s hair once lightly before burying his fingers in among the strands. The trembling eased, and he could play and tug and massage while Liam undressed him as torturously slow as he wanted.

When it was done, finally done, Theo tugged Liam up to his feet and already had a hand just where he needed to draw him in. Find his lips. They hadn’t even kissed yet. He remembered that kiss. This room. The need to connect, to share . He pressed a hand to Liam’s lower back to bring them flush. Kissed glowing affection with a soft motion of lips. Licked gratitude into Liam’s mouth. Liam touched his face, petting over and over, while Theo walked them back, one kiss at a time, until they bumped the bed.

Liam moaned, and Theo vibrated with it. He caught both hands stroking at his face and lifted one eyebrow, crowding Liam against the side of bed.

“How come you’re wearing so many clothes?”

Liam leaned in, kissed him with a wicked smile. “I’ve been busy.”

He slipped his wrists from Theo’s grasp and pulled his shirt off in one fluid motion. Shook his head to settle his hair.

“Better?” he asked, setting his arms on Theo’s shoulders.

“Getting there.”

Liam was only wearing sweats and briefs. Theo rocked his hips forward so Liam could feel him, getting hard, starting to ache. He felt the hard line of Liam’s cock against his hip in return. Smiled. Liam sank away from him onto the mattress and scooted to the middle. Liam stripped naked, conscious of being watched, and stretched out.

His skin glowed in the blue light of the TV, and the single source cast black shadows into every valley carved by heavy muscle. Liam extended a hand, beckoning, and Theo went to him, unsure where to put his weight, how to lay. Were they—?

They were kissing. This was kissing. Touching. Tasting. Salt skin and sighs.

Every touch, melting. Quaking. Winding a windlass. One caress from breaking. But the line moved, moved. The cup always just big enough.

Theo rubbed a hand across Liam’s chest and felt him shake. Circled a single finger around a nipple.

Liam gasped, ragged.

Dragged a fingernail lightly—an arch, bitten lip.

Pressed harder—a jerk, broken mewling.

But he knew this now, and understood why Liam had tried it on him.  Knew this about someone and pledged thanks with a kiss, with long strokes of his hand. What secrets had he betrayed? What things did Liam know?

Theo hooked his arms under Liam’s shoulders, captured Liam’s thighs between his knees. His turn to kiss at neck and throat. Feel a pulse jump under his tongue. He scraped his beard along soft skin and could hear Liam’s heart skip.

“Please,” he said, and squeezed with his knees. His lips stung, cock ached. “Please . . .”

Liam hugged him close with one arm, and with a little leverage, a little werewolf strength, flipped their positions. He kissed the corner of Theo’s mouth and sat back on his heels, easing out of a tangle of limbs. He could have clambered to the side table. But instead he slid off the bed, keeping his fingertips in contact with Theo’s chest and arm while he fished in the dark for what he needed.

It was a small thing, that assurance. He didn’t know if everyone needed such things, or if his was a special lacking, but he let his eyes close, focusing on the heat, on Liam’s scent thick with lust, on small sounds from the drawer and the whirr of the Xbox fan. He followed the movement of Liam’s hand and the dip of the bed under his weight. A hand on the inside of his knee had him spreading his legs wider, and Liam moved into the space.

Theo opened his eyes at the sound of a foil packet, but Liam’s features were obscured by shadow. A bit of loosed power turned Theo’s eyes golden and glowing, and he could make out Liam watching him, grinning as he rolled a condom onto himself.

“Why are you smiling?”

Liam lifted an eyebrow. “I get to do this, and you ask me why I’m smiling? I dunno, dude.” He rolled his eyes, shaking his head.

Theo watched him, silent. I get to do this .

But some quality of his silence pulled Liam’s gaze back. Liam frowned a little, bit his lip, then reached out and touched his fingers to Theo’s face. He traced chin and jaw, around the eye. Brushed over the temple.

His expression sobered. “Because I get to do this. You might not’ve always been my favorite person”—he drew a fingertip between Theo’s eyes, down his nose—”but you are now.”

