Howl burst into the clearing, a tumble of limbs and wild brown hair. He skidded to a halt in front of Silver, oblivious to the tension in the air and the tight set of Al’s shoulders.
“Tell Jake it’s not true!” he demanded, tugging on Silver’s sleeve. “Tell him!”
Every single werewolf in the clearing was staring—every one except Al, that was. Al had his head bowed, his hands clenched in tight fists on his knees. Every ounce of Al’s concentration was focused on keeping his inner wolf tightly reined, but it still wasn’t enough, for Vera was frowning, eyelids fluttering.
Silver stood, grabbed Howl by the collar of his t-shirt, and pulled him away. For a sixteen-year-old, the brat was emotionally deficient.
Jake was standing at the very edge of the clearing, his hands already in the air in the universal sign: not guilty. Like fuck he wasn’t.
“I thought you’d keep the boy under control,” Silver hissed. Howl—who’d been letting himself be cheerfully dragged along—drooped noticeably.
Jake shrugged. “Fang’s the pup-sitter, not me.”
Silver was working himself up to a satisfying bout of insults when, as if by magic, Fang appeared beside them. It was uncanny how he did that. “Now, let’s keep calm, everyone,” he said. “Perhaps we should move this discussion elsewhere?”
Silver glanced back at the clearing. Al remained hunched by Vera’s side, but the rest of the pack was watching gleefully. Fang was right; with the pack politics so fragile, their squabbling was best kept private.
He pointed at Claw, the nearest werewolf, who nervously straightened out of his slouch. “You. Watch over Al,” he instructed. Silver let go of Howl’s collar and stalked out of the clearing, towards the river. The others trailed behind.
The air was cooler by the river, sweet-smelling. Here the trees lacked the hard stubbornness of those by the clearing, their branches softened by leaves. Silver sat down at the base of a tree and wondered how the girl was faring in Tulkan, where there was no refuge from the sun and the topsoil had long since been blown away. Further southwest of Tulkan there was only desert; if she wandered that way by mistake she was dead. Would it even occur to her to protect herself from the elements? He leant against a tree and took in his surroundings—the chirping of the birds and burbling of the river, the thick gnarled tree trunks digging firmly into the sandy soil—and wondered what she would think.
Fang sat down on the ground near Silver, interrupting his train of thought. Howl scampered past, heading straight for the river. He had a large stick in his hands which he used to poke the surface of the river tentatively, as if any moment the water would come alive. With each jab, he grew bolder and leaned further forward.
Jake remained standing, one eye on Howl’s antics. “If you fall in I’m not pulling you out, kiddo,” he said.
“I en’t gonna fall in!” Howl protested, glaring. His foot slipped and he jerked backwards, away from the riverbank. The tip of his shoe was wet.
Jake looked smug. “See?” He sat down next to Fang.
Howl crossed his arms. “I wasn’t gonna fall in. And anyway, I en’t afraid of water like some cowards!”
“What? Come and say that to my face, brat!”
Howl moved closer, brandishing his stick. “Coward! Coward! Coward!” Jake, still sitting, grabbed the end of the stick and pulled Howl closer, shouting insults right back.
Silver wasn’t in the mood. “Shut up, you two!”
They froze, abashed. During the following, blessed silence, Silver sank down into a cross-legged position, leaning back against the tree. Howl followed suit, settling down on the grass next to Silver and beginning to pluck at the grass. Needless destruction. The members of his old pack would have been horrified. Silver watched Howl but didn’t say a thing.
“Silver,” Howl said hesitantly a while later. His fingers plucked the hem of his t-shirt. “Is Vera . . . Is she going to be okay?”
All eyes were on him, as if he were the alpha of their little group. Why were these three so damn persistent? Why did they keep following him? Silver looked away and shrugged with one shoulder.
Fang intervened. “We hope so, Howl.”
“Well, ’cause the others were saying she wasn’t gonna. Claw and them.” Howl ducked his head down, peering through his bangs. His eyes were a golden brown so light that in moments like these he looked feral, like a were who’d lost control and let his wolf shine through his human side.
“Bullshit,” Jake said immediately. He punched Howl on the shoulder, lightly. “The others are pack, but that doesn’t make them nice. They’re just being mean.”
“I guess.” Howl chewed his lip. “But . . . but if they’re lying, why does it feel true?”
