Theo was hurtling down the rocky sidewalk in front of his house in Beacon Hills, the wind in his ears as the straps of his helmet dug into the skin of his neck. A smile was spread across his face as he pedaled his bike as fast as he could on weak, athsmatic-powered legs, and though he wasn’t exactly the speed racer he was imagining himself to be, six-year-old Theo with a head full of daydreams and an untainted imagination couldn’t be any happier.
It had taken him longer than other kids to get the training wheels off his bike; his older sister Tara never learned how to ride either, his mother had been weak for a reason no one ever explained to Theo for the majority of his life, and his father got far too frustrated teaching him to go for a few minutes at a time. They would go down to the empty high school parking lot on the weekends and Theo would ride his bike as far as he could before he tipped over, which normally wasn’t far, and he didn’t make much progress. Years after Jonathan had started teaching Theo how to ride, his training wheels were now permanently off, and he felt so free that way.
The only place Theo could ride was down to the corner of his street so that someone could supervise him and make sure he didn’t get hurt. The one supervising him today was Tara, who was sitting in the front yard and trying to get the attention of the neighbor boy across the street who was too old for her by reading teen magazines that Theo knew for a fact she didn’t understand. He’d told her that he didn’t think a fifteen year old boy would be very impressed by an eleven year old girl pretending to read about summer body types, but she’d told him that he was being a brat and to go ride his bike. So he did, forgetting entirely about the annoyed look on her face.
He was still smiling when he got to the third house on their street, the one three away from his, the one with the particularly bumpy sidewalk. He’d forgotten about that part though, and he’d forgotten about the loose rocks that often got kicked up by other people walking. He noticed a large, square stone too late, and as he swerved to avoid it, he knew he was going down.
Things felt like they happened in an instant after that; he was just unsteady, and then he was suddenly laying on the ground. His head was on the street hanging off the curb, his helmet being the only thing protecting him from the impact, but after he got over the brief realization that he should be passed out and dead, he realized just how bad his arm hurt. “Tara!” He yelled from where he was on the ground, starting to panic as his arm started to hurt worse and he realized that he was stuck under his fallen bike. His vision was starting to blur. “Tara!”
Tara ran up to him a minute later, uttering a word they both knew she was too young to use. “Stay there,” She groaned as if he had any other choice, his legs still tangled in his bike and his head still stuck on where he’d pulled it up to rest on the curb. A single tear rolled down his cheek and onto his nose from the sideways angle as he waited. He knew she’d be getting their dad, since his Mom rarely left the house, and he would have something to say about it. He wiped the tear off, tilting that side of his face so he could rub it into his shoulder.
Sure enough, Jonathan gave a deep, frustrated sigh as he pulled Theo’s bike out between his legs and moved his son to sit on the curb. “What did you do?”
Theo’s lower lib wobbled, but he tried to make it stop before he spoke. “I tried not to hit the rock and tipped over,” He explained as level-sounding as he could. “I hurt my arm.”
“You’re fine,” Jonathan said, waving him off and moving to pull him up by his elbow, the one that had hit the ground hard. Theo yelped and cried out in pain, a fresh set of tears brimming at his eyes. This time, two of them fell where Jonathan could see them. His dad rolled his eyes and kneeled down, taking Theo’s shoulders in both of his big hands.
“Hey,” He said sternly, forcing Theo to make eye contact with him. “What do I tell you? What do I tell you?”
“Boys don’t cry,” Jonathan finished, punctuating it with a nod. Theo had heard it before, ever since his fifth birthday when the grace period had apparently ended. “You got that?” Theo nodded shakily, and Jonathan stared at him until no more tears fell and he was satisfied. “Alright. Now you’re going to walk your bike back to the garage and if your arm still hurts in the morning, I’ll look at it then.”
They walked side by side, Jonathan a little too fast for Theo’s shaky legs to keep up with on a good day, and Theo spent the rest of the day with the groggy, headachey feeling that he got whenever he cried all throughout dinner and bedtime. His arm still hurt in the morning after struggling to sleep with it, never finding a position in bed that made it less painful. He’d slept with a fractured arm that night, but at least his dad got him McDonald’s on the way back home from the hospital.