Theo’s heart thumped hard, and his throat tightened. He felt emotion building hot behind his eyes and tipped his head back, blinking at the ceiling.

“Okay?” Liam asked softly.

“Okay.” Whispered.

Theo kept blinking, furiously, until the edge of tears receded and the sudden weight on chest eased.

The snap of the cap on the lube bottle brought his attention back, and he glanced at Liam.

Liam watched him, guarded. “Do you still—”

“Please.” He hooked his legs around Liam’s waist and pulled at him, earning another smile.

“Okay! Okay . . . don’t knock me over.”

Theo relaxed and let his legs drop.  It was still new, this next part. And he couldn’t help the tension of anticipation, even though it was the wrong reaction. There was a thick, wet sound as Liam spread the lube around his fingers. A series of touches, here, there, adjusting angles, canting hips.

Warm, slick, tentative pressure.

Theo gasped, despite himself.

“Shhh . . .”

Liam teased. Small circles around the tight pucker of muscle.

“Relax,” he said, stroking Theo’s thigh. “Relax . . . breathe . . .”

Theo exhaled long and slow, while Liam rubbed. So gently. Patient. Waiting. He leaned down for a kiss, a burning touch of tongues, and pressed in up to the second knuckle. Theo grunted. Clenching. Hissed, while his heart thundered. He stroked himself to mix pleasure with the burn, and kissed, kissed, scoring Liam’s lips.

The burning eased. Liam stroked his finger all the way in. Crooked it. Drew slowly out.

Theo dropped his head, the sensation skirting up his spine.

“Another?”

He nodded and curled his hands into the comforter.

Two fingers split him open. Stole his air. Liam wrapped a hand around Theo’s cock and stroked down while he pressed his fingers in.

Theo whined , but it was good. Burning, aching good. He pawed at Liam’s face, arching with another thrust in. Panting.

Liam ducked for another kiss, and Theo wound him in limbs. A soft chuckle in his ear.

“Okay.”

A kiss on his cheek.

Theo had to let go enough for Liam to sit back on his heels, and he watched, fascinated-trembling, while Liam grabbed a washcloth he’d set nearby, cleaned his hand, and distributed fresh lube on his sheathed cock. Theo flashed his eyes golden and lifted onto his elbows so he could see the way Liam’s moved up and over the tip with a rounding twist of his wrist. He held the condom on at the base and stroked himself.

Theo reached out and touched Liam’s chest. Traced a finger lightly to one tight nipple and circled it, teasing. He brushed his fingers across one at a time, and Liam shuddered with a small cracking moan. It was enough. Theo lay back.

Liam’s cock pressed against his opening. Huge. Scalding.

He couldn’t. He couldn’t . . .

But he had, once.

His lungs caught fire as the pressure scored him open. And he touched Liam’s chest just in case, just in case he needed it to stop. Liam lowered himself down and in, so controlled as he placed one of Theo’s legs around his waist.

Kisses. Light. Lips. Cheeks. Eyelids.

Theo shuddered and pressed his palms up Liam’s back, holding him close, closer until the pressure stopped.

Liam paused and kissed at his neck, while Theo tried to breathe over the feeling of fullness, the fire up his spine. Slowly, he loosened his grip, and Liam pulled back enough to gaze down at him, flashing a golden glow into the thin ring of his irises to see by.

“Are you okay?”

His fingers rested gossamer on Theo’s lips. Like he wanted to feel the answer. Theo kissed at his fingertips. And he took it as permission, encouragement.

The movement was all muscle and flexion. Their bodies tight together, sweat slicked skin sliding. Liam found some . . . spot, some nerve that turned Theo’s muscles to hot gelled joy, and he worked at it, relentless. A flood from a million tiny drops.

The friction of their bodies slowly grinding Theo’s cock.

God.

He shuddered and couldn’t stop. Every movement pleasure. Red coiling pressure. White stars. Liam’s breath hotter and faster in his ear, losing rhythm. Theo yearned suddenly to hear it, breaking cry high in Liam’s throat.

