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Catalyst of change

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Gurney Halleck remembers a childhood of both love and beauty. As a kid he was taught not only music and verse, but to build instruments himself, and to enrich the world around him with art.

Eleven years in the Harkonnen slave pits stripped away whatever he thought he knew of goodness and faith. For decades, he carried but fading memories of those lost, searching for them in the song and music of his long-lost home.

The Imperium is vast and he’s been to many places, and he’s learned that beauty is a fleeting, often punished thing. With the Harkonnen influence seeping through the universe, and the imperial power struggle reaching a crescendo, Gurney knows better than anyone that many beautiful things are soon to be destroyed in the ensuing melee.

Paul isn’t dumb by any measures, but he is inexperienced. Sheltered on Caladan by a loving father and protective mother, he’s surrounded by people who love him – and Gurney knows that love is incapable of shielding one from the realities of the world.

The House of Atreides is strong and loving and utterly doomed, and no one has thought to be honest with Paul of what awaits them. He deserves to be prepared – to be spoken to like a man – and yet, they all cling to the delusion that things just might work out.

With Duncan having already left for Arrakis, Gurney finds himself pacing the halls of Castle Caladan, feeling like they’re already living on borrowed time. The days are slipping through his fingers like sand, and no matter how he struggles for solid ground he’s soon to be buried alive, along with the rest of House Atreides.

His pulse ringing in his ears, he goes to find Paul in the training room. For a moment he watches him; the sloppy posture, the half-hearted lunges; Paul is here out of some sense of obligation, or perhaps just to work up a sweat. There’s no purpose in his movements, and Gurney can’t keep his anxiety at bay, hearing it bleed from his lips like anger. How can he not take this more seriously? How can he let Gurney sneak up on him like this?

I hear your footsteps, old man, Paul tells him, as if cheap tricks will ever be enough in a time of war.

When Gurney counters that their enemies could easily mimic his stride, Paul doesn’t seem swayed in the least. Sing us a song instead, he says, hoping to rile Gurney up with words, using trickery to avoid sparring – but Paul’s smugness gets caught on something almost genuine. A hint in his voice that, perhaps, there is a part of him that would find respite in song after the supposed bad day he’s had.

In a different time and place, Gurney might’ve been swayed by the suggestion, but not now, not here. He knows that there’s no room for art and beauty in a world at war. Never mind if there’s a flutter in his chest at the thought of sitting with Paul by the window, singing and telling fantastical tales; never mind what any heart desires; this world does not care for fantasies.

So, Gurney does the only thing he knows how; he leans into his anger and fear, and he pushes Paul as far as he can bring himself to. Within moments he holds his blade at that pale throat, the shield flickering red, and for a terrible moment his mind convinces him that he’s drawn blood.

“The slow blade penetrates the shield”, he grumbles, trying to steady himself by treating this as a lesson, even if they both know it’s so much more. For a moment longer he holds the blade there, the sight itself terrifying, and that’s all he needs to push ahead and chase this wherever it goes.

Paul mutters that he’s not in the mood – distancing himself from what’s necessary with a noble sort of ignorance, as if war is something he can avoid through sheer stubbornness. As if fighting is a thing of joy, that one only does when a particular passionate bloodlust surges within; as if it’s like singing or making love.

Gurney’s being too harsh and he knows it, but what can he do when no one else will play this part? What can he do when no one will confront the illusion of safety; of a happy ending?

Paul looks up at him from the floor, kneeling before him, breathing heavy, blades in both hands, and finally, finally, there’s a shift in those dark eyes. The levity and annoyance make way for something sharp – the focus of a fighter who’s determined to maim their opponent.

Within moments, Gurney is pinned to the floor with Paul straddling him.

“I have you”, Paul growls, determined, eyes hard, like he could actually take a life. Gurney shifts beneath him. Paul has grabbed hold one of his legs, pressing down on it with the weight of his body, a knee digging into the back of Gurney’s thigh – the touch rough but warm.

He’s got Paul’s full attention now, that dark gaze hot with anger, and a casual dominance that only a man born into a noble House could so easily find within himself.

As Paul presses the cold steel of his knife to Gurney’s throat, his shield flickers incessantly at the intrusion, the noise like tinnitus in his ears. Paul is so single-mindedly focused on his goal, at pressing Gurney harshly against the floor and proving himself, that he doesn’t notice the blade held against his abdomen.

For a lesson in fighting the Harkonnens, this might be the best outcome; it’s neither a victory nor a loss, but it’s better than being taken alive.

Gurney remembers the relief at finding out that his sister was dead. Twenty years of believing that she might be out there, somewhere – and then he’s told she was killed during her first day at a Harkonnen pleasure house. Twenty years of hoping for a reunion, and then, in an instant, having that hope replaced with relief that her suffering was short-lived.

Paul is a formidable fighter, but if it comes to it, his hot-headedness will have him fall in battle; there’s no surrender to be found in the Atreides heir. Gurney looks at him, that pale face only inches above his own; he meets that fiery, dark gaze, and he feels a rush of a very familiar relief.

