In parts of the Imperium, it is believed that there are certain feelings that children might experience – certain inclinations – that should be stamped out during adolescence. Should you let these things fester, and grow with the child into adulthood, it will alter their life profoundly.
When Gurney Halleck was a child, many things in his life were stamped out – all things but one. It’s precious to him, this one little flame that wouldn’t die, but he knows it’s not a thing of value to others. It’s something that burns just for him, and so, it’s his duty to protect it.
Guarding his heart is an intricate process. It starts with his voice; what he might speak into existence if he isn't careful. By shrouding himself in song, and poetry, and tales of old, he can speak freely – something too revealing spoken through song, often manages to pass unheard, unseen. Then there’s his gaze; what he allows himself to see, and when he finds himself distracted, lingering. This is less of a challenge, because while he’s seen many handsome things in his life, they’ve rarely given him pause.
It’s all part of keeping his guard up, and well, sometimes it turns quite literal.
When sparring with Paul, they always wear the shields. Partly for protection, but also because the shield is a tool within itself. Learning to fight without it is necessary, but learning to fight shielded opponents is much more valuable.
Some days it’s like dancing, finding the pace of fast and slow; surprising and overwhelming your opponent, yet slowing down for the final blow.
To grapple with someone not just through sheer force and speed, but also through softness and deliberate movement, lends a certain beauty to it – a beauty that should not be found in something that’s ultimately brutal and cruel.
It also has an uncanny quality; the flashes of blue when you land a hit, and the bleeding of red when you hold your weapon directly against flesh.
Gurney has seen that red flash over Paul’s throat, his arms, his abdomen, the inside of his thigh. At this point the shield has bled for them more times than he can count, and really; it’s not technology but trust that saves them. Once your opponent breaks through, it’s only your faith in him that spares you from certain death, and well, Gurney offered himself, his loyalty and blood and life, to Paul years ago. Whether he bleeds out on the floor of the training room or the battlefield, is a mere technicality.
He has always appreciated the shields, though. The way they telegraph intent and hum beneath his touch, ensures that he’s always conscious of what he does, and why.
For as long as the shields are active, you’re on equal grounds with your sparring partner, because for a brief moment you perceive the world the same way, and are bound by the same rules.
There’s an art to how one slowly, intently, reaches for the other, and need them to do the same in turn, in order to meet in the middle. There’s relief in how the shield bleeds red, no matter if a sharp blade or gentle hand pierces it.
When they spar, it goes like this; more often than not, Gurney waits for Paul in the training room. He inspects the blades, and makes some sort of plan for the session. Usually, he doesn’t decide on anything until he’s seen Paul, and can gage his mood. Gurney knows better than to try and force sparring on someone who’s not in the mind-space to receive it.
Most days, Paul walks into the room on time. On occasion, he comes running, late, with a book clutched to his chest. Every now and then, he’s early, and then he tries to sneak up on Gurney, as if thinking he could ever get the jump on him – as if Gurney hasn’t had years to memorize the way he shifts his weight from heel to toe; the soles of his shoes rough on the wood floor; the even breaths as Paul tries to keep silent before pouncing.
The repeat sneak attacks have Gurney activating his shield in advance though. At this point it’s part of the lesson. If Paul thinks he can get Gurney in a chokehold, sneak his arms around his waist and wrestle him to the floor or swipe his leg, well, he’ll at least have to work for it.
Before they begin a sparring session, they usually greet each other with a nod, or simply a smile. Gurney might ask if Paul has any preferences or thoughts based on their last session, and then they get started.
The fighting itself comes naturally to them; a mix of Leto’s teachings, Jessica’s teachings, Duncan’s teachings; culminating in this dance between the two of them. Gurney spends most of his time trying to keep up with everything that Paul has been taught, while still trying to keep some sort of authority and vision in his own teachings.
Sometimes he needs to adjust Paul’s stance. Place one hand on his chest – fingers spread over his heart, the shield flickering at the intrusion – and the other at the small of his back, helping him find balance. On other occasions he needs to help Paul find how to transition from one move to the next, and how to put his whole body into it; then Gurney’s hands rest gently on Paul’s hips, guiding him through the motions.
