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Shield and Sanctuary

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It is the Emperor’s habit to ride out every evening on the main boulevard of his city, to see his people going about their lives, and to listen to the petitions of any who approach him. This habit is said to have driven several of his Royal Guard into conniptions, but the common folk of the city adore it, as they adore their Emperor, and the Royal Procession is usually more of an impromptu parade than anything else.

It is Finn Smith’s habit to spend the hour of the Royal Procession in the back room of the little shop he and his oathsister own, balancing the books and tidying the shelves for the coming day. It’s not that he dislikes the Emperor - far from it - but he’s not fond of crowds, and if he wants to see the Emperor’s handsome profile, well, he can always look at any of the coins they’ve taken in that day. Sometimes his oathsister, Rey, goes to watch the parade, but most days she spends that hour putting her tiny smithy to rights, coming upstairs to their tiny apartment smudged with soot and grinning.

They make a good partnership, Finn and his oathsister. Rey is a gifted blacksmith, her strong hands turning out beautiful daggers and eating knives - their main stock in trade - and also tiny, intricately detailed toys, which actually move when they’re wound up. Those take her longer, and sell for a far higher price, and they’re what has earned the shop its minor fame. She’s usually got at least two or three commissions for those at any given time.

Finn is a former soldier, mustered out after he was injured by a prisoner who broke parole. He keeps the books and tends the front register - he’s far better at customer service than Rey, who is blunt to the point of rudeness when she’s distracted - and has found that he’s quite a good cook when he’s not restricted to army rations. Between the two of them, Rey and Finn keep their tiny apartment tidy and their shop running, and are building up quite a respectable little nest egg for the years to come.

Finn is quite content with his life, honestly. It’s far better than he thought it could ever be, growing up as an orphan on the streets, and far better than he dreamed he would have, while he was in the army. Even being alive is more than he ever expected, given the three months he spent under the surgeons’ care after a surrendered enemy broke his parole and attacked Finn’s troop, laying Finn’s back open to the bone. But Finn survived that, and he made it to the city, and he found Rey - or rather, Rey found him - and they have built themselves a good life.

Finn has just about everything he could ever desire. He has friends at the market he goes to every morning - getting up before the sun, and knocking on the door to Rey’s room before he leaves the apartment in the hopes that she’ll be awake by the time he returns. He has time for his own hobby - whittling - while he’s tending the shop during the day (and has built up a little following of his own, of people who find the brooches and pendants he makes to be quite lovely). He has midday practice bouts with Rey, her quarterstaff against the practice blade she made for him, keeping their skills sharp in case of trouble - and Finn has chased a few thieves off in the past few years, men who thought the soft-spoken shopkeeper would be a pushover and learned otherwise rather painfully. He has quiet evenings with his oathsister, eating food he has prepared himself and talking with her about the day.

Sometimes Finn thinks about finding a lover, but - whoever he found would have to understand that Rey is his oathsister and the most important person in his life, and in any case, Finn hasn’t yet met anyone who makes him want to take the time away from his quiet life.

*

Finn is on his way to the market in the dim pre-dawn light one morning when he hears a scuffle in an alleyway, a shout of pain; he rounds the corner at a run, and finds three men standing over a fourth, who has blood running down his face in a torrent. The three standing men are ones Finn recognizes: thieves who have recently moved into the area, and haven’t managed to annoy any of the other residents enough to be driven away. Finn doesn’t bother to draw the short sword at his side; that’s for real trouble, not a trio of thieves. He punches the first thief in the solar plexus as he reaches them, leaving him bent over and gasping, and grabs the other two by the scruffs of their necks before they can turn, slamming their heads together. Both go limp; Finn may not be a blacksmith, but he is by no means weak. He drops them in a heap on the side and kneels down next to the injured man.

“Hey, hold still a minute while I see how badly you’re hurt,” Finn murmurs, and the injured man blinks up at him - dark eyes, hazy with pain - while Finn parts his thick hair and examines the injury. “Huh, not too bad, just going to bleed like a stuck pig, I’m afraid. Head wounds do. And you’ll probably be dizzy for a while.”

The injured man manages to chuckle, surprising Finn a little. “Good to know.”

Finn digs a clean rag out of his basket - he was planning to wrap a loaf of fresh bread in it, but oh well - and wads it up to put pressure on the wound. “Hold that there,” he tells the injured man, who obeys. “Let’s get you on your feet and down to the Watch House, so they can come collect these idiots.”