“I see you found your mood”, he says, feeling a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. It’s not meant to poke fun, not really. If anything, he hopes Paul will make the connection in his mind; to be able to find this focus again when it’s most needed. When he’s forced to fight, when the uncaring world pushes him to draw blood whether he wants to or not, Gurney hopes that he remembers how to push through the annoyance and pain.

Paul stands, and even after such a brief moment on the floor together, the warmth of his body lingers, and the chill of the room seems suddenly harsh.

Paul offers him a hand, and Gurney grabs it slowly, gently, to not interfere with the shields. Paul’s grip is firm, and he pulls Gurney to him with ease. Pulls him close enough that Gurney feels strained breaths ghost across his face for a moment. A reminder of how the shields only safeguard them from violence, but not the softness of bodies.

“Will it be that bad?”

Paul has always been observant. He’s his mother’s son through and through.

For a moment Gurney thinks of the others, how they speak of the future with some optimism, some hope, and in the face of this illusion of peace, what can he be but honest?

As he speaks to Paul of what’s to come – of a cruelty and evil he knows all too intimately – Gurney hears his voice echo around them; he hears how it nearly breaks on the word “brutal”. Frankly, it’s humiliating that he’s failing to express himself – he quotes poetry on the daily, for god’s sake – but if his humiliation can at all prepare and protect Paul, he’ll suffer it gladly.

“You have to be ready”, Gurney says, nearly pleads, hoping to end his speech with something that comes across like care rather than confrontation. He’s raising his hands before he’s really thought it through, cradling Paul’s face gently, hoping his calloused palms aren’t too rough against Paul’s battle-warm skin. The gesture steadies him a little – and he hopes it does the same for Paul – as he tries to muster something like a smile; softening his features with something like reassurance, as if he could possibly promise that this will end well.

When he slowly let’s go of Paul, his touch only lingering momentarily, that dark gaze is averted, and whatever fire Paul found during battle has now flickered out. It’s a heart-breaking thing to behold, so Gurney turns to leave before he finds himself doing something even more irrational. Paul is young, he deserves better – but the world isn’t fair, and no one gets what they deserve.

He walks through the hallways, aimless. There are things to do – there are always things to do – but with the move to Arrakis looming over them all, there’ve all been granted a certain level of freedom; the space to wrap up loose ends before they leave. While others have scores to settle, inheritances to arrange, family to spend time with, Gurney is simply stuck in limbo, waiting. Everyone he cares for will be right there with him on that godforsaken planet. He’s got no farewells to say – only a future to fret over.

Sing us a song instead. With Paul’s words echoing in his mind, he can’t help but to shake his head, a wry smile on his lips. If the world allowed for lives to be lived for the simple joy of music and creation, Gurney would have never found himself with blade in hand, preparing a young, innocent man for the brutality of war.  

He finds that the castle is a much too confined space for the horrors of his mind. Heading back to his quarters, he pulls on a jacket, and then walks out into the fields, with no particular direction in mind.

The wind rages across the grassland, cold and harsh against his face, but there’s something energizing about it. He already knows he’ll miss the greenery and the open sea profoundly, so he might as well spend some time in the great outdoors during these final weeks on Caladan.

Gurney doesn’t turn to the sea, nor the skies. He studies the ground as he walks, looking for anything that might contrast the grass. It’s not the season for wild flowers, but there are some stubborn bastards that usually survive long into the colder months. Eventually he finds a cluster of tiny, white flowers. They’re smaller than the nail on his thumb, and scattered through the grass and moss like fallen stars. He kneels on the ground, dew and rain immediately seeping through the fabric of his pants, but he needs this. Needs to ground himself with the help of something simple and beautiful.

His sister loved flowers and his sister is dead.

Gurney knows that he’s yet to bury many people he loves, and that the only thing that could save him from such a fate is if he's the first to die.

Sighing deeply, he finally turns his gaze to the cliffside. Watching the sea mirror the grey clouds above, the horizon stretching onwards until it’s swallowed by fog and foam. The world is so big, so deeply cruel, and he is but one man wishing he could keep hundreds of people safe.

All he can do is give of himself. Share with others these skills and experiences that have shaped him. There are many lessons that he’d rather not have learned, but if they’re of use to others, at least his suffering has not been in vain.

“You’ll freeze to death, old man.” For a moment he thinks the voice is a figment of his imagination – some feverish version of Paul, speaking to him through the punishing winds – but when he turns around, there is the Atreides heir. Wrapped in a simple, black coat, his hair wild in the breeze. He looks as if he’s left the castle in a hurry, neither wearing gloves nor proper boots; he looks like he doesn’t need such things; like he’s at home here, and the storm and the seas and the darkening clouds are all part of him.

“Then what are you doing here, facing death with me?”

Paul shrugs his shoulders, and closes the distance between them. His dark gaze is on the ground, and he steps around the small flowers as he walks, until he comes to a halt by Gurney, sitting down next to him.

“Did I go too hard on you?” Gurney asks, not really wanting to voice the question, but forcing himself to do so all the same. “Will Duncan beat me into a pulp once we join him on Arrakis?”