It was no secret that Theo wasn’t the strongest kid in his third grade class. He couldn’t run as far or as fast as the other kids, and he was always out of breath. His pediatrician had chalked it up to being his asthma, so he’d been prescribed an inhaler, but it didn’t always work as well as he thought it probably should. It set Theo apart from the rest of his class, and at the age of seven, he was at the age where he recognized what it felt like to be left out. He had his friends Scott, who also had asthma, and Stiles, who was just generally unathletic, to sit with him on the sidelines, but even they could do more than him.
Whenever he exercised in gym class, he was short of breath, and his inhaler sometimes didn’t cut it. He would take too many puffs, more than he was supposed to, but it didn’t do anything different. He told his parents and Tara about it, and though his mom had looked thoughtful about it, all three of them told him that he was probably fine. It didn’t sit right with him, but he let it slide; he just lived his life for a few more weeks with the occasional discomfort and breathing problems.
It was when he went to the nurse with chest pains that someone finally showed some concern, validating his thoughts. The school nurse had looked at him with genuine concern, seeing that he was sweating, out of breath, and had chest pains after only jumping rope for a few minutes. The answers he gave to the basic questions she gave him seemed to have her even less happy. (Did you eat today? Yes. Did you take your inhaler? Yes. Did you get enough sleep last night? Yes.)
She made a call to his dad at work, which Theo already knew he wasn’t going to be happy about as he laid on the nurse’s cot, and though Theo didn’t catch any of the conversation they’d had, he knew enough that he was going home. “You just lay here for a little while, buddy,” She said gently, reminding him of his mother as she brushed his sweaty hair off his forehead. Theo settled onto the plastic coated cot and nodded. “I’ll have one of your friends bring your stuff down here for you, you just rest.”
The rest of that day was kind of a blur in Theo’s mind. Scott and Stiles had brought his backpack down to the nurse’s office with worried, sympathetic smiles, telling him to feel better, then Theo’s dad picked him up from school and told them they weren’t going home, they were going to the hospital. Theo was confused, wondering why he had to go. Last time he went to the hospital, it was because of an asthma attack where he could barely breathe, but he didn’t think anything was wrong enough to bring him to the hospital. He’d had chest pains before, and he’d honestly been more trying to get out of gym class because he was bored than to call attention to it.
But all of that ceased to matter in Theo’s mind as he sat in the emergency room five hours later, after a weird scan of his chest and some needles in his arm that collected blood. “The bloodwork can’t be tested until later this week at our lab, but we did find something in the scan we did on Theo’s chest,” Dr. Geyer reported to Jonathan, hushed enough that they probably thought Theo couldn’t hear it. “I don’t know if any tests were done on him for this before when he was an infant-”
“We had him at home,” Jonathan said, cutting him short. “There were no tests.”
“...Right. We believe based on Theo’s scan that he has Congenital Heart Disease, which is normally detectable at birth,” He explained, and Jonathan went stiff. Theo, confused and starting to get scared, looked at his father for an explanation, but he was focused on what Dr. Geyer was saying. “And it seems like he has a pretty pronounced case of it. His heart is weaker, thinner than average, and it means-”
“I’m familiar with it,” Jonathan interrupted, still stiff. Dr. Geyer’s expression softened sympathetically.
“I’m sorry,” He said. “But I’m afraid that in a case so extreme...it would be better for him to be placed on a transplant waiting list, just to be safe. He has a long life ahead of him, but it’s better safe than sorry for something that can worsen.”
Theo might not have understood a lot of things that people said, but he knew what he was hearing. Heart. Transplant. Worsen. Disease. He couldn’t help it when he let out a small squeak from where he was sitting up on the hospital bed. Both men looked at him, the doctor’s gaze full of sympathy and his father’s with something sharper, his jaw clenched. “Let me know what you and your wife think,” Dr. Geyer said gently before making his quiet exit.
Theo’s breath grew ragged, panicked. He’d learned in science class a few weeks ago that a transplant was when they cut you open and replaced something inside with something else. He didn’t want his chest cut open, he wanted to keep his heart! But the doctor said that his disease could worsen, and Theo knew what that meant too. Stiles’s mom had a disease that “worsened” once, and then she was dead in the next week.
Jonathan was still standing by where the doctor had been talking to him.
“A-am I going to die?” Theo asked, his voice wavering as panic took over him. “Please, please don’t let them take my heart away, I don’t want to die-!”
“Stop,” Jonathan said firmly, putting on the same voice he always did. Theo whined, the fear building up in his chest.
All he wanted was for someone to tell him he was going to be okay, that it was going to be okay. You’re not going to die, he imagined his father saying to him, wrapping him in a hug. You’re going to be around for a long, long time.