Silver finally stepped in. “Because your mental capacities deceive you.”
“Oh,” Howl said. Then it clicked. “Hey!”
Jake chuckled. “Ignore him, Howl. Silver’s just pissy today.”
“Look who’s talking,” Silver growled back.
Jake smirked and stared at him. “I am looking.”
“Enough, you two,” Fang pleaded. “We’re all understandably tense today.” His words were greeted by silence. When Jake pulled out a packet of cigarettes, Silver took one without a word of thanks.
For a moment it was quiet. Twin matches burned, sending tendrils of smoke in the air. Silver grimaced when he inhaled; Jake always did have bad taste. He blew the smoke away from the others and leaned his head back against the tree.
“I like this,” Fang said cheerfully. “The four of us, like this.”
Jake grinned, blew a smoke ring into the air. “Just like the old times, eh?”
Howl nodded, Silver remained quiet. But he agreed with Fang: after the squabbling of the pack, he could almost tolerate the companionship of these three wolves, not that he needed them. In these three he saw a piece of himself—they all were restless, and to some extent unhappy. Silver thought of the girl, the stubborn pout of her lip and the reckless, impulsive light in her eyes. He wondered whether she was happy.
“Silver,” Fang said, his voice unexpectedly cautious. “We’ve been discussing the current situation.” He and Jake exchanged significant looks. “Should the worst-case scenario unfold, will you step forward as alpha?”
Silver stubbed his cigarette against the ground before answering. “I don’t see the point.”
“And let Rae and Dev step in?” Jake demanded. “Rae may have her issues, but as much as she wants to be alpha, she’s not made for it. All she’s interested in is getting revenge. And Dev’s under her thumb entirely. You wanna put all of us through that?”
Silver looked at Jake coolly. “If you feel so strongly about it, you step forward. I don’t care.” If he were alpha, though, he would’ve been able to bring the girl to safety immediately. He couldn’t deny the temptation of being able to do what he wanted—that such freedom came with the responsibility for others put him off.
Fang shook his head, his expression carefully neutral. “Jake and I are happy to help with the management of the pack, but the challenger must be you. We need Amber’s support to avoid being outnumbered.”
Silver stared at the sunlight dappling the leaves. “And?”
“She won’t side with us unless you are the challenger.”
“Because she doesn’t like you,” Silver replied.
Fang looked uncomfortable. “Yes, that.” And he didn’t get along with Amber—not that he would ever admit it.
The leaves shifted in the wind, whispering against each other. Silver traced their gentle movements. “That’s not my concern.”
An awkward silence followed. Howl shifted restlessly, oblivious, threading the grass together into small braids.
“Things would be so much easier if Kara was still here,” Jake blurted. He had the good grace to look sheepish, although he didn’t apologise until Fang elbowed him in the ribs.
Silver ignored them, closing his eyes. Jake was right: with a mate by his side, Dev and Rae would’ve stood no chance. And Kara would have loved the opportunity to be alpha—had in fact returned to her family so that she could assume leadership. She hadn’t asked Silver to join her, although the offer had been implied. No expectations nor demands: it’s what he’d liked about her. It was only after she’d gone that he’d realised how much he’d depended on their comfortable relationship. He missed the small things: the curve of her cold nose against his throat, the feel of her, solid in his arms.
The physical need, he’d expected. It was the other need that had caught him by surprise. He’d never take a mate again. It was a weakness he could not afford.
Yet he couldn’t stop thinking about the girl. It was different than what he’d felt towards Kara: the girl had aroused in him a sense of responsibility, a desire to protect which he couldn’t erase. The feeling disgusted him. He’d half a mind to kill her and be done with it. Bringing her to the pack would never work; she had no place here. But how else would he bring her to safety? There was no way to convince the pack to offer her protection without her offering something in return, and there was nothing a worm could offer of value.
Fang coughed politely. “Perhaps it might be best to discuss alternative arrangements?” He waited until he had everyone’s attention before continuing. “Al’s negotiations with the ewtes are proving unsuccessful. He is too invested, and they can sense that. If we could arrange for someone unrelated to the pack to approach the ewtes covertly, that person would stand a better chance of negotiating a reasonable price.”
An unrelated negotiator? Silver allowed himself a smirk. Maybe he’d found the answer to his problems.