When one of them gets knocked down, the other always helps them off the floor. In recent years, Gurney has found himself on the floor all the more often, Paul either standing over him with a sword to his chest – or his more favoured technique, of throwing his entire body weight at Gurney to press him into the floor, a knife to his throat or abdomen or thigh, holding him there until he relents.
In these moments of victory, Paul does nothing to supress his smugness, and Gurney does his best not to show how proud he is. Then Paul offers him a hand; a hand that must be held out slowly, gently, and be held even more tenderly in return.
At the end of a session, Gurney checks for injuries. The last thing he wants to do is to send Paul on his way, only for Jessica to come find him later on and confront him over his teaching methods, because frankly, she’s terrifying – especially when fuelled with some sort of righteous anger.
He asks Paul if he’s alright, knowing all too well he has a tendency to either play up or obscure his injuries depending on mood. Once Gurney has put on a show of listening to the reply, he steps in close, but never too close. Every touch of his fingertips glows an angry red against Paul’s pale skin, making the assessment all the harder to make, and yet, he guides Paul to tip his chin up, so that he can ensure that no blade has grazed his throat, and that no punch has bruised his arms or chest.
They say their goodbyes much like their greetings, and only when Gurney’s made sure that he’s alone does he switch off his shield. It’s an uncanny feeling, as if the world suddenly rushes in, cool and suffocating. It’s as if whatever he carries within himself could suddenly bleed into Castle Caladan, now that it’s not contained within the boundaries of blues and reds.
Carrying the shield, wearing it at most times, knowing when it’s on and off, has been drilled into him decades ago. It’s as natural as breathing. Yet the pattern of battle and touch echoes through his mind at all times. No matter what, the world is coded with electric blues and bleeding reds. When he closes his eyes, it’s there; in memories, even from before he knew any of this – it’s there. A set of rules that he’s accepted and invited into his life; the colors that now guide his every move.
The risk of teaching a young man the confidence to fight, and the tricks of outsmarting an opponent, is that these techniques can be applied to many other things in life.
It’s only a matter of time until they end a session with Gurney up against the wall, Paul holding a blade to his throat, leaning into him with his entire body to keep him in place. The humming of the shield reaches a fever pitch, and red flashes all around them. Paul’s strained breath ghosts against Gurney’s throat, and a knee presses awkwardly between his legs, and in the victory of battle, Paul doesn’t even seem to notice.
“I’ve got you”, he says, triumphant, his smile all teeth, and well, he doesn’t. He doesn’t have the body-mass to pin Gurney in such a position, but Gurney can’t bring himself to break out of it. Instead, he nods, a sharp, jerky thing, attempting a smile.
“Yeah, you got me.”
Paul steps back from him then, a bounce in his step, that jittery adrenaline high of a victory pumping through his veins. Gurney wishes he could match the excitement, but when he closes his eyes all he sees is the flashing warning signs; his every thought laced with things that should be stamped out, while he’s still got the chance to do so.
While he’s collecting himself, debating whether he should encourage them to wrap up training for the day, Paul’s shoulder collides with his – gently, a sort of teasing, brotherly bump. It’s a movement performed like an attack, to express something like affection, and for a moment Gurney is frozen where he stands. Only when Paul’s face falls does he break out of it, huffing a disbelieving laugh, feeling the corner of his mouth tug into a small smile.
“Impressive, my lord.”
Paul shakes his head at the honorific, but a faint smile is back on his lips. “Thank you, old man.”
Looking back at that moment, it’s almost as if he invited Paul to push the limits. To reframe the dance of attack and parry in his mind, and gently ease it into normal life.
Only a few weeks later, Gurney finds himself in the training room late one evening. He prefers to have the nights to himself – to revisit his past in memory, and work through the pain. It’s endless repetition, fighting in a way he couldn’t back then, ever sharpening his technique for when he’ll need to fight for survival once more.
At times like these, he rarely wears the shield, or even proper gear. Most nights he finds himself in what he would wear if he was woken up suddenly; a sleeveless shirt and thin pants; the armor of a man whose life is being torn from him, and who has to soldier through it.
Gurney pushes through the memories until his shirt is soaked with sweat, and his breath heavy. He pushes until his hand shakes where it holds the blade, and then he continues pushing.
