Title: If You Could Ask
Summary: Johnny and Gareth through the years, through about three of them very specifically. Reactions and general dealing with the Child of the Prophecy's lack of heterosexuality. (Any canon errors, point it out; did research thoroughly, but couldn't find any mention of Gareth's family or when or how they met)
Warnings: Slash, spoilers the size of China for Heir to Sevenwaters
Rating: PG-13 to R
Other: There is probably a series of shorter oneshots belonging to this floating around in my head. Any interest, shout
If You Could Ask
Johnny and Gareth had known each other for a very, very long time. There was no saying how long, but it had been a long time. Certainly not before Johnny's parents had been married (and that phase, Gareth decided, filled with adventure and danger, had played a great part in shaping Johnny to who he was, despite the fact that he had absolutely no memory of it), but shortly after the institution of the Inis Eala complex. They'd met as two representatives of a certain age group, namely Very Small, and had instantly seen the potential in their relationship as partners in crime.
Gareth couldn't precisely remember the day, there were moments, here and there, flashed of a brown curly head, or a sweet smile that got rarer and rarer as they grew into men and warriors, but, he thought, it had probably been profound in some way or other, and if he could find Liadan and ask her about it, she would probably have much to say on the subject of their first meeting and all the portents it had shown for an unholy alliance to form, in more ways than one.
"Your family is so interesting," Gareth had said once in those early years. "I wish I could be part of it."
"You almost are," Johnny had replied instinctively. "All you would still need is bad hair and a magical talent or a tattoo."
It was a strange thing, but somehow, Johnny had known for longer than Gareth.
Or perhaps he hadn't and Gareth was just ignoring it, but he felt like he had known for far longer than Gareth.
In the days before Fainne, Johnny had just been coming into awareness of the fact that Gareth, soaked in sweat after a heavy training session, had far more appeal to him than every pretty cousin he had put together, and he was working hard at deciding whether it was that he disliked women in general, or that he liked men more in general, or whether it was just Gareth.
And then Fainne came, and she was family, and Johnny loved his family dearly, and so of course he paid his respects to her, made sure she felt safe and welcome. And of course all the boys were interested.
But Johnny was about to take part in this great battle, this grand thing he'd spent his whole life preparing for, and he couldn't let the nagging jealousy he felt deep in his chest every time he saw her with Gareth get in the way of that.
Besides, he was reasonably certain Gareth hadn't quite reached the particular revelation yet that would make it possible to talk, given that he'd heard him discussing girls with some of the others in rather great detail too often.
Gareth, for his part, was just confused. Johnny saw things clearly, because he'd spent all his life knowing what he was supposed to do, knowing it might sometimes be different from what he wanted, and knowing he had to separate the two clearly to achieve his goal.
Gareth didn't have the luxury of clarity; Gareth had a muddled-up picture in his mind of where he wanted to go and Johnny's face superimposed over everything as his leader, his hero.
They were boys, after all, growing up in close quarters, these things were sometimes discussed, and perhaps there was a touch from someone that was not entirely accidental that set someone else's body on fire, but there was no way of knowing, no way of understanding, no way to dance the slow dance of seduction there was between a man and a woman since neither of them knew how and neither knew whether they could risk the delicate balance of their friendship, for it ran so deep neither of them wanted to ruin it with a badly timed confession.
And Johnny, though he could see clearly, could also feel his head swim when Gareth touched him, and felt a million words pour into his brain when Gareth walked past, as if he wanted to all out to his friend and tell him everything, or as if he wanted to sit down and write a ballad, which would have been a very bad idea, given Johnny's complete lack of talent in that area.
And Gareth, though he was confused, knew for a fact that marriage was nothing for him and that Johnny was more important than anyone else in the world, and that the heat he could feel all though his body whenever they sparred was not the way he felt for any man besides his best friend.
After the battle, things came to a head.
Johnny, while born to be a hero, was of the opinion that, really, this sort of thing didn't have to happen. He could just push it along ahead of himself because it was ugly and emotional and nothing like the clear, sharp boundaries of his everyday life.
Gareth liked to talk. Gareth didn't feel comfortable if he didn't know how things stood. Gareth was filled with warm and happy feelings most of the time and liked to keep it that way.
So when, after it was all over, after Fainne was left behind on the island, Gareth sought Johnny out, alone, in his room. Johnny could feel the first prickles of discomfort on the back of his neck quite clearly. He started cleaning his sword quickly to avoid eye contact, or any other contact.
Gareth sat down.
Johnny continued cleaning, but he'd already done it once after the battle, and there wasn't much to clean. He drew out his knife after he'd finished, and cleaned that instead, but Gareth still hadn't said a word.
He was considering starting on his crossbow, which he hadn't actually used, when Gareth said, "Would you just…look at me for a second?"
And Johnny, weak idiot that he was, laid down his things and turned to Gareth.
"I…" Gareth sighed. "Gods, Johnny, we thought…I thought I'd lost you."
Ah. Still that then. "Well, you didn't," Johnny said, possibly more harshly than he'd intended.
Gareth smiled weakly. "No, and praise be. Johnny, would you…could you just come and sit here? Just a moment?"
He was really going to have to do something about this inability to say no, Johnny reflected as he walked over and sat beside his long-time friend.
"How do you feel?" Gareth asked. "Now it's over, I mean."
