For the third day in a row, Jude awoke with a crook in his neck and an ache in his shoulders, but nothing compared to the discomfort of his mortifyingly rigid morning wood.
And much like the days prior, he awkwardly shuffled out of his bed to find the sleeping quarters were filled, with at least a dozen pirates lazily starting their mornings and tidying up their beds. All he could do was adjust the sash around his hips and trudge off to the mess hall, where he would linger at a dining table for as long as it would take for his arousal to subside.
He would kill Lottie for this. As far as he was concerned, it was her fault for bringing attention to the itch that he’d been more than happy to leave festering at the back of his mind.
Once Jude finished picking at his breakfast orange and felt he had regained some control over his body, he wandered up to the deck to seek out some chores. What he needed was a distraction to help him get through the day, so he crossed his fingers and prayed for some disaster that he would have to clean up.
He made it just in time for the daily deck swabbing, though his eagerness to join his crewmates on their hands and knees earned him a few odd looks. It was a pleasant hour spent hunched over as he scrubbed at the wood, and when he eventually hoisted himself up to his feet, the ache that shot down his back and numbed his fingertips was strong enough to hold his attention for another hour more.
By the time he found a comfortable spot to sit at the front of the deck, where he and several other crewmates methodically re-twisted yards of fraying rope, he’d forgotten all about his miserable start to the day.
Until, of course, the first mate walked by them, tossing an apple from hand to hand while she silently inspected their work. Everyone subconsciously twisted a little faster while she watched, then all breathed a sigh of relief once she turned to disappear into the officers’ quarters.
Apparently the simple grace of her presence was enough to set off one of Jude’s new friends.
“Fuck me,” a young man named Paul hissed through his teeth. Jude and a few others lifted their heads to see him drop his line of rope into his lap and rub his hands over his face. “Her arse should be outlawed–”
“Paul!” Lottie snapped, jerking her elbow into his ribs while all of Jude’s muscles involuntarily contracted. “She’s the first mate.”
“I know that!” he whispered back, eyes wide. “She’s still fuckin’ human, aint she? And so am I. Nothing wrong with looking.”
“There is when it’s Straps,” another man chuckled nervously, his hands continuing to twist with terrified urgency. “She’ll lash you into next week if she hears you.”
Paul sighed and slouched his shoulders. “I wish she would,” he murmured dreamily, earning him another smack from Lottie.
Jude swallowed thickly and set his eyes back on his rope. It wasn’t just him, then. In fact, many of them were nodding and laughing along with Paul’s desperation.
“I actually–” he croaked, pausing when he realised the absurdity of what he was about to ask. He was so used to their conversations and their jovial nature, he’d forgotten how much this topic embarrassed him to talk about. But it was too little too late, as the attention of the group was already set on him, waiting for him to continue.
Jude grimaced at himself, fiddled uselessly with the line of unbraided rope in his lap, and shook his head.
“I wanted to ask your advice,” he continued weakly, trying to see how long he could go without making any direct eye contact. “About… You know. What you lot do when you need alone time.”
He stared intensely at his own hands as he waited for a response, but agonising seconds passed without a word. Jude lifted his head and found some of them thinking intently, others frowning with confusion.
“What d’you mean?” The pirate on his left asked.
His cheeks immediately burned hotter. “You know,” he tried again, already groaning. “It’s a big ship, but there’s people everywhere. Where do you go, or what do you do, when you want to… Be by yourself?”
He did his best to emphasise his point with a gentle lean and a raised eyebrow, and thankfully some of them started to nod and smile.
“Sometimes I get lucky with it,” one of the men nodded proudly. “I’ll come up to the main deck in the middle of the night and there’ll be no one else around. I can get the whole helm to myself!”
Jude’s eyes widened in horror. “I’m not going to–! On the open deck?!” he whispered harshly.
The man frowned and tilted his head. “Not going to what? I usually just stargaze a bit, or sometimes watch for dolphins. It’s very relaxing!”
Jude’s blush deepened as the pirate beside him nudged his arm and shook her head. “Not what he’s asking about, gov’,” she smirked.
Jude dropped his head into his hands and sighed as the pirates all began talking over one another, some offering vague and unclear advice while others tried to delicately explain to those who didn’t understand. The chattering only came to a halt when a new voice cut through it, chirping up from behind him.
“Oi… Oi! Simmer down, would yous? Have you fixed that rope yet, or what?”
