Driving across Northumberland after so many years away feels like coming home. Every time the car crests a hill and they’re treated to another view over the moor Robbie can’t help but let out a little sigh of contentment. The landscape is stunning, especially this time of year with the greens of the scattered trees giving way to yellows and oranges across the patchwork hills. It’s beautiful in a way Robbie can’t quite put to words beyond it just feeling right. James seems to be able to though, with his exclamations about the views, as if he hadn’t quite believed Robbie about how lovely Northumberland is until he saw it for himself.
Oxford is where Robbie lives and he is at home there, he has no plans to leave, but he feels a connection to the landscape of Northumberland down to his very bones. He had nearly forgotten what that was like. That there are old powers in the world is no secret. Everyone who’s spent any time in the North, or knows someone who has, has a story of an encounter with something Other. For most people that encounter is nothing but witnessing something odd; beguiling lights that disappear when followed, animals of a sort that can’t possibly be in the place they are sighted, an apple tree suddenly bearing fruit in the dead of winter. Most people see the signs, but they don’t feel them, and down south Robbie doesn’t feel them either.
Up here it’s is a different story. Robbie had been pleased when Innocent first told him she’d worked it out for him and James to interview key witnesses near Newcastle instead of having Northumbria police handle it. But he hadn’t fully considered the date until they were sitting on the early train to Newcastle with another ticket booked for an evening train back to Oxford and no room in the budget for hotel rooms. He’s thinking about it now.
The familiar prickle began under his skin as soon as they reached less populated areas, old power calling to him like he hasn’t felt since he moved to Oxford. The sensation has only grown more insistent the farther north they drive.
It’s been more years than he’d like to count but Robbie has felt this all before. Nan made sure of it, like she made sure he knew how to resist the pull if need be. The old powers may be calling but Robbie doesn’t have to go to them. He can enjoy the feeling of being connected to the earth without it overwhelming him, push the awareness of things Other to the back of his mind and drive. He focuses on the landscape even as the tingling sensation in his fingers and toes grows and solidifies, settling into a constant hum under his skin by the time they reach Otterburn. It doesn’t matter that Samhain begins in a few hours, they will have interviewed their witnesses and be on their way back to Newcastle well before dark.
The satnav directs them to a farm not a half-mile from where Robbie’s nan lived, the landscape familiar like an old friend, and he has to resist the urge to turn right down the lane toward Nan’s cottage instead of left to the farm. The interview with the first witness goes quickly, James taking everything down in his notebook, but the second witness has gone to another farm north of Etal for Samhain.
It’s just past noon when they leave Otterburn. Another hour and a half of driving farther north is not ideal, but they only need to make it to Etal, get their interview, and then back to Newcastle before full dark. They’ve got about four and a half hours until sunset; as long as everything goes to plan, and the second interview is as smooth as the first, it will work out fine. Besides, it’s not like Robbie has any other choice, save for coming clean to James about why he’s been twitchy all morning. Robbie has no doubt James has noticed, but he hasn’t mentioned it, and Robbie would like to keep it that way.
The farther north they go, the more insistent the prickle under Robbie’s skin becomes. He can feel the standing stones, unseen out across the moor. The pull of the old powers is stronger than he remembers and by the time they’re nearing Etal he’s kicking himself for not thinking twice about coming up here on the cusp of Samhain. So many years down south have lulled him into a false sense of security.
The farm is in a beautiful bit of country with a view across the River Tweed into Scotland, but the interview, though fruitful, takes much longer than anticipated. In the end, they end up talking to not only their initial witness but every member of the family. Because, as their witness insists, they’ve come all this way, they might as well get the whole story. Talking to the rest of the family is helpful, the slightly varying yet consistent perspectives will make it easier to piece together a clear picture of what happened. But as they move into the second hour of being offered tea and meat pies and yet another family member comes through the door, it takes all Robbie’s concentration just to keep his hands still against the low hum of questing power under his skin.
