A/N: Starts with Jesse's POV at the beginning of Fire Touched, then veers off wildly into an AU. Spoilers for the whole series throughout.
Disclaimer: All the characters belong to Patricia Briggs. I'm just borrowing them for a while.
So my dad's a werewolf. My stepmom turns into a coyote. My actual mom is human - a mundane, like me, although she does seem to have a supernatural power for attracting men, and she once had a stalker who sent a lava monster after us.
Members of my dad's pack are constantly filtering in and out of our house, and I sometimes answer the door for other supernatural creatures like vampires and the fae.
Which means that, according to everyone at school, the least freaky thing about me is my hair, which is constantly changing styles and colors depending on my moods. (Currently, it's bright red and dyed gold at the ends.)
My name is Jesse Hauptman.
My life is kind of crazy.
But I'm cool with that.
The thing about being an Alpha werewolf's daughter is that you don't grow up thinking it's weird.
Even when I was old enough to understand that mentioning my dad's ability to grow fur and fangs at will was a big no-no, I still remember thinking it was weird when I realized other people's dads couldn't turn into giant wolves.
I guess it's kind of like being a celebrity's kid. You don't think about your dad being unusual or special to other people until you see how the rest of the world reacts to them. Even then, it's still kind of weird because to you, your dad is just...your dad.
My life got a lot weirder when the werewolves "came out," and my dad became the poster boy for pretty much all the werewolves in North America. He appears on national TV anytime the general public starts freaking out about their personal safety. I think he reassures them now. But at first, the announcement that werewolves exist just freaked people out. I lost a bunch of friends when everyone learned that my dad was the head of the Columbia Basin pack. A bunch of parents even yanked their kids out of school out because they didn't want them attending the same high school as me.
Right. Because I'm soooo dangerous. *eye roll*
I understand wanting to keep your kids safe, but being scared of having them around me is just dumb. I'm not a werewolf. I'm just related to one.
As dangerous as werewolves can be, it's not like they're mindless killing machines. They don't survive by feeding on people's blood, for one thing. Werewolves are at least half human, and they can still marry and make perfectly mundane babies with humans. As evidenced by me.
So the only thing you really need to be worried about is not pissing off a werewolf. True, their tempers run high, but this is actually pretty easy to avoid if you are not a total moron. When it comes to me, for example, all you have to do is avoid kidnapping me or causing me grievous bodily harm and you should be totally fine.
Because seriously: the wolves have more important things to worry about than people who are just trying to go about their everyday lives.
Like right now, for instance. They are way more worried about an unidentified freakish monster terrorizing people on a bridge.
"What. Is. Happening," said Izzy.
Izzy and I were sitting on the couch in my dad's living room, staring wide-eyed at the Channel 5 news broadcast. Izzy had come over earlier with her mom, who'd been on a mission to sell Mercy essential oils and other things nobody really needs, and we were still hanging out when Mercy burst into my room and announced "Monster on Cable Bridge" before running off with my dad to fight said monster.
It had taken Izzy and me almost half an hour to find a local news station that was broadcasting the chaos. There were barricades at both ends of the bridge. In between was a mess of wrecked cars, dotted with members of the pack in both wolf and human form, attempting to stop the Monster on Cable Bridge from escaping and destroying the rest of the town.
"I think they're fighting the Hulk," I said.
In reality, it was some sort of fae, but I didn't know what kind. It was big and green and throwing Miatas, so Hulk worked for me.
"Can they beat it?" Izzy asked.
I shrugged, trying not to look too nervous. Izzy doesn't know as much about the pack as you'd expect, considering she's one of my best friends. (Well..one of my only friends.) Most of the people at school either avoid me or try to befriend me as a result of my association with the werewolves. Either way, they don't seem to have much interested in me as a person. Which sucks.
But Izzy's always just been my friend. We talk about normal teenage stuff: school, work, boys, parents. We don't talk about werewolves unless something's going on with the pack that's driving me nuts.