“If anything, you’re too gentle. Your bleeding heart shines through”, Paul says, an effort to sound sarcastic lost to the mild look in his eyes.

“Then we’ll keep at it”, Gurney mutters, a promise to Paul and himself. “Until the day we leave, I’ll train you as best as I can.”

Paul hums, a smile slowly spreading across his lips. “You construct intricate rituals, which allow you to touch the skin of other men”, Paul quips, mock seriousness in how he delivers the quote, and Gurney elbows him in the side – mostly because he’s expected to. Because that’s the push and pull of their rapport. As he does so, a fresh memory flashes before his eyes; the haunting, bleeding red of holding a blade to Paul’s pale skin, only a flick of the wrist from slashing open his abdomen.

“I regret the day I taught you to read”, Gurney finally manages, murmuring as he’s glancing at the flowers, needing some respite from the eye contact.

“As if I wouldn’t have taught myself how to”, Paul says in the voice of a braggard, but his heart isn’t in it.

Only when they fall silent does Gurney notice the biting cold. He knows he should look out for Paul – that he should suggest they head back inside – but part of him feels like he’s rooted out here, in the moss. Forever part of Caladan, immovable, with the future Duke by his side.

While he’s lost in thought, Paul inches closer to him. Leaning in, ever so slowly – telegraphing his movements intently – until his head rests on Gurney’s shoulder. What can he do but hold still, and let it happen; to adjust his posture just so, ensuring that Paul rests easy against him?

Even as he’s caught in the moment, Gurney knows that this memory of them on the cliffs will stay with him; the harsh cold of the unrelenting sea, and Paul sitting so impossibly close; a warm sense of safety at the heart of the storm.

Soon all they’ll know is heat, but not this kind; they’ll be in hostile territory, and further apart than ever before.

So, Gurney wraps an arm over Paul’s shoulders and holds him tightly. Sharing in this warmth that they’re soon bound to lose forever.

He looks upon the sea, the winds raging over the cliff’s edge and tugging at their jackets – twirling through Paul’s dark hair. It’s a mesmerizing sight, and it’s been a day of brash decisions, so Gurney figures that he’ll allow himself one more foolish act. He leans in and presses a chaste kiss to that wild head of hair, the locks damp and salty against his lips. He knows better than to linger. As he pulls back, he catches that familiar scent of earth, vetiver and petrichor, and he finds himself wondering if this too will change. If Paul, once they arrive on Arrakis, will lose this part of him; if his scent is of Caladan, or him, through and though.

“Will you miss this place?” Paul asks, his voice rough and odd after the silence they’ve shared.

“As much as I allow myself to miss anything”, Gurney replies after a beat, opting for honesty.

Paul nods, his hair soft against Gurney’s chin, his throat. It takes some effort not to laugh at how ticklish it is. “Not a day goes by when I don’t envision my last day here”, he admits, his voice a steady murmur Gurney can feel directly against his skin now. “No more seas, nor flowers… but I bet the sands stretching towards the horizon can be quite beautiful in their own right. At least I tell myself so.”

“It’s a farewell to the nature we know”, Gurney agrees. “But it’s a soothing kind of sadness, because it’s natural and right.”

Paul doesn’t reply immediately, simply humming once again, trying to move ever closer to him. It doesn’t take long for Gurney to notice that he’s actually shivering, and well, the Heir catching a cold just ahead of the move is certainly something he’d rather not be blamed for.

This time it’s Gurney who stands, and offers a hand to Paul. Without hesitation, Paul reaches for him, a much smoother palm briefly holding on to Gurney’s calloused one, and then they walk side by side along the cliff’s edge, the sea ever raging beside them.

Soon enough, they’re off-planet, and no amount of training could’ve prepared them for what awaits.

On Arrakis, there are no flowers to be found. No matter how far you wander into the godforsaken desert, there will be no fallen stars waiting for you. It’s desolate; a physical manifestation of humanity’s greed and addiction.

In Gurney’s mind Arrakis has always been an ugly place, no matter if it’s under Harkonnen control or not; by its very nature, it’ll sit at the heart of the Imperium and bring nothing but pain and destruction.

Arrakeen is a husk of its former self, and there are a thousand things to do to get the city up and running. Gurney finds himself spread thin across the palace, offering advice to Leto; talking strategy with Jessica; training troops, and aiding the rearming efforts. His work, on top of adjusting to the brutal heat cycle of the planet, leaves him little room for other things. Every day he wakes up intending to seek out Paul, and every day he’s interrupted by more pressing matters.

Life on Arrakis is nothing but a steady stream of setbacks, but nothing hits him quite like the hunter-seeker incident. Finding out after the fact that Paul has been attacked has him question everything, because sure; Paul handled the situation, he survived – but Gurney has to live with the knowledge that he could’ve been there, and he chose to prioritize other work.  

Now all he can do is promise Leto to do anything to hunt the remaining spies down, even if the words sound hollow. What does he have to offer but loyalty and love, and what can such vague promises do in the face of poison and treachery?