When the fifth family member bustles in from Samhain preparations and sits down, James shoots a look at Robbie and the tight grip he has around his mug and seamlessly takes over the interviews. It’s not that Robbie isn’t focused, he’s just not focused on the interview is all. By the time they’ve extricated themselves, with more meat pies and a thermos of tea for the road, it’s much closer to dusk than Robbie would like.
They are invited to stay for the lighting of fires which James looks intrigued by and Robbie politely declines, saying they have a train to catch. The family asks three more times, as is the custom, before they finally let them go with calls of, “Blessings of the season, morair.”
The farm is bustling with activity as they walk to the car, a great pile of wood for a bonfire that wasn’t there when they arrived sits in the near field, piled high and ready to be lit. Family members are rushing from house, to shed, to barn and back with bits of costumes, and decorations, and more food. Robbie does wish he could stay, it’s been years since he partook in the festival, but he’d be putting all of these people in danger if he did.
“I’m happy to drive, sir,” James offers as they reach the car.
“Nah, I’m fine,” Robbie says, getting into the driver’s seat. He needs something to concentrate on besides the power he can feel growing beneath his feet and the way the very air is making his skin tingle. James purses his lips and gives him an unconvinced head tilt but gets into the passenger’s seat all the same.
“Morair?” James asks as he buckles his seatbelt.
“Scots Gaelic,” Robbie replies turning on the engine.
“And it means?”
Robbie puts the car in reverse and backs down the driveway. “Lord, roughly,” he says, looking away when he accidentally catches James’ eye in the mirror.
“It’s Samhain, or it will be at sunset. The old ways are still practised out in the countryside.”
James frowns at him. “I thought the veil was only thin enough in the western isles for the rituals to be anything more than tradition this day in age.”
“That would be one of the few misconceptions about the North that northerners condone. Anywhere there are concentrations of standing stones and ancient sites the veil is thin, even more so north of Hadrian’s Wall, but it’s not exactly advertised.”
Robbie glances at James as he pulls out onto the road. The look on James’ face says he knows there’s more to it, but he concentrates on programming the satnav to direct them back to the Newcastle city centre police station and doesn’t say anything more.
Once they make it to the A1 the proximity of the sea will temper the strength of the old powers. Robbie will have no problem resisting their pull when they’re back in more populated areas, and he’ll be fine in Newcastle even after sunset. The problem is, old power wreaks havoc with satnavs and though Robbie drove these roads only hours before it doesn’t take long before they are well and truly lost. James doesn’t have any better luck with his phone than the police issue contrivance attached to the windscreen and the sky is such a uniform grey that once they’re out of view of the river there’s no telling if they’re facing south or north or Timbuktu. Though Robbie would swear he was driving south.
They’re on a narrow lane with hedges right up to the edge of the tarmac when James shouts, “Wait, stop!” Robbie pulls into the entrance to an unkempt dirt track a few meters farther down the lane.
“No,” James sighs, as the car comes to a stop. “There was signal back there.”
Before Robbie can tell him that there won’t be any now—not with the way the prickle in his skin has intensified since they left the farm—James opens the door and trots back down the lane, his phone held up in front of him. He’s back a minute later after pacing back and forth with the phone held alternately above his head and at knee level.
“No signal now,” he sighs, as he gets back into the car. “I think we should turn around, though. It looked like the A1 was that way.” James points over this shoulder, back the way they came.
Robbie’s every instinct is telling him to keep on in the direction they’re going, but at this point, he has to admit that his instincts may be leading him astray.
The dirt track is narrower than the lane, which is barely wide enough for one car as it is. Robbie miscalculates the turn, not used to this borrowed Newcastle motor pool car. There is a lurch and a clunk and the left front wheel is suddenly a good foot and a half lower than the rest of the car.
“Shit,” they both say at once, James bracing his arm against the dashboard as the car settles. They get out gingerly to assess the damage. Robbie hadn’t even noticed a ditch, but sure enough, there is one, completely obscured by tall weeds on the verge, the wheel dangling in mid-air above it. They try pushing and rocking the car back and forth, first with Robbie in the driver’s seat, then James, but there’s no moving it, at least not out of the ditch; rolling the car further in would be easy.