Or unless they're fighting a giant green monster on a bridge.
"I'm not sure there are really going to be any winners here," I said.
I'm pretty upbeat in general, but it is extremely nerve-wracking to watch high-definition aerial footage of people you know and love fighting a car-smashing monster that doesn't seem to be concerned about injuries sustained from claws, fangs, or guns. Werewolves are larger and stronger than normal wolves, and they heal insanely quickly, but they're not invincible. And right now, it didn't look like they were a match for the Hulk.
The hardest thing about having a dad who's a werewolf is knowing that one day he might find himself in a fight he can't win.
I've seen my dad and Mercy come up against enough life-threatening situations that I don't take my dad's safety for granted anymore. I try not to let on, because I know my dad doesn't want me to worry, but I'm grateful every time he comes home.
The camera angle on the TV switched, and our view was suddenly on the ground, much closer to the action. The camera zoomed in just in time to catch my dad in full werewolf form, leaping onto the back of the Hulk.
"O-m-g! Who is that? Is that your dad?" Izzy asked.
"Yep." Somehow my voice came out normally, but I was suddenly jangling with nerves.
My dad has gone out of his way to keep me from witnessing pack violence. I find most of his efforts to shelter me inconvenient or annoying at best - but missing out on the pack getting hurt is one thing I really don't mind. Everyone in the pack has been seriously injured at one time or another. But I had no desire to witness it, and I especially didn't want to watch them getting their bones broken live on television.
All in all, this was not my favorite Sunday afternoon activity ever.
Izzy tried to lighten the mood by crying, "Yeah, Mr. Hauptman! Go for the jugular!"
I joined in with a weak, "Go dad!" But really, the sight of my dad trying to bring down a creature that was apparently indifferent to a gigantic wolf gnawing on his skull was making me feel kind of sick.
Izzy caught the look on my face and reached over, giving me a brief hug. Then: "Is that Mercy?"
I tore my eyes away from my dad, and my heart sank as I spotted Mercy in the midst of the Hulk-induced chaos. In my head, I knew Mercy wouldn't be standing there in front of a monster unless there was a really good reason for her to be part of the fray. But the sight of both my dad and Mercy within fist-smashing distance of their opponent made me feel even sicker.
They always win - they always win - they always win, I told myself. So far, it was true. River monster, lava monster, vampires, rogue wolves, fae: Mercy and my dad had beaten them all, with various forms of help along the way. I watched and waited anxiously for one of them to come up with something miraculous.
"Is Mercy attacking the Hulk with a stick?" Izzy said.
"Um...yes," I said, my heart sinking further. Then I frowned, leaning forward. That wasn't just a stick. It was Lugh's walking stick: an ancient fae artifact that, last I'd heard, Mercy had given away to one of the fae.
"Yeah, Mercy! Go for the balls!" Izzy cried, as Mercy gave the Hulk a good whack between the legs.
That got to me. I burst into half-nervous, half-hysterical giggles. Izzy joined in, and we watched, laughing inappropriately, as Mercy tried a few other whacks against the Hulk, none of which appeared to inconvenience it much.
"What is with this monster?" Izzy demanded. "If I got whacked between the legs like that, I'd drop to the ground - and I only have lady parts!"
"Maybe it's a eunuch," I suggested. Somehow, this brought on another round of hysterical giggling.
Our laughter stopped abruptly when the Hulk reached back and ripped my dad off its head. Along with my dad came a giant chunk of the Hulk's hair and skin, followed by a lot of gushing, dark-green blood.
"Aughhh," Izzy said. "Well, this just got super gross and terrifying."
I tried to say something, but it came out as a gurgly squeak instead. The troll had thrown my dad across the bridge. And he wasn't getting up.
Izzy put an arm around me and dropped her head onto my shoulder, giving me another squeeze.
The ground camera had moved much closer to the action now, but there were still enough things blocking the view that I'd lost sight of my dad after he hit the ground. I was so frantic for a glimpse of him that I had stopped paying attention to everything else on the bridge.