Johnny smiled at the table. "Relieved, I suppose. We survived this, feels like we can do anything."
"Right," Gareth said, a shadow of his mischievous smirk appearing as he reached over and tugged one of Johnny's earlobes. "We can, you know."
"Ow," Johnny said with no bite in his voice. It was a cruel twist of fate, he supposed, that Gareth's friendly touch sent shivers down his spine, while that of a woman did nothing for him. Especially considering he was meant to inherit Sevenwaters and have children of his own.
Gareth sighed, leaned back in his chair. "Johnny…you'd tell me if something was wrong, wouldn't you?"
Johnny gave him a quizzical look.
"Well, it's just, we've hardly talked in weeks, and we're…we're supposed to be these great friends, inseparable."
Johnny smiled, though his mouth was suddenly completely dry. "Trust me, you don't want to know. It's…nothing to do with you."
Gareth's arms crossed and his expression headed towards 'mulish'. "I do want to know. Nothing you can say would make me upset at you, Johnny."
"No, it couldn't!" Gareth stood up suddenly, violently, arms gesturing. "Johnny, I love you! You've been my best friend for as long as I can remember! You're not going to drive me away with any confession you could make and you're certainly not going to shut me out. It's been driving me crazy, and I almost lost you. I'm not going to waste any more time waiting for you to come round. I won't go away until you tell me what's wrong."
"I think I'm in love with you," Johnny said quietly.
Gareth sat back down. "I- I'm sorry," he said. "Would you mind repeating that?"
"I think I'm in love with you," Johnny exploded, finally meeting Gareth's gaze head on. "I want you the way most men want women, I think about you all the time, when anything at all happens the first person I want to tell is you, when I'm sad I miss you, when I'm happy I want to hug you and I can't tell you how long I've been wanting to kiss you. Satisfied?"
Gareth stared at him for a few moments, unreadable expression on his face. "Like you wouldn't believe," he said at last, voice quiet and trembling with emotion, seconds before he leaned over and kissed Johnny.
They'd both been waiting far too long to practice any kind of restraint, and the first touch of Gareth's lips on his sent Johnny into a near-frenzy due to the fact that he'd imagined it so many times. Within minutes they found themselves tumbling into Johnny's bed, lips having hardly parted for more than a few seconds.
After, sweating and breathing hard, they relaxed against each other on the crumpled mess of Johnny's sheets.
"Oh," Johnny said, voice slightly shaky. "Alright, I'm definitely sure now."
Gareth smiled, kissed him. "What about?"
"I am definitely," kiss, "positively," kiss, "absolutely," kiss, "in love with you."
"Well I'm very glad of that," Gareth smirked, lips swollen from Johnny's kisses. "Elsewise I'd waste away of a broken heart."
Johnny laughed, sending vibrations through Gareth's body because of the position of his lips, just touching the back of Gareth's neck. Then, he went silent, tongue tracing up towards Gareth's ear, nipping the lobe in memory of the first touch between them that day. "Say you love me," he whispered in Gareth's ear.
Gareth took his face between his hands (slightly larger than Johnny's, always, always warm), kissed him soundly, thoroughly, till it felt like Gareth's tongue was meant to have permanent residence in Johnny's mouth. "I love you," he said when they broke apart, "I love you," when he nipped at Johnny's collarbone, "I love you," as Johnny's fingers tangled in his hair, and "I love you," almost inaudibly, as they fell back into the sheets.
They hid, to begin with. No use asking for unnecessary trouble if you could avoid it, especially Johnny, who was, after all, in charge of a lot of men, and if it became unavoidable for him to take a wife, well…so he and Gareth just agreed to what time they had, that there would be no regrets on either part.
And Johnny knew it would kill him to give up Gareth, knew his very being recoiled from the thought, and knew that any marriage he could have would inevitably end up largely unhappy.
Gareth, for his part, remained silent on the subject, preferring not to think or speak of it, but Johnny could see how it pained him when people spoke of Sevenwaters and Johnny's bright future. He felt himself an impediment to Johnny's cause sometimes, an obstacle. And because they didn't often speak of it, Johnny could find no way to reassure his lover, to tell him that love was something he could never, would never regret.
They were happy, though, despite all. Theirs was not the amazing, sudden chemistry Johnny's parent's love had been, nor the socially acceptable, steady flame of Johnny's uncle Sean and his wife's love. It was more like years and years of their closeness, their overwhelming trust in each other, their need for each other's support, finally making sense in one passionate swoop, a sense of overwhelming rightness that they both knew they wanted to last forever and ever.
Some of the men commented on how their sparring had improved, but it was more that the last of the barriers between them had wasted away to nothing, so that suddenly they knew each other so well they knew the truth of each movement, the way the other would react. It was to them what a dance would be if one of them had happened to be a woman, thrust, parry, thrust, block, retreat, kick, duck, the mystery lay in the brief touches, the feel of each other. If dancing was the best way to make contact with a possible sweetheart, for them, sparring was full-on seduction.
And really, they were both young, virile men. Seduction and lovemaking played rather a large role in their relationship. It was a wonder no one caught on to that.
The down-low on their relationship lasted a year and a little bit. Johnny was nearly twenty-one by then, of age by any and all standards. And the longer it lasted, the more sure they both were that given the chance, it could last forever.
