Fang’s smile was close-lipped but polite, his posture straight and a little stiff. “Your offer is very kind, Amber, but I couldn’t possibly accept.”
“Nonsense.” Amber shooed him away. “You’re always the one to stay behind with Howl. I can do it this once. You go catch up with the others.”
It was early morning, the sun barely cresting the spiked treetops, the sky a delicate eggshell pink. Lilith was still groggy, eyes heavy with sleep, her every muscle aching. Two nights of sleeping above ground, outside on the dirt with nothing to cushion her head, had taken their toll. The skin of her face was tight and sore, and she’d had to flex her legs several times before they would support her.
The clearing was all but empty, the fire pits scattered, the flattened patches of grass serving as sole witnesses to the pack’s presence. Only Amber and Fang remained—and Howl, although he was off running in the trees. The rest of the pack, Silver included, had shifted and gone on ahead to Rivton.
“I’ll be fine,” Amber said. A veneer of dislike coloured her voice.
Fang shook his head gently. “I’m afraid I must insist.”
Their quasi-argument had been going on for ten minutes, both pretending that the conversation was solely about Howl’s guardianship. Lilith rubbed the sleep from her eyes, glanced at them sourly. “Can you two make up your minds on who’s going to watch over me already? I’d like to get home sometime today.”
Amber looked guilty, but Fang’s smile didn’t even twitch. “Amber is merely concerned that you will affect me in the same way you have Silver,” he said. “I believe you will not. Am I correct?” When Lilith nodded sulkily—she hadn’t done anything to Silver, dammit—Fang turned back to Amber. “Problem solved.”
Amber huffed, irritated. “Fine. You win.” To Lilith: “See you later.” She loped out of the clearing before Lilith could reply.
And then there were two, thought Lilith, glancing at Fang. He was about her height and of wiry build, with sandy blond hair that just about fell into his eyes. He had a kind face, gentle, his default expression a small, polite smile—so unlike the visible malice the other werewolves had shown her that Lilith was immediately on her guard. He was still an infected, capable of inhuman violence. His deceptively friendly appearance only made him more dangerous.
“I don’t bite,” he said cheerfully, catching her gaze. “Much.” He turned on the spot, calling for Howl, and then beckoned Lilith forward. “Shall we go? It’s a few hours’ walk.”
“Aren’t you going to change into—” a half hearted wave of her hand “—you know.” A part of Lilith was curious. She’d only ever seen Silver close up in wolf form; how did another wolf compare?
“I enjoy walking,” Fang said, shouldering a small pack.
Howl crashed through the undergrowth, grass and leaves in his hair, utterly at home in the wilderness. “Are we going?” At Fang’s nod, he tore on ahead.
Fang and Lilith followed at a more sedate pace, heading first for the river, and then, when they reached its banks, turning to follow it upstream. The forest had come alive with the morning, trills of birdsong rippling through the air. The birds themselves hopped from branch to branch without collars or leg bands, free for anyone to steal. If the werewolves were so desperate for money, why hadn’t they captured a few of these birds? Alive, they were worth thousands.
But Fang barely seemed to notice the birds, humming to himself as they walked. It was just as well he hadn’t changed to wolf form, or Lilith would never have been able to keep up. Her muscles were stiff and sore, and as the sun climbed steadily higher she only felt more fatigued. Still human, she thought, oddly relieved by her inadequacies.
Eventually Fang stopped, crouching to drink by the river. He lifted his head to the sun, closing his eyes. “What a beautiful day,” he said. “So peaceful without the others.” He looked at her. “Shall we take a break?”
Lilith sank down gratefully onto the riverbank, rolling her shoulders to try to loosen the muscles. She splashed her hands and face with water, then shielded her eyes from the sun, surprised by its intensity. Yesterday afternoon it had been hot, yes, but it had been nothing like this, this late morning glare which heated the skin.
Fang took two small pouches out of his pack and passed one to her. Inside was a mixture of seeds, nuts, and dried berries. The combination was salty and sweet, rich with flavour. Lilith poured a handful into her mouth, then slowed, embarrassed, when she noticed the dainty way Fang was eating.
“You’re not like the others,” she said. “You’re more—” civilised, but she couldn’t say that.
“Polite?” Fang asked. He nodded. “Aggression should be the last resort, not the first.” He leaned forward, trailing his fingers through the water to wash off the crumbs. “Every action has consequences, violent actions more so than most.”
A pacifist infected—an oxymoron, surely. Violence was an everyday occurrence above ground, and Fang’s mild-mannered approach seemed suicidal. Perhaps he was a coward, the type to hide behind others during a fight. Was that why Amber had wanted to stay behind with Lilith, instead?
Fang stood, and Lilith followed suit, brushing the twigs off her jeans. “I didn’t think,” she began carefully, “that anyone could survive above ground without being violent.”