He only pauses for a brief moment to take a few deep breaths and centre himself, and that’s when a gentle hand taps his shoulder. The touch is kind, cool against his blood-hot skin, and immediately snaps him out of the scenarios in his head. Before even turning to face the visitor, he knows it’s Paul – knows it by those slender fingers, the blunt nails, and the sheer audacity of approaching him like this.
First, he lowers his gaze to the hand, where it still rests on his bare skin. Despite neither of them wearing a shield, he sees those flashes of red all the same. A thrumming warning at the tip of Paul’s fingers.
“It’s late”, Paul says, as if this isn’t the first time they’ve had this conversation.
Gurney nods slowly, taking a step back to put some space between them. Paul’s hand falls from his shoulders, trailing down his arm, and Gurney clenches his jaw to supress the shiver that travels up his spine.
Only then, in the silence that fills the space between them, does Gurney take him in. The hair, messier than normal, the rumpled white shirt and knee-length sleeping shorts – the book he carries in his other hand.
“How long have you been here?”
“A while”, Paul replies, his voice fleeting, as if indicating that it would be better for the both of them not to go into details.
“And why did you seek me out?”
At first Paul shrugs, and then he gestures vaguely with the book he’s holding. “I couldn’t sleep.”
Gurney opens his mouth to reply, but doesn’t find the words to do so. His breathing is less strained, while his brain is alight with endorphins. Only by looking at Paul can he stay in the present, and somewhat keep the memories of his past from entering the forefront of his mind.
“I can’t help with that. I’m not a doctor.”
Paul tilts his head, that dark gaze sharp, with the softness of a smile at the corner of his mouth. “I was thinking that you could tell me a story?”
Gurney simply stares at him. “… are you five years old?”
The comment has Paul burst into laughter, his smile now reaching his eyes. “You’re being rude, old man.”
Gurney offers him a wry smile in return, finally turning away from him to put his weapon down, and to wipe the sweat from his brow. “Sorry, my lord.”
Paul scoffs at the apology, and Gurney doesn’t have to look at him to know that he’s still smiling.
It’s not a question of if he’ll agree to the request – of course he will; it’s Paul asking this of him, and even if he’s not forthcoming about what brought him here, it’s definitely more than a bad dream or restlessness. No, Gurney turns from Paul because he needs more time to find a balance within himself, and ensure that he can be what Paul needs him to be.
“Well then”, he says, finally, turning back to face Paul, finding those dark eyes on him. Gurney nods to the table across the room, leading the way there. As he sits down on a stool, Paul jumps up to sit on the table, his legs dangling right by Gurney’s knees.
“Let me tell you about how one would go about crafting a baliset.”
It’s something Gurney has talked about many times before, but the repetition doesn’t bother him, and Paul doesn’t interrupt to say that he’s already heard it. They spend the next hour or so in the training room, Gurney gesturing with his hands while he talks, his fingers deftly mimicking how you would carve and shape the wood, eventually stringing and tuning the instrument. It’s a visual story of nostalgia and warmth, and even though they sit close enough to touch, they don’t.
The seasonal change on Caladan is heralded by strong winds and downpour. Gurney heads out into the cold, partly driven by sheer stubbornness, but also because he cannot stand being confined in one space for too long. Even if he logically knows that he has the freedom to leave, he often has to confirm that he can still do so.
More often than not he spends the mornings walking against the wind through the sea battered grassland and stony moors. He arrives for the training sessions with Paul weathered and cool, the sparring warming him up; the two extremes of heat and cold making him feel at home in his skin again.
On a day just like this, when the wind is howling and the grassland is crisp with frost, Paul is late. When Gurney arrives at the training room, he finds it empty, and once he has laid out the weapons and thoroughly inspected them, he’s still alone.
For a while he paces the wood floors, listening to the echo of his steps, wondering if he should look for Paul, or simply leave. Some would say that abandonment would be a lesson in itself, that having Paul face the disrespect of his lateness and apologize would be a teachable moment, and yet – Gurney remains.
He doesn’t keep track of time. It passes fairly smoothly while he busies himself with weapon maintenance and warming up.
Eventually he finds himself looking out the window. The endless greys and the pitter patter of rain, a chilling cold he can still feel beneath his skin. The raging winds thrum at the window, hissing through the cracks, but the second Gurney hears Paul heading down the corridor towards the room, he regains his focus and turns to the door. A lecture, or at least a sarcastic remark is at the tip of his tongue, but he does not speak it.