“Sounds like a plan, buddy,” the injured man says, and Finn helps him to his feet and loops the man’s free arm around his shoulders, tucking his own arm around the man’s waist to keep him upright.

“Left, right, left,” Finn coaxes, and the man obeys, staggering a little but keeping his feet, and they head out of the alley together.

“Soldier?” the man inquires after a few moments, interrupting Finn’s quiet chant of ‘left, right, left.’ Finn chuckles.

“Used to be,” he admits. “These days I’m a shopkeeper. My oathsister makes the finest blades in the city.” Finn keeps up a stream of idle chatter, talking about Rey and the shop and what he plans to make for dinner, until they reach the Watch House, where he turns over the injured man to the medics and gives a full report to the men on duty, who go trotting off to retrieve the stunned thieves, if they’re still around. They probably will be, at least the two Finn bashed together - he wasn’t gentle.

And then Finn goes on with his shopping, rather later than he usually does, and the rest of his day scrolls out beneath his feet much as any other day would. He tells Rey the story that night, and then, for the most part, he forgets about it. It’s not the first time he’s rescued someone from thieves - indeed, Finn is a large part of the reason so few thieves operate in this neighborhood - and it likely won’t be the last.

So life goes on as usual - for a little while.

*

The commander of the Watch House drops by a few days after the incident, to ask Finn precisely what he saw and did; Finn gives his report again, as clearly and comprehensively as he can, and the commander claps him on the shoulder and thanks him for helping to keep the city safe, and goes away again.

A few days after that, a pair of members of the Royal Guard come into the shop, investigate the beautiful daggers on display in their shining ranks, the intricate delicate gears of Rey’s most recent commission (on display until its new owner comes to fetch it), and purchase three of the finest blades. Finn shrugs to himself and puts the money in the strongbox and thinks idly that if the Royal Guard starts buying their blades from his little shop, he and Rey are going to have an even better reputation.

And a few days after that, Finn’s erstwhile rescue-ee shows up, looking far better than he did when Finn found him. He’s quite handsome, Finn realizes, and dressed like a moderately prosperous merchant or craftsman, though the enormous floppy hat is rather odd.

“I wanted to thank you for saving my life,” the fellow says, leaning against the counter and grinning at Finn. It’s a very pretty grin. Finn smiles back.

“No thanks are necessary,” he replies easily. “It was my pleasure and my duty.”

“Soldier,” the man says, nodding, and then offers a hand. “I’m Poe.”

“Finn,” Finn says, clasping it. “Good to meet you again in better circumstances.” His eye catches on the hilt of the dagger at the man’s belt, and he adds, “Is that one of Rey’s?”

The man - Poe - glances down and smiles. “It is,” he says. “One of my friends bought it for me. Lovely work; I don’t think I’ve ever seen finer.”

“That’s Rey,” Finn says proudly. “She’s the most talented smith I’ve ever met.” He picks up the little toy - a dragon that flaps its wings and opens its mouth in a soundless roar - and winds it up a little, showing off the movements of the tiny gears. Poe leans over with an awed expression.

“I have never seen anything like this,” he says after a moment, stroking a finger gently down the shining scales of the tiny iron dragon. “What astonishing work! Does she take commissions?”

Finn chuckles. This, right here, is why they usually keep Rey’s toys on display for a week or so before the commissioner comes in to pick them up. “She does,” he says, “though I warn you they’re not cheap.”

“For something like this, I should hope not!” Poe says, grinning. “I will have to think about what I would like. This is marvelous, but for me - hm. Does she do birds?”

“She can, and has,” Finn tells him.

“A falcon, just this size,” Poe says. “That can spread its wings and open its beak and maybe even ruffle its feathers. That would be -” he trails off, gesturing expressively. “How much for that?”

Finn names a price. It’s fair, he knows - he and Rey are scrupulous about that. Poe doesn’t even bother trying to haggle. “Done,” he says. “I’ll bring the money - hm - not tomorrow, I have business that will not wait, but the day after?”

Finn nods. “Rey won’t start work until we’ve received half the fee,” he warns Poe.

“Very sensible of her,” Poe approves. “So. The day after tomorrow. And - could I take you to lunch, that day? Call it a thank-you for saving my life.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” Finn objects.