“Bollocks,” Robbie mutters. He’s not going to make it closer to the sea or far enough south by full dark now. He leans against the boot, watching James walk up and down the lane and even a short way up the muddy dirt track trying to find a signal that Robbie knows isn’t there.
“Looks like we’re in for a walk,” James says when he’s given up his search.
“Aye. You go on,” Robbie says. “I’ll stay with the car in case someone happens by.” If he can convince James to go for help without him, then he can go out onto the moor and find himself an isolated spot where he won’t be putting anyone else in harm’s way.
James gives him a quizzical look. “I know conventional wisdom says you’re meant to stay with a broken-down car and wait for help, but we haven’t seen another soul since we turned down this lane. Come on, it’s getting dark.” He grabs the paper bag of pies and the thermos from the back seat and starts walking back the way they came. When Robbie doesn’t follow he stops and turns around.
“I think it’s best if I stay with the car.”
James’ brow furrows. “If a car comes by we’ll see it while we’re walking.”
“That’s why you need to go. Bring someone back to fetch me in the morning.”
“In the morning? Why would you—?” James walks back toward Robbie and puts the bag and thermos down on the roof of the car, looking Robbie up and down. “Sir, what’s going on? You’ve been on edge since we left Newcastle.”
“Nothing’s going on. I’m just going to stay here,” Robbie says, aware of how flimsy his excuse is.
“Something is going on.” James takes a few steps closer and tilts his head at Robbie, assessing. “Staying here makes no sense. If we can get to a bigger road and find a ride there’s still a chance we can make the train back to Oxford. Northumbria can fetch the car later. There’s no point in waiting here.”
“Listen to me, James. You need to go. Get as far away as you can before it’s fully dark. It’s not safe.”
James scoffs. “What do you mean it’s not safe? We’re in the middle of nowhere.” He pauses and squints at Robbie. “Are you in some sort of trouble?”
“I’m fine, lad. You’re the one who’s in danger.”
“From what?” James swings his arms out wide to encompass the empty moor in all directions. “We’re trained police officers and there’s no one else here.”
“From me,” Robbie says. Whether or not there are other dangers out on the moor, the danger Robbie poses is worse. If James doesn’t get going soon there’s nothing Robbie’s going to be able to do to protect him. “I’ll explain everything when you come back in the morning.”
“Nope.” James stuffs his hands in his pockets and rocks on his heels. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“There isn’t time. You need to go. Now!” Robbie shouts. “That’s an order.”
“Oh, no.” James squares his shoulders, standing up to his full height. “You’re not pulling rank on me over something that has nothing to do with a case. And I’m not leaving until you tell me what’s going on.”
“If I do tell you, you’ll leave?”
James purses his lips. “I’m not promising anything.”
Robbie sighs. James, once he’s dug his heels in, isn’t going to be swayed, and there’s hardly enough time for him to get to a safe distance on foot even if he leaves now. Robbie can feel the pull of the old powers even through the soles of his shoes, calling him to stop resisting and become what they want him to be.
“You’ve heard of phantom cats?” Robbie asks.
“Of course.” James sounds apprehensive, but the lad can’t resist reciting a fact when he knows it. “Large felines sighted outside their native range. All proven to be false sightings and escaped illegal pets.”
“Not all of them.”
“Sir?” James says, that one syllable laced with concern and doubt.
“Not all phantom cat sightings are… not big cats. Some are like me.”
“Geordie coppers?” The joke falls flat. James’ voice is strained as if he’s putting the pieces together and he doesn’t like the picture he’s seeing.
“Shapeshifters. Tygers.” Robbie runs his hand through the hair on the back of his head. “We’re more like panthers than tigers, despite the name, but no relation to any currently living species.”
James lets out an incredulous laugh. “Tigers?”