Jude turned as everyone else did, looking up at a group of three pirates who stood over their little rope knitting circle. His eyes fell on Sebastián who stood alongside them, and the two exchanged small, excited smiles.
“Ah, sorry Nate, we’re nearly there,” Lottie grumbled, throwing down the loop she had coiled in her lap.
“That’ll probably be enough for now,” Nate sighed with a wave of his hand. “Give it here, then.”
As Jude and his companions gathered up the sections they’d finished repairing, Paul cast his eyes over the newcomers.
“Hey, Peaches. You’re mates with Jude, right? Got any advice for him?” He suddenly asked.
“Hmm?” Sebastián stepped closer, his ankle now brushed against Jude’s side. “What can I help with?”
“Says he’s trying to figure out how to get some alone time on a big ol’ ship like this–”
Jude’s throat swelled and he gasped, sure that his heart was about to fall out of his mouth. “I’m fine!” he shrieked, suddenly clawing at the bunches of rope to shove them into Nate’s awaiting hands. “All sorted, really! Stargazing on deck; sounds great to me!” he prattled.
Sebastián leaned back, clearly affronted by the interruption, but Jude kept his head low to avoid his eye. Thankfully, with the rope acquired, Nate turned to leave and led his crewmates away with him. Jude could feel the warmth of Sebastián’s leg as he lingered by his side for a moment longer, but eventually he joined them across the deck and Jude was free to breathe again.
Not only did Sebastián now know about his ridiculous grievances, but the work he did over the course of the morning was totally undone.
All the rope braiding had been too mind-numbing anyway, so he hastened to his feet to find something else to busy himself with– something a little more engaging, something that would distract from the fluttering ache in his thighs.
Even from all the way across the deck, it was easy to spot the first mate where she stood at the back of the ship. He bounded up the steps to the helm, passed the navigator at the steering wheel, and crossed to the rear bannister that overlooked a wide expanse of ocean. Straps was leaning against the railing and overlooking the gentle waves, her bare forearms crossed over the polished wood.
Her ensemble that afternoon looked far better suited to the warm days they’d been having. She’d done without her cropped sailing jacket and rolled the sleeves of her auburn red blouse to the elbows, allowing all her accessories and jewels to sparkle in the sun. She still wore all her many straps and belts across her waist and torso, which kept both her weapons and wayfaring trinkets close at hand.
When she noticed Jude’s sudden approach, she only spared a meagre glance at him, but shifted to pull out a pocket watch that was tucked into her sash.
“First Mate Strap,” Jude greeted stiffly, half out of breath from his scurry across the deck. “All my duties are complete, ma’am. Do you have anything else you’d like me to do?”
Straps spared him another glance, this one much slower as she exhaled a tired sigh.
“Calm down with that, would you?” She muttered, eyes back on the calm swell of the ocean.
Jude faltered, not entirely sure what part of his question she was referring to. “Um…?”
She sighed again, but this time stood up from the bannister and turned to face him, her hip casually leant against it. “There’s plenty of ocean left to cross, and only so much work that needs doing on a ship like this. Take the afternoon off, would you?”
Jude slumped, disappointed by an answer he hadn’t even considered to be an option. With her attention set on him, she noticed his reaction immediately, and gave him a pinched smile.
“And there’s no need to try so hard to impress,” she added. “The captain likes you fine.”
Jude bristled at that, his eyes widening as he stared at her in disbelief. The captain, who he’d yet to meet, knew who he was?
“Wh-what?” he gasped, then shook his head. That wasn’t why he was here. “No, I-I mean– I just really need something to do, and–”
Straps sighed again, that quiet lift and fall of her shoulders enough to silence him.
“The winds are slow today. You can get a head start on scraping the barnacles,” she murmured, sounding a little reluctant.
Jude jumped with relief and nodded eagerly. “Absolutely, I can do that.”
Straps narrowed her eyes, brow pinching with confusion. “It’s a very dangerous job,” she warned.
At this point, Jude didn’t care. They could have him knit a new flag from the top of the crows nest if they wanted him to, as long as he had something to occupy his mind.
“Where should I start?” he asked in answer, bright eyes eager for the task.
Straps raised her eyebrows and puffed out her cheeks to blow one final incredulous sigh.
“Maggie on the main deck will get you sorted,” she responded, with a wave of her hand in the general direction.
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