But he didn’t. Instead, he grabbed Theo by the shoulders as always and looked into his eyes with his matching ones. “Boys don’t cry. You’re stronger than this.” Theo bit his lip to try to keep himself from breathing, nodding frantically. “Boys. Don’t. Cry. Come on.”
They didn’t get McDonald’s when they went home from the hospital that day. Instead, the car ride home was quiet, and Theo imagined the doctors taking his heart out, sending shivers down his spine. His dad said something to his mom when they got home to find her sitting in the dark kitchen with a cup of tea in her hands. Theo was already surprised that she wasn’t out of her bed, because she usually had to stay there during the day, but then she’d hugged him extra tight before he went to bed that night.
“I love you,” She said. Marie was a lot softer with her affection than Jonathan was. “So much, baby boy. Don’t you ever go forgetting it.”
Deep down, even though he couldn’t begin to wonder why, Theo knew there was something different about the way she was holding him. She pulled him close to her chest so he could hear her heart beating and stroked his hair, soothing, but Theo didn’t cry, no matter how much he had longed for a hug from his mom. He was stronger than that.
If Theo didn’t know any better, he would have thought that the makeup they put on her face was pretty. They’d gotten her dressed up all nice in one of her favorite white dresses that barely contrasted against her pale skin, brushed blush onto her cheeks, and curled her hair in nice ringlets for her. Theo couldn’t remember the last time he saw his mother that dressed up; maybe his preschool graduation, before things had started to slowly change. It would have been nice to see.
If he didn’t know any better.
She looked peaceful where she lay in her casket, the front open so that everyone at her wake could say their final goodbyes. About a year after Theo was diagnosed, things had worsened both with him and with her. He was able to put the pieces together as his mom was seemingly suddenly unable to move more than a few feet into the house before she had to sit back down and when she was tired and asleep all the time. Congenital Heart Disease, he learned, was genetic. Since then, Theo was put on a waiting list for possible organ donors, his parents both kept him as blissfully ignorant as they could, and his mom was slowly weakening.
Marie died the day before Theo’s eighth birthday. The three who remained skipped it altogether without even a word, focused on funeral preparations and getting everything together for her.
From what Theo had been able to catch bits and pieces of, her heart just wasn’t pumping blood well enough anymore and she died in her sleep. She’d also been on a transplant waiting list, but she’d been on it for years, and was still far down when she died in her sleep. It hadn’t felt real to Theo at first, kind of like she had just gone out shopping or something, but now, standing at her casket, it was starting to set in.
Never in a million years did he think his mom was going to just go away so fast. He’d thought that she was going to be around forever, like a mom was supposed to. She was supposed to be there to see him graduate from high school and maybe even college, and then be the cool grandma who gave Theo’s kids extra cookies when he wasn’t looking. He’d imagined a life with her in it for so long that it never seemed right to think about anything different.
He’d sort of known that something was different about his mom compared to others’. Scott’s was busy, but she came to almost every school event or soccer game when she could, and always brought snacks and things. When Stiles’ mom was still around, she was a little out of it at times, but she still went out and took Stiles, Scott, and Theo to do fun things like swim in the public pool or see a movie at the theater. Theo’s mom didn’t do any of those things. Nobody ever told him why she was so weak, he had to figure it out himself, but it had just been a part of his mom that he accepted as normal. Scott’s mom was busy, Stiles’s mom was a little confusing, and Theo’s mom didn’t leave the house. They all had their things.
Maybe she hadn’t gone out with them like a normal mom would, but she did other things. She was always up to eat breakfast with her kids in the morning, even though they woke up earlier than she needed to. She’d be tired, but they had toast made by the kids before school and sat with her in bed. She would read sometimes when Theo asked her to, and never complained when he wanted her to read it again or he took the same book to her a few nights in a row. Her goodnight hugs and kisses were the best, and she saved energy to tuck him into bed every night. She’d even listen to all of the little details of Theo’s day, sitting there with a soft, eager smile while Theo rattled off about everything that had happened. She was perfect to him, even if she wasn’t to others.
And Theo loved his father, but he would miss his mother more than anything in his life. Marie showed her love in a different way than Jonathan did, and he wasn’t sure what was going to happen now that she wasn’t there. He clenched his jaw tightly, his hand pressing at his own heart beating steadily in his chest, and for a second, he forgot that he was sick too. If his heart was okay, he would have given her his own.