“With a Y. You know, tyger tyger burning bright…”
“In the forests of the night,” James finishes. “Blake was writing about shapeshifters.”
“Okay,” James says, elongating the word so it almost sounds like two words. “You need to stay with the car because you’re a shapeshifting panther— tyger.” James shakes his head and blinks at him. “Did you get hit on the head? Did I?”
“No, lad. I’m sorry but you need to go before it gets dark. I’m not— It’s been a long time since I went through a shift and I may not have any control at all.”
“This makes no sense—”
“I assure you, I really will turn into a big cat—”
“No, not that. Well, yes that too but—” James runs his hand through his hair. “We’ve been out together after dark plenty of times. Why now? Oh—” A look of dawning realisation crosses James’ face. Robbie always knew the lad was bright. “Anywhere there are concentrations of standing stones and ancient sites the veil is thin.” James quotes Robbie’s own words back to him.
“Plus, it’s Samhain,” Robbie says.
“They knew didn’t they, at the farm? That’s why they addressed you as Lord.”
“Aye. At least one of them is likely a tyger or they wouldn’t have invited me to stay.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“It never came up, did it? Besides, it’s irrelevant in Oxford, the old powers aren’t strong enough there to force a shift.”
“But this whole time you could have? And you never said.”
“You’ve told me every detail of your personal life, have you?”
James ducks his head and stuffs his hands in his pockets again. “Touché.”
“Right, then. Off you go. I’ll head in the opposite direction to you. That should give you time to get far enough away before I can’t resist the shift any longer.”
“How long has it been since you shifted?”
“Nearly thirty years,” Robbie says. “James, please, you need to go. It’s too dangerous. I won’t know you as a tyger.”
James makes no move to leave. “What about the danger to you?”
“It doesn’t matter. If I’d thought it through before coming up here this time of year I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Robbie can feel the power growing, a persistent ache in his bones, the prickle under his skin coming in waves. “James, there isn’t time.”
“Better if I’m here with you then if you catch me off guard somewhere out on the road.”
“I’m staying, sir.” James has that thunderous stubborn look about him.
As much as he’s worried about hurting James, Robbie has to admit that going through a forced shift all on his own and losing himself completely to his tyger side is more than a little terrifying. He was a young man last time he shifted with the season, back before he moved to Oxford. It’s only going to be more painful and more disorientating now, and he won’t have Val’s presence to ground him and keep his human mind. Robbie has no idea what he might do, who or what he might hurt, or kill, without Val’s calming influence.
The first time Val had suggested she stay with him during the shift and talk him through it, he hadn’t believed it would work. But she’d been persistent and, like James, more concerned for Robbie’s safety than afraid of his tyger side. Val had been reading up on tyger lore and was convinced that the stories about the voice of a tyger’s beloved soothing the savage beast were true. They had taken precautions, made sure Val would be safe even if Robbie didn’t recognise her, but it had worked, and shifting had become much easier after that. Robbie had even been able to understand Val’s words while in tyger form.
Val was his wife, the love of his life. James may be a friend as well as his sergeant, but that’s not going to be anything like enough. And yet Robbie can’t help hoping that since James is insisting on staying anyway, maybe his presence will at least lessen the urge to hunt.
“I won’t know you,” Robbie says, one last attempt to get James to leave before it’s too late. “I won’t even know myself.”
“I trust you not to hurt me,” James says, so solemn and sure of himself that Robbie finally gives in.
“Fine,” Robbie sighs. “If you won’t go, we’d better get a move on so we’re well away from here before the shift takes over. I don’t want to be explaining claw marks on the car to the duty officer in Newcastle. See if there’s an emergency blanket and first aid kit in the boot.”
James finds a scratchy wool blanket, a first aid kit, and a hold-all with some other officer’s forgotten, smelly gym kit. He dumps the clothes and stuffs the blanket and the first aid kit into the hold-all, handing it to Robbie before picking up the bag of meat pies and the thermos of tea. Robbie leads them down the dirt track, then out onto the moor.