Paul enters the room gracelessly, his skin pale, with dark circles around his eyes. There’s something haunted in the way he carries himself – glancing around the room, his hands clenched into fists.
“Are you alright?” Gurney asks, his voice softer than intended.
Paul simply nods, but when he attempts a smile, it’s a thin, forced thing.
“You don’t look in the mood for sparring”, Gurney adds, because part of him wants to check on Paul – perhaps hold a hand to his forehead and take his temperature – but offering him the chance to reschedule will have to do.
“I’m not sick, Gurney Halleck”, Paul says, unclenching his hands, rolling his shoulders to try and relax himself. “I’ve just had a bad day.”
So, Gurney falls in line, because it’s something he knows how to do. He let’s Paul pick out a blade, and instead of asking him for input on what he wishes to practice, Gurney sets the pace. It’s an art in itself; studying your sparring partner; their movements, their posture, their breathing and their eyes; to gage how far they can be pushed, and what would benefit them in the moment.
As time passes, there’s a shift within Paul. The slump in his shoulders turns into something poised, and he lunges at Gurney with some sense of purpose. Whatever haunted him before has dissipated from his mind, and beneath the blue shimmer of the shield, his cheeks are flushed and his dark eyes are sharp with intent.
For a moment, Gurney considers letting him win. Something soft in his chest sputters at the idea, and it’s the only thing he can think of to maybe brighten Paul’s day a bit. On the other hand, he respects Paul too much, and expects him to see through any trickery and flattery. So, when Gurney sees the opportunity – he takes it, and mere seconds later, he’s got Paul in a tight grip, his blade pressed to his throat, the shield bleeding red over Paul’s pale, smooth skin and Gurney’s calloused hands.
“I have you”, he says, as Paul defiantly stares at him.
Gurney expects struggle. Expects Paul to examine the room and taunt him and look for any way out of his grip, but instead, Paul relaxes in his hands with a sigh, shaking his head as he does so.
“You have me.”
What can Gurney do but nod in affirmation, and then take a step back? He puts his blade down, regaining some composure as he does so, before turning to Paul to check for injuries. This time it’s simple, just a few seconds to ensure that his blade didn’t graze Paul’s throat, but as his fingertips slowly penetrates the shield, the touch seems nearly electric.
He only maintains contact for as long as he needs to, that horrid thrumming and whining of the shield still ringing in his ears once he’s withdrawn.
Paul nods, tilting his head slightly, something like a smile on his lips. “Thank you.”
Gurney shrugs, unsure of what to do with genuine gratitude. Paul’s voice is soft, and there’s a warm gleam in his eyes, and no shield could ever hope to keep any of it out. “Sure.”
As the silence grows between them – a charged, unspoken thing – Gurney decides to end the session. He raises his hand, showing himself turn off the shield, waiting for Paul to do the same.
The ringing in his ears isn’t just from fighting, and Gurney can count the seconds by listening to the beat of his heart – feel them drag out until Paul nods, and switches off his shield as well. He then backs away with a smile, and the session is over, and when Gurney is alone in the training room once more, it all seems like a bizarre dream to him.
He needs something to do, something physical and concrete, so he once again inspects the weapons; this time looking for damage from the sparring. He’s usually not this careful when packing up the blades, but having something to do with his hands helps still his racing thoughts.
This time, he doesn’t hear Paul approach. Suddenly he’s just there, hovering over Gurney’s shoulder, and there’s something terrifying about knowing that he can move so deftly and silently – a reminder that Paul’s not just being trained to match the Atreides soldiers; he’s bound to surpass them all.
Gurney keeps his breathing steady, waiting for Paul to speak, arranging the blades at a laughable pace, but there’s just silence. There’s just the wind seeping through the castle walls, and Paul’s breathing on the back of his neck. There’s no respectful distance between them, the boundary of understudy and teacher erased, as Paul lets his chin come to rest on Gurney’s shoulder, his chest pressed to his back. The heat of it is overwhelming; particular; new. It’s nothing like working his body, lounging in the sun, or laughing with friends. It’s a unique sort of flame that burns brightly in this moment, just for them.