He urged him deeper, faster, dragging them both to the edge.

“Come for me,” Theo whispered.

And Liam squeezed his eyes shut and snapped his hips, moaning into the curve of Theo’s shoulder. Muscles pumping. Sliding against Theo’s cock trapped in the hot, wet space between their bodies.

It was enough. And he arched, biting his lip as he came quietly.

For a few breaths, they lay panting, and Theo waited for his bones to become solid again. Liam sat up in slow motion and pulled out, leaving an odd sense of loss in his wake. He cleaned them both up in a reverent sort of silence and nudged Theo over when he got back in bed. He dropped his head onto Theo’s shoulder.

Theo turned to look at him, highlighted in the strange light.

“Good?” Liam asked, his eyes hooded, voice drowsy.

This boy loves me , he thought, startled by it.

He offered a smile and brushed at Liam’s damp hairline. “Exactly what I asked for.”

***

Sleep wasn’t coming. Liam had long since traded Theo’s shoulder for a proper pillow and sunk into the measured stillness of sleep. He’d even had a dream or two, muttering not-quite-words while Theo lay awake, staring at the ceiling. He had said the words Liam wanted him to say, though they cut his mouth. Make love. Sat wrong, somehow—not a lie, but a failure of meaning. His failure.

He turned his head and gave Liam a long look, studying the way his hair curled against his forehead and the light from the window caught his nose and chin. He’d drifted into deep sleep again, and Theo felt a drop of guilt at staring at him that spread to a chill through his bones. He shouldn’t be here— couldn’t be here, and slipped quietly out of the bed. Out of the room.

The house was silent as he crossed the hall to his own room, borrowed blankets on a borrowed bed. He thought perhaps the change of scenery might help, or the solitude. He laid on top of the covers, careful of the hollow feeling in his limbs, and waited.

And sleep did not come.

Eventually the sound of his own breathing grew too loud to bear. The disquiet undeniable. He sat up and hooked his arms over his knees, staring at the midnight shadows cast by the trees outside. They looked sharp, jagged, and they moved with a wind he could not see.

The unease buried itself in his chest as he remembered Liam’s words. The shock of being shattered by them. Every time . He scowled. Even the fullness of his affection fell short of what Liam offered. Every heartbeat thumping in his chest told him why.

Living was a condemnation. Living was his fault.

He squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the fresh urge of tears, and then abruptly unwound. He couldn’t stay here, be here, let Liam say things like that. He pulled on some clothes from the hamper and slipped out of the house. His truck sat parked on the street and far enough away he didn’t bother trying to blunt the sound of the door.

Instinct moved him.

Terror.

Fear.

Guilt.

He clenched the wheel in white knuckles and drove empty streets until suburbia faded into woodlands. The heater blasted full against his face, opening pores, and still still the cold radiated from his bones. He pulled off the road into what looked like nowhere, a part of the reserve where the trails had long since overgrown. Nature taking back its own.

Theo got out and slammed the door, and the darkness swallowed the sound. He inhaled the scent of autumn leaves and the underbelly of decay and pine. The car engine clicked softly as it started to cool, and a breeze shook a susurrus among the creaking trees.

He could find his way easier if he shifted to a full wolf. But he did not think he deserved easier.

The path revealed itself through worn depressions and the impress of memory. He followed the burble of running water and the scent of wet rock and wood, and eventually stepped slowly onto a small wooden bridge, his heart racing.

His mouth went dry, and he swallowed as he paced to the center of it. Turned and stared out at the sound of the river below. Barely any moonlight filtered down.

He didn’t need it to.

Thumpthump.

The bridge where he watched his sister freeze to death.

Thumpthump.

The same river.

Thumpthump.

A different river.

Thumpthump.

She stood waist-high. Wet. Calling his name.

Thumpthumpthumpthump.

Ice skin and blue lips. “I can’t—I can’t move!”

He is the boy waiting patiently for her to sink down and give up.

He is the man aching to scream at the boy.

Frozen as it happens again, again, again.

