They found a stride, more or less.
The truth was, he couldn’t handle the O’Flaherty sea holdings. He was a creature of the land, in the end. His world was gallowglasses and war horses and cattle and spears and hard ground beneath his shoes. Hers was a world of water, of knives held to the throats of English and Irish sailors alike, of gold that made its way to their coffers, of fine silks and finer spirits that were sold in Spain, of canons and flintlocks that she didn’t hesitate a second to pull on friend and foe alike (he’d only seen it once, and she was stunning in her anger then, black eyes flashing as she turned on her victim with all the force of a storm at sea, when the crewman she’d put on watch had fallen asleep on duty and they’d nearly been caught.)
Tiernan could keep up with that. They spoke the same strange language, like two seagulls going back and forth at it, but Donal didn’t try. They’d come to land, eventually, and he’d be there when they did, and that was that. They needed each other, all of them. He needed Gráinne’s fire, her spark, the eager, almost possessed look in her eyes when she was given a touch of power, her willingness to chew off her own leg to escape a trap, he needed Tiernan’s steadiness because Gráinne and him alone would probably drive each other off the ends of the Earth, and Tiernan and Gráinne needed each other, needed something to ground each other in, needed that common language. He wouldn’t tie either of them down, because he knew that she’d slip any rope he tried to put on her and he’d lose it all anyway.
No one could say anything if the O’Flaherties showed a profit from it, could they? His father’d been mercifully quiet about it after the first few raids, at least, besides a few dubious glances at the three of them one visit when Donal’d slipped and kept his hand on Tiernan’s arms a little longer while he was teasing him about something or the other (it wasn’t his fault that his and Gráinne’s lover was so much fun to tease) and Tiernan had given his Lost Whelp look to Gráinne. But, so long as he didn’t say anything, he was fine.
And, anyway, Donal was already used to being a disappointment, so it wasn’t like there was anything new there.
Donal, control your wife.
Well, he hadn’t done that, not exactly. But in the end he’d been all the better for it. And if he wasn’t the man that his father’d wanted him to be, well, at least he was Gráinne and Tiernan’s, and he supposed that was enough. (Anyway, since he’d gotten past his pride and started to spar with the two of them, his swordsmanship had only improved.)
He was always more scared of Cousin Finola anyway.
If he had a little bit of jealousy that the other two had that secret language between them, that part of them that he could never understand, well, that was his business, wasn’t it?
“The men are having a victory celebration,” Gráinne found him at their dining room table, both legs propped up as he tossed an apple up and down in the air, the smell of sea and salt still on her coat, her boots, her hair, which was stiff and course from the seawater that still clung onto it. “We did well this time.”
“Go on, then,” Donal said, not taking his eyes away from the apple, watching the way that the light would glint off of it as it rhythmically rose and fell, knowing that this would mean she’d be gone for another few hours while she was off with the crew, still in her element even if she wasn’t at sea anymore, and he’d still be alone.
He was used to it. It came with the territory.
Gráinne snatched it mid-air and he realized his mistake as he looked at her and saw only stone. He’d have to work on that one. If he survived. And had all his important bits, dangly and otherwise, intact. Off to Gráinne’s side, where Tiernan had attached himself, like always, he saw the other man take at least one long step back. Always helpful like that, Tiernan. “I- we were wondering if you’d want to come along.”
“Hardly my victory, is it?”
“If you’d be happier sulking, you can stay,” Tiernan added, stepping forward so that he was back to being plastered by Gráinne’s side, though this time he was in between the two of them.
“I’m not sulking,” Donal said, sulkily.
He didn’t belong there, with all the sailors, all his wife’s men who knew him only as The Captain’s Husband. He didn’t... fit . To the men, Gráinne was Granuaile . She was fierce and bold and fiery from top to toe and capable of taking on anything, and they had all known her from the time she was the little girl with the long chestnut hair that she’d chopped with her father’s knife to avoid getting caught in the rigging. They’d seen her and Tiernan play and squabble and love together, and Tiernan was One of Theirs as much as Gráinne, even if he didn’t have that prized O’Malley pedigree. Even though the three of them had their understanding between them, that didn’t change the principle of the thing. He was the intruder, the one from the different tribe who’d stolen Gráinne from her One True Love. They’d written the wooing tale in their minds and trimmed them to fit it as needed like a piece of old, ratty cloth.
And, as for him….there really wasn’t any place. There was the Captain, and there was Gráinne, the one he’d married, and one never came across the other in the presence of the men. He knew he wasn’t always the brightest, but he knew where he wasn’t wanted.