I might have missed the next bit entirely if Izzy hadn't sat up said, "Is that Tad?"
"What?" I said, momentarily distracted from worrying about my dad.
Tad couldn't be here. He was gone. Not off-to-college gone, like he had been for the last few years, but gone. As in, the fae had taken him.
A few months ago, when my mom's stalker sent the lava monster after us, Tad had helped Mercy and my dad defeat it. And by "helped," I mean "totally saved everyone's asses." The lava monster had destroyed Mercy's shop and turned our friend Joel into a lava-spewing tibicena in the process (though Joel was only a tibicena some of the time; sometimes he was still just Joel). It was only because of Tad that anyone survived.
However, winning the battle meant that Tad had revealed his full powers for the first time.
Which was a problem, because up until that point, the Gray Lords had assumed Tad was basically mundane.
Tad had a human mom, like me, and a fae dad. But unlike me - and apparently all of his fellow half-fae - Tad had inherited rare iron-kissed magic from his dad, in quantities that made him more powerful than any other half mundane in existence.
So the Gray Lords had taken him.
I wasn't supposed to know most of this. Mercy and my dad are committed to trying to protect from things that are dangerous for me to know, so they'd only told me bits and pieces. But I put the rest together for myself.
I've known Tad since I was nine years old. He's a genuinely awesome person, with a disarmingly friendly personality that makes him easy to be around and also very fun to flirt with. But I also know - at least in part thanks to retrospect - that his charming personality is part of what helps him disguise his true nature. Even people who have known him most of his life, like Mercy, were surprised to find out how much he'd been holding back when it came to his magic.
I don't think Mercy would believe me if I told her so. I haven't spent nearly as much time around Tad as Mercy has. Also unlike Mercy, I'm not a coyote shifter with the ability to sense magic.
But I think Mercy forgets that Tad and I both know what it's like to have one mundane parent and one magical one. And it's because of that that I first began to suspect how much Tad was hiding his powers.
You see, Tad has never quite been able to commiserate with me over what it's like to have a supernatural father and no magical powers yourself. I can't automatically tell when someone's lying, like the werewolves can, but I've paid enough attention over the years that I've gotten to be a pretty good lie detector myself. And the more Tad and I talked about magic, the more I got the sense he was hiding something.
I'd never mentioned my hunch to him, of course. I figured if Tad was keeping his magic secret, he had good reason. I know what it's like to live with secrets.
I also know what it's like when the truth finally comes out.
In Tad's case, the consequences were a lot more dire than in mine. I lost friendships and classmates, but Tad lost his whole life. Ivy League scholarships don't exactly count for much when you've been kidnapped and taken to Fairyland against your will.
Or at least, I thought that's what had happened to Tad.
"Since when can Tad do that?" Izzy demanded.
The news had managed to get a clear shot of Tad molding a small piece of metal into a gigantic javelin, which he then handed to an inexplicably sopping-wet Darryl, who threw it at the Hulk.
"Um," I said. Izzy didn't know about Tad's true powers, or about him getting snatched by the Gray Lords. Although I wanted to, I didn't think it was my place to tell her. "Since now?" I ventured.
"But I thought the half-fae didn't have any powers," Izzy said, frowning.
"I think it's more that they don't have powers strong enough to matter to the Gray Lords."
"That looks like pretty crazy-awesome power to me."
I couldn't argue with this. Tad's weapons were the first things to have any effect on the Hulk whatsoever. Within mere minutes of Tad arriving on the scene, the Hulk went down. Izzy and I both watched in horrified fascination as Joel, in full lava-monster-tibicena form, finished it off.
And by finished it off I mean began to eat.
"Augh," Izzy said. "Do they have to show that?"