He doesn’t so much look for a spot as feel one out, letting the prickle under his skin and the ache in his bones lead the way. When they come to a copse of trees in the lee of a hill he stops. There is a good view to the east, which means it will catch the earliest morning sun, and the trees and the hill shelter it from view of the now far off lane. Plus, the trees will give him something to scratch on after he’s shifted.
Robbie sends James off in search of wood that’s dry enough to burn, and once James has disappeared into the trees, he takes off his shoes and clothes, draping his suit over a branch to keep it off the damp ground, and wraps himself in the blanket. It’s bad enough being compelled to shift when he hadn’t planned on it and hasn’t had the time to prepare himself mentally, it would be worse to have only shredded clothes to wear in the morning.
James raises an eyebrow when he returns to find Robbie huddled naked under the blanket but he doesn’t comment, just sets about making a fire. Once it’s going to his satisfaction, he takes a short walk away to check if it’s visible from the other side of the hill. He returns with yet more wood, saying that as long as they keep the fire small it’s unlikely anyone will be able to tell where they are. Then he sits down next to Robbie, turns to him with a serious look and says, “Tell me what I need to know.”
“The shift lasts roughly from sunset to sunrise,” Robbie begins. “I won’t know you while I’m shifted, but during the shift itself is when I’ll have the least control. It can be violent, especially after so many years of not shifting, so stay well out of the way. Keep the fire between us as much as you can and don’t make any sudden movements.”
James is watching him intently. He looks like he wants to be taking notes.
“Go on then, write it down if you want,” Robbie says. “But make sure you rip those pages out and burn them in the morning.”
“Of course.” James pulls out his notebook and starts writing, when he’s finished Robbie continues.
“Stay calm if I approach you. You’ll be here during the shift, so I’ll be less likely to attack you than I would be to attack a stranger, but that doesn’t mean I won’t. If I scratch you, treat it like any other cut. Shapeshifting is genetic, you can’t catch it.
“That’s it, except—” Robbie pauses for a moment, contemplating the flames and whether it’s even a good idea to mention this at all. “It’s a long shot, but once the shift is complete it may help if you talk to me. A human voice can keep the tyger from taking over completely. I won’t be able to understand you, it won’t matter what you say, recite poetry or Latin or something, but the longer I’m distracted and stay here by the fire, the less damage I’ll be able to do. The shift should end at dawn, but the tyger could linger on Samhain near so many centres of old power.”
Robbie looks up and James nods at him solemnly. “Be careful, lad. If it looks like I might attack keep the fire between us, take one of those branches and make yourself a torch, hit me with it if you have to.”
“James, I need you to promise me that you’ll defend yourself if it comes to it. Don’t worry about hurting me, tygers heal fast. You can’t do as much damage to me as I could to you.”
James looks about to protest again but then nods and says, “I promise, sir,” as if he’s taking an oath. Then he looks away, picks up a log and adds it to the fire. “Are you warm enough?”
“No,” Robbie says, pulling the blanket tighter around himself. “But it won’t be long now.” He can feel the shift tugging at his bones, the prickle under his skin heating up; pins and needles and the urge to stretch into a different skin. “You should get to the other side of the fire. Make yourself that torch.”
“Right,” James reaches toward Robbie, as if he’s about to give him a pat on the shoulder, but then stands and moves to the other side of the fire without making contact.
“And, James,” Robbie says, once James is settled on the far side of the fire and has selected the longest branch from his pile of firewood, sticking into the flames until the end catches. “Thank you.”
“Of course, sir,” James says.
He looks like he means it, that discovering his governor, his friend, is a shapeshifter and then insisting on sitting with him through the shift is nothing out of the ordinary. James must have known other shifters to be taking this so well. Robbie wants to ask, get to the root of James’ willingness to do this for him regardless of the danger it poses to him, when he feels the tell-tale throb in his fingernails, the first signs of the shift.
