Thin leather sails are strewn upon the ground, blanketing bed, stove and the chest where Gale keeps his riding hooks. The electric storm had left a gash about six inches long down the center of the fabric, but delays and clumsy manipulations have widened the gap so it's now a foot bigger than Gale remembers. He judges by the size of the tear that mending it will take time and thread far thicker than what they have in the sietch – but he's been wrong before. As some seek to remind him whenever his stillsuit rips at the sleeve or his breeches split in haste and foolishness, mending is not his strongest skill.

With no hope of stowing the hooks in their proper place, Gale leaves them just inside the beaded door curtain and strips to the skin. He would wash, but the cistern is hidden away somewhere under the canopy and he can't find reason enough to dislodge the unfurled material. Thankfully, at least, his clothes are in the chest by the door, where he can easily retrieve them to protect what little modesty he has left.

"Hello." A female voice in the doorway makes Gale shoot up quickly, his hands hastily drawing down his shirt. His city customs are proving hard to forget, whatever preference Gale may hold for the easy manners of sietch life. Thankfully, his new neighbors find such hang-ups fascinating and a little quaint. They don't mind that he's different, as long as he respects their ways. "I thought I saw you come in. The trek went well, then, did it?" Her smile is bright, inviting. "We're making merry tonight. You're welcome to come."

Gale thanks her. "I might," he offers judiciously, "if I can find the smokepipe under this mess." It's customary to bring instruments or drink to a gathering in the sietch, but Gale has neither. The smokepipe isn't really his to lend, either, though he shares a bed with its owner.

"Don't trouble yourself," advises his – friend. "Just bring the storyteller."

And there it is. Beyond any possession or skill that's in his power to offer, Gale has earned respect and admiration for the crafty sage he brought with him to the desert. It wasn't the plan, but life seldom works out as anticipated.

He leaves behind the cold stone walls to trudge through sand-streaked corridors and crowded chambers. With the raiders come back, the sietch is full of laughter and relief, men and women showering their loved ones with affection for a job well done. The occasional moan from behind beaded curtains sends a flush through Gale's cheeks – this, too, is something to get used to after ten years in Arrakeen – but there's no room to linger on the vibration in unfamiliar voices as he breaks surface. Of the many hideouts in the sietch, Gale knows to check the market first.

It's among crowded stalls and children playing in the dirt, that he finds what he's looking for.

His blonde head gives him away in a land where almost everyone is dark-skinned and raven-haired, but it's the stories he weaves with hands and tongue that make him so unforgettable. Sometimes, Gale thinks he's merely tolerated for being friend and companion to the stranger from another world. But then those blue-in-blue eyes shift to him, a wide mouth fixing into a smile Gale wants to kiss away, if not preserve in amber – and he forgets.

"You're back," he's told as he straddles the wooden bench upon which women, and the occasional man, sit to stir clay pots and chat about their day.

Gale dips his finger into a stick piece of dough and pulls it back when swatted with a wooden spoon. He's fast enough to dance out of range, but he relishes the thought of capture. "I caught a good worm," he confirms, licking the bittersweet taste of flour from the digit. It's thrilling to see the gesture followed by a lover's gaze. "What happened to our dwelling? Have you decided to take the windbreakers hostage until further notice?"

"I wanted for work space." The answer is wholly unapologetic. Gale appreciates the honesty, the sense of trust that follows from making one's own decisions and knowing they'll impact another. They're learning every day, adjusting the boundaries of their new life as they go. Mostly, they get it right.

Forgiveness is hard enough to earn without arguments and fiery words.

"I should think you'll be wanting for sleep space in a few hours," Gale shoots back, reclining tired muscles against the wooden bench. "Or are we to sleep on top of the tarp?"

If their neighbors wonder at their arrangement, it's never publicly admitted. Gale expected eyebrows to be raised when they first arrived. For the first month, he slept with one eye open, constantly dreading judgment or betrayal. With none forthcoming, he's come to question his memory of what is permissible in the desert – a new fixation he sometimes thinks he's caught by osmosis. They play it safe because it's easy and the demands of sietch life don't allow for effusive passion at the end of the day.

It's only when the moons are high and round, and no raiding planned by the sietch elders, that Gale leads them out into the desert. He remembers this from childhood; men and women bound by love and in possession of their parents' blessing, departing for time alone between the dunes. And if two men happen to do it instead, at least the whispers of 'abomination' are kept far from Gale's ears.

"You worry too much."

Gale can't dispute the sentiment. He shrugs again, his foot sliding under the bench to curl around a strong, tanned calf. City pallor is the first to go here, in the desert. "It's how I pass the time." With no guards to train and no fear of being chased by imperial scouts, Gale's mind is often unoccupied; he operates well when on raids, but the riding of sandworms relies on muscle memory alone. His thoughts fly, drift and catch on all sorts of branches. Most reach out to the bed he's left empty, the warm, broad back he can't touch as he falls asleep on rocky outcroppings.

A few wisps of longing travel back to Arrakeen, where the Empress has long given orders to have her would-be assassins executed for treason against the crown. He doesn't miss the palace or its deceitful residents, but it's human to wonder. Could he have done better to expose the coup? Could he have spared the pawn and saved the empress in the same fell swoop?

The truth is that he played fast and loose when it mattered most; risks that seemed acceptable then shine like beacons of doubt under the glare of hindsight. But to regret is to wish for a different outcome and Gale doesn't. Not for a moment.

Challenging the mold has been the main driver in their relationship since its shaky beginnings, so Gale is hardly surprised to see talented hands return the bowl to one of the women working nearby, with instructions on what to do next to make the bread rise. The grip around his wrist is dusted with white, but its heat comes from deep within. His smile, Gale thinks, might as well be sunlight. "Let's see if I can't change your mind."

The Empress may have ordered Peeta to be put down for his part in the crime engineered against her, but she has done nothing to enforce the edict. The armies Gale once trained are now engaged in war with the true culprits. For this, Gale feels thankful.

He is equally grateful for the hands that close around his shoulders and cradle him in a tight embrace when the hubbub of the sietch has faded to a dull hum. "I can taste the desert," Peeta tells him later, his body draped over Gale's back, under the coarse leather of the canopy, "on your skin."

"It's the spice-mélange," Gale reports, pillowing his head upon his arms because he can't hold himself up and speak all at the same time. They ride out in groups and harvest it fresh from the sands, before Arrakeen can send workers to collect what's left. They use it for cooking rather commerce.

But Peeta shakes his head, damp bangs rubbing lazily against Gale's shoulder. "It's freedom."

The sietch is alight with laughter and merrymaking that night, young raiders fresh from their first trek rubbing shoulders with seasoned old-timers indulging their sons in celebration. Drink pours from gourds into wide-rimmed cups that bear the defects of handmade pottery, and from there into mouths made thirsty and spirited by the night. Equally handmade is the effervescent music, as fingers pluck strings and dance upon tight drums, stumbling over a noisy, imperfect rhythm. Warm bread rolls so soft that they melt on the tongue disappear off plates before revelers have had the chance to wonder at their provenance.

Curiously absent is the heavy smoke of a spice pipe and the wild imaginings so often unleashed in the foreign cadence of a man's voice while his older companion sits, on a nearby stool, and sometimes clasps his hand to a freckled knee.

Their names are never spoken.

Post A/N: Here's the site where the story is written in a oneshot format.

http:/ archiveofourown .org/ works / 191899?view_adult=true