I decided to stop paying attention to Joel. The cameras had gotten close enough to the action now that I could see my dad. He was still lying on the ground, inert. Mercy was standing guard over him, walking stick in hand. I took this to mean that my dad was going to be all right. Mercy's better at keeping her cool in a crisis than anyone I know, but if something was seriously wrong with my dad, even she wouldn't be able to stand there looking so calm.
A lot of things happened over the next few minutes. Mercy tried to call Joel off eating the Hulk. Then a kid climbed stupidly over the barricade and approached Joel. For a moment, it looked like he was about to get eaten. But then he did some freaky fire voodoo instead, and Joel calmed down - to the point where he was no longer glowing and spitting lava.
"Whoa," Izzy said. "That is not a normal kid."
"No," I agreed.
"I don't think so," I said slowly. I wasn't sure why; just a hunch. "Or if he is, I don't know why he's decided to disguise himself as a ten year old."
"If he's not fae, then what is he? One of the X-men?"
The X-men didn't really exist, of course. But sometimes I wondered if something like the X-men wasn't too far off from reality. We had werewolves, fae, and vampires, after all. Who knew what else was lurking out there?
"Could be," I said, mostly joking.
"I so hope that means Wolverine really exists."
"Only if he actually looks like Hugh Jackman."
"You and your old men," Izzy said, rolling her eyes.
"Only Hugh Jackman," I insisted. I know he's kind of old - but whatever, he's still hot.
Izzy and I were distracted from our X-men speculation by the sudden appearance of Zee, Tad's father. He asked Mercy if the pack would provide sanctuary to the fire-taming, non-fae, non-X-men child.
Thanks to the ever-approaching TV cameras, we were able to actually hear this request, as well as the next bit, which involved Mercy raising her walking stick and declaring that my dad's pack would provide protection to anyone they deemed worthy. The walking stick gave a theatrical glow, as if to seal the bargain.
"Shit," I said, thinking how much trouble this could bring the pack.
"Badass," Izzy agreed.
By that point, I was 99.9% positive that my dad was all right. Even so, I didn't breathe easy until he suddenly sprang up from the ground and started moving around as though he hadn't just been thrown across a bridge and knocked unconscious by a Hulk monster.
I let out a sigh of relief and flopped back against the couch cushions. Izzy flopped with me.
"That was stressful," she said. "I think we need some chocolate."
Lucky for us, Mercy likes to bake when she's stressed out. The freezer in the garage usually has some form of baked good in it. Today, Izzy and I struck gold with a tray of double-fudge brownies. We heated them up in the oven, so that by the time the first members of the pack arrived the house smelled amazing, and Izzy and I had eaten three brownies each.
This also meant that by the time my dad came in, I was in enough of a happy sugar coma that I was able to greet him normally, instead of crushing him in an oh-my-God-I-almost-thought-you-died kind of embrace. I still hugged him, though. Dad gave me a tight squeeze, favoring one arm. That meant his other arm was injured, but I didn't comment on it. I was just glad he was in one piece.
Mercy hugged me, too, and invited Izzy to stay for the barbecue we were now hosting after the pack meeting.
Izzy went to the next room to call her mom and ask for a later ride. I decided to arrange the brownies artfully on a plate. Izzy and I had been eating them straight from the pan because, as Izzy insisted, "They taste gooier that way" - gooey being Izzy's main requirement for brownies - but I figured nobody needed to know that, and we would look a lot more hospitable if we set the brownies out for general consumption.
All the members of the pack who'd been on the bridge arrived at about the same time as my dad and Mercy - along with Tad, Zee, and the mysterious ten-year-old, who I didn't believe for a second was as young as he looked. There was general hubbub as everyone started pouring into the house, which meant that Tad didn't see me right away. But I saw him. And what I saw was a little alarming.
Tad looked a lot older and grimmer than the last time I'd seen him. It could have just been that he was a little too thin and exhausted from fighting the Hulk, but I didn't think that was all. When Tad smiled, there was something missing from it.
What had the Gray Lords done to him?
And what was with the not-ten-year-old boy he and his father had gone to such lengths to protect?