“The point is,” Gráinne said, sparing a brief, conciliatory glance at the two of them that he knew she usually used on brawling crewmembers just before suggesting they save it for the merchants, sometimes as a prelude to a glare. Usually as a prelude to a glare. Gráinne O’Malley wasn’t above offering a hand in friendship first, especially if she didn’t think the resulting fight would be worth the effort, but that hand could become a fist just as easily. “When one of us wins, we all win, Donal. Let’s show that much.”
Looking from one to the other, seeing that both of them had nearly identical expressions of exasperation mixed with affection (he was reminded of the look that his mother’d once given to a favorite lapdog that’d shredded some very fine, blue damask curtains that she’d only just hanged over her bed for the first time, Bunowen having a speck of color but only for a little while) realizing that they’d both talked this over, they’d both wanted him to be a part of this, he finally was able to choke out, “Well then, wife, I suppose I can join the pair of you.”
He didn’t cling onto Tiernan as he walked into the tavern, Gráinne disappearing from view as she strode in. It was very important to establish that he did not cling onto Tiernan of the Clan O’Malley. He was just...warm. And solid. And Donal happened to like that. If they’d stayed at Bunowen, he might have even found an excuse to sprawl out on his lap while Gráinne told them about every raid they’d gone on, getting that little light in her eyes that came when she was in her element, whether it was steering a ship or a story.
Really, he’d been going to this tavern since he could stand up, there was nothing to be afraid of. If anything, he was going as support for Tiernan. That was it, poor….scared Tiernan, in a place he wasn’t familiar with. Poor thing. All alone. Friendless.
Looking around, it wasn’t so bad, he thought, nudging his way out of the glares of the O’Malley men there. There were even a few of his own people there, not ones to lose out on the promise of some free wine on the coin of the chieftain’s wife.
“Hey, Donal!” One of them shouted, amber uisce beatha spilling from his raised cup while a redheaded tavern maid sat on his lap, arms around his neck.
He forced a smile and a nod that was probably too enthusiastic. “Turlough, old friend! Glad to be here!”
Well, there was no going back. The Cock of Bunowen didn’t just lower his head and scamper away. What would the men say? They’d think that he’d finally lost it. He was supposed to be the most powerful and opulent of the western O’Flaherties dammit. Or...something.
He’d never live it down if all his men lost confidence in him and ran over to Cousin Murrough’s side just because he couldn’t deal with his wife’s crew.
He pried himself away from Tiernan’s side and tried to look more at ease, even as his hand itched to hold onto the other man’s. It wasn’t fair that he couldn’t have him in public as well, though maybe that was the pirate taking ahold of him. All this time with Gráinne made things seem easy, after a little while. She existed outside the possible, and she’d made a career, a life out of it. But for some reason, sleeping with another man, even holding hands with one in public, that crossed a line.
“What’s the matter?” Tiernan asked, seeing him straightening his doublet even as his jaw still clenched. “Is the great scion to the ferocious O’Flaherties a little uneasy?”
“Careful, Tiernan,” Donal said. “Or I’ll--”
His threat was left uncompleted, as his vision was drawn to the center of the room where, perched on an oak chair like a queen at her throne, Gráinne of the Gamesters ruled, her brown captain's coat slung across the back of the char, hair tied behind her in a knot, cards and hands flying back and forth on the old wooden table like bullets on a battlefield.
“You’ll what ? What is it, lost for-” Tiernan followed his vision, locking sight on Gráinne as well. “ Oh .”
They could only stare, hypnotized at the sight of Gráinne at cards, as the movements of the players became blurs of motion and color, the only constant the gleam of the O’Malley chieftain’s ring mixed in with the chaos and the predatory grin on her face while her pile of gold grew into a small mountain that was fed by the decreasing stock of her men’s.
He couldn’t help but chuckle to himself. A sort of lady shark . Oh, if only they’d known.
This was their Gráinne, the woman they’d decided to devote their lives to. There was nothing more or less to it than that. It was her . There’d been a hundred terms used to describe her, some good, some bad, by English, Spanish, and Irish alike, but nothing could nail her down to her essence , to the thrill he got just from watching her seize life like this, taking the world for what it was worth.
Locking eyes with them as her opponents threw their cards down in defeat, her smile deepened, Donal’s stomach dropping to the floor (even after nearly two years of marriage, most of it with her at sea and him on the battlefield, she did that to him, and somehow he knew she’d be able to do it to him at sixty the same as twenty), and he and Tiernan had just enough time to exchange a panicked glance before she raised her cup off of where a serving maid had left a small table to spare the game from being interrupted by a sudden spill, showing off her well-muscled, tanned arms.