Foolishly, Gurney leans back into it, but as he does so, he hears the screeching pitch of the shields, and immediately he disentangles himself from Paul. He puts both hands on the table in front of him, letting out a steadying breath. Despite seeing his shield lying there by the blades, inactive, he can’t escape the ringing in his ears.
“Do you need anything?” he asks, his voice thankfully even.
There’s no immediate reply, so he turns to Paul, not knowing what answer he hopes to get.
Paul isn’t looking at him – he’s looking at the table and the scattered blades, and then he’s looking at the raindrops on the window, and then he’s finally looking at Gurney.
“I’ll see you soon”, Paul says, in lieu of answering the question, and as he turns to leave, it’s a hesitant thing.
A few days later, they spar together with Duncan, and things are as they always have been. There’s loud laughter and barked orders, and Gurney finds himself at the butt of more jokes than he’d perhaps like; but he prefers normalcy over the unknowable.
Yet another few days’ pass, and they spar on their own, and things are painfully ordinary. There’s the routine of greetings, and wordless conversation, and fighting, and saying farewell – all of it kept at a respectful distance, the shields filling the space between them.
Early one morning, there’s a knock on the door to Gurney’s quarters. Thankfully he’s already dressed for the day, having only taken some time before breakfast to sit on his bed and read.
As he opens the door, it’s not exactly a surprise to find Paul waiting for him, his fist raised to knock a second time. However, it is a surprise to see him dressed in a long dark coat and leather gloves; Gurney raises an eyebrow at him, feeling a smile tug at his lips – and he can only hope it’s not a too revealing thing.
“We should go for a walk”, Paul says, attempting a steady tone of voice, while his hands are jittery by his sides.
“Should we now?”
“You like walks, I like walks”, Paul gestures vaguely with his hands. “The weather is dreadful, just how you like it.”
Gurney snorts a laugh, heading into his room to grab his jacket. “Well then, how could I refuse?”
As he moves to grab his shield on the way out, Paul clears his throat, taking a step into the room as if intending to physically stop him from equipping it.
Gurney neither picks up the shield, nor retracts his hand. Instead, he studies Paul, trying to figure out what’s gotten into him. “You should get into the habit of always wearing it. You never know when someone might make an attempt at your life.”
Paul hums, slowly holding up one of his hands to show how there’s nothing over nor beneath the glove. “So, you keep telling me, but today, I won’t be wearing one, and neither should you. Unless, of course, you would want the upper hand on me?”
It’s manipulation, and not even clever at that, but Gurney relents all the same.
He allows Paul to lead him through the corridors and into the grassland, and once they’re outdoors, it’s clear that Paul doesn’t have a particular route in mind for their walk. Gurney finds himself on an aimless stroll along the cliffside, his mind still hazy from sleep, with Paul walking closely by his side.
“Did anything in particular spike your interest in nature?”
Paul glances at him, a crooked smile on his lips. “You.”
Gurney only hums in reply, feeling exposed without the shield – the world closing in on him, Paul’s voice like a vibration directly on his skin.
For a little while they walk in silence, and then Paul shrugs dramatically, shoving both hands into the pockets on his coat. “I feel like I’m missing out.”
And Gurney’s first impulse is to stop walking, and properly turn to him, but he doesn’t. “On?”
“A lot. Nature. Life. Things that can’t be found when you’re confined to your home.” Paul walks a couple of steps ahead of him, and then turns around, walking backwards so that he can face Gurney properly. It’s a dangerous thing to do, so close to the cliffside – and on this uneven ground – but Paul moves with the reckless bravery of someone who’s been sheltered their entire life.
Gurney clears his throat, and when he meets Paul’s gaze, he knows that his expression is soft with compassion – he can feel it in the set of his jaw. “Your parents only wish to keep you safe.”
“Well,” Paul says, spreading both his arms, gesturing vaguely to their surroundings. There’s a wry smile on his lips when he speaks again. “I am certainly safe.”
“Is there anything I could do for you?”
Surprisingly, Paul has no answer to the question. He stops in his tracks, looking at Gurney for a moment, head tilted, his eyes trailing down to his chest, maybe his hands, before snapping back up to meet his gaze. Gurney does feel slightly uncomfortable, but he’s also used to being sized up and judged based on appearance alone.
