Howl was back to his grinning, bouncy self by the time they reached the other werewolves, all vestiges of his previous seriousness so carefully erased Lilith couldn’t help but wonder whether it was deliberate.
He ignored her sidelong glances and tugged her towards the others. Only Silver, Amber, Jake and Fang were there, loitering at the very fringe of the forest, where the trees thinned out and the open sky was ominously visible. Silver and Amber were standing face-to-face, intimately close, talking quietly. Fang was sitting cross-legged on the ground, and Jake was off to one side, leaning against a tree.
They all noticed Lilith and Howl at the same time; turning simultaneously in an eerie animal-esque movement reminiscent of a hunter scenting its prey. And they were animals; Lilith couldn’t let herself forget that. However human they looked and dressed and behaved, hidden inside was a wild creature.
Even Howl was an animal, she thought, peeking at the boy once more. This was no time for her to make friends, and neither was it the time to indulge her curiosity about the infected; not here where the danger was so close she could taste it.
Thus she avoided looking directly at Silver, choosing to smile at Amber instead. But Amber didn’t smile back. She was frowning, her furrowed eyebrows and pursed lips a clear expression of concerned, motherly disapproval. It took Lilith a few seconds to realise that Amber wasn’t frowning at her, or rather, at her face.
Lilith looked down, following Amber’s line of sight, until her eyes fell upon her hand, which Howl was clinging on to. First Howl’s questions about Silver, then this disapproving stare from Amber. It seemed the wolves were a touch more possessive than any sensible person had a right to be. She was half-tempted to wrap an arm around Howl’s shoulders just to see what kind of reaction that would get, but that would be asking for trouble. She pulled her hand free instead and let Howl take the lead.
Howl marched right up to Silver, his head tilted slight back, a huge smile on his face. “We gonna eat now?”
Silver stared, then said: “It’s not lunch time.” His tone was curt, but Howl didn’t seem deterred.
On the contrary, Howl began toying with the necklace around his neck—a fang necklace, Lilith realised, annoyed she hadn’t thought to ask about it earlier—and then jutted out his lower lip. “But Silver, I’m hungry!”
Jake pushed himself off of the tree and sauntered towards them. “You’re always hungry, kid.”
Howl scowled. “Don’t call me kid!”
“Calm down, you two,” Fang said, getting to his feet as well. He joined them, forming a neat circle with the others, too symmetrical to be a coincidence. Silver was directly across from her, with Amber and Howl at his sides. Next to Howl was Jake, and next to Amber was Fang. But she was on the outside of that circle; only half-a-step or so, but outside nonetheless.
It was a clear message, so Lilith decided to send one of her own back. She took a step forward, and Silver’s face darkened. But he said nothing, and she didn’t move back.
Jake punched Howl’s arm playfully. “What do you say, Silver? Should we feed this brat before he whines us to death?”
Lilith’s stomach grumbled in sympathy. “We did do a lot of walking,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind something small.”
Howl grinned. “Let’s go eat together!” He turned to Silver. “Can we go to the market? Or to the Alder?” He licked his lips. “Or Brauer’s, since Jake likes all the sausage.”
Jake shot an amused look at Lilith over Howl’s head, and added, with a wink, “I’m equally as partial to fish.”
Fang nodded. “Any one of those would be a good option.”
Howl was disappointed. “Just one?” He turned to Silver. “We could go to all of ’em! Please? Please?”
Silver silenced Howl’s budding protests with a look. “It’s up to Fang.”
Jake and Howl spoke at the same time. “Why?” Then they scowled at each other.
“Because you’re not coming with us.”
And then there was a long pause, where the werewolves all looked at each other in silent accord, as if they understood something Lilith did not. She pushed down a wave of irritation. It didn’t matter what they thought, she told herself, as long as they got her home.
Jake stretched, and the circle broke up, everyone relaxing. “I don’t mind splitting up,” he said, putting his hands behind his head. “I’m getting sick of Silver’s face.”
Silver shot him a sour look. “Likewise.”
“Stop it, you two.” Amber shook her head. “But Jake’s got a point. It’s nice to get a break from Rae. I can’t wait ’til Vera’s better, the closeness is getting a bit much.”
Jake frowned a little. “Hey. Rae’s been a bitch lately, but she isn’t all bad.”
Lilith stared. Was he serious? Rae, alright? Had Jake not seen Rae nearly strangle her to death?
It seemed Amber shared her opinion, for she scoffed and said, “Lately?”
Jake shrugged self-consciously. “Okay, well, always. But she’s alright, really. Underneath it all. Really deep down.”
“Any girl is acceptable in Jake’s opinion, more so when his alcohol intake increases.” Fang chuckled, and Lilith couldn’t tell whether he was joking. Fang didn’t wait for a reply, though. He turned to leave, beckoning to Jake and Howl. “Shall we go get a bite to eat?”
Howl needed no further prompting. He tore off, quickly overtaking Fang. Jake, after a casual nod at Lilith and Amber, strolled after them.
“Girl,” Silver said, and it took Lilith a few seconds to realise he was referring to her. It hardly deigned a response, so she just quirked an eyebrow at him, feeling a little daring. No way was she going to let an animal push her around. Not anymore.
With stiff, reluctant movements, Silver dug through his pockets and pulled something out, handing it to her. It was the fang necklace, the one Silver had given to her in the hotel.
She held it gently, noting the uneven knot on one side, a clumsy repair from where Rae had ripped it off.
“Put it on,” Silver instructed, and then turned away and began walking in the same direction Fang had, Amber following.
Lilith didn’t move. “Why?”
Silver froze. “Excuse me?”
She’d decided they weren’t her friends, and that they were only animals, but Lilith knew it would be stupid to anger the wolves. Yet she couldn’t help her sudden stubbornness, the need to confirm that they were going to help her get home.
“Why do I need to wear it?” At the hotel, he’d said it mark her as a werewolf, but it hadn’t done her any good.
Silver looked over his shoulder. “None of your business.”
“I think it is,” she retorted as Amber began to edge away from both of them.
There was a tic in Silver’s jaw. “Put it on.”
“No.” She shook her head. “Not until you tell me why.”
Silver turned around fully, a fluid, rapid movement. He bared his teeth, seeming to grow in size, his eyes boring into her. Lilith tensed, expecting tight fingers around her neck, her skin crawling with the unnerving certainty of her death. Or maybe he’d give her another scar to add to her collection, like the Snake had, and with that thought her right wrist itched uncomfortably, to the point that she looked down to stare at the bandages. But there was nothing there, no blood seeping through.
When she looked back up, Silver had calmed down. Lilith’s heart was still racing. She didn’t dare push him further. She slipped the fang necklace around her neck, resigned to asking someone else about it later.
“Right,” Amber said, looked relieved as she grabbed Lilith’s arm and tugged her forward. “No time to argue. Things to do, people to see.”
Silver looked annoyed. “Things to do?”
“People to see?” Lilith echoed.
Amber grinned, then gave Silver a sly look. “Don’t you want to see Manda?”