Just the night before they left for an annual trip to Sevenwaters, Gareth, his head pillowed on Johnny's stomach, the two of them somehow managing to sprawl across Johnny's bed, said, "If I could, I'd marry you."
"What, only now?" Johnny asked in mock affront. "I'm shocked. I'd have been your mistress out of wedlock for over a year then!"
Gareth poked him. "You know what I mean."
"Yes," Johnny said, smiling at him. "I do."
Gareth sat up, leaned over Johnny to kiss him, tugging on a lock of curly brown hair as they separated. It'd grown out a bit and was now actually tuggable.
"For the record," Johnny murmured against his lips, "I'd have said yes."
"Mm," Gareth said, stealing a kiss. "If I could have asked."
"If you could have asked."
It wasn't fair, Johnny thought sometimes. His family had incredible luck with love. His grandmother Sorcha, married for true love. His uncle had been lucky to have an advantageous marriage for love, his mother had picked her own husband for love despite everyone's objections and it had turned out wonderfully. Muirrin married for love. Aunt Niamh and Uncle Ciarán, too, though they'd not been fortunate, they'd experienced love, felt the true thing.
And really, was it too much to ask that he was allowed some small measure of happiness? To be with the man he loved?
Sevenwaters was faring as well as usual; Johnny's parent's visit coincided with theirs. His mother was bringing Maeve home for a rare visit. It was still a shock to see her the way she was, now, but they all did their best not to let that on, still treated her as they once had.
Still, it was hard to see sometimes. Lord Sean took it particularly hard sometimes; shared what Gareth called an unhealthy need to protect everyone from everything with Johnny. It was understandable he drank perhaps just a sip or two of wine too many one evening when his daughters were all in bed.
And perhaps, because his mind was on children, he turned to Johnny and said, "So, young man, have you found yourself a wife yet?"
Johnny looked up sharply, eyes wide as Eilis's when she'd been caught red-handed.
"Sean," Liadan hissed.
"It is time, you know," Sean said, ignoring her. "When I was your age, I was already married. So was your mother."
"Things can change," Johnny said carefully.
"Ah, no," Sean said. "Not everything. And no man can stand alone."
"I suppose you're right there," Johnny said quietly, tersely. "If you'll excuse me…" And without waiting for a reply, he left the room, door not-quite-slamming behind him.
Liadan scrutinized her twin brother, then gently removed the wine glass from his grasp. "Enough, Sean," she said, before following her son out.
He was on a balcony, leaning out into the night breeze when she found him. He turned a bit when he heard her approach, but when he saw who it was he relaxed. Liadan didn't see her son relax too often, and she wasn't sure it was a good sign.
"Love," she said, stepping into place beside him, trying to find whatever it was that had him so riveted on the view of Sevenwaters, "moves in ways we cannot comprehend. Sometimes it is planned by greater forces, sometimes it isn't. There are many kinds of love, and they are yours to find when chance and circumstance see fit. I…don't wish to make you unhappy in a marriage we rush you to, or one you don't want. I didn't marry whom I was intended to, and look how well that turned out."
Johnny smiled softly at his mother.
She smiled back. "Yes," she said, "I'm sure you will find love, Johnny. You're a hero, child, the kind people sing of. And where would the songs be without a happy end?"
Johnny ran a hand through his curls, then turned to her. "That's the trouble, mother. I've already found love."
It wasn't a response she'd been expecting, but it didn't exactly shock her. She had seen enough in her time, and there had been a certain light to her son's eyes recently. "Well then, what's the trouble? Is she…what, unsuitable? A Briton? No one will wilfully obstruct the course of love."
He laughed humourlessly. "What about Uncle Ciarán and Aunt Niamh?"
"We've learned our lesson from them," Liadan said grimly. "It's not one of your cousins, is it?"
"I'm not sure whether that would cause more trouble, but no, it isn't."
"Well then," Liadan said, "there's one obstacle managed. No relative. Go on, son. Tell me who she is and I can help. I promise."
Johnny smiled at her, the sweet smile she remembered from when he was still a newborn babe and said, "I hope you still think that when I tell you. It's not a she, mother." And he was back to staring out into the night sky.
She stayed with her back to him for a minute, taking it in. Finally, she asked, in her softest tone, "Gareth?"
She put a soft hand on his shoulder. "And you're happy?"
He looked up at her, shocked despite all at her acceptance. "Yes," he said. "Very much so."
"Then I'm happy for you, too, child. And perhaps you should not trouble yourself with the inheritance. These things happen for a reason."
His shoulders unclenched slowly, as he leaned into her. "I believe I'm quite lucky to have you, mother," he said before pulling her into a proper embrace.
She welcomed it; it wasn't often she got to hug her children, as boys grew older they were so strange about physical motherly affection. "You do realize I'll be watching Gareth closely now. Must make sure he's good enough."
He laughed against the top of her head. "He's so much part of the family already you might as well make sure I'm good enough for him."
She kissed his cheek (he was too tall for her to reach his forehead these days). "You'll see, Johnny, all will be well," she said.
They left it at that for a few days. He said nothing more on the subject, and she let him process, because she knew her child had been carrying around this secret for a long time with only Gareth to help and she knew it couldn't be easy to suddenly change that.