“Tiernan, husband.” She tilted her head back, downing the whole cup in a single gulp. “Good of you to join us.”
“We got lost.” They said in unison.
“Leaving me to fend for myself here,” she said, and The Sad Widow Act would have been far more effective if she wasn't still basking in her recent victory.
“Somehow, I don’t think you need our help there, love” Tiernan said.
“I think you did...well enough for yourself,” Donal added.
“Oh, for a game or two, but then they always leave.” She propped her head on her hand, a confident, triumphant smirk betraying any attempt she had to look quizzical. “I can’t imagine why. Tiernan, join me for a round?”
“I think I’ll leave that to those who don’t know what they’re getting into.”
“It will seem strange if my first mate’s the only one who’s not been beaten. For me? For my sake?”
She looked at him entreatingly, the Captain briefly becoming a girl of ten asking him to spar with wooden swords again, and Donal knew the poor sod was done for.
“Donal,” Tiernan hissed. “Help...me.”
Oh, there it was. The Sad, Lost Whelp Look. He’d missed it the last couple of months. There was something about Tiernan, the way he could go from Champion of the O’Malley Clan to somehow looking like he’d just been abandoned in the woods by his evil stepmother. Donal’d tried to track the progression, but he was never able to quite see it. Maybe it was because there was something naturally puppyish about Tiernan, with that short, light brown hair of his and those blue eyes that revealed every emotion on his face, like a little spaniel. It would be annoying if he hadn’t already fallen for it.
Donal almost wanted to take pity on him, be nice to his lover in his time of need.
“What’s the matter, Tiernan ?” Donal asked, as the eyes of the room turned to Tiernan, everyone wondering what he’d do next, “Is one of O’Malley’s best men a little….uneasy?”
Tiernan glared at him. He was probably going to pay for that later. But, it was worth it while it lasted. It wasn’t like he didn’t deserve it, anyway.
Then, dutifully, he dragged himself across the floor to sit opposite Gráinne.
Tiernan lasted longer than most, in the end, in no small part because he’d been around long enough to know every trick, ruse, and trap that Gráinne could lay to spin things in her favor. Three rounds in and he was still tenuously holding onto some of his money.
“It’s not fair,” he said, while Gráinne smoothly shuffled the cards for the next match, and Donal had a sinking feeling that he was about to pay for what he’d done, “That we can’t get your husband in on this.”
Gráinne swiped her latest winnings from the table, setting them down by her side. “Join us?”
Looking from one to the other, he knew he was done anyway. No use prolonging it.
“What are the stakes?” Donal asked as he sat down.
“Seeing as we’re husband and wife, I thought we’d discuss that later.” Several of her crew, emboldened by the drink, whistled, though most of them continued to glare at Donal, probably hoping that if they did it long enough, he’d turn to stone. “I’d remember that I could just as easily be removing barnacles from the Queen if I was you and shut my mouth,” she snapped. “Now, husband, what of your stakes?”
“Why, I desire nothing more than a kiss from my lady,” Donal said. While her crew was smart enough to do as their captain bid and be silent, his men were under no such order, and so felt free to crow as much as they pleased. He thought he even heard one “Go Donal!” mixed in there somewhere that sounded suspiciously like Turlough.
Well, at least he had support .
Off to the side, Tiernan rolled his eyes. What? Just because he didn’t know how to ask for what he wanted didn’t mean that he had to punish Donal for it.
“I might not have any barnacles to clear off,” Donal said, “But I’m sure if you can give me time, I’ll think of something just as much fun.”
Someone could always be sent to clean the stables, they needed an eye out to watch the cattle in case the Joyces chose to retaliate, and, now that he thought of it, there was always the possibility of collecting cow patties to create fertilizer. The opportunities were endless and exciting.
The truth was, both he and Tiernan knew that they could never beat Gráinne on their own. So, instead, they split their resources, each of them taking their turn distracting her, whether with a discreetly placed foot under the table (which earned Donal a firm kick, but it was worth it) or an accidental brush of the hand, the room falling away so it was just the three of them, together, matching wits and wills alike.
Finally, Donal gave a triumphant little shout, brandishing his winning hand as Tiernan shook his head.
“I believe it’s my--” Donal tried to say, but before he could crow too loudly, he was muffled by Gráinne’s mouth, insistent, demanding, and consuming against his, and he was too stunned to do much besides try to match it, the cards falling to the floor.