"My mom is insane," Izzy declared, returning from her phone call. She looked frazzled, the way she only does when her mom brings up her Intrasity business. "She wanted to come meet the pack," Izzy whispered, horrified. In a house full of werewolves, whispering is pretty much pointless. But at least if you whisper, they'll usually pretend not to hear you. "I only convinced her to stay away by pointing out most of them had just defeated a bridge troll and would probably be too cranky to buy anything," Izzy went on.
"Bridge troll?" I echoed.
"That's what they're calling it on Twitter now. Apparently Mercy confirmed it."
"Huh," I said. So much for the Hulk. I glanced around the kitchen and realized that Tad, Zee, and the not-ten-year-old had disappeared. "Where'd they go?"
"Where'd who go?"
"Tad. And his father," I said. "They were just here."
"Iiiinteresting," Izzy said. "I guess we'll find out what the deal is with the mini X-man after all."
And we did, kind of. Mostly we learned that mini-X-man would be staying with us for at least a day, per the terms of the sanctuary Mercy had offered him. Also staying with us would be Tad and Zee. We got most of this out of Ben, our resident British werewolf, whom Izzy and I both enjoyed at least in part due to his propensity for teaching us creative new swear words. We'd cornered him at the barbecue and squeezed as much information out of him as we could before he pleaded pack duties and excused himself.
"Isn't Zee supposed to be in Fairyland?" Izzy whispered, as Ben walked away. "And why is Tad here? Shouldn't he be at school?"
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe if we ever learn the whole deal about mini-X-man, it will all make sense."
Izzy pitched her voice even lower. "Do you think Zee's on the run from the Gray Lords?"
We were hanging out in one corner of the deck, a fair distance away from everybody else. Even so, I knew all the wolves could hear our conversation. So I just shrugged. Zee probably was on the run from the Gray Lords, but I didn't want to speculate now, with most of the pack able to hear us. And I definitely didn't want to air my fears where I knew my dad might hear. Everyone tried to keep me in the dark as much as possible, but I got the feeling that something was brewing. Something that would bring the pack a lot more trouble than a bridge troll.
Izzy caught the look on my face and wisely dropped the topic. We'd hash it out at school tomorrow; even if Dad sent one of the wolves to babysit me, school was still the safest place to talk without fear of being overheard.
Tad appeared then, still looking exhausted. His face brightened at the sight of food, though. As he piled a couple plates high with burgers, chips, and a few token veggies, he received a few compliments and whacks on the back from Darryl, Warren, and Ben. Tad wasn't part of the pack hierarchy, so complimenting him for his efforts didn't cost anyone in the pack anything. Tad looked a little embarrassed, but mostly pleased at their enthusiasm.
Tad didn't see me until he turned around. I waved to catch his attention, and his face brightened again, breaking into a smile. Unless I was imagining things, it was the first genuine smile I'd seen on him all day.
Izzy elbowed me in the ribs. "Someone's happy to see you," she said under her breath.
Okay. So maybe I wasn't imagining things. But I was definitely glad that Tad didn't have supersonic hearing.
"Jesse!" he said as he reached us, setting down both of his food-laden plates.
"Hey, Tad." Impulsively, I got up to give him a hug. Tad and I don't usually hug hello, but it had been a while since I'd seen him - and, frankly, he looked like he needed a hug.
He gave me a friendly squeeze back. As I pulled away, he took hold of one of my half-red, half-gold locks of hair and tugged. "Your hair's weird."
I rolled my eyes, secretly pleased. The weirdness of my hair was a long-running joke between me and Tad. "Your hair's a mess," I teased him, reaching up and flipping a few dark brown strands out of his eyes. "You need a haircut."
Tad shook his head, making his hair fall completely over his eyes. "I'm bringing emo back."
I laughed, and felt a little victorious when he broke into another smile. It was sad that seeing him smile - really smile - felt like something to celebrate.