But after a few days had passed and her son had still said nothing, she decided it was time to take matters into her own hands. After all, she couldn't keep Sean locked out of her thoughts of him indefinitely, he'd get suspicious.
She chose to speak with Bran first, though. Johnny was his son, after all. Anyway, they had a better chance of convincing Sean the whole situation was extremely normal and to be dealt with calmly if they were a united front.
So on the very evening she made her decision, she told Bran they needed to talk. "It's about Johnny."
"What of him?" Bran asked, sitting down on a chair in her old room, where they always stayed when they were at Sevenwaters, and taking off his boots.
"He…" she paused. She hadn't thought about how she was going to say this, just that she was going to say it. "I'm not sure he'll ever marry," she said at length. "I'm sure he would, if we asked him to, but it wouldn't make him happy, and I don't want to do that to him."
"Gareth," Bran said. It wasn't a question.
"He told you?" She asked. It hadn't entered her thoughts that he'd talked to Bran before her.
He shook his head. "No," he said, "Johnny's a good boy, man, now, I suppose, but he wouldn't speak to me about it so frankly as he would with you."
"Then how do you know?" she asked. Once Johnny had told her it wasn't a woman, Gareth had immediately sprung to mind, but she had told Bran no such thing, and he wasn't always the quickest on the uptake in such matters.
He smiled at her. "I've wondered for some time. We're similar in one respect, Johnny and I. He leads men, fights with them as I once did, though Johnny is far nobler than I ever was. And I know full well that even the closest bond between two men, two friends, brothers, even, is not as close as his with Gareth. They're so close you can't always tell who thought which thought before the other is saying it."
Liadan felt her heart suddenly warm as she took a seat next to her husband. "Our little boy is in love," she said, beaming.
Bran smoothed a hand over her hair. "That he is. We raised him well, Liadan."
She leaned into his chest, feeling the familiar touch of his lips on her skin, the rasp of his stubble after a long day. "Yes," she said, "We did. We'll support him, with Sean and whoever else may ask, won't we?"
She felt him smile against the back of her neck. "Of course we will, dear one. Our boy deserves the same happiness we all had the chance at."
"My sentiments exactly," she said, and turned her head far enough to kiss him.
Sean was by no means thrilled, but he accepted it with good grace. They had all, as Liadan had said, learned a meaningful and valuable lesson from Niamh and none of them wanted to repeat it. Sean's lack of enthusiasm stemmed solely from worry of what was to become of Sevenwaters if Johnny had no heir.
"It is not the largest problem we've ever faced," Liadan said sternly when he voiced his worries. "If one of his brothers, or one of his cousins, has a son, he could easily become Johnny's heir. There's no need for worry, I like to think we've raised our families well enough to avoid dastardly problems over something so slight as inheritance."
"I suppose so," Sean said, but Liadan could feel one of his headaches coming on over the link.
"I'll tell you what I told him. There's no sense in worrying about it right now. We should all know by now that nothing happens by chance in our family, and I don't think the gods would leave Sevenwaters in the lurch now, after they've spent so much time manipulating us."
"Yes," Sean agreed. "You're right. So…are they happy?"
Liadan smiled at her brother. "Yes, I believe so. I haven't actually seen them together, but you know as well as I do that they've always loved each other a bit too well to simply remain friends."
He smiled with just a hint of mischief in his eyes. "Yes, that much is true. They are well matched."
"Yes, they are. Now, brother dear, do let me help you with that headache."
Johnny didn't tell Gareth of his family's knowledge of their relationship till they were back on Inis Eala, to assuage a strange fear of his that it would all backfire. But there, as soon as they had brought their things back to their rooms and Gareth was just on his way down to the hall for a much-deserved dinner when Johnny pulled him into a deserted corridor.
"Johnny?" Gareth asked, then lowered his voice to a whisper when Johnny put a finger over his lips. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Johnny said. "Absolutely nothing. Everything is perfect."
"Oh?" Gareth asked, his lips curving into a smile.
"I told my mother about us."
Gareth stiffened in Johnny's grip and suddenly realized their position, him pushed up against a wall by Johnny's entire body, legs tangled, Johnny's arms creeping around his waist. "You what?"
"I told my mother about us."
Gareth's eyes widened. "….and?"
"And she said she was happy for us, and that I shouldn't worry about the inheritance issue right now, because these things happen for a reason."
And Gareth thought he'd melt into Johnny's eyes, because they were sparkling with his joy, so wide open to him. "Really?" he whispered, not because he wanted to be quiet, but because he could hardly get his voice to work at all.
"Really," Johnny whispered back, and Gareth could feel him exhale the word against his cheek. "And I'm certain she told my father and my uncle, and that they both share most of her opinion at least."
Gareth's hand, seemingly of its own accord, wound itself around the back of Johnny's neck and pulled him in closer still, till their foreheads were touching. "Johnny, that's…"
"Fantastic, I know." Johnny gave him a roguish grin and then they were finally, finally kissing, with open mouths and their hands all over each other.
At least, they were until someone coughed, at which point they broke apart rather suddenly.
Cathal was standing at the end of the corridor, eyebrows almost in his hair. "I was going to tell you there's dinner and welcome home, but I'm not sure that's quite appropriate anymore."
Johnny bit his swollen, cherry red bottom lip. "Um."