After his meeting with Leto, Gurney returns to his bunk. He sits down, shoulders slumped, head in his hands, and after holding his breath for a moment, he lets out a shaky sigh. It was only a matter of time until they’d have to deal with underhanded bullshit like this, but some foolish part of him had hoped they’d have more time. That the weeks he’s spent procrastinating could be followed by weeks he’d spend by Paul’s side.

The closest they get to a reunion is the strategy meeting after the attack. Paul enters the room with his shoulders straight, but a hesitation in his step. He knows he belongs in the room, but it’s like a part of him still expects that he cannot enter without being explicitly invited.

Simply seeing him, this man who spits in the face of their enemies and stands here, today, alive, brings a smile to Gurney’s face, and so, he greets Paul loudly.

“Your first strategy meeting – Paul Atreides, who catches hunter-seekers in his bare hands like a hero of old.”

The men at the table laugh, and Paul is all smiles as he rounds the table, his eyes on Gurney the entire time. At the sight of him, at the heady tension in the air, Gurney can do nothing but join in the laughter, as it is the only thing that could hide the genuine pride in his voice.

Next thing he knows, Paul’s hand is on his shoulder, and he’s whispering in this ear – the hum of his voice nostalgic of that day on the cliffs of Caladan.

Thank you for the humiliation, Paul murmurs, a smile in his voice, and Gurney leans into it – the warmth and familiarity of him. As Paul moves to head for his seat, Gurney reaches for him. It’s an all too impulsive – all too public – thing to do, but the tips of his fingers brush Paul’s where they still rest on his shoulder, and upon the touch, Paul lingers for a brief moment. The exchange, however small, brings a smile back to Gurney’s lips, and finally, he manages a reply. “Gotta keep my eye on you.”

It’s not just a humorous back and forth; it’s a promise. Paul will not have to deal with something like the hunter-seeker on his own again. Next time, Gurney will ensure he’s there, and can put himself between Paul and whatever’s seeking to hurt him.

At Leto’s arrival the meeting commences. Of course, the focus is on how much the Harkonnens used to make from the spice trade – and what House Atreides must do to match those numbers. They’re talking billions of solari, and Gurney finds himself rolling his eyes, murmuring beneath his breath; “they shall suck of the abundance of the seas, and the treasure hid in the sand”. As he speaks, he’s can feel Paul’s gaze on him, and from the corner of his eyes, he sees amused, raised eyebrows and a smile – Paul leaning towards him, as if tempted to reply, but only barely keeping himself from doing so.

As they head out en masse to inspect the harvesting equipment, it’s as if no time has passed. Paul appears comfortable now, openly asking questions and offering suggestions, and what can Gurney do but back him up? Paul has always been observant and a quick learner, the least Gurney can do is lend his authority and experience to the discussion. Had they not been interrupted, he could imagine them continuing the back and forth for much of the day, but instead, Duncan Idaho, ally of the Fremen, arrives in style; it’s as if the man was born to carry himself with confident swagger no matter where he goes.

Paul leads the way to the ornithopter, Gurney following, intentionally falling into step a few paces behind.

Because while he’s pleased to be reunited with Duncan, and, in fact, quite desperate to have the support of the swordmaster to navigate the escalating threat of the Harkonnens… Gurney keeps a slower pace, his eyes not on the crew exiting the ornithopter, but Paul. Seeing the lightness in his step as he moves to a sprint, his joy is enough to have Gurney break into a smile of his own. When he finally catches up to them, he embraces Duncan as well, and the three move as one to greet Leto and the others.

There’s much to brief Duncan on, but Gurney can barely contain his relief at Paul having more loyal people by his side. It’s only a matter of time until things escalate, and Gurney will be able to sleep better knowing that he won’t have to be at two places at once; Duncan will help take care of their boy.

At night the three of them share a drink, talking about the Fremen and the world that awaits out in the desert. Though, as the night progresses, there’s an unfamiliar gleam to Duncan’s eyes as he talks about Arrakis. Something like longing in his voice, as he describes his journey through the sand, and his meeting with the Fremen.

Paul doesn’t seem to notice the change in Duncan though, and excitedly listens to the adventurous tales, admiring every Fremen gadget that Duncan explains to them.

By the end of the night Duncan smiles, and there’s a wistful quality to his voice when he says; “it’s beautiful out there”. Had Duncan not been a friend, Gurney might’ve scoffed at the suggestion, but now he manages to hold his tongue. Paul, on the other hand, smiles at the promise, a gleam in his eyes.

There’s an unease in Gurney’s chest, a twisting and turning ache, as he feels like life is outrunning him. Like there’s a future here that others can perceive, but he cannot.

Soon enough, he gets the chance to journey into the dunes himself, to see if he can find the supposed beauty that the others speak of.

He heads out of the city in an ornithopter, along with Leto and Paul. Gurney is seated at the back, not really having a view of the desert, but he doesn’t feel like he’s missing much. He has Paul in the seat in front of him, and full view of Leto in the pilot seat. This is all he needs to ensure their safety; a nice view of the sands is secondary to his duty.