A clumsy crunch in the far off underbrush told him he was no longer alone. He couldn’t tear his eyes from the sparkling black ripple of the water where she was, where she had been. Not when Liam ducked around a low branch and his footsteps thudded on the planks. Not when Liam moved with slow caution to his side.

And his heart, his heart, his heart . . .

“Hey,” Liam said, his voice soft and pulled tight with worry.

Theo’s throat clicked as he swallowed. “Hey.” His voice sounded rough.

He could feel Liam’s attention and fought to ignore it, ignore him , and just stare at the empty space where someone should have been. Liam moved to the railing and leaned against it, turning his attention to the rush of the river below. He said nothing.

Theo’s resistance frayed, and he loosened his grip on the rail. “This is where I did it,” he offered, in a flat, dead tone. “I let her die, and I cut out her heart.” His gaze traveled to the riverside, once soaked with blood.

Liam drew a breath, and Theo sensed him moving. Looking.

“What are you doing out here?” Liam asked.

If he closed his eyes, Theo could see the boy, like he’d been one of them , observing. He knew the boy’s fists shook as they clenched. He saw him rooted to the boards, unmoved by tears, by wails. He felt the chill heaviness of wet corpseflesh and the blossom of still-warm blood across his aching fingers.

Bile burned at his throat. “How?” he squeezed the word out and turned to stare at Liam at last. “How do you love someone like that ? Why? ” The last came hot and desperate as the heat of tears touched his eyes. “Because—because I stand here? And all I want to do is scream at him. Hit him. Throw him in the river with her! And you!” He punched a finger toward Liam’s chest, not quite touching. The flash of anger failed, and for a moment he could only mouth the shape of horror. “You tell me you love that .” He dropped his hand, shaking his head, and stared back out over the water. Quietly and small, “I don’t know how to believe you.”

Theo sniffed and wiped at the traitorous tears slipping down his cheeks, but every time he blinked there were more and the moonlit ripples on the water blurred.

“I really want to believe you,” he whispered, voice thick and flecked.

Liam moved closer and turned to rest his back against the railing. Theo found some ragged scrap of courage and cleared his vision enough to meet Liam’s gaze. He found a gentle sadness there, made softer by the sleep-spun wilds of Liam’s hair. Liam crossed his arms over his chest as a fall wind rustled the trees. He looked cold in just a t-shirt and bit on his lower lip before speaking.

“Have you tried forgiving him?”

Theo scowled and felt something in himself recoil. “What?”

Liam let his crossed arms fall. “He was a kid , Theo. He was a kid taken by monsters. Terrified, right?” Theo nodded absently, and Liam went on. “He did what they told him to do because he wanted to live. I think he saw what happened to the ones who failed, and he didn’t want to fail.”

Theo shook his head. Slowly, then adamantly. “That’s no excuse.”

“Are you sure?” Liam ducked his head, searching for eye contact, and Theo relented. “Because to me, that kid sounds like a victim.”

Oh . . .

No. No, no.

Not that. Never that. He couldn’t be a victim, because they chose him, they gave him power . . . And victims they . . .

He shuddered and drew away, shaking his head. He—he killed his sister because he wanted to. Because he needed to.

His breaths came in ragged with phlegm.

“Theo . . .” Liam reached out to touch his arm, and he flinched away. “Didn’t you wonder how she was out here? Why she’d be here , in the middle of nowhere? In the winter?”

He shook his head while his throat bolted closed and more hot tears fell, searing. He stumbled back a step. He hadn’t . . . wondered. And he couldn’t be . . .

Liam’s hand hovered in the air a second before he turned it, palm up. An offering.

“Maybe . . .”

“No . . .” Barely a strained sound.

Liam looked pained. “Maybe . . .” he said again, “what he needs isn’t punishment. Maybe it’s forgiveness.”

Theo stared at Liam’s hand a long time before he reached for it. Fingers grazed one another, and the contact brought a fresh, scalding wave. Theo shut his eyes, ribs aching.

“He was so scared,” he said.

“Yeah . . .” Liam gripped his hand a little tighter.

