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heart in hand

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He is on the Hard in Portsmouth a bare half hour before the bloody navy catches up with him. Round the Rigger’s Arms, scraping up a few hands for the Annette—perhaps a spar or two if the opportunity presents—he is half a pint in with a likely lad when he hears his name called in that Whitehall cadence that promises gold braid and white gloves and three bottles with dinner. The lad, at least, looks more fascinated than appalled.

It’s Fitzjames, of course, which is a blessing and a curse. For one he’s alright, really; still something of a pup at 40, but not half so up himself as you might have thought. On the other hand he draws every eye in the place, and no less when he’s striding purposefully through a room low enough that he has to duck his gleaming, barely silvered head to avoid striking a beam, which he does with more elegance than should be possible.

“Mister Blanky,” he says, as he draws up, looking like an illustration from a novel for boys who want to go to sea but never will, well dressed and well fed. He even has the characteristic flush, though Thomas suspects that may be more to do with the pint of blackstrap in his hand.

“You’re back at it, then,” Tom says, taking in the epaulettes.

“Waiting for my tide,” says Fitzjames. “The Med. Best sailing in the world.”

Crowded lanes, tramp freighters and sunburn, Thomas thinks, but it’s hard to counter the point. “I’ll drink to it, then,” he says, and lifts his can.

Fitzjames toasts him, smiling like a fourth lieutenant in his first commission. He isn’t half bad, Tom thinks. Remembers him, briefly, on his knees on the shales, thin as a whippet, bleeding through his shirt.  Francis carrying him, those last weeks. Carrying both of them by turns.

A glint of light off Fitzjames’s hand and Tom turns his head to see it better—a ring, sure enough. Nothing special: silver; hands, heart and crown. Fitzjames seems a gold-seal man but there it is, not especially well made or lovely, on his finger. Stretched, probably, to fit over his scarred knuckles. Tom would be obliged to ask the girl’s name if he hadn’t seen such a thing before, on an aging commander’s hand, though that was worn the other way around.

“That’s a claddagh ring,” Tom says, “Isn’t it.”

Fitzjames glances at his own hand: looks pleased with himself. If his colour changes it doesn’t show in the flush from the wine. “It is,” he says.

“I’ve seen them about,” Tom says. Mulls it. “That one in specific, as may be.”

A little shift between them, somehow: awareness, consideration. Fitzjames’s eyes a little harder, though his manner doesn’t change.  “Perhaps,” he says.

“I’ll drink your health as well, then,” says Thomas. “And the health of all our friends.” Beyond that, he supposes, it’s none of his business, and best not to give an officer of the queen’s navies a punch on the arm in a public house, no matter how easily it might be taken.

“And yours,” Fitzjames says. Lifts his cup, but before he can follow though a midshipman appears at his elbow, looking harried: “Lieutenant Miller’s duty, sir, and would you please step aboard,” and Fitzjames knocks off the rest of his wine with a sailor’s ease and reaches past Tom to slide the cup across the bar.

“Time and tide,” he says, to Tom, in that shared tongue which takes no notice of the shape of words in the mouth.

“Tell Francis to bloody write me on occasion,” Tom says. “Should he ever settle down, for instance.” Shuts one eye as he says it, though it couldn’t be called a wink. Just an old seaman’s tic.

Fitzjames grins at that, a clever crooked grin that lines his face and shades his eyes. “Aye, sir,” he says, in Tom’s own voice back at him, and then he’s on his heel and away, saying “Well, Mr. Woods,” to the boy like a dog at his heels.

At the bar Tom’s likely lad has finished his half and not gone on: is waiting, indeed, with an expectant look.

“Was that James Fitzjames,” he says, in a kind of tamped-down awe. How he could tell Tom couldn’t say: probably there’s a plate of the man somewhere, with only slightly exaggerated hair. The gallant explorer.

“Aye,” says Tom, who knows how to sign a man. “Shipmate of mine.”