What he can see through the windows seems bleak though, verging on hostile. Endless plains of sand, shifting in hues of peach and blood orange; the deeper hues hinting at the presence of spice. Gurney isn’t so far gone that he can’t admit to there being a sort of beauty in the shifting dunes, but he’d be lying if he said he’d willingly live in a place like this.

When they notice the dust cloud on the horizon, his instinct is to lean forward and reach for Paul. It’s as much for his own’s sake as it’s for Paul’s; some silly hope to ground the both of them as they face the unknown. The touch can barely be felt through the stillsuits, his hand lingering on Paul’s shoulder for but a moment, until he leans back into his seat once more.

From afar, they watch a giant harvester sucking up spice and spewing smoke into the air. They witness the sheer impact the machinery has on the deserts as it tears through the sand, angering the creatures below the surface. They watch a sandworm head for the harvester at incredible speed – and what’s supposed to be a display of experienced workmanship quickly turns to horror when the harvester’s evacuation equipment malfunctions.

Of course, the ornithopters don’t stay airborne long.

Of course, Leto would risk his life to save the workers on the harvester.

Of course, Paul would follow his father’s lead without hesitation.

Gurney follows them into the sand, knowing the worm is closing in rapidly on their location; knowing that decisions like this is why he pledged his allegiance to the House of Atreides in the first place… yet he feels a certain hopelessness at the challenge of keeping such a father and such a son alive.

It all goes better than he could hope. They quickly empty the ornithopters of extra weight, and help the workers aboard. Leto is ready to take off, but Gurney is not. Searching through the ships, Paul is nowhere to be found, and as Gurney’s looking into the blue eyes of dozens of strangers, not finding the dark pair of Caladanian irises he’s looking for, he feels a bitter anxiety at the back of his throat.

Without stopping to explain himself, he’s running into the sands again, driven by nothing but desperation. In this moment, his fear is a collapsing star, eating all light, narrowing his world until only one thing – one person – remains.

Once he’s outside, Paul is not hard to find. He’s kneeling by the harvester, swaying slightly in the breeze, seemingly gone to the world. Gurney shouts his name, not getting any reaction. At the corner of his eye, he can see the dust clouds rising, and hear the rumbling of the approaching worm.

Each step he takes is heavy, his feet sinking with the force of his stride, his muscles burning with the effort, and yet he does not stop running; would never stop; not when it’s Paul.

Deserts and spice and monsters be damned. Either he leaves the dunes with Paul in his arms, or not at all.

Gurney practically runs into Paul. As he reaches out to haul him to his feet, he hears words of the past muttered as a greeting; I hear your footsteps, old man, and Gurney’s chest hurts at the sound. Paul is there, somewhere, but he’s not present. The words bleed from him like a memory, but his body is limp, dissociated.

Only when Gurney lifts him off the ground and yells at him to run, does Paul seem to regain some form of consciousness. They run through the sand, as the dunes rise above them like the raging waves of Caladan.

The worm is upon them, and side by side they fall, hands grasping at the sand for purchase, grasping at each other for an anchor. Gurney has the time to think that this is it. This is how he dies.

While he’s since long made peace with dying a pointless, undignified death, the thought of Paul suffering the same fate keeps him going. Pushes him to struggle against the current, against the sinking sands.

Over the gusts of dust and the monstruous rumbling in the ground, he hears the ornithopter hover close by. Gurney launches for its ramp, finding solid footing and a beam to hold on to. Then he grabs Paul by the hand and hauls him to safety. There’s no time to enter the ship and strap in. Instead, they remain on the ramp, Gurney being the only thing keeping them from the carnage below.

Hand in hand, they watch the sandworm surface where they’d fallen moments ago. Endless rows of teeth, its wide-open maw swallowing the spice harvester whole before it disappears into the dunes once more. And even now, even in the face of such overwhelming power, Gurney cannot keep his eyes on the destruction. Instead, he glances at Paul, squeezing his hand, trying to gage if he’s still present; trying to ensure that there’s still life in the body that he so desperately clings to, and that Paul hasn’t lost himself to Arrakis once more.

When they arrive back in Arrakeen, he watches Leto yell at his son, beside himself with worry, and while Gurney understands the fear of watching a loved one so close to being devoured, he feels none of the anger; whatever happened out there, Paul did not choose to stay in the sand.

So, while Leto admonishes his son for his recklessness, Gurney does not find it within himself to join in on the lecture. Instead, he watches Paul, his expression still distant – as if part of him didn’t make it back – as if part of him is still lost out there, in the sands.

Gurney looks down at his hand, closing it and opening it, still feeling the strain of holding Paul for minutes on end. High on adrenaline, high up in the air, he barely remembers the journey back to base – but he does remember that tight grip. Remembers the rush of looking upon the cruelty of the universe, and refusing bend to its horrors.

Thing is, Gurney knows his limits. Mysticism is alien to him, and he has refused to partake in melange all his life. Whatever’s going on with Paul, it’s something which Gurney knows little of, and so, he takes a step back, allowing Paul to seek out his mother, and whoever else might be able to help him.