“They were watching.” The words sounded thick and not his own. “They’d made sure I knew how. Where to cut.” His face crumpled for a second, and he had to catch his breath. “They made me practice.” He exhaled it in a rush and blinked his eyes open because he had to see if that was it. If that was the final straw.

Liam watched him, on the edge of tears himself.

Theo swallowed and sniffed, and the broken tectonics in his chest shifted. “What do I do?”

Liam dropped his gaze and looked thoughtful, chewing on his lip while his thumb brushed absently over Theo’s skin. He shrugged a little and glanced up.

“I’ve heard of people writing letters.”

“To themselves?”

Liam nodded gravely. “To their younger selves.”

Theo nodded back and looked away to wipe his nose on his sleeve. The heat inside receded, leaving him cold again. Hollow. Forgiveness. He stared at the black surface of the river.

“Whatever it is, you don’t have to do it here.” Liam tugged on his arm. “You wanna go home?”

Theo tore his gaze from the water and nodded weakly. “I don’t . . . really feel like driving,” he said softly, with a slow frown.

Liam smiled at him with sad eyes. “Come back and get your truck tomorrow?”

Theo nodded at that, too.  He let Liam lead him back up the trail, clinging by fingertips. They didn’t say anything. Twigs broke underfoot, and the leaves sounded like ocean waves, and Theo didn’t let go until they had to get in the car. He climbed into the passenger seat, curling around the delicate hollowness, and turned the heat up as soon as they started to move. Liam glanced at the controls but didn’t say anything. And between the hum of the car and the darkness and the familiar scent of someone—of someone who loved him—exhaustion found an open door and pulled Theo down into sleep.

***

Liam lay stretched on the couch, his head in Theo’s lap, playing a game on his phone, while Theo played with the long strands of his hair. It was an absent, distracted sort of touch that let Theo concentrate on reading. He had plenty to read if he was going to pass the GED.

The phone chimed for an incoming text, and after a second, Liam went still, his posture shifting perceptibly from relaxed to rigid. Theo’s fingers paused in their course, and he glanced down from the page to read Liam’s expression.

A definite scowl.

“What?”

“It’s Scott.” Liam’s voice was flat, hard. “He wants us to meet him.”

“Us?” Theo lowered the book, frowning.

“At the old Hale House. Tonight.”

“Secluded ruins. Great.”

Liam’s lip started to curl into a snarl as he stared at the screen, and Theo set his book aside.

“Did he say why?”

“No. I don’t care why.”

“Liam—”

“What!” Liam snapped the phone away and arched to glare up at him. “That doesn’t sound a little suspicious to you? A little like a trap?”

Theo frowned, wariness gathering in his bones. “He definitely said me?”

Liam held up the phone.

Can you and Theo be at the Hale House tomorrow?

Theo dropped his gaze from the phone when he finished reading, and Liam arched an eyebrow at him.

“So . . . what, you think he’s gonna try and kill me?”

Liam shrugged, glowering at the screen. Theo smoothed the hair back from his forehead, buying himself a few seconds to think.

“Is anyone else going to be there?” he asked, eventually.

“Does it matter?”

“If he’s planning to murder me, yeah, I think it does. I mean, he wouldn’t in front of everyone else, right?”

Liam chewed on his lower lip and nodded faintly, typing back a reply. They waited. And Theo’s hands kept themselves occupied with small, calming gestures. It didn’t take long for Scott to send a message back.

Everyone.

Liam showed Theo the screen, and he nodded.

“I think we should go.”

Liam’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”

“Seriously. You can’t just avoid him forever.”

Liam scowled with a set of his mouth that said he could very much try.

“And . . . he’s asking for me to be there. I wanna know why.”


The thing Theo couldn’t figure was why the Hale House. They had to arrive before dusk if they weren’t going to talk by campfire or headlights. Though that might have been dramatic. Silhouetted figures against the glare of high beams. Maybe they could even work up some fog somehow.