Grinning, Cathal leaned against the wall, arms crossed, with that supremely annoying cocky expression of his. "You know," he said, "I think a lot of things about life here are suddenly making a lot more sense."
"Would you…" Gareth realized his voice was hoarse and tried to clear it. "Care to elaborate?" He finished.
"Well, your extreme closeness, I suppose," Cathal said. "It's not like what you see with most men, and it rather confused me."
"Glad to help you understand things," Johnny said, almost conversationally, suddenly becoming aware of the fact that his hand (the one Cathal couldn't see, thankfully) was in a place that probably wasn't socially acceptable.
"Yes," Cathal said. "It was a bit strange. Even Aidan and I aren't as close as the two of you, and considering we might as well be brothers, that quite threw me off."
"Do you have a point?" Johnny asked.
"Sort of," Cathal said. "Just trying to understand things here. So I take it from all this information that the two of you are in love and would be producing charmingly warlike little babies if one of you had the correct anatomy for that procedure."
Gareth's cheeks flushed. "You could put it like that," Johnny said, refusing to let go of his composure, having by now subtly detached himself as much as possible from Gareth.
And then, suddenly, opposed to all expectations Johnny'd had, Cathal smiled widely at them and said, "Well, then, I suppose congratulations are in order."
"Er, thank you," Johnny said awkwardly.
Cathal nodded genially. "So, can I tell Aidan so we can giggle like little girls or is this still hush-hush?"
Johnny and Gareth exchanged a brief glance that said all, to them, at least. "You can tell," Johnny said. "At least hear on Inis Eala we can trust everyone, I hope, and such secrets do have a way of coming out eventually. Anyway, what do we do with a company of men we can't trust?"
"Well, we have done well enough keeping it a secret," Gareth pointed out, for the sake of accuracy.
"Yes," Johnny said, smiling at him, the sweet one, the one Gareth associated with the look on Johnny's face many years ago, just after they first met, and the cook served his favourite dessert, from which point Gareth assumed his love for Johnny had just grown steadily. "But we don't need to anymore."
And it was such a wonderful smile that Gareth couldn't help himself from leaning forwards just that tiny bit and brushing their lips together.
Cathal reinstated his quizzical look so as not to actually show how touched he was, which both Johnny and Gareth looked through immediately. "Right then," he said. "I'm going to go find Aidan and Mikka so we can all gossip about you."
Gareth waved him off, eyes still locked with Johnny's. "Have fun."
Johnny nodded, not bothering to look at Cathal either. "Just don't tell the Uí Néill and I think we'll be fine."
Cathal's footsteps rang down the corridor as he left, and Johnny and Gareth smiled at each other before falling back into the kiss he'd so rudely interrupted.
"So," Johnny said as they pulled apart, this time of their own accord, "dinner?"
"Hm," Gareth said, wrinkling his forehead in a mockery of deep thought. "I seem to have lost my appetite."
"Oh, dear," Johnny said, sparkle in his eyes. "Are you ill? Shall I call a doctor?"
"No," Gareth grinned, "But I think you'd better take me to bed all the same."
"Your wish is my command," Johnny said, pulling Gareth down the corridor towards his room as fast as he could.
In a closed society like Inis Eala, news spread fast. Cathal, as promised, did indeed gossip with Aidan and Mikka, who knew exactly as much as he did within minutes, and despite the fact that they spent large portions of their time studying and practicing civilized violence, their reactions were altogether those of a mother whose favourite daughter had found a suitable husband.
"Well were they kissing like sweethearts or like lovers?" Aidan asked.
Cathal smirked. "Lovers. Definitely lovers."
"Hands everywhere, no innocence anywhere to be seen."
And Mikka told his little brother, who was in training, and Gull happened to be walking by and went to ask Bran, and things just expanded from there to the point where no one was particularly surprised when the night watch saw Johnny's room open around dawn to see Gareth and Johnny locked in an embrace.
"I really should go," Gareth muttered, pulling free.
Johnny reeled him for a last quick peck before releasing him. "See you at breakfast."
Breakfast was an interesting affair. Every set of eyes in the room followed Johnny as he came in, and then Gareth five minutes later, and remained glued to them as they ate (except when one of them happened to glance up from their food, at which point the porridge became riveting for everyone in the hall).
"My," Gareth remarked to Cathal. "You do gossip thoroughly."
"I try my best," Cathal said in one of his blatant mockeries of gallantry.
Bran took a seat next to his son. He and Liadan were on their way to Harrowfield, where they would stay for the foreseeable future, but for a little while, they would be on Inis Eala. "Well," he said. "News does travel fast here."
Johnny's ears went a delicate shade of red. "Blame Cathal."
Bran turned his most fearsome look on Cathal, who tried to look innocent and failed miserably simply by being Cathal.
"Well," Bran said, "it's for the best, I believe. Such secrets are never good in a group that is supposed to trust each other."
"Which," Gull said, "would be far more convincing if we'd known you existed, Johnny, before Liadan came running to our rescue with you strapped to her back."
And really, that proved that everything was going to be fine. Under the table, Gareth's fingers laced themselves with Johnny's.
Really, Johnny was shocked it had gone over so well. While such relationships as theirs were by no means unheard of, they were not necessarily condoned, and to meet with such wide approval was novel for them. They'd both expected disapproval, claims of unnaturalness, and in Johnny's case, trouble with his family.
