“Good grief, men,” said Franklin, looking between Francis and Fitzjames with undisguised distress. “What will it take for you to be civil to each other?”
The lieutenants shifted in their seats. A bit strong, Francis thought. He’d been notably civil in the face of Fitzjames’s sycophantic nonsense today; he’d not hit anything, or let loose any untoward language. Granted, calling the man a plucked ostrich might have been a step too far.
“I apologise, Sir John,” said Fitzjames. He didn’t look bloody sorry, and God knew he could bung it on when he wanted to, wobbling his lip about like an actress having conniptions-
“It is Francis to whom you should rightly apologise, James,” said Franklin.
Francis and Fitzjames exchanged a mutually wary look. “Let’s say no more about it,” said Francis. “I’ve been called worse.” By better, he thought.
“No doubt,” said Fitzjames.
“James!” Franklin exclaimed. He sat forward in his chair. “Now really, this has gone on long enough. The two of you must learn to cooperate. I am sorry it has come to this, but it has. My nanny, Stephens, had a trick for when my brothers and I argued, which always worked remarkably well- you must hold hands.”
If Francis got his knighthood when they made it back to England, it would be deserved, if only for his forbearance at that moment. “I beg your pardon, sir?” he croaked.
“Hold hands.” Franklin gestured between them. Francis and Fitzjames were, unusually, seated side by side, though in this moment the inches between them seemed to stretch out towards infinity, an impossible distance. “To foster a spirit of comradeship and affection. Can’t stay angry at a fellow when you’re holding his hand.”
Fitzjames gaped at him. He attempted a laugh. “Sir John, I hardly think-”
“No, I will hear no more argument,” said Franklin. His big, smug face creased amidships as he regarded the two of them. “Before you can regard one another as brother officers, we must return to first principles. Join hands.”
“Sir,” said Francis, but he could already see it was no use; if James bloody teacher’s pet Fitzjames could not convince Franklin of the ridiculousness of this step, nothing Francis could say would serve. He reached out and took Fitzjames’s nearest hand in his.
Fitzjames flinched, but did not pull his hand away. To their credit, none of the lieutenants said a word, though le Vesconte in particular looked to be struggling not to laugh, and the command meeting continued.
Not that there was all that much to discuss. They were iced in. The men were restless. None more restless, apparently, than James Fitzjames, who Francis had foolishly hoped would manage to keep still when holding another man’s hand. But no; that same restless energy that had the overgrown puppy fiddling with a rope’s-end or fussing with his hair at all hours was present even now, his fingers flexing and relaxing in Francis’s grasp.
By God, the man had big hands. Rougher than Francis might have thought, for a man who laboured so obviously over his toilette, but then he had been a midshipman in his time, more recently than Francis had, and he still had the calluses of a man who’d worked a rope.
Francis never gave much thought to his hands. They were hands. Four fingers and a thumb apiece, strong enough for his daily work. Now he found himself wondering. How did they feel to hold? Sophia had never had any qualms about them, certainly- her list of objections to his suit had never included rope calluses or hangnails. Her own had been so soft, so delicate in his, as to make Fitzjames’s great bloody paws feel enormous by comparison. Strong hands, these.
Hodgson coughed, and Francis realised that he hadn't said a word since he and Fitzjames were given this ludicrous order. He cleared his throat to ask an inane question about water provisioning; he didn't hear the answer. Fitzjames’s pinky finger had nudged beneath the edge of Francis’s sleeve, and drummed an irregular tattoo against the skin of his wrist. It was enormously distracting.
He squeezed Fitzjames’s hand, endeavouring to keep him still. It did not work. Fitzjames made a jerky, abortive movement as though about to yank his hand away, presumably thinking better of it while under Sir John’s eagle eye. Francis repressed a groan of annoyance. Yes, this exercise was both mortifying and futile, but did he think Francis had fleas, for God’s sake?
Insufferable man. At least he didn’t have sweaty palms. Sweaty palms were a horror in icy climes. Fitzjames’s hand was dry where their palms pressed together, and his skin was warm, even without gloves on; the tips of his long fingers traced tiny, tiny circles on the backs of Francis’s knuckles, and those spots were warm, too.
Now Blanky was saying something about ice thickness. Francis really should be listening to this. It was probably important, but James sodding Fitzjames was diverting his attention, as usual.
Sir John was paying attention to Blanky, at least. Maybe Francis could let go, and he’d not notice? He risked a glance at Franklin to see where he was looking, and out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Fitzjames’s face. His expression was... Francis couldn’t say. His lips were parted, that actress’s lower lip pink and shiny as though he’d been biting it, and his eyes were downcast, fixed on their joined hands.
Francis looked down too. Nothing to goggle at, surely. Just two men’s hands, palm to palm, one overtop the other. Hardly an absorbing sight. He’d look away himself, presently.
He shifted his weight in his chair, and his thumb slid along Fitzjames’s, slipping down to press against the soft inside of his wrist. James’s pulse thumped against the pad of Francis’s thumb, fast and steady, and Francis felt him shiver under his touch, a delicate vibration, like the quiver of a compass needle.
Fitzjames jolted as Franklin clapped him on the shoulder. He pulled his hand out of Francis’s grip. “Comradeship and affection,” said Sir John, those polished vowels clanging in Francis’s ears. “You see? Why, we ought to have you two clasp hands at every meeting! I’ve never seen either of you so quiet.”
Francis blinked rapidly. Around them, the other officers were getting up to go about their duties- evidently he had missed the end of the meeting- and he hurried to do the same. His hand was very cold, all of a sudden; so cold it almost tingled.
“Your nanny must have been quite the character,” said Fitzjames, in an odd, choked voice.
Franklin drew breath to reply, but, thank Christ, Francis was no longer obliged to listen. He turned to make his obediences, but, again, his attention was caught by Fitzjames. He, too, was clearly not heeding a word Franklin said, but was looking down at his hand, his thumb rubbing the pads of his fingertips.
At least he wasn’t wiping it off on his trousers, Francis thought.
Blanky touched his arm. “You’ll be wanting a second glance at these ice readings, I expect,” he said, smirking.
Oh, hell. He’d be hearing about this all week. “If it’s no bother,” he said, and followed Tom out of the cabin.