It is pain and also not pain, an itch but not that either, the urge to pull his body from this skin, twist until bones and muscles pop. Nails stretching and contracting at the same time, connecting with the bone, the muscles in his hands clenching, then his feet, and he can no longer sit. He gets up on his hands and knees, then hands and feet as his arms lengthen and legs shorten.
And then the shift takes over. It’s everything at once. He’s not Robbie and he’s not his tyger self. He’s both things and nothing. The old powers calling to him through the pads of his feet on the cold ground. His muscles smooth and settle as the pain and the itch fade, four feet on the ground, tail twitching as he assesses his surroundings.
He stretches and turns, extending his forelegs then his hindlegs, feeling the power there, the pull of muscles under fur-covered skin. Flexes his toes and extends his claws, digs them into a nearby log and tugs, scratching off bark. He wants to scratch more than just bark. There are flames and it is warm, that is good. But it has been so long since he has had a proper hunt, sunk his teeth into flesh. He lifts his head, tilts his nose into the breeze and reads the story of scents travelling across the moor. There is a rustle in the leaves behind him.
But there is also a voice from the other side of the flames. Deep, familiar. He moves around the heat toward it. There is a man with a familiar scent; burnt but not flames, something rich and something else of fruit which should not appeal but makes him want to move closer. The man is talking steadily, his voice washing over him in low waves.
The man stops for a moment as he comes around the flames, holds out his hand, murmurs something short that prickles at the edge of familiarity. He moves closer still. Robbie moves closer. Robbie. He is Robbie. He is a hunter, a searcher for things, but not always like this, not always teeth and claws and tearing flesh. This man’s voice is part of that, the searching and finding. And a closeness.
Robbie skirts the edge of the flames and moves to the man’s side. He is still talking, his face bright in the firelight, his hair golden like the flames. The man is holding out his hand again. Robbie moves closer, rubs his cheek against the waiting hand, then his chin. Pushes the man’s hand up with his nose until he begins to stroke his head. The man starts talking again, looking him in the eye while running his hand through Robbie’s fur, behind his ears, under his chin again, Robbie lifts his head and the man pets down his neck.
The man’s tone changes, less murmur, a twinge of familiarity again, something in the back of Robbie’s mind that he can’t quite remember. The man’s voice coalesces into words.
“Sir,” the man says. There is a familiar softness to the word. Robbie is Robbie and he is also sir. That means something to this man. “I knew you would… not just stories.”
There is a rustling in the leaves behind them again. Robbie stiffens, prepared to pounce, his ears swivel toward the sound, and the man stills his hand. The rustling comes again, he turns, stalks forward. This is why he is here, this and more. The rustle is small, only a mouthful, but there are more out there, bigger. Whole belly-fulls on the other side of the flames. He turns his back to the flames, crouches, scents the air. A fox, but not close; a rabbit, but not recent; sheep, somewhat close, relatively recent, slow. Not a challenge, but a challenge can come later, he wants to feel his claws rip flesh.
The man’s voice rises, insistent, behind him. “…with me, sir. Please.”
He turns his face to the man again. His familiar warmth, but not the same way the flames are warm. The man’s voice is a heat that Robbie doesn’t feel on his skin but inside, it pushes aside the instinct to stalk, to leap, to pounce, replaces it with an urge to go to the man, to stay with him, to have that voice be closer, to have the man’s hands in his fur.
The man’s tone evens out when Robbie turns and slinks back toward him, the murmur gentling, taking on a lilting quality. Song. A song. James is singing to him. The man is James. James who would not leave him, James who has always helped him when he’s been at his worst, James who sings so beautifully. James who he does not want to leave.
Robbie moves closer, brushes James’ leg with his cheek, then circles and curls up with his side pressed to James and his tail wrapped around himself. James’ hand strokes his head, rubs his ears, down his neck and along his spine. Robbie uncurls a bit and moves his head to James’ thigh. It is warm from the flames.