Liam drove, which gave Theo nothing but time to think. He couldn’t imagine what prompted this sudden summons, not with the Anuk-Ite gone and the hunter threat spreading. The frontlines were no longer at their front door.

They pulled into the reserve and onto an unmarked trail. Liam had been quiet the whole drive. He smelled like stress. And Theo suspected that if he hadn’t requested they go, Liam would’ve told Scott where he could shove his invitation. It was sweet, but not strategic. They turned a corner around a dense copse of trees, and the blackened skeleton of the Hale House loomed out of the woods. Cars strung in a loose line across the old front yard. The wolves were already looking in their direction by the time they came into view. Everyone else paused, turned, and observed the approaching car.

Liam parked the car far enough back that they were going to have to walk up under that same scrutiny. Theo doubted it was conscious distancing. Liam cut the engine, and Theo touched his arm before he opened the door, drawing his attention.

“How do you want to play this?” Theo asked, tipping his head toward the waiting pack.

That got a frown. “What do you mean?”

“I mean . . . everything makes a difference. When we walk up, I could follow you, or walk beside you, or—”

“We could hold hands,” Liam added, with a suggestive lift of his brows.

Theo nodded gravely, because while Liam might be joking, he wasn’t. It had a sobering effect, and Liam studied him a second.

“Together,” he said. “But I’ll hold your hand if I have to.”

A half-smile touched Theo’s lips as he nodded, and they both got out. Theo had dressed purposefully for the occasion. He’d found a soft, off-white sweater and a pair of black jeans, and he’d let his beard grow past the point of sharp sandpaper to where Liam would pet him to enjoy the feel. Everything makes a difference.

Theo cast a glance to Liam as they rounded the front of the car and fell in beside him. All eyes followed wordlessly. Malia, Lydia, Mason and Corey to Scott’s right, gathered near Mason’s car. Stiles, Derek, and Peter to the left, propped against the trunk of Derek’s Camaro. Theo kept his eyes on Scott, who offered him a nod, and then another at Liam.

Theo stopped. Liam took another half step, and Theo could see the tension bundling in his shoulders.

“I don’t want to fight,” Scott said, looking only at Liam. “But I don’t want Theo in the pack—”

“What pack, Scott?” Liam’s hands gripped to fists, and his voice came out angry, defiant.. “It’s like . . . me, Malia, and Corey. Lydia doesn’t count! The Hales don’t count. Stiles and Mason don’t count!”

“Hey!” Mason stood up straighter and looked affronted.

“Will you let me finish?” Scott cut back in, looking patient at Liam’s outburst. He glanced to his left and then back. “Someone reminded me recently that just as important as having a pack is having allies.”

Peter Hale shifted his weight and stepped away from the cars with a crunch of leaves under polished boots. He tipped his head to one side and moved purposefully in Theo’s direction. Theo frowned at him as Peter’s eyes skipped up and down the length of his body, invasive, appraising.

“Decent fashion sense. Nice cheekbones .” Peter swiveled to look at Scott. “I could work with this.”

“Work with what?” Theo found his voice, and felt his instincts stretching to life in the presence of a predator.

“You, Mini-me,” Peter said with an indulgent smile. “Scott wants to take the fight to the enemy. I want to protect my home, guard the nemeton. Which means there’s an opening on the away team for someone with your . . . skills.”

Theo narrowed his eyes. “I don’t have any skills.”

Peter’s reply was a wicked, white smile. “Don’t undersell yourself.”

“I’m not selling anything.”

Peter lifted a finger. “But you could be. It’s a nice paycheck.”

“You want Theo to work for you?” Liam asked.

Peter turned a slow, elegant shrug at him. “It’s a way to join the team, kid.”

Theo’s pulse quickened. “And do what?” he asked. But he knew the answer. Peter met his eyes, bored into them.

“Almost. Anything.”

“Kill,” Theo said.

Peter broke the eye contact and shrugged. “Someone has to.”

In his periphery, he could see Liam turn.

“You don’t have to do this,” Liam said, pitching his voice low. It strained with fury.