“Ah.” Fang retied his pack, slung it over his shoulder. This time there was an edge to his smile that Lilith had never seen. “An aversion to violence does not signify an inability to commit violent acts. It is often the strongest fighters, who have full knowledge of their strength, who are the most reluctant to engage.”
Lilith nodded, keeping the disbelief from her expression. Fang was hardly the strongest fighter: his wiry build was a far cry from Dev’s solid pack of muscles, and his expression lacked Al’s confident dominance. But he was intelligent enough to sidestep her questions, and for that she had a grudging respect.
“Can we walk under the trees?” she asked. “I’m hot.” She shielded her eyes, tried to peer at the sun, but it was too bright and left purple afterimages on her eyes.
As they resumed walking, Fang fell into step beside her, the silence between them more companionable than it had been in the morning.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Fang eventually said, “what is it like, living underground? I cannot imagine a life without sunshine.”
“Oh, we have daylight.” And a bunch of other conveniences that the infected didn’t seem to have. Lilith half-shrugged. “Well, we call it daylight. We have lights on all public paths and buildings on a timed schedule. It’s pretty much the same thing, only not as hot.” It was strange to think about home; it seemed so distant, so irrelevant.
“It doesn’t get as dark on a night, either,” Lilith continued. “The street lights dim, but they never go out.”
“It seems so unnatural to grow up under artificial light,” Fang said. “Starless, moonless—what do your poets write about?”
He was judging her. An infected, judging her. Lilith bristled slightly. “It’s unnatural to live up here,” she replied.
Perhaps Fang sensed her anger, for the conversation petered out there. Lilith kept walking, her legs protesting each movement. With each step, her frustrations over the last two days mounted. The werewolves didn’t seem to care about getting her home, didn’t realise how little time she had left. Only 24 hours, every minute slipping through her fingers. Soon it would be too late.
“Silver told me about the theatre,” Fang said.
Lilith stopped, crossed her arms. “And?”
His gaze was steady, assessing. “You will need to face it someday.”
“That someday isn’t today.” A childish response, but satisfying. “What does Silver even know?” she seethed. “He never even met Emma.”
Fang’s concerned smile faltered. “Emma?” And the sound of that name on those lips made Lilith furious. Fang had no right to even say Emma’s name.
“Emma’s dead.” It was the first time she’d said the words out loud; they stuck in her throat, rough and unforgiving. But already Lilith was shaking her head. She didn’t believe it, couldn’t shake the certainty that when she returned home, and everything would go back to normal.
“Emma’s dead,” she said again, to overcome the denial, but she couldn’t; not now, not here. So when Fang reached out to touch her shoulder, Lilith shrugged him off. “Don’t.” The anger was a welcome refuge. She started walking again. “Just get me home.”
A scuffling came from ahead, and Howl broke through the bushes, jogging towards them. “I’m gonna walk with you!” he announced, eyes sliding over Fang’s face.
Fang’s head tilted slightly, as if in assessment. “We’re not far now. Do you remember the way?”
“Duh,” Howl said. “I’m not a baby.”
Fang couldn’t mean to leave her with this brat. Lilith tried to catch his eye, but he feigned ignorance, smiling at them both. “I will scout ahead, then.” He turned and jogged out of sight.
Lilith started walking again, slowly this time. It took her a few minutes to realise that Howl was walking right next to her, staring at her. His eyes were big, unblinking, focused solely on her.
Great. Another lecture. From a teenager now.
“One of my friends died,” Howl said.
She cast around for something to say, and only came up with: “Were you spying on us?”
Howl nodded, not in the least embarrassed. “She was my first friend ever. It was before I met Silver and the others. We played together lots. She even stayed in my cave when it got really cold in winter.”
He looked so earnest, and Lilith realised with a sudden pang that he was trying to make her feel better, to show her he understood.
“That sounds nice,” she said finally, because it looked like he was expecting a reply. “Emma and I sometimes slept over at each others’ houses, too.”
Howl nodded. “It’s really sad when they go. But we’ve gotta smile anyway. Fang says our friends are watching us, and they would get really bored if we were sad all the time.”
She blinked a couple of times before answering. “I guess.”
He grabbed her hand and led her away from the river, onto a narrow trail. She could hear noises ahead—voices, laughter—they were nearly there.
Just before they reached the others, Howl tugged her to a halt. “You’re not gonna take Silver away, are you?”
A little thrown, Lilith took a moment to answer. “No. No, I’m not.” She barely understood what Silver was thinking half the time; he’d never leave the pack for her.
Howl bit his lip. “Promise?”
“Good.” And then he grinned at her so widely Lilith couldn’t help but smile back, a real smile—painful and small—but real.