Poe’s smile widens, and he reaches across the counter to put his hand gently on top of Finn’s. “Then call it a date?”

Finn can feel his face go hot, but he nods. “I - I could be free for lunch,” he allows.

“Marvelous,” Poe says, beaming. “Until then!” He bows, a little flamboyantly, and Finn laughs and shoos him out of the shop with a wide smile on his face. Poe is sort of ridiculous and kind of adorable, and Finn thinks a lunch date will be - pleasant. Possibly very pleasant indeed.

*

Poe shows up, beaming, just before Finn would have closed the shop for lunch two days later. He pays for half the price of the bird without hesitation, and seems utterly delighted with the sketch he gets in return, of Rey’s conception of the finished product. “I know a simply delightful inn not too far away,” he tells Finn as he rolls the sketch up and tucks it carefully into a beltpouch. “If you’ve no other preference?”

“None,” Finn tells him honestly, and pokes his head into the smithy to tell Rey he’s going out. She beams at him, teeth white against the soot-smudges on her skin.

“Have fun! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do! And tell me if I need to break his kneecaps.”

“I can do my own kneecap-breaking,” Finn tells her reproachfully.

Rey laughs. “Well, yes, but I’d like to help.”

Finn laughs with her, and leaves her to her work. Poe gives him a slightly dubious expression, but he offers his arm like Finn’s a highborn lady, and Finn takes it with a chuckle. “How worried should I be about the safety of my knees?” Poe inquires.

“Not terribly,” Finn assures him. “Rey’s bark is worse than her bite.” He considers that, then says, “Actually, I tell a lie, her bite is far worse, but she only hurts people who really have it coming.”

“I’m very reassured,” Poe says dryly. “Here’s the inn - I booked us a private room.”

“Oh, that’s - that’s very kind of you,” Finn says, slightly bemused. A private dining room at what Finn knows is a very good inn, during lunch hours, is not cheap. And Poe bought one of Rey’s toys like the price was nothing to worry about. He may dress like a moderately prosperous craftsman, but he’s clearly a lot wealthier than that.

The innkeeper ushers them into a tiny private room and bustles off to bring them drinks, and Poe rests his elbow on the table and his chin on his hand and gives Finn a rather silly smile. “So your - sister? - makes beautiful daggers and really astonishing mechanical things,” he says. “What do you do, other than saving strangers from disaster?”

Finn laughs. “My oathsister,” he says, “sadly not blood-kin, though I’d be proud to share her lineage.” Poe nods understanding. “And I whittle, when I’m not tending the shop or making dinner.” He tugs his necklace out from under his shirt, a pendant that he made and then liked too much to sell, and holds it out for Poe to see. Poe takes it delicately and examines it. It’s a looping swirl of polished wood, dark with the oil Finn used to polish it, smooth as silk, and sort of hypnotic if you look at it too long; Finn’s quite proud of it.

“This is not ‘whittling,’” Poe says after a moment. “You are as much a master carver as your oathsister is a master smith, and I have not seen work so fine as hers in - possibly ever.” He looks up to smile at Finn. “This is gorgeous.” He hands it back carefully.

Finn tucks the pendant back under his shirt. “It’s a very soothing pastime,” he says. “And since I use one of Rey’s knives to do it, it’s sort of advertising, too.”

Poe’s appreciative chuckle sends very pleasant shivers down Finn’s spine.

The rest of lunch is equally pleasant. The food is good, the service unobtrusive, and Poe’s conversation charming and funny and delightful. Finn finds himself smiling broadly enough that his cheeks hurt. And when they’ve finished, Poe walks him back to his shop and bows over his hand like a courtier, making Finn laugh again.

“May I see you again?” Poe asks.

“You’ll sort of have to, when your bird is done,” Finn points out. Poe pouts melodramatically, and Finn smiles. “But if you’d like to see me before then, I’d be - I’d be very happy.”

“Really?” Poe asks, seemingly delighted. There’s an adorable flush high on his cheeks.

“Yes, really,” Finn says, and can’t quite help raising one hand to brush his fingers over that pink stain. “I enjoyed this. I’d like to see you again.”

“Oh,” Poe says, grinning sort of sillily. “Oh, that’s - that’s good. I’ve got business I can’t get away from for a little while, but - same time next week? Would that be alright?”

“I will look forward to it,” Finn assures him. “Let me pick the inn?”