One of Arrakeen’s worst features is how the palace and city itself is little more than a prison. When the walls are closing in, there is no outdoors to escape to. There’s just sand and heat and mortal danger, and when the corridors seem cramped and the sleeping quarters seem narrow and suffocating, there’s nothing to do but breathe through it.

Gurney walks through the labyrinthian hallways, not paying much attention to the direction he’s heading, nor the guards or servants he encounters along the way. When he closes his eyes, there’s nothing but blinding dust. He can still feel the trembling ground beneath his skin, and his mind has yet to truly grasp how close they came to being swallowed up by the desert.

He’s painfully aware of how Paul nearly got left behind. How no one except Gurney thought to look for him. Had things gone differently – had he not sworn to keep his eyes on him – he could’ve sat with the rest of them in the ornithopter, and watched from afar as Paul disappeared in the sand.

Gurney heads for his quarters – not that they offer much more privacy than the corridors, but at least he’s got a change of clothes waiting for him, and a bottle of drink stashed away beneath his bunk.

He’s unsure of what to do with himself. What could help him off this edge, and steady his panicked pulse and dark thoughts.

When Gurney thinks of himself, he sees a man built out of a million pieces; pieces that can all be taken from him; grains of sand lost to the dunes. For Paul; for Leto; for Jessica; he’ll give these pieces willingly, because he can’t imagine that there’s something at his core worth keeping.

No matter how you enter life – no matter if you’re soft limestone or hardened crystal – you’re ground down until your smallest components are indistinguishable from each other. The only thing keeping these pieces of you together is whatever cause you’ve lent your life to, and today Gurney came dangerously close to losing that. Had Paul died out there by the harvester, there would’ve been little left for Gurney to do but to walk into the sands and let himself scatter there.

Arriving at his bunk, he finds a couple of soldiers in the barracks, but it’s still early, and most of them have places to be. For once, there’s some sense of quiet in the sleeping quarters.

Gurney strips out of his clothes. The fabric is rough with sweat and sand, and he throws them carelessly by the bed. For washing up, there’s little more to do than to rub his skin clean with a piece of cloth. No water, no baths. He knew that he would miss the seas of Caladan, but even so, he could not have anticipated how much he’d yearn for the cool touch of water on his skin. To be submerged beneath the surface, and be held by something so powerful, yet gentle.

He puts on a dark, short sleeved shirt and pants meant for training. A simple uniform, soft enough to wear beneath armor – or to bed. Sitting down on the bunk, he finds himself staring at nothing in particular. He gets the bottle of drink from beneath the bed, taking a swig from it, and feeling the mouthful burn his tongue, his throat.

Normally he would play his baliset to calm his mind, but this is not a day for music. Instead, he lies down on his bed, figuring that he can regain a sense of purpose if he just allows himself to work through the thoughts, and memories, that are intruding upon him.

Of course, this is when he hears someone enter the barracks. Someone with a familiar stride – equal parts purposeful and humble; the steps of a man who knows his right to enter any room, but who would prefer to wait for an invitation.

Lowering his gaze from the ceiling, he finds Paul; dressed in a white, loose shirt and dark pants. He hasn’t exactly cleaned up, but he looks slightly more put together than when they last saw each other.

Still, there’s an unnatural paleness to his skin, and something haunted in those dark eyes.

“I heard your footsteps”, Gurney says, finally. It’s enough for Paul to breathe a laugh, and one corner of his mouth to quirk up into an almost-smile.

“A wise man once told me that footsteps can be easily mimicked.”

Gurney shifts on the bed, feeling that he should stand to greet Paul, but the both of them standing in this cramped space wouldn’t exactly be preferable to the way they are now. Instead, he raises himself on both his elbows, somewhere between sitting up and lying down. It’s a painful strain on his muscles, especially after their journey across the dunes, but he figures he’ll be able to hold himself up for a few minutes, at least. “I’d say that sounds like the comment of a paranoid lunatic.”

His comment catches Paul off guard, the small smile spreading into a grin, reaching his eyes, reigniting a gleam there.

“Your words, not mine”, and as Paul speaks, he closes the distance between them, sitting down on the edge of the bed. The mattress is hard, and barely shifts with the extra weight, but it’s enough to push them together, Paul partly leaning on Gurney’s thigh.

For a moment, silence envelops them, and Gurney finds himself studying Paul’s pale skin; looking for damage or sign of sickness. He finds little, his gaze trailing along the sharp collar bones, along Paul’s throat, his chin, and except for some light scratches, there’s nothing to be found.

Gurney clears his throat, meeting Paul’s gaze once more. “What happened back there?”

“The spice”, Paul says, trailing off, his voice rough, as if he’s forcing himself to speak of things that he’d rather not put words to. “It made me see things. Hear things.”

Gurney mulls this over, trying to remember if he’s heard similar tales before. When nothing comes to mind, he instead ponders the people around them – those who have influence on both Caladan, Arrakis, and beyond.

“Witch things?” Gurney asks, softly, hoping to keep any judgement from his voice.

He gets a bitter laugh in reply, as Paul shakes his head, those wild dark locks swirling around his face. “I guess.”

“You weren’t there”, Gurney says, voice still soft, and there’s no blame – the only thing that bleeds through is his worry. “You spoke to me, but you weren’t there.”

Paul nods, his eyes unfocused as his gaze wanders to Gurney’s mouth, down to his chest, before snapping back up to his eyes. “I disappear sometimes”, he agrees. “I can’t control it.”

“If I can help…” Gurney starts, but he has no idea what he’s about to offer. What does he know of melange, of visions, of the Bene Gesserit? Paul shakes his head, placing a hand on Gurney’s shoulder, as if he’s the one needing the support. The palm of his hand rests there, fingers spread over Gurney’s dark shirt, reaching from the top of his shoulder and down his chest, and Paul continues speaking, his voice a stark contrast to the tenderness of his touch.

“There’s nothing that can be done. This is part of me, I just… have to adapt.”

Paul’s voice is strained while he speaks, and his tone resigned. Whatever he’s been going through, it has clearly occupied his mind for a long time. It must be jarring to have such a private thing suddenly be brought into the light, with no control over who gets to see him in such a vulnerable state.

“You’re strong”, Gurney says, pausing to think, the hand on his chest proving quite distracting, “and you’re sharp. You will adapt. A hellhole like this will not break you.”

Paul raises an eyebrow, a smile now back on his lips, but it’s all teasing and no joy. “Hellhole? Have you not gotten used to our new home, old man?”

Gurney scoffs, suddenly feeling an overwhelming need for another drink. “Need I remind you that we were seconds from becoming worm food?”

Paul nods, pretending as if he’s seriously considering the question. “True, but nature is unpredictable on all planets. We cannot blame an animal for following it’s instincts.”

And Gurney knows that Paul is trying to rile him up. Recognizes this all too well from their years of sparring. He decides to play along, figuring that Paul needs something grounding, something normal.

“Ah, forgive me. Perhaps we should celebrate the beasts? Honor the worm, supreme catalyst: he spurs the rate of change."

Paul snorts a laugh, the hand on Gurney’s chest moving slightly, long fingers tracing nonsensical patterns through the fabric of his shirt. “Careful – speak like that, and I’ll mistake you for Fremen.”

Gurney hums in reply, glancing down at the pale hand, where Paul’s blunt nails dig into the black shirt, scratching unknowable symbols on Gurney’s skin. The touch sends cool shivers up his neck, a tingling on the back of his skull, but Gurney will not shy away from it. He lets out a breath, unaware that he’d been holding it for quite some time, and looks up at Paul once more. “Somehow, I doubt you would mind me being more like them.”

Paul averts his gaze, shaking his head gently – barely enough to disturb that wild, dark hair. There’s a small smile on his lips, but it’s not specifically meant for Gurney. If anything, Paul seems to simply feel a sense of joy that needs to be expressed somehow, and without a thought it rises to the surface, lighting up his features while Paul himself remains unaware.

As the silence envelops them both, Paul makes no attempt to speak. Instead, he shifts on the bed, his movements slow – once again purposeful in how he telegraphs his intentions before following through – and gently lies down next to Gurney, pushing him back against the mattress.

It’s a small bunk, not meant to hold more than one man, but Paul curls up on what little space is available like he belongs there, his head resting on Gurney’s shoulder, their legs tangling together.

It’s a sudden shift, not entirely unexpected and certainly not unwelcome, yet Gurney finds himself overwhelmed with the weight of it. The moment calls for him to say something, but his throat is dry, and his thoughts are scattered. The fear that previously gripped him so tightly has dissipated, and in its stead there’s a fluttering ache in his chest.

“Give it time. I think there’s a home for us here, if we seek it out”, Paul says, the murmur of his voice warm on Gurney’s skin.

“You trust Duncan on his word, then? That there’s beauty out there?”

Paul simply nods, clever hands tangling in the fabric of Gurney’s shirt now, holding on as he makes himself comfortable.

Gurney sighs, wrapping an arm around Paul to keep him from falling off the bed.

“I’ll believe it when I see it.” No matter how much he tries, he can’t for the life of him figure out where Paul has found this faith in Arrakis; it’s not childish naiveté, but it sure feels like it. “In my experience, nothing survives the Harkonnens’ corruption. Once they’ve spread their poison somewhere, nothing good, nothing beautiful, nothing worth loving remains.”

Paul listens to him keenly, turning his head enough to look up at Gurney through those dark lashes. “And yet, here you are, old man”, Paul says finally, his voice steady, his gaze intent.

Gurney breaths a laugh, unable to contain the smile spreading across his lips. The sheer force of it has the scarring on his face strain, and somehow that simply deepens his joy.

Despite how he’s been picked apart throughout the years, and bled himself dry for those he’s pledged his loyalty to, there’s an overwhelming warmth in his chest now, as if something immense and indescribable is contained there. It’s an almost painful thing, and it’s part of him; something that he will not share with others; something that he will never let go of. He’s unsure of what to say, unsure of what to do with his hands, so he cards his fingers through Paul’s soft hair, ruffling it a bit – as if it could possibly get messier than it already is.

