A/N: Fanfiction repost of rawthorne's Archive of Our Own fic.
Setting: Exclusively influenced by Frank Herbert's Dune series.
Arrakis. Dune. Wasteland of the empire and the most valuable planet in the universe, for it is here and only here that spice is found. The spice. Without it, there is no commerce in the empire, there is no civilization.
And he who controls it controls our destiny.
– Princess Irulan Corrino, on Dune.
In the desert, the line between life and death is sharp and quick.
– Zensunni fire poetry from Arrakis
The hand that holds his has turned to red peel by the time Gale glances down. It's attached to a shiny arm that has begun disintegrating slowly and a shoulder bone that's already peeking through the flesh. In the brief moments before the horror reaches its inevitable climax, a strange, beguiling wind brushes a shock of blonde hair out of blue eyes and twists a soft, generous mouth.
Gale's dreams have never been a source of comfort, but it isn't until he wakes drenched in his own sweat and shivering from the pressure of cracked lips against his ear that he understands why so many give into spice-mélange to ease their sleep. His hands are shaking as he grasps the carafe at his bedside, pouring water into a shallow cup and finishing without tasting the enriched minerals, the earthy scent of deep, off-world wells. It, like everything else in Arrakeen, doesn't come from the place Gale once called home. This is what his people call progress.
His stomach feels settled enough that after a second cup he stops drinking and lies back onto the bed, where fine covers allow a thin breeze to smooth over damp skin. It's not much of a caress, but Gale has a head full of hands touching him, kneading at his back and calves and nape, and he doesn't want a refresher. Men have gone mad for less. He stares out the twin moons until they've slid from the sky, slowly reconsidering his own sanity. Satisfied, he gets up before the sun has broken over the edge of horizon to bathe and dress himself.
In the desert, wasting water on cleaning oneself was a sacrilege, but city affluence makes city habits hard to break and Gale can't deny enjoying the trickle of warm water lapping in a shallow pool at his feet as he carefully shaves off his beard. He's old enough to wear a man's apparel, but the absence of a wife to keep his house and bring up his children marks him as incomplete. It is no matter; Gale no longer follows sietch law. Desert ways know nothing of the torch he bears, quenched by now to a dim flicker, or the dreams that haunt his nights, leaving him uneasy and unfulfilled, like a swindled traveler at the end of a long pilgrimage.
Gale is not in the habit of questioning his faith, so he dries off quickly and thinks no more on the subject of pale hands caked with mud or steel-tinted eyes – or body heat engulfing him in a soothing chokehold.
His own hands have known real toil and real death, but he was not the one chosen by fate to honor his sietch in battle. This is the burden Gale has carried with him ten years after the battling is over and done with, watching from the balcony of the training house as boys his age and younger learn to use their bodies as they would a crysknife. It hasn't been easy to drive them from the dunes and into the city, but it is here that they are needed most, where the throne of Everdeen is under constant threat.
He counts it as good fortune that none of them are blonde and blue-eyed or well-fed and lifeless at the bottom of a shallow ravine.
"You wish you were there with them." Katniss has always been quiet on her feet, whether on sand dunes where a single tremor could call monsters from the deep or in the arena, as her traps, the ones he taught her to make, snatched life after innocent life.
Gale offers her a shrug and a smile, neither of which are wholly genuine. "I wish they were better so they wouldn't need me to keep watch. We've sent our best fighters to garrisons the 'verse over. Now all that's left to keep us safe are children better used to slingshots and knives than the guns we're putting ni their hands." He hates the edge of disappointment that slips into his voice whenever he mentions the war; he backed the council after Katniss ascended to the throne and he led a number of surges himself. But ten years is a long time to remain intractable on any policy and they've lost too many people for false confidence. His fingers skim the invisible mesh grid which shields the viewing balcony from the arena. "I imagine a few of them are decent with a bow, too, for what it's worth."
"More than a few." Katniss tugs her shawl around her one handed, though it's been years and she's in full control of both arms. "I handpicked them myself, remember? The pride and joy of the Empire… or whatever propaganda we're selling these days."
Disappointment is contagious in the rats' nest of Arrakeen, where sycophants and acolytes are far too common.
"They are good at what they do." Gale watches the trainees out of the corner of his eye, willing them to prove him right. A number are practicing with bayonets, now, and doing a decent job of it. "And they'll lay down their lives for yours. That's what we need from any bodyguard. The rest…"
Touchy as it is, the subject flounders to silence as the pitter-patter of heeled shoes ascends to the terrace. The contrast between the sisters is telling; one has the makings of a queen but dreams herself a healer, while the other hasn't shed her mourning clothes in ten years. Of the two, Gale can't quite decide which is better suited to the task of ruling an empire made up for warring factions, greedy thugs and superstitious toadies.
"Am I interrupting?" Prim's soft mouth twitches into a smile, inviting without demanding an answer. "I saw you and I thought—"
"That we were having a tryst in full view of impressionable young minds?" For all that she is colder and supposedly world-weary, a much softer version of Katniss peeks through whenever her sister is present. She beckons with open arms and even takes Prim's hand.
Gale stifles any lingering jealousy. He can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that Katniss has touched him since they were children, but he is not Prim and he doesn't warrant the same affection. He's just a glorified general, old beyond his years and guilty of far more sin than Prim can dream up through spice-addled sleep. In this, he and Katniss are much alike.
"You're always welcome to interrupt," he promises Prim's warm laugh, barely seeing the rest of the girl. "We're admiring the troops."
"Ah, they're good, aren't they?"
Prim peers over the edge, but Katniss holds her back with a hand on her shoulder. This is what the council and the pseudo-religious Bene Gesserit Sisterhood can't see: Katniss will do what it takes to keep her sister safe, whether it means volunteering to fight in her place in the arena or leading a revolution against abusive government and installing herself as Regent in their place. If she hasn't yet followed the will of the people to allow her sister to rule, it's out of love rather than any thirst for power.
Gale turns back to the sound of weapons being discharged into dummy targets. "Not yet… but they will be glorious." The Empire needs them to defend the throne. Gale needs them to ease his sleep of at least one brand of nightmare.