Poe nods eagerly, then frowns a little. “Someplace with private rooms, please?” he asks. “I’ll pay for the room, it’s just - um.”

“If that’s important to you, then sure,” Finn agrees. “I can think of a few places off the top of my head that have very nice private rooms.”

“Thank you,” Poe says, apparently quite relieved, and reaches out to touch Finn’s cheek, a mirror of Finn’s own gesture. “I’ll see you next week, then?”

“I’ll count the days,” Finn promises, and Poe goes pink again.

*

Finn takes Poe to his favorite inn, and they share an enormous bowl of the innkeeper’s marvelous rabbit stew, and Poe makes little indecent noises in the back of his throat at the taste.

Poe takes Finn to one of the royal parks, and they sit on a hill and eat bread so fresh it’s still steaming and creamy cheese that melts onto it beautifully, and drink a very good red wine, and laugh at the antics of the small children playing on the grass.

Finn brings Poe to his favorite spot just outside the city walls, next to the river that flows down into the city, and they sit there beneath a weeping willow with their bare feet dangling in the water and watch the boats go by.

They talk about everything and nothing - about history and the war and carving and Poe’s daughter, who he dotes upon, and their favorite foods and the way the first snow of winter still makes both of them feel young and giddy every year.

Finn thinks - Finn thinks he might be falling in love. He’s been working on a pendant, since their second date, that he thinks Poe will like - an elegant swoop of wood that reminds him of the way Poe’s hair falls over his forehead when he takes his ridiculous floppy hat off. Finn thinks he’ll give the pendant to Poe when he finally gets up the courage to confess his feelings, which - should be soon, actually. Finn’s pretty sure Poe feels the same way about him.

And then the metal bird is done, and Rey declares that she wants to meet the man who has stolen her oathbrother’s heart when he comes to get his toy.

*

“Rey wants to show you the bird herself,” Finn tells Poe, and ushers the other man back behind the counter. “She’s very proud of it - says it’s some of her best work.”

“Then it will be spectacular,” Poe says eagerly. Finn opens the door to the smithy. Rey, with a fine sense of the dramatic, has set the metal bird up on a perch near the hearth, so that its shining wings catch the light of the fire and seem to glow, and Poe lets out an astonished breath and crosses the room in a few swift strides, bending over the bird to examine it. His floppy hat gets in the way, and he sweeps it off impatiently.

Rey claps a hand over her mouth.

Finn blinks at her, then leans over. “Is everything alright?” he murmurs, not wanting to distract Poe from his delighted contemplation of the metal falcon.

“Finn,” she hisses. “Finn, that’s the Emperor.”

“What?” Finn says, baffled. Poe looks up from the bird and blinks at both of them, face cast into silhouette by the flickering fire.

His profile is unmistakable.

“Fucking hell,” says Finn, who still swears like a soldier when he’s not thinking about it.

“...Your Imperial Majesty,” Rey adds, sounding a little stunned.

Poe winces. “Damn,” he says mildly. “I was planning to tell you that later.”

“What,” Finn says blankly. “What were you doing getting beaten up in an alley? You’re - you have bodyguards! I met some of them! Oh, gods, they were here to make sure I wasn’t some sort of assassin, weren’t they?”

Finn,” Poe says, stepping forward and reaching out a hand, then stopping when Finn flinches. “Finn, it wasn’t - well, it was a little like that -” he gulps, all his usual eloquence gone, and adds, “I was going to tell you, but - I liked that you didn’t know who I was - I thought maybe if you did you’d change your mind.”

Finn takes a deep breath, takes comfort in the warmth of Rey’s slender form beside him. He bows as deeply and formally as he can. “Your Imperial Majesty,” he says quietly. “May I have permission to depart?”

Poe’s face falls. If Finn were any less devastated already, he’d be heartbroken at the expression of resigned despair on Poe’s lovely face. But Poe says, “Yes, you may,” and Finn goes - out through the shop and up the stairs and into his tiny bedroom, closing the door carefully behind himself and then slumping down against it, sliding to the floor and putting his face in his hands. The Emperor. Finn has fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with the Emperor. Finn almost gave the Emperor a little wooden pendant and asked him for his hand. Fucking shitting hell.

From downstairs he can hear, faintly, Rey shouting. And then the shouting stops, and the familiar banging of Rey’s hammer begins, and Finn sits there and tries not to think about anything at all.