Jonathan came to stand next to him. “Be strong,” He said. This time he didn’t say those three words specifically, but Theo knew they were implied. “She’d want you to be strong.”
Even though Marie hadn’t had much life left in her, there was still so much less of it in the house the night they got back. Theo left his covers undone, wondering if Jonathan might come in and tuck him in.
But Theo didn’t cry. He fell asleep cold and pulled the blankets up around him in his sleep.
There was a new heart that wasn’t his beating in his chest. It had taken him about an hour after receiving the transplant to get used to the feeling of having a new heart. This one beat stronger than the other, and it felt foreign and a little too strong since he wasn’t used to having one that worked so well. It was like tasting real soda after having sugar free at first. He could breathe better even though he was still sore from the operation, and he thought he might be able to get used to it.
The doctors that had performed his surgery said that they needed to keep him for awhile to make sure he wouldn’t reject the organ, so Theo listened to them. They gave him an admittedly kind of uncomfortable cot to sleep on, and because of his exhaustion from the surgery, sleep came easy.
His peace didn’t last long. He jolted awake the next morning, his new heart racing with the sudden terror that had overtaken him, and now what was inside him was the most disgusting, vile thing to ever happen. He had no time before he leaned over and vomited off the side of his metal sheet of a bed, but no matter how many times he retched to get the roiling feeling in his stomach to go away, he could still feel his sister’s heart in his chest, each beat reminding him and making him realize exactly what he did.
Her body was probably still somewhere in the creek or buried at the surface, Theo thought as the last of his stomach spilled onto the ground with an echo, for this was no hospital at all. From what he could tell, this was a sewer. The smells did nothing to help the dizziness and nausea that was sending full-body shudders down to his fingertips. He brought his knees up to his chest and started to cry.
He’d killed her in cold blood. Told her that they should take a walk, let her follow him up onto the rickety bridge, and pushed her into the freezing November water underneath. He’d watched her drown, just as the scary men who came to his bedroom window one night had told him to do.
They’d told him that he wouldn’t have to die like his mother did if he did them a favor, and that was to “send his sister to a better place.” He had, and now he was paying the price for it, both with the heart beating wildly in his chest and the realization that his life could never, ever be the same.
One of the masked doctors, called the Surgeon, came in to check on him after hearing him make a mess. Whoever was under the mask didn’t even look at his sick, instead coming to stand by Theo like some kind of guard analyzing a prisoner. That was what it felt like, at least. “Boys don’t cry,” came from the opening in the mask. Theo flinched at hearing his father’s words said to him. They’d been stalking him for months, sizing him up. Learning about his mother and what made him tick.
They’d hit a pressure point. “We have more work to do,” followed by a series of clicks and whistles to the other doctors who walked into the room, was what Theo focused on instead of crying.
As it turned out, the anaesthetic was only for the first operation.
The surgeries continued to be intense and painful, but for the most part, Theo knew what was going on. He started to understand why no one had told him about his and his mother’s heart, because the bleak reality of it was numbing, if it was anything like this. Of course, what Theo didn’t know was that it wasn’t, and he was in a situation so much worse.
Over time, he grew used to his new life living mostly underground in the sewer systems. He tried to stay strong, coping however he could; he started calling the doctors “Dread Doctors” for how they made him feel every time they stepped into his sight, and regarded the abandoned sewer as his home. It was easier to push the fear away when you convince yourself that it was all okay.
All he knew about what the doctors were trying to do was explained by the Surgeon in the same words: “we’re making you as good as you can be.” From the time Theo was nine to thirteen, that made sense. Sometimes they would take samples off of him and he bit his tongue to keep himself from making sound, other times they’d inject him with some shiny substance that he didn’t think should be injected. Either way, he didn’t have much of a choice. It hurt all the same, but he thought that they were right. They were making him as good as he could be.
How could they not be when he felt stronger after each dose took? He felt it coursing into his veins right after he got the shot or swallowed a pill, pumping through his sister’s stolen heart, and things started to make sense. He believed the words that the Dread Doctors said and was willing to go along with them, because to a fourteen year old, why wouldn’t he have? How could he argue with results?