But Inis Eala was quite different from other places. The people were so closely tied with the story of Sevenwaters, the old religion, and the simplicity of true love they'd seen so many times that their tolerance was perhaps higher, and Johnny and Gareth's relationship was met with no resistance, because they were, indeed, in love.
They kissed in public for the first time after Johnny returned from Harrowfield, where he'd been briefly with his parents, leaving Gareth behind. There was wolf-whistling involved.
Shortly after, Gareth moved his things to Johnny's room and the hiding was definitely over. They could stay together past daybreak, savouring the warmth of each other's bodies rather than rising early in the cold air to sneak off. And Johnny had thought that was as close as the two of them would get to complete happiness.
And then Sean wrote to see Aisling was pregnant again, unexpectedly. And a hope Johnny did his very best to quash before he invited disappointment rose in him.
"If it's a boy…" he said to Gareth, softly, almost inaudibly as they went to bed.
"Shh," Gareth said, putting a finger over his lips. "Even if all goes well, even if everyone survives this, and even if it's a boy, nothing is decided."
Johnny opened his mouth to answer, but Gareth hushed him again. "You've been preparing all your life to inherit Sevenwaters. You love it. Even if you have a cousin who can inherit, would you want to give up what you've spent a lifetime waiting for?"
"But I love you," Johnny whispered against his fingers.
"And I you," Gareth answered, "so much I want you to be happy, even if it means you must be happy without me."
"I could never be happy without you," Johnny said. "I love you too much. I need you too much. Promise me you won't leave me, please."
"Johnny, what if-"
"Promise me," Johnny said in a tone Gareth could not refuse even if he'd wanted to.
"I promise," he said.
Johnny laid his forehead on Gareth's shoulder. "I had so hoped we wouldn't have to think of this for years to come."
Gareth smiled bleakly, though Johnny couldn't see it. "I knew we'd have to. I just wish we didn't." Then, quieter, against Johnny's curls, "I don't think I could survive without you. It's like you're part of me, and if it ever has to end, that part will just die out and I'll never be whole again."
"Then why did you want me to think of ending it?"
"Because…" Gareth buried his face in Johnny's hair as a tear leaked out of his eye. "Because the only thing that might be worse than losing you is if you one day regret it."
"Hey," Johnny said, gripping him by the chin gently and forcing him to make eye contact. "We promised, no regrets. Live for the now." He kissed Gareth, softly. "And I could never regret loving you, and I refuse to lose you. It just can't happen. A fine lord of Sevenwaters I'd make if my heart was dead inside me because you'd gone."
"Please," Gareth said. "Let's not speak of this anymore. We have till your aunt gives birth to avoid it still. Let's make the most of it."
Johnny took Gareth's lips between his own in stead of an answer, and if their lovemaking was gentler than usual, and if either or both of them couldn't help a few tears rolling down their cheeks, neither of them said anything.
Life carried on, and though folk were careful about mentioning Aisling's pregnancy to Johnny, he knew of its favourable progression, and the up-and-down of his roiling emotions was hard to resist. He was almost afraid to return to Sevenwaters when the time came, and was perhaps for this reason he forced Cathal to come along to Sevenwaters despite his protests.
When Cathal knocked on their door in the middle of the night after already having begged to be released twice over the course of the day, and Gareth answered the door without his shirt and with his hair extremely tousled, Johnny knew vaguely he should probably listen to him, but he was so tense and worried as it was he couldn't quite manage.
"I'm sorry if I'm interrupting you, but Johnny, you've got to listen to me," Cathal said, desperation tingeing his voice. "I can't go to Sevenwaters."
"Cathal," Johnny said, aggravation written clearly across his voice, "I don't care why you feel you can't, you're going. I don't know if it's escaped your notice, but I give the orders here, and my order to you is to do your job and come with us to Sevenwaters. Clear?"
Cathal stared at him, the look in his eyes unreadable, cold. "As you will." He walked off, strides long, back unnaturally straight, and Johnny was almost certain he heard him add, under his breath, "and we'll see what comes of that, when…" but the rest was lost in a gust of wind from an open window down the corridor, carrying Cathal's words in the other direction.
"Come back to bed," Gareth said quietly. "It's a wonder you didn't bite his head off, tense as you are."
Johnny sighed and did as Gareth asked; Gareth did tend to know how to take care of him better than he did himself.
They had separate rooms at Sevenwaters, and already on edge as he was, Johnny didn't know how to interpret that and worried tirelessly, interrupted only by the evening feast and his cousin's marriage, but even that left a sour taste in his mouth; she was so young, younger than him, and already getting married. Did they expect the same from him, even now, even when they knew how things were with him and Gareth?
Gareth's eye was on him almost all evening, he could feel it, worried and wishing he could help. It warmed him from the inside, kept his worries from seeping all the way through him and making him snappish and rude (like Cathal was being, he noted with some agitation).
He hadn't stopped fidgeting by the next day, though, not helped by the fact that suddenly, he and Gareth were a secret again and they couldn't share a room or a bed, and finally Gareth realized the only solution was to hit things, which made him suggest the practice rounds.