He is warm, content. James’ hand moves down his neck and under his chin when Robbie turns his head. He stretches out his legs toward the fire, lets his head rest heavily on James’ leg. James’ voice washes over him. His tone changes again, not singing, but not talking. Something in between, more words that prickle the edge of recognition. Robbie doesn’t know the meaning of the words but he knows the shape of them. He dozes to the rumble of James’ voice and the stroke of his hand.
He wakes again when James leans forward, dislodging Robbie’s head for a moment, sparks, the fire brightens, then dims again. Robbie pushes his head up into James’ hand and James cards his fingers through Robbie’s fur and he settles into utter contentment, a purr rumbling up through his chest and tickling his throat. He drifts on the rhythm of James’ voice. He could stay like this forever.
Robbie’s head is muzzy, he’s curled up on his side, scratchy wool over his bare skin, his cheek against smooth fabric, a warm, soothing weight at the nape of his neck. The ground beneath him is hard. Every muscle in his body aches. Every bone.
The warmth at his neck stirs, the fabric under his cheek as well.
“Good morning, sir,” James says, his voice hoarse, overused.
“Morning.” Robbie’s voice doesn’t sound much better. The first few sentences uttered after a shift always sound like a bad cold. Robbie is naked, his head is in his sergeant’s lap, the blanket from the boot is draped over him.
Snippets of memory begin to trickle in, everything hazy and unreal, like remembering a dream, tyger memories pushing themselves to the front of Robbie’s human mind. James talking to him, singing to him, reciting poetry, keeping Robbie there by the fire when his instincts were urging him to go. James’ hands in his fur. James’ hand is still in his hair, a gentle presence. Comfortable even, in a way it probably shouldn’t be considering he’s lying on the cold ground.
The sky is tinged pink, flickers of Samhain bonfires across the moor just visible in the brightening dawn. It feels like they’re in another time. Or another world. A world in which it’s not at all strange that Robbie hasn’t move his head from James’ lap while James’ fingers idly card through his hair.
He should sit up and put his clothes on, but he doesn’t want to move away from James’ touch, as if the lack of it would revert him to feline form. Which is daft. It’s morning. He is human again. There’s no reason not to get on with the day. Get back to Newcastle, then back to Oxford, and wrap up this case now that they have the evidence they need.
“Fire’s gone out,” James says. Robbie can see that, he can feel the chill of the morning dew on the outside of the blanket.
James’ fingers still, then move away, his thigh under Robbie’s cheek tensing, as if he’s only now realised what his hand was doing. Robbie sits up reluctantly, pulling the blanket tighter around himself and looks over at James. He is gazing out over the moor, a faraway look in his eye, his coat buttoned to his chin and his collar turned up. He looks tired.
“Did you get any sleep?”
“Not sure,” James says. He blinks out at the view, then glances at Robbie.
“Sorry about that.”
James shrugs. “I’ve had worse nights.” It’s the sort of pronouncement that’s usually accompanied by a bout of existential flu, but his tone is light, dismissive. James gestures toward the pile of coals and ash that used to be a fire. “Shall I?”
James crouches forward and goes about snapping twigs and stacking them in a careful overlapping pattern, all his attention on his task, giving Robbie the opportunity to get dressed with a degree of modesty that is probably completely pointless. Robbie’s jacket and the bottom of his trousers are dew-damp, but his pants and shirt folded inside are dry, though chilly. Robbie actually feels colder by the time he returns to the fire fully dressed.
They could go back to the car, get the engine running and try to call for a tow, chances are there will be signal now. But Robbie wants nothing more than to stay here with James, tucked into this little copse of trees a while longer.
The fire burning merrily, James settles back into the same spot he was in when Robbie woke up. He leans over a bit, his shoulder nudging Robbie’s as he gazes into the flames and takes a drag of his cigarette. Robbie lets himself lean toward James in turn. They stay like that for long minutes, watching the sky brighten and warming their hands over the fire.
“There’s signal now,” James says. “It came back with the sunrise.”
“Thought it might.”