He didn’t question it when they asked him to read up on things that others had told him didn’t exist. They had him read about werewolves, werejaguars, and something called a kanima in his free time, and often told him to plan for the future with these things in mind, because soon, they’d be a big part of his plans. He didn’t know what those plans were yet, but they told him that he was going to be powerful, and after a life full of the pain he’d endured so far, he listened. As reality began to warp as he became educated both in human and less than human biology, he stopped thinking about the risks of what was happening. His reading became more interesting like a sci-fi series and his surgeries became more invasive and complicated.
Twice, they ripped out each of his fingernails one by one to examine and cut into his nailbeds, telling him they were making room, for what they wouldn’t say. Each time they grew back faster. It took three days for the first set to come back in, and the second time, only overnight. It was as if the torturous agony had never occured, not even a trace of pain left behind when he rubbed a finger over new, smooth fingernails.
Then, they cut into his gums. “Making room” again, they said, and it was kind of hard to question it when there were sharp metal tools in his mouth, so he stayed as quiet as he could. That took even less time to heal, just a few hours, so when the surgery had happened first thing in the morning, he was alright enough to eat his allowed dinner the same day. Dinner was usually whatever rations they had, since Theo wasn’t allowed to leave the sewers yet to get anything on him own. They promised his outside privileges on his sixteenth birthday.
The day he turned fifteen was the scheduled time for one of their most important surgeries yet, this one involving his heart. It was the most painful of all of them, because Theo was awake and aware as they cut down his middle in what should have left a large scar. Even though there wasn’t a mark afterwards, the surgery felt like he was dying, suffocating as cold air hit places it never should. They poked, prodded, and examined a bloody heart that wasn’t his as it beat, and he was helpless to scream when he was injected without warning with the same shiny substance as always. He thrashed on the table, held down by the Pathologist and the Geneticist as the Surgeon worked.
He’d been able to keep himself together before, but he hadn’t had an internal surgery in years. The Pathologist pressed a gloved hand over his mouth to muffle his screams, cries of agony and mercy, clearly angry under the metal mask. “Boys don’t cry,” The Pathologist whispered. Theo could feel whatever had just gone into him spreading like a burn through his entire body, and he continued to try and break free, cries muffled by the hand over his mouth. “You chose this life. You’ll go through with it. You deserve this pain.” The Surgeon sewed stitch by stitch into him, and Theo screamed in fear feeling the needle pierce his skin. The last thing he heard was a few clicks and whistles as always before the Pathologist took his other hand to squeeze Theo’s nose shut. He fought against it, needing to breathe, but blacked out a second later.
He blinked his eyes open a few hours later, staring at the light on the ceiling for a few seconds. One hand came to trace where he’d been cut open the last time his eyes were open, finding that there was no mark, no scar. He wondered how many scars he was supposed to have on him if he were a normal boy.
Something inside was different now. It pulsed within him, some strong, solid power emanating from his chest that kept him expressionless as he sat up and got off the table. The Dread Doctors were nowhere to be found, so he started to walk around, staring straight ahead. He was almost numb, but he loved it. Whatever the Doctors had done to him, what the Pathologist had said, had stuck. Their plan was working, and he didn’t know it, but he was now just the vessel.
He passed by the rickety table where they’d eat their rationed food and into a different sector of the sewers, where they kept the others. Theo was the only one allowed free reign, being the only one deemed successful, so he was used to seeing the other teenagers down there kept in captivity. All of them looked either scared, their eyes flitting around their dark, dirty cell frantically if they weren’t foolishly trying to escape, or on the other end, they’d accepted it. They would stare straight ahead, sitting on the floor, as they tried to grasp what was happening. All of them thought they would die. All of them, so far, had been right.
The Doctors had four of them down there that day, having gathered up a new round of test subjects, all with different sets of DNA from transplants and skin grafts. Two of them were girls, who didn’t know each other but were huddled together. The other two were boys, one older than him at seventeen, and the other, who’d been taken in for his experiments, was younger. The older one sat sniveling on the floor, tears rolling down his cheeks. He clearly wasn’t in the acceptance stage yet, and from what Theo could see, he didn’t think he would get there. Some of them never did. Some of them just never got the time.
He sneered as he passed by the boy’s cell, rolling his eyes. “Haven’t you learned already?” Theo scoffed, barely looking at him. “Boys don’t cry.”
Before, it might have been a warning to his fellow kids down there, since the Doctors punished them for making too much noise or putting up a fight. Before, it would have been warmer, holding some sympathy. This time, it wasn’t a warning - he believed it. He wouldn’t be in charge if he didn’t.