He’d expected Gráinne to give him a quick peck to silence him, or kiss his cheek or hand as a way of getting out of it. He didn’t think she’d actually kiss him in front of everyone. At the touch of her tongue against his mouth, he saw that she was playing a very different game, responding to his dare with one of her own. He eagerly opened his mouth to hers, one of his hands grasping at her hip underneath the table. It was a funny thing, kissing her, when he thought about it. For all that she was a creature of the sea at heart, all he could ever think of when they were like this was fire, pure and burning, like a hearth on a summer’s day, scorching him to the bone.
If her men had much of a response besides dutiful silence after their warning, he couldn’t notice, still only aware of the ghost of the touch of her lips on his. The Joyces could have raided the place and all he would be aware of was the fading heat of his wife’s lips.
He’d need to play more often.
As he came back to himself, he noticed the O’Malley men focused on Tiernan, hungry for his response, but he only smiled and clasped Donal’s hand. “The Tanist of the O’Flaherties of Iar-Connacht, everyone!”
He didn’t pull back the touch immediately, letting it soak in as scattered, shocked applause filled the room slowly, his calloused thumb trailing closer to Donal’s neck and throat, letting it rest just so, and Donal wished that he was as reckless as people believed he was because it would be so easy to kiss Tiernan now, too, and watch the crew fall into a dead faint as they realized that it was never just Gráinne. If he’d stolen one away, he’d stolen them both, or else they’d stolen him. But, no matter what, he had them, and if it wasn’t enough for the world, it was enough for them.
After the party had long since died down, Donal having earned some goodwill after buying not one, not two, not three, but four rounds of ale for the entire room (Gráinne scolding him for buying off her crew, softening them up) the three of them set off back to Bunowen. “So, wife,” Donal said, “What would your stakes have been had I lost?”
She gave a wicked grin. “When we get back home, I’ll show you.”
Tiernan rolled his eyes, but he took their offered hands anyway, the three of them walking together under the stars together.
A few hours later, his wrists were still stinging from rope burn and he was panting heavily, Gráinne collapsed in the center of the bed, wrapping all the blankets around herself with the same vigor that she spent attacking ships.
Off to her other side, Tiernan stroked her hair. “I never get tired of her like this.”
“Neither do I.” Sleeping like this, she looked peaceful, innocent even, or as near to it as she could ever get, a small smile on her face as she burrowed deeper into the covers, taking the last bit that Donal’d been able to keep on his legs.
“I feel a little cheated,” Tiernan said.
“Oh, really?” Donal leaned back, playing along. Gráinne always demanded ; there was never a time where he didn’t know what she wanted and how she wanted it. It was what made her a fine commander. But Tiernan needed work , he needed to lead into it, and sometimes even then the best approach was to just seduce the answer out of him.
“Hm. All this time, and I’ve not had the chance to kiss you.”
“Well, we can’t have that now, can we?” Donal leaned closer, careful not to disturb Gráinne as he cupped Tiernan’s face in his hands, almost not wanting the tension to end as he came closer and closer, feeling Tiernan’s warm breath so close to his mouth, his skin, running a hand through that spaniel-like hair that somehow still stayed soft even after being battered by sea winds. “I’d hate to think that I’d somehow neglected you.”
Tiernan was the one who surged forward then, capturing Donal’s upper lip, the hand that had leisurely been stroking Tiernan’s hair clenching in it. It was a funny thing with Tiernan, the softness of it all, the way that even now, when the two of them were naked in a bed together, kissing one another, there was an innocence to him that threw Donal. He had no right to be that innocent after everything Donal had personally seen him do, had no right to have lips that were still somehow soft against his own even if they were chapped and battered, had no right to make Donal feel protective of him when he’d seen Tiernan kill a score of men or more in battle, had seen him blood soaked and battle mad, but he somehow managed it anyway and it knocked Donal off course every time.
Where Gráinne was sharp, where she cut and stoked and matched him word for word, Tiernan soothed and cooled, undemanding, simple, and slow, holding his forehead against Donal’s when it was over, letting the touch wash over the pair of them.
And then they were broken out of it by a well-aimed pillow being swung at them.
“If you boys don’t mind,” Gráinne said, and it would have been far, far more imposing if she hadn’t been face-down on the bed at the time, her weapon of choice from before now held down over her head, “Some of us are trying to sleep.”
Tiernan stole one last, short kiss from Donal, and Donal could feel his smile against his mouth, the two of them both settling down beside Gráinne, their arms and legs brushing and tangling with each other as they held her.
So, he didn’t have their language. He didn’t have the sea, and he probably never would. He didn’t have decades of history and the unwavering trust of the O’Malley men. But he had them , and in the end, he’d take that, the rest of it be damned.
Gráinne shifted against him, Tiernan pressing up against her back, supporting her as she moved closer to Donal’s chest, murmuring indistinctly.
He definitely needed to play more often.