It occurred to me as we sat down that the reason his hair was so unruly was that he'd been trapped in Fairyland for the last seven weeks. Presumably without a barber. I wished I could ask him about that, but I couldn't with Izzy and the pack around.
Well - maybe I couldn't, anyway. I considered Tad a friend, but I wasn't sure what he thought of me. He was three years older than me, after all. And even if he did consider me a friend, did I really have the right to ask him about what had happened with the Gray Lords?
"I'm Izzy," Izzy said, sticking out her hand to greet him. "We've met, but you probably don't remember me."
"Ffure I do," Tad said, his mouth full of cheeseburger. He stuck out a free hand to shake hers. "You're Jesse's friend."
"Nicely deduced, Sherlock," I said, rolling my eyes at him.
Tad rolled his eyes back. "I do remember. Your mom brought your car into the shop one time," he said to Izzy.
"That is correct, sir," Izzy said, pleased.
Tad gave me a triumphant look, and I stuck out my tongue at him. Izzy glanced back and forth between us, looking amused. For some reason, Izzy's look annoyed me. Tad and I always flirted like this. There was nothing for her to look so amused about.
"Hungry?" I said, gesturing at Tad's multiple plates.
"I guess defeating a crazy evil troll will do that to you," Izzy mused.
Tad frowned. "The troll wasn't evil. Well, not exactly. He was... The whole mess shouldn't have happened." Tad shook his head, taking another bite of burger, then said, "One of the plates is for my dad. He didn't feel like socializing."
"Shocker," I said, trying to lighten the mood. Tad favored me with another smile, though this one didn't quite reach his eyes.
Izzy's phone chimed. "Crap. My mom's here," she said, checking the text. "I better head her off before she gets any ideas. See you tomorrow!" Izzy said a quick good-bye to me and Tad and hurried off.
"Ugh," I said, slumping over the table once she'd gone. Tad raised an eyebrow at me. I could only tell because it completely disappeared behind his hair. As opposed to the other eyebrow, which was only mostly covered by his hair. "I forgot tomorrow was Monday," I explained.
Tad looked amused for a second. But then his expression clouded. "I guess I couldn't have told you tomorrow was Monday, either."
"Losing track of things in your old age?" I teased. I didn't like seeing that dark look on his face. It made him seem a lot older than he really was. And it was a look I'd seen more and more often since his dad had been forced to go into hiding with the rest of the fae.
"Apparently," he said, and started in on his second burger.
I decided to switch tacks. "That was pretty impressive on the bridge today."
Tad gave a vague nod. "I'm just glad we got there in time. We cut it pretty close."
"I'm glad, too," I said quietly, hoping none of the pack were listening in.
Tad gave me a searching look. He seemed to catch my full meaning. "All of this is pretty hard on you, isn't it?"
"And on you," I countered, even more quietly.
He gave me a wry look. But something passed between us then: a spark of understanding that you can only get from knowing what it's like to have a parent in mortal peril. "I guess it's hard on all of us," he conceded.
For some reason, I found this slightly irritating. It was a diplomatic response - but I didn't want diplomatic responses from Tad. I wanted somebody to tell me the truth for once. The whole truth.
But since I wasn't sure I had a right to press Tad for the truth, I dropped the whole thing, and just kept him company until he'd finished his food.
"I better get some food to the old man before he decides to smite somebody," he said, licking the last of the potato chip grease off his fingers.
"I'd better get to work on school stuff," I said, making a face. "Homework waits for no woman!"
I followed Tad into the house and up the stairs. We split ways at the top. But before I'd taken two steps, I turned back and said, "Hey, Tad?"
"Hmm?" He turned around. He really did need a haircut; the urge to push his hair out of his eyes was driving me crazy.
"I'm glad you're back."
He gave me another genuine smile, and I got that warm little thrill of victory again. "Me too, Jesse."
He walked off, and I barricaded myself in my room, where I found myself humming unexpectedly as I conjugated Spanish verbs.