He might not have had he seen the tension between Cathal and Aidan and had he known their fight would deteriorate thus, but he stood by his decision to help Johnny release tension. There was always a sort of pleasure in their sparring, in the knowledge they could hit as hard as need be and not hurt the other because he could take care of himself. Johnny was better than anyone else, and while Gareth, perhaps, was not, he was evenly matched with Johnny because he just knew him so well he could match him move for move. Their intimate knowledge of each other's bodies also didn't go amiss.
Johnny beat him, narrowly, with a trick Gareth might have been able to stop had he been at all interested in winning. He wasn't, though; this wasn't about winning, it was about beating out aggression and proving to Johnny they could stand through this together.
And for a while, it worked. Johnny was unconsciously letting Gareth carry part of his load, his desperation and fear.
Only then Sean had to go and send Gareth off to Eoin of Lough Gall without Johnny and it all came crashing back onto Johnny's head with the added knowledge of how badly he got on without Gareth.
Days passed without word from his lover and the longer it went on the more anxious Johnny became. Sean resolutely, calmly refused to say a thing about it, and it did nothing to help Johnny's level of anger.
When he went on and on to Clodagh about his family and his responsibilities there against his responsibilities as Lord of Sevenwaters, Johnny thought he could feel the ground shaking under his feet. Sean apologized for his lack of attention to Johnny's situation, but it was clear he did not think it equal to his own.
And perhaps it wasn't. Gareth needed no protection from Johnny, could not carry his child and would never be legally bonded to him, but the worry was the same, the paralysing fear, the unchangeable knowledge that he didn't know what he was supposed to do without Gareth.
He said as much, carefully, because it was obvious Clodagh had no idea about him and Gareth, which rather bothered him- you'd have thought family would tell family, wouldn't you?- and received a polite, evasively comforting answer. All this did nothing at all to help Johnny stop feeling like his insides were being drawn tight with worry and anger at his uncle for not understanding that love was love no matter for whom it was.
Aisling went into labour early. The entire world seemed to slow to a breathless halt to watch over her, to fear and hope and wait for her child to come to the world.
Johnny left the house. The silence was cloying to him, the waiting unendurable. He grabbed a staff and practiced till he was soaked in sweat and the tree he was practicing under had lost bark from being hit so many times.
A hand on his shoulder pulled him out of it, at some point, he hardly knew when.
He spun, reflexes strung high, and before he knew it the staff was at the intruder's neck. It was Cathal.
"Steady now," Cathal said, and it had always irked Johnny that his voice remained calm in all circumstances when he felt as if his was always cracking, giving him away.
He lowered the staff slowly. His hands were shaking.
"Johnny." Cathal said firmly. "You must go back in."
"I can't," Johnny said, "there's too much hanging on this."
"That's why," Cathal said. "This night will decide your future, and Gareth's. And you have to be there to witness it. You've never once run away from your responsibilities, have you? And you make sure the rest of us are equally responsibly."
Johnny let out a shaky breath, nodded.
"Then you have to go in, and support your uncle and your cousins," Cathal's voice was firm and unshakeable.
"What if—what if?"
Cathal placed a firm hand on his shoulder. "You can't ask that, and you can't change things from the way they will be, and you know it. Everything happens for a reason, and some things are out of our control. This is one. Now go on, they'll be waiting for you."
Johnny let out a shaky breath. "Thank you. Take the rest of the night off, Cathal."
"Likewise, thank you," Cathal smirked. "Just don't go out alone at dusk again. It's not particularly safe, or responsible."
Somehow, the knowledge that there was at least one person in the house who didn't expect him to keep supernatural calm and understood he was human made Johnny feel a lot better about the whole situation. Sean was falling to pieces by the time he had gotten there, and Sibeal wasn't faring much better. Eilis and Coll at least had each other to support (and Johnny would have to keep an eye on that later, because who knew if they were just a little bit too fond of each other. It didn't bother Johnny personally, but this was the family that had separated Uncle Ciarán and Aunt Niamh without telling them why), and Clodagh was simply keeping herself busy to avoid worrying. Thus, she was a veritable whirlwind of activity.
Johnny's nervousness was kept at bay by supplying Sean with calming teas and forcing Clodagh to sit down once in a while, until the serving woman came out to announce the birth of a son of Sevenwaters.
Johnny thought his heart would stop. A healthy son, and Aisling better than expected. There was no saying how things would go from here. For though the thought of giving up Sevenwaters to this infant pained him more than words could say, Johnny knew he could. He could keep Gareth as his mate, never leave Inis Eala and live happily ever after.
But without Sevenwaters. Without the beautiful land Johnny had come to think of as his own, to nurture and be responsible for.
Really, he didn't know if this made things better or worse than they had been before Finbar's birth.
Events sometimes had a way of sweeping the Sevenwaters family away and leaving them to deal with wreckage; despite painfully limited memory of his grandmother Sorcha, Johnny sometimes thought he knew how she might have felt when everything she knew was swept away by her stepmother turning her brothers into swans and leaving her with an almost impossible burden to carry.
There were no swans and no witches involved, but the disappearance of both Finbar and Cathal, the burning of Glenncarnagh and the sudden need to turn his last man against his own foster-brother seemed to be a similarly unmitigated disaster. Aidan's hurt and betrayal were written clear across his face and Johnny would have given much to spare them that burden, as well, but evidence spoke against Cathal and something needed to be done before both he and Sean went mad.