Theo looked at him. So fucking earnest, so good. “But someone will,” he said. There is no peaceful war. He looked at Peter, a yes on the tip of his tongue. But Liam startled him by taking his hand.

“You’ll leave us alone? Even if he says no?” Liam glared at Scott. “No more ‘house calls’?”

Scott’s gaze dropped to the ground while his assembled friends shot him questioning looks. “No more house calls,” he said, and found the courage to meet Liam’s eyes.

Liam glared daggers at him, panting a bit as he kept his fury in check. Then he spun on his heel and dragged Theo with him, pacing away to a distance that with werewolf senses didn’t count as actual privacy. But it was the gesture that mattered.

“You don’t have to do this,” Liam said again, releasing Theo’s hand as he rounded so they could face one another. He looked more worried now than angry.

“It makes sense,” Theo told him. And it did. An inevitable, awful kind of sense.

“You don’t have to be a killer!”

Theo smiled a bit sadly and touched Liam’s cheek with the backs of his fingers. “I already am.”

Liam shook his head, and his heart started beating like panic. “But . . . what if—” He cut himself off and glanced away, pressing his lips into a thin line.

“What if . . .” Theo thought about it. Liam didn’t think of him as a killer anymore. “What if I go back to who I was?”

Liam squeezed his eyes shut and nodded silently.

Cold poured down Theo’s neck and spine. “I-I don’t know.”

Liam snapped his head up. “Not good enough!”

“It’s all I’ve got!”

Liam stood shaking his head, vibrating with the force of his denial.

Theo turned away and found Peter watching them with interest.

“When?” he called.

Peter cocked his head. “When what?”

“If I say yes, when do I have to leave?”

“Well . . .” Peter gestured in the air, a roll of his wrist. “I’ve got a lot of plans. Going to take some time. Six months, maybe?”

“Six months,” Liam echoed, drawing Theo’s attention back. His eyes had gone red-rimmed and glassy. “We’ve barely started, and you want to leave me in six months?” The words came out strangled with hurt.

Theo winced. “Not you . Just . . . here.”

“I’m here!”

Theo recoiled from the shout and took a breath. His pulse beat out fear and sorrow, and he tried to take Liam’s face in his hands. Liam grabbed his wrists and pushed them down.

“I can be part of the solution,” Theo said. That’s what was on offer, here. “I can help people. Maybe save some lives for once. Can you let me be part of the solution?”

“That’s not fair.” Liam frowned and let his wrists go.

Theo let out a breath and hung his head. It wasn’t. And yet he could feel the way his future crystallized the moment Peter said it. This was something he should do. For himself. For others. He swept a hand back toward Peter and Scott just beyond. “This is an olive branch,” he said softly, lifting his eyes.

Liam chewed on that, chancing a glance at Scott. “There could be others,” he whispered.

“You know there won’t be.” He tried to make it gentle.

Liam’s lip curled with a full on sneer this time as he shook his head. He squeezed his eyes shut, and Theo could see him relenting in the droop of his shoulders. “Do I have to be happy about it?”

“No.” His heart ached behind his ribs. “And if you really want me to turn this down, I will. But . . .” Theo lowered his voice and drew close until their foreheads touched. “I think they’re gonna need me. And . . . no one’s ever needed me.”

I need you.” Liam jabbed him in the ribs, sounding miserable, childish.

Theo smiled cautiously. “I told you. I wouldn’t be leaving you. We’d figure something out. I’d go crazy if we didn’t.”

Liam sighed again and lifted his head, and for a long moment they just looked at one another.

“Ugh! I need an insulin shot watching you,” Peter called. “Are we doing this or not?”

Liam quirked his lips. “You realize you don’t get an armored suit, right?”

Theo grinned. “Yeah. Might get Armani, though.”

That brought a smile to Liam’s face that he fought to control. He took a breath and let it out slow. “Okay,” he said, eventually.

“Okay?”

Liam nodded, jostling their heads. “But you’re taking me for a date in the suit.”

They shared a smile, and Theo turned as his expression sobered.

“I’ll do it, but we’re talking benefits.”