Theo could barely remember that day. He barely remembered any of the details of his past life living in the sewers with the Dread Doctors, since so much had happened since then. The Doctors’ plan had been put through him so it seemed like Theo’s own, wanting him to take down a pack of familiar faces, and it had almost worked. All of the blood, sweat, and little tears had almost paid off if it wasn’t for Scott’s pack just being a little too strong for him to overtake, and he found himself being sent into the ground to pay for his sins.
He’d spent four months that felt more like years in hell, a place Theo would never doubt the existence of again, until he was mercifully pulled out. He’d come to the surface trying not to tremble, having been beaten down over and over again in an endless loop of getting exactly what he deserved.
The memories of hell stayed with him for months after he returned. He got nightmares when he slept in the back of his truck that he’d found exactly where he’d left it before he’d been exiled, abandoned in the Beacon Hills preserve, but he tried not to think about them after they happened. Instead, he did what he could. He focused on trying to survive. He helped the McCall pack and took their deserved abuse while still being on everyone’s beck and call, knowing that was the only way he was allowed to stay. He went on their little impromptu missions where someone was always close to dying because of how bad the organization was, and more often than he’d like, Theo was the one having near-death experiences. He always came back to his truck exhausted and numb, but he fell asleep almost as soon as he got in.
So there wasn’t a lot of time to think, much less time to cry. When he got frustrated, it was criticism, sarcasm, and sometimes violence, which worked well enough to avoid showing a weak spot.
Showing a weak spot to the McCall pack was like inviting them to rip him apart; the simple fact of the matter was that he didn’t deserve to feel sorry for himself. He lost that right when he allowed himself to be manipulated into murdering and ruining lives, and they would remind him of that every day, even though he never did something as trivial as cry. If he rolled his eyes once, someone would be holding someone else back from screaming at him or trying to slash their claws across his face, and he couldn’t blame them.
It was easier not to cry, even when he was alone, because he wouldn’t even let there be a chance of it happening when he couldn’t control it. If he let himself be weak in his own time, he couldn’t guarantee that he could keep his walls up when he was around Scott’s pack. It didn’t matter who he was with, not if it were his worst enemy or his strained, forced “friendship” with Liam.
Usually if someone was getting upset, it was Liam. Theo always seemed to be the one consoling him when he got angry, letting himself be the punching bag, or like the time in the zoo, knocking him out before he could make a mistake. Theo wasn’t stupid; he knew pretty quickly that after Hayden, his ex, left town, Theo had accidentally become Liam’s new anchor. He hated it as much as he was smug about it, so he never brought it up. It created an accidental friendship, especially after some stupid, irrational part of Theo told him to save Liam from the hunters in the hospital before he could get shot.
Deep down, he knew why he did it, knew why he stuck around Liam, but they weren’t that close. Theo was Liam’s unwilling anchor and Liam was the only one who gave Theo the time of day, so Theo’s feelings didn’t matter. He didn’t think about them, and he sure as all hell didn’t cry about them.
He worked with Liam as much as he could, since he was the only one he got along with it, but tonight, something went wrong. One of the people Theo was supposed to save died, and it was the first body that Theo had seen in awhile - one that was his fault, at least. She was his to protect, and yet she laid still on the ground, eyes wide open. Something heavy sat in the pit of his stomach.
Liam looked over at him, realizing what had happened as he saw Theo kneeling down to close her eyes for her. “Theo…” He trailed gently, stepping close to him as the last echoes of gunfire died out. Theo shook his head, brushing her ash blonde hair off her face. She was young. Innocent. “Come on,” Liam said softly, grabbing his arm cautiously, and Theo was helpless to walk with him.
He found himself sitting on Liam’s bed as Liam wiped the blood of the girl off his hands. He stared down at them numbly as Liam held his wrist and wiped it off with a damp cloth. “It’s not your fault,” He said quietly as the last bits of dried blood came out from Theo’s cuticles. Theo stayed silent. “I know you were trying.”
What does trying even count for? He wanted to ask, but didn’t. Liam seemed to hear his thoughts anyway, slowly but somehow suddenly cupping Theo’s face in his hands to meet his eyes. “Hey,” He whispered. There was none of the same tension that his blue eyes usually held, replaced with something softer. “I know you tried. That’s all you could do.”