“I rang Innocent. Told her we were held up getting the second witness statement and that we’d be on a morning train.”
“Not entirely a lie.”
“No, sir.” James watches the fire and Robbie watches James. He seems remarkably fine with having spent the night out in the open with his shapeshifting governor. Robbie would even go so far as to say he looks content. James must be aching for a coffee right about now, but he doesn’t have the nervous twitch about him that early morning lack of caffeine usually precipitates.
“Too bad we don’t have any sausages,” James says after a minute.
“I could have gotten us some mutton last night.”
James gives Robbie a quizzical look, then smiles. “For breakfast though. I don’t know.”
“Any of those pies left?” Robbie asks.
“Oh,” James says. “Yeah. Two I think.” He reaches behind him for the bag.
“I’m afraid not.”
They sit for another minute, James smoking, Robbie eating a pie and holding his other hand out to warm it over the fire.
“Could you though?” James asks, throwing his cigarette butt into the fire.
“Kill a sheep?”
“Yeah.” James sounds tentative now that Robbie has come out and said it. As if he wishes he’d never asked the question.
“I could have. I have done, when I was a boy. My nan used to bring me up here this time of year so I could get a feel for how strong the old powers are near the source. She taught me how to resist the pull when I needed to. Took me a while to get the hang of it.”
“And that’s why— Last night—”
“Out of practise.”
“Your nan, she was also—?”
“A tyger. Yeah. Ran in her side of the family. I’m the last of the line as far as I know.”
James nods, looking contemplative, then moves forward and adds more logs to the fire. He hums under his breath as he pokes the fire with a stick, arranging the coals and getting the logs set just right. The tune is familiar, yet Robbie’s sure he’s never heard it before. He can almost remember words to go with it, words sung in James’ voice, low and beautiful, that he wanted to stay near. Robbie shouldn’t have been able to understand anything James said, let alone remember it now, and yet awareness flows over him, sudden like he’s stepped toward a standing stone. The memory of James’ words so clear it’s like he’s speaking them again now.
You won’t remember this. I don’t expect anything from you even if you do, but I’m never going to get a better chance to say it… I— I love you. I am in love with you. I’m glad that I could help. I don’t need anything more than that.
The fire swims in front of Robbie’s eyes. He blinks and looks over at James who is contentedly smoking another cigarette and eating the last pie while Robbie has a small crisis. Robbie knows full well that the stories are true, that love does soothe the savage beast, but he also knows that it only works if the love is returned.
James tosses the cigarette into the fire and leans gently into Robbie’s shoulder again, that grounding presence. Just like James’ hands on his fur grounded him last night, his voice calm and steady, pulling Robbie back every time he had the urge to sprint off into the darkness.
Right from their first case together James has been unfailingly loyal, going above and beyond what any inspector could reasonably expect from a sergeant. And there’s no point now trying to deny that James has been more to Robbie than a sergeant for a good long while. What he feels for James, has felt for years now that he thinks back on it, is more even than friendship. If James had been a woman he would have sussed it out long before now, but being able to remember even one word of what James said while he was a tyger… it’s undeniable.
“You were reciting Blake,” Robbie says. He can’t make himself come right out and say it.
“Seemed fitting,” James says. His tone is light but he’s gone still as if he knows where Robbie’s thoughts have lead him and is bracing for bad news. “You remember?”
“Do you remember… anything else?”
“Aye,” Robbie says again. James looks embarrassed, apprehensive. “You’re familiar with the stories,” Robbie begins.
“Sir, I—” James’ hand twitches toward his jacket as if he’s reaching for another cigarette, then falls into his lap.
“It goes both ways, you know. For a tyger to retain their human mind during the shift it— The feelings have to be… not one-sided.”
“It— Oh.” James meets Robbie’s eyes, a tentative smile on his lips. If Robbie wasn’t sure already he’d know without a shadow of a doubt now.
“I love you too,” Robbie says.
James’ smile widens until it outshines the sun when it crests the far hills.