He sighed, wishing, not for the first time, that Gareth would come back soon. If he could only take over for Aidan, or at least tell Johnny what he should do, perhaps, perhaps things would make a little bit more sense.
Before they knew it, Clodagh, too, was gone, Clodagh the voice of reason in a strangely upside-down household, Clodagh, who, it seemed, had recently lost all her senses and believed the kidnapping to be otherworldly. Johnny almost wished he could hear the changeling child crying, because that would be straightforward, with no need for diplomacy or battles, only the Fair Folk who always did things for a reason.
Days drew out, one sunup to one sundown with no resolution of anything, no sign of Finbar, no word from Cathal or Clodagh. Aidan's body, found lying in the woods, by him no less, and there was nothing in this world or any other that could stem the sharp pangs of guilt Johnny felt for sending him out on a mission against his will.
Johnny was beginning to feel he'd done everything wrong, starting with leading his men wrongly, ending with not being the man his parents had expecting him to be. He'd disappointed Sean, at least, he felt, in falling in love with Gareth, he'd disappointed
Cathal in not heeding his request not to join their mission, he'd disappointed Aidan and now Aidan was dead, and he'd disappointed Finbar, worst of all, a complete innocent he'd failed to protect.
It was as well Gareth returned when he did, there was no saying how long Johnny's strength would have lasted otherwise. But Gareth's arms were as strong as his own and capable of helping him carry the burden of responsibility. Gareth was a saint, or would be, Johnny thought, if the Christian church condoned relationships like theirs. He was never too tired to muster a smile for Johnny and Johnny knew well to appreciate it.
Finbar was returned to them eventually. Not before some severe trials were gone through on everyone's part, and how to salvage their relations to Illann was another matter entirely, but Finbar was safe and Clodagh had been seen.
A day later, she, too, along with Cathal, came stumbling through Sevenwater's gates, and it felt to Johnny as if his whole body could let out a collective sigh of relief.
But of course it was not over; there were explanations to be had and the succession to be decided, and long hours cloistered in a room with Sean and Aisling. They'd spoken of it before, elliptically and vaguely, not coming to any conclusion, but Finbar's safe return meant a whole new world of possibilities.
Sevenwaters was not the place for blood rivalry. Bonds went deep and no one cared to hurt anyone they loved. "I would never willingly take from you what is rightfully yours," Sean said quietly to Johnny.
"But you have a son," Johnny pointed out, "and I believe we all know I'm not altogether likely to share that good fortune."
"It does seem unlikely," Aisling agreed, "but we have all learned from this recent escapade that children are fragile and easily lost."
"Indeed," Sean said. "A fine thing it would be to overthrow all agreements we ever made only for the child again to be kidnapped by Mac Dara."
"That, too, I'm glad, is not exactly a possibility," Aisling said carefully, "but there are sicknesses and accidents and many things that can happen."
"Johnny," Sean said, "we are no longer precisely young, and as matters stand we may not live long enough to see this young one full-grown."
"Do you propose to make me guardian, then, till he is?" Johnny asked. It seemed a plausible solution; have Johnny take care of Sevenwaters till Finbar is ready.
Sean sighed. "I fear that, too, is rather unfair to you. You've been accustomed to thinking of Sevenwaters as home, haven't you? And saying it is only yours if, and only for these years, and even then never really…but all the same, Finbar is the direct successor, and one never knows how these things turn out."
"Well," Aisling said, eyeing both men disapprovingly, "it seems quite straightforward to me. Make Johnny your heir, and Finbar his. Finbar might well be Johnny's son, why, you had children at his age, and so Johnny will not be cut from the succession, not forced to take a wife, and our son will one day inherit as well, but not before he is ready, thus satisfying everyone, no?"
Johnny and Sean exchanged a glance, which spoke volumes on the wisdom of keeping women in the family, and agreed.
This, really, tied up all loose ends. Johnny found Gareth immediately after this conference, kissed him soundly, and said, "It's all been decided. I shall never marry, Finbar shall be my heir, and you will never be rid of me!"
And though this was perhaps not the clearest of speeches, its intent made perfect sense to Gareth, as did the immediate need for celebration, which commenced, loudly and passionately, behind closed doors, much to the amusement of Mikka, who was on guard duty that night and could hardly miss it.
Little more is left to say on the matter; Cathal was elevated in rank to oversee Inis Eala from the inside, so he never needed to leave for fear of his father, thus relieving Johnny of the burden when the time came for Sevenwaters to go on to Johnny, who handled it well and raised young Finbar to be a worthy heir and an open-minded fellow; the latter especially due to the fact that Gareth was never far away from Sevenwaters, always a most trusted advisor and almost a sixth cousin to the young heir.
The propensity for true love ran deep in the Sevenwaters family, for it seemed a great many of them were lucky enough to both find it and marry for it, or in Johnny's case at least keep it close.
And really, at the end of the day, all that was left for him to realize was that his mother was quite right when she told him that these things would organize themselves. That was another thing he'd have to pass on to his cousin, Johnny realized, and made a mental note. The fact that Sevenwaters women were to be listened to and respected, for they tended to know best.
He leaned back against Gareth's chest with a sigh. Life, on the whole, was marvellous. His family had always had luck in love, and it looked like that wasn't about to change.