Theo moved to shake his head, tell Liam to fuck off, but when he kissed him, all of his thoughts sunk down to the deepest parts of his brain. All he could feel was Liam’s lips on his own, mapping softly as he held his face gently in his palms. Theo was frozen, hands suspended midair between them, still damp from the wet washcloth. Liam pulled away for just a second to look at him, finding nothing holding him back, before kissing him again.
It felt like pieces were falling into place, in the most unexpected but beautiful way. Daydreams he’d never let get this far were being lived out, and for once in a short life, something felt right.
His chest was tight, heart beating fast as he realized how overwhelming Liam was. He was smiling softly at him, staring into his eyes like he’d been waiting to kiss Theo forever, and maybe he had.
Theo tried to speak but found that his throat was closed. All he could make was a choked noise that startled both of them, Liam’s hands dropping to Theo’s neck as he began to shake. “Theo?” He asked quietly, concerned. Theo looked away, feeling his eyes burn and vision start to blur. He was trying to cry; he’d thought by now he’d forgotten how.
“I’m sorry,” Theo breathed, trying to choke back the shuddery breaths that wanted to leave him, shaking his head. He turned away from Liam entirely, horrified and disgusted with himself for doing this now. He was supposed to be happy, not sad. Not weak . Liam placed a hand on his shoulder, rubbing softly. He could smell the confusion coming off of Liam, and wondered what a mess of chemosignals he must be.
“What are you sorry for?” Liam whispered, turning Theo back around, who was too focused on trying not to make a fool of himself to keep himself solid. He tried to meet Theo’s eyes, but he couldn’t. “Hey…”
“I’m not supposed to cry,” Theo breathed, his chest rising and falling in the jerky movements it took not to sob. He didn’t know why it was taking over now of all times. He’d done everything right, tried to stay strong for himself so he wasn’t so goddamn weak in front of the ones who actually mattered. “Boys don’t cry. It’s a weak thing to do.”
Liam was silent for a second, his lips parted as realization came over his face in the form of sympathy and sadness. “What kind of bullshit is that?” He asked softly, pulling Theo into his chest so his head rested on his shoulder. Of course Liam, the well-adjusted, well-raised man that he was, wouldn’t think it made sense. Theo’s body shook with the effort of keeping it all in, and Liam wasn’t helping him at all as his hand ran up and down his back. “It’s okay to cry,” He guided, kissing the top of Theo’s head. Theo hated the sound that came from his throat, but Liam nodded against him. “Just let it out. You’re okay.”
Hot tears were already streaming down Theo’s cheeks, dampening the material of Liam’s shirt, but it felt like a dam had been broken open. He took one shaky breath before a hard sob, making Liam’s hold on him tighten encouragingly. “That’s it,” He whispered, rubbing his back as Theo cried against him, all of the emotions pouring out of him making it hard to hate himself for it. Liam didn’t ask him why he was crying; he was quiet, whispering hushed words into his ear as he finally released what heaviness had been building in his chest for years. “Good,” He said, squeezing his shoulder.
Theo clung onto him for dear life, afraid that if he stopped, Liam would be gone, but he was still there, running his hands all up and down Theo’s back in a way that made him melt. He didn’t think he could be any closer to Liam if he tried, and that was as beautiful to him as it was overwhelming. It both calmed him and spurred him on, broken sobs muffled into the side of Liam’s neck. Occasionally Liam would kiss his ear or head and send him right back to square one, wrapping his arms in an embarrassingly needy way around Liam’s neck.
At one point, Liam’s mom Jenna came to stand in the doorway. He sensed her presence there but knew he wouldn’t be able to stop crying if he tried, so he just tried to quiet himself down and hope she went away, but whatever Liam had silently indicated made her step into the room and sit down lightly on the bed on the other side of Theo. Her hand went right along with Liam’s, rubbing circles between his shoulder blades, and Theo couldn’t pretend to keep it together anymore.
Jenna insisted that he slept at their house that night, and the night after that, and the nights after that. She let him stay in Liam’s bed, the two of them tangled under the covers. On the third night he stayed with Liam, not yet knowing that he wouldn’t be leaving, he finally explained to him why he’d broken down, and Liam had been there to hold him. He didn’t cry, but that time, it was because he didn’t need to.
After that, as he learned to live with the Dunbar-Geyers, it took him a while to have a healthy relationship with himself, but he tried. He had Liam to go through each day at a time with, allowing himself bit by bit to be vulnerable, even if it was only in front of him.
And Theo never heard the words “boys don’t cry” again.