When at a loss for words, Gurney does what he does best, turning to stanzas he’s memorized decades ago. An entertainer’s love for pretty words, spoken with the harshened voice of a fighter.

“We live”, he murmurs, fingers still tangled in Paul’s hair, blunt nails scratching lightly over his scalp. “Gold hot bright, the line of us, never tiring – we live.”

Paul sighs, relaxing in Gurney’s arms, and only when he notices the tension drain from Paul’s limbs does Gurney realize how stressed he’s been all this time; the weight of the unknown, carried alone into a strange land.

God, he wishes better for Paul. Wishes this was a safe place to build a home, a place to live and not simply survive. He wishes they knew peace, and had the time to learn of the supposed beauty of Arrakis.

Gurney tightens his grip around Paul’s shoulders, and Paul happily leans into the embrace, his face coming to rest against Gurney’s throat.

“Tomorrow you’ll have to sing me a song”, Paul breathes, his voice a warm on Gurney’s skin. “And play me the baliset.”

Gurney simply hums in reply, because even if they’re not living in times of art and music, for Paul he would make an exception. For Paul, he would reach far into the universe for inspiration, and spin lyrics from memories of roiling seas – of white stars scattered in the emerald moss.

His thoughts wander, his mind dazed and sleepy. He feels the weight of Paul’s head on his chest, that soft hair tickling his throat and getting caught in his beard. Paul’s hands are tangled in Gurney’s shirt, fingers digging into the soft fabric, as if wanting nothing more but to touch skin, yet keeping from doing so.

It’s a comfortable and tender and absolutely outlandish thing to find in a place like Arrakeen. It feels like sharing warmth in the face of a storm. It feels like clinging to each other at the top of ancient cliffs. It feels like something Gurney hasn’t experienced in decades – something he’s rarely tried to put words to.

It may be early in the evening, but with the exhaustion of a near-death experience looming over them, they fall asleep tangled on the all too small bunk. Gurney holding Paul tightly, as if he could shield him from the cruelty of the world with something as simple as an embrace.

In the morning he wakes alone, but he doesn’t feel like he’s been abandoned. His sheets still carry the scent of Paul – earth and vetiver and petrichor. There’s both nostalgia and calm to be found there, the warmth lingering long after Paul has left for his chambers.

When they meet in the hallways of the palace later in the day, Paul seeks him out, dark eyes gleaming as he talks about some species of mice that apparently live out in the sand. It’s a nonsensical conversation to have, but Paul is excited – and Gurney will always invite that burning curiosity, no matter the topic. At the end of the impromptu lecture, Gurney suggests they should spar, and soon enough, he finds himself pinned to the ground with Paul straddling him – this time with the added humiliation of Duncan laughing at him from the sidelines.

Gurney is quickly learning the amount of humiliation he’d gladly suffer on behalf of Paul’s happiness, and that it eclipses whatever vague ideas of integrity he used to have.

The days pass quickly, in a haze of ensuring that the harvesting machinery gets up and running; the rearming of Arrakeen and training of the Atreides troops – and stolen moments within the palace walls.

Gurney knew they were living on borrowed time. Reminded himself of this whenever he found his thoughts getting too optimistic – when he found himself envisioning a future, years down the line, surrounded by the same people he spends his days protecting now.

And yet, despite having expected the Harkonnens’ arrival for months, waking in the middle of the night to the news of their incursion is a jarring thing.

It shouldn’t catch him off guard, but it does; despite his best attempts, he’s grown soft, and foolishly hopeful.

Gurney is in his sleeping clothes. He’s too far from Paul and Leto and Jessica – and he has no idea where Duncan is. He leaves his bunk still disoriented with sleep, but upon seeing the ships descend in the night, they seem like ghosts of his time on Giedi Prime.

There’s no time to think; to fret; to wish things could have been different.

They may lack armor, they may lack weapons, but they are House Atreides until the last man standing. Gurney does what he can, leading his men into battle one last time.

He’ll have to hope that Jessica, Leto or Duncan will protect Paul in his place. That there’s enough loyalty and strength within that palace to save that which is most important.

After all, Gurney tells himself, Paul Atreides is surrounded by people who love him, and by god, Gurney hopes that love will shield him, and help him make it through this night.

It ends just like he thought it would, and all he can do is forge ahead.

All he can do is add his body to the shield between the Harkonnens and Paul, and hope that on the other side of this, Arrakis will still be a place of beauty – a place that welcomes lost souls. Souls displaced by war and persecution. Souls like Paul Atreides, with his fierce fighting spirit, and his warm touch, and his infectious smile.

For the longest time, Gurney Halleck lived a life unendurable, and he endured it all the same.

Slowly, but steadily, though, something seeped back into his life. Something warm; shared smiles and breath and laughter. Endless hours spent dancing at the edge of each other’s swords.

In the House of Atreides, he regained something he long thought lost. Something worth dying for.

Gurney Halleck loses himself to the burning night of Arrakis, and he does not regret a single thing.