Then Paul turns, nodding towards the castle, setting a slow pace for their return. He averts his eyes to the emerald moss, staring at his boots as they sink into the ground with each step, but there’s a small, intimate smile on his lips – something so fond that Gurney feels like he shouldn’t witness it.
Instead of heading for one of the doors, Paul leads them to a bench overlooking the grassland, the grey seas visible in the horizon. The bench is made of stone slabs, covered in lichen and wet with dew and rain, but Paul sits on it anyway, making no attempt to wipe it down or to protect the fine fabric of his coat.
Hesitating for but a moment, Gurney sits down next to him, keeping some distance between them. They’re partly hidden from the wind, with only some stubborn gusts reaching them, twirling through Paul’s dark hair, turning the curls messy and wild.
The silence isn’t uncomfortable, but it’s different from most quiet moments that they’ve shared. The landscape stretching out in front of them doesn’t seem like home as much as it seems like a path to something new.
“Why do you come out here every morning?” Paul asks, his gaze lost to the horizon.
Gurney sighs to himself, shaking his head. Of course, Paul would notice. “It’s freeing.”
“Cold is neither good nor bad. As long as you can return to something warm, it’s quite grounding to feel could for a while.”
Paul huffs a laugh, shaking his head as he speaks. Gurney doesn’t have to look at him to know that he’s smiling. “Always the poet.”
“I’m not sure that’s poetry, my lord”, Gurney says, adding the honorific as some foolish attempt to distance himself. “I think that’s just a simple fact of life.”
Paul simply hums in reply, and then, ever so slowly, he takes the glove off one of his hands. The leather is tight, and he tears it off one finger at a time, until he can finally stuff it into a pocket on his coat. Then he lowers his hands to rest on the bench between them. It’s a deliberate thing, his knuckles against the stone, his pale, long fingers spread on the grey, wet rock.
Gurney watches it happen, and then watches the hand, Paul letting it rest there, easy, as if the winds and the cold isn’t rough enough to dry out his skin – crack it open and make him bleed. Gurney’s first thought is to tell him to put his gloves on again; that they should head back to the castle and the warmth; but then, he finally looks up at Paul, and he forgets whatever he was about to say.
Paul looks at him with wide, unguarded eyes, and he’s not smiling, but there’s something vulnerable to him that Gurney’s never seen before. As he tries to make sense of it, he also has to supress the ache in his chest, and ignore the humming in his ears of a shield that isn’t even there.
“Please”, Paul says, nodding down at the bench, and gods, Gurney is lost and he’s a fool, because he knows that there’s no coming back from this.
He looks at the frostbitten grass, steadying himself with a few deep breaths, and then he reaches for Paul’s hand. Before he makes contact, he closes his eyes, not needing to see the bleeding red of his intrusion.
Despite the cold, the palm of Paul’s hand is still warm and fairly smooth. With his eyes closed, Gurney can so easily trace the sharp lines of his fingers, the patterns of his palm – to which someone more inclined towards mysticism might ascribe meaning.
They’re both silent, and the world is silent, and there are no shrieking warnings or humming shields. It’s just the two of them, and whatever the space between them holds.
Gurney lets out a breath, and it sounds shaky to his ears, but he feels no shame to be vulnerable at a time like this. When he opens his eyes, he sees a blurry world, the ground wet with rain, and then he turns to Paul, and is met with that pair of dark eyes, alert and inviting.
When Gurney Halleck was a child, many things in his life were stamped out – all things but one. It’s precious to him, this one little flame that wouldn’t die. He guards his heart with fervour, holding on to this one lifeline he has, and rarely – if ever – shares it with the world.
Now, on this bench outside of Castle Caladan, the skies are grey and the grass is green, and the sea stretches out in front of them as if they’re at the edge of the world. Paul Atreides is holding his hand, a gentle warmth in this cool world that they inhabit, and it’s simple. It’s pure. It’s as if a weight has been lifted.
Gurney can feel a smile spread across his lips, mirroring the fluttering heat in his chest.
They sit there for quite some time, with nothing left to strip away; nothing to hide; nothing to be stamped out. Whatever this thing is between them, it